What's in a name? Naming the nation's capital

Document listing suggestions for names for the federal capital city by members of parliament, 1913
Members of parliament suggested names for the new federal capital city in 1913. (NAA: A110, FC1913/390)

The Australian Constitution gave federal parliament the power to choose a site for the new federal capital. Several places in New South Wales were considered, with the Yass–Canberra area eventually chosen as the site of the Federal Capital Territory. An international competition was held in 1911 to design Australia’s new national capital.

The new city was simply called the ‘federal capital city’ until King O’Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, invited federal members of parliament to suggest names for the city in January 1913. The new name was to be announced at a ceremony in March to mark the start of construction.

Members of parliament suggested 39 names for the capital city. Austral, Eden, Hopetoun, Aurora, Home, Dampier, Unison, Andy Man, Pacifica, Myola, Flinders, Wentworth, Gamelyn, Nardoo and Frazer Roo were just some of them.

Austral, Myola and Hopetoun were all popular, but Canberra was the stand-out winner. Canberra was derived from the name, meaning ‘meeting place’, given to the area by the local Ngunnawal people and was already in use by white settlers.

The city’s new name was kept a secret until 12 March 1913. On this day, Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General, officially named the city during a ceremony to lay foundation stones of a Commencement Column that marked the beginning of the city’s construction. The ceremony was a grand occasion, with dignitaries, 2000 mounted troops, about 500 invited guests, 3000 spectators and a 19-gun salute. A program, complete with an impression of how the new city would look, was issued to commemorate the occasion.

World War I interrupted the development of Canberra, and the Commencement Column, designed by architect John Smith Murdoch, was never built. The foundation stones remained in place on Capital Hill until they were moved to the lawns in front of the new Parliament House in 1988.

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    Lady Denman reads the name of Australia's capital, 1913
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    Program from the ceremony to lay the foundation stones, 1913
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    Crowd at the ceremony to lay the foundation stones, 1913
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018