Canberra 100 years ago

By Emily Verdouw 12 April 2012
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William Mildenhall photographed significant moments of the birth of Canberra, almost a century ago.

ALMOST 100 YEARS AGA, in 1913, Australia’s capital, Canberra, was established amidst sheep paddocks – the half-way point between the ferociously competitive cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

In the midst of this expansion was William Mildenhall, an amateur photographer who captured much of Canberra’s growth, from its birth to its boom. Born in 1891, Mildenhall took an interest in capturing the evolution of Canberra, in an era when recording history was a rarity.

Though his work was not known for its artistic greatness, Zoe D’Arcy from the National Archives of Australia says his contribution was significant. “You get a sense of what life was like back in Canberra when nobody had TVs”, she says.

William Mildenhall, Canberra’s photographer

As a travelling public servant who spent 45 years with the government, Mildenhall began moonlighting as a photographer in the 1920s – swapping his skills for photographic supplies. 

Zoe says this was no mean feat, a challenge unlike those photographers face today. “He was not just carrying around a quick and easy camera; he was taking these photos on glass plate negatives and lugging around a big bulky camera. It was a lengthy process.”

In 1926 Mildenhall was named official photographer and information officer in the federal capital commission, which oversaw Canberra’s development. With camera in hand, he witnessed many foundation projects. He assisted the Royal Australian Air Force aerial survey of Northern Australian and, during the years of the second world war, ran Canberra’s petrol-rationing scheme.

From prime ministers to Royal visits, to Sir Charles Kingsford, Mildenhalll captured significant people and moments in Canberra’s history that, without his efforts, would likely have remained historic descriptions.

Recording Canberra’s history

If you peer past the plants and buildings – seemingly the centre of Mildenhall’s photos – you see the real history he was recording, the people of Australia as our nation was just beginning, says Zoe. This is the great significance of Mildenhall’s photos, she says.

“[There are] pictures of people creating the community garden, photos of children in sack races, the horse racing old circuit, which is now at the bottom of the lake…There’s a lovely photograph of the opening of Parliament House where the Queen Mother is standing there in amazingly, beautiful, luxurious clothes. That detail would be lost if that photograph hadn’t been taken.”

Zoe says Mildenhall’s photos also helped in piecing together necessary factual information.

“If we didn’t have these visual records, all of those planning documents wouldn’t be so easy to understand and make sense of.”

In the lead-up to Canberra’s centenary, the Australian are being asked to visit the online exhibit ‘Mildenhall’s Canberra’ to assist in re-photographing and mapping Mildenhall’s photos. The aim is to present the changes in Canberra over its 100yr existence, merging the photos with Google maps and street view, Zoe says. “It’s an interactive experience, a chance to see the historic photographs but also interact a bit more with Canberra’s history, she says.”

The venture is a joint project by the National Archives of Australia and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.

If you would like to get involved visit the Mildenhall online gallery.