On this day: Australia’s capital city named

By Campbell Phillips 7 November 2013
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Canberra was officially named on 12 March 1913, but few realise how close the city came to being called ‘Myola’.

IN DECEMBER 1908, Commonwealth surveyor Charles Scrivener was handed a historic set of instructions: to survey for “a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position.”

Charles produced a preliminary survey for the city site, which he referred to as ‘Canberra’, unofficially naming the city nearly five years ahead of schedule. The name is commonly said to be derived from the local Aboriginal name for the area ‘Nganbra,’ meaning ‘meeting place’. However, according to Dr David Headon, history adviser for the ACT Government, there’s much more to it than that.

If we look at a Lt. John Joshua Moore’s 1826 application for a grant of land in an area he calls ‘Canberry’ – repeated in Thomas Mitchell’s classic NSW survey of 1834 – we see the beginnings of a clear European tradition built into the name,” he says.  

Symbolic convergence

However, there came a point when the discrepancy between the European ‘Canberry’ and the indigenous ‘Nganbra’ was resolved. The diocesan register of St. John’s Church, consecrated in 1845, first refers to the area as the European ‘Canberry’, but by 1857 the name has changed to Canberra.

“What seems to have occurred, over a 30-year time frame, is a confluence of the languages and naming of two peoples,” David says. “Thus we have a rather lovely and symbolic notion for the national capital – it was, from the earliest days of occupation and settlement, a meeting ground of two cultures. Together, they confirmed the perfect name.”

Given Scrivener’s survey in 1908, as well as documents like the church register, we know the name Canberra was in common usage with government employees and many locals. “This must have been influential in the final decision-making process,” David says.

However, the name for the city still wasn’t set in stone. In 1912, the Commonwealth Government invited Australians to suggest possible names for the capital, and this was taken up with great enthusiasm across the nation.

“We know that by 10 March 1913, two days prior to the big ceremonial day, exactly 764 suggestions had been logged by the Department of Home Affairs,” he says.

The name ‘Austral City’ gained 18 votes, whereas Canberra only got 12. Other suggestions included ‘Eucalypta,’ ‘Kangaremu’, ‘Eros’, ‘Thirstyville’, ‘Cookaburra’ and ‘Sydmeladperbrisho.’

Shakespeare and Myola

Many of these were never seriously entertained and the decision was always in the hands of the government. Interestingly, the names ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Myola’ were the only real rivals to Canberra as they were championed by members of Parliament.

In particular, then-prime minister Andrew Fisher sought to promote Myola, until it was pointed out that the word was perilously close to an anagram of ‘O’Malley,’ the surname of his controversial Minister for Home Affairs, and he quickly withdrew it.

In the end, the city was officially given its name by Lady Denman, wife of the then Governor-General, in a ceremony that took place on 12 March 1913, on what is now known as Capital Hill.

When we celebrate Canberra’s birthday on the second Monday in March each year (now ‘Canberra Day’), we celebrate more than the anniversary of the ceremony that took place in 1913; we also celebrate a unique piece of Australian cultural heritage.