Category Archives: History

Canberra’s old Parliament House

Before the New Parliament House there was the Old Parliament House.

Old Parliament House, Canberra, Travelstripe
Old Parliament House, Canberra, Travelstripe

Designed by John Smith Murdoch, the Old Parliament House is an example of the “stripped” Classical style of architecture  – symmetrical and balanced but without flourishes like pillars and pediments – which was commonly used for government buildings in Canberra during the 1920s and 1930s. It began operation on 9 May 1927, as a temporary base for the Commonwealth Parliament after its relocation from Melbourne to the new capital. It served for sixty one years, until finally, in 1988, the New Parliament House was opened.

These days Old Parliament House is home to the Museum of Australian Democracy – one of the country’s most fascinating museums.

The building itself is a monument to its era, with frosted glass panes in doors, wooden signs with gold lettering ghosted in green and pointing gloved hands, of dark, narrow wood-panelled corridors and the faint, but unmistakable, scent of a time when smoking indoors was  perfectly fine. Clichés like “if only these walls could talk” spring readily to mind.

Our group was greeted at the front door by a guide and taken to a spacious ground floor room, once probably some kind of common room or café but now a bright, light-filled classroom. The thirty students were divided into groups and each was given a coloured box. Inside each box were descriptions of the roles they were to play in an enactment of the landmark debate on the Franklin Dam issue. There were rudimentary costumes, scripts and artefacts like letters, newspaper articles and banners.

Once hydro workers, protesters, representatives from the tourist industry, police and politicians were “in character” it was off to the House of Representatives to debate the issue. The rest as they say is history!

The Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial is a mighty stone edifice which stands on the upper slope of the hill at the outer edge of the “civilisation” or town side of Canberra.  It looks down a broad avenue, lined with monuments, across the lake to the new Parliament building.

The statue of Weary Dunlop at the Australian War Memorial
The statue of Weary Dunlop at the Australian War Memorial

There is a suggestion of the Parisian Champs de Mars in the avenue and a hint of Les Invalides in the memorial itself but it has a different and uniquely Australian translation. A statue of Australia’s own World War Two hero Weary Dunlop stands, not as uniformed young digger, nor as a decorated ex-serviceman, but as an old man in crumpled suit with a red cloth poppy tucked into his stone buttonhole.

Inside, the Memorial the stories of Australia’s Wars,  from the clash with the Boers in South Africa to the Vietnam involvement, are told in a variety of ways that make the hardship, the horror and the tragedy that is common to them all, impossible to forget.

There are galleries of dioramas, storyboards, photographs, weapons, uniforms and memorabilia.  The Discovery Zone offers a Hands-on, see it touch it smell it, play on it experience. In a great sensurround hangar you are literally immersed in battle – stand on a platform and watch an air raid on a city below, or sit on the ground and watch a dog-fight in the air above.

The Hall of Valour honours the heroes of war. The Walk of Remembrance, lined on both sides with endless ranks of names, honours those who sacrificed their lives.

The Australian War Memorial is more than a war museum, it’s admonishment to peace.


The story of Canberra uncovered at the National Capital Exhibition Centre

Atop Canberra’s Regatta Point, overlooking Lake Burley-Griffin, sits the National Capital Exhibition Centre, which tells, through a series of brilliant interactive displays, the story of the people, events, history and the design which contributed to the development of Australia’s capital city. Most importantly, it highlights Canberra’s vital role as a symbol of Federation.

A view of Canberra
A view of Canberra

Archaeological evidence, including rock shelters, rock paintings and engravings, burial places, camp and quarry sites, as well as stone tools, suggests that the region was inhabited by humans for at least 21,000 years – which makes Tokyo, London, Paris, Rome and even Athens look like youngsters! The original people went by a number of names including Kgamberry and Kamberra.

White settlement in the area began in 1824, when Joshua Moore established a homestead and station which he named Canberra. The Campbell clan, led by patriarch Robert Campbell settled soon after and built a mansion which they named Duntroon. Today the Royal Military College is located on the old Campbell station and the original Duntroon mansion is home to the Officers’ Mess.

Canberra, as the world knows it, was born in 1908, when it was chosen as the site for the capital of the new Federation of Australia. In 1910, the Australian Capital Territory was established and in 1911 a competition was held to select a design for the new capital city. The winning plan was devised by John Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin, although poor Marion received no recognition, at the time, for her work which included all the absolutely exquisite drawings.

The Griffins proposed a city divided into two halves, separated by a lake. On one side of the lake would lie the civilisation section – the town, shops, schools and houses. On the other would lie the government section – the Parliament buildings, courts and administrative buildings.

With the construction of the new capital city underway, it remained only to find a suitable name. There were some strange suggestions, including Olympus, Paradise, Captain Cook, Shakespeare, Kangaremu, Sydmeladperho, Eucalypta and Myola. The name Canberra, which means, in the language of the original people, “meeting place” was eventually chosen.

At midday on 12 March 1913, the name was officially conferred by Lady Gertrude Denman, wife of the then Governor-General, Lord Denman, at a ceremony on Kurrajong Hill (now known as Capitol Hill. The event has been commemorated every year, ever since, as Canberra Day, on the second Monday of March.

The National Exhibition Centre gives a wonderful introduction to this place called Canberra. You can uncover the story of the original people of the land and learn the importance and significance of the local Bogong moth to their way of life. You can browse among photos of the first white settlers, and explore models of their homes and displays of their chattels. You follow the story of federation and the quest for the new national capital. You can study the Griffins’ prize-winning designs. You can enjoy the sound and light show at the scale model of central Canberra.  But best of all, from the huge front window you can enjoy a dress-circle view across the lake, taking in the spectacular dance of the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, to the Government section of this unique modern, fully planned city.

The Royal Albert Hall

Sitting like a giant Wedgewood urn opposite Hyde Park, on the Knightsbridge-Kensington border, the Royal Albert Hall was, until the end of the 20th century ushered in wonders like the Gherkin, one of London’s most arresting pieces of architecture.

Showtime at the Royal Albert Hall
Showtime at the Royal Albert Hall

It was the brainchild of Prince Albert, who after the Great Exhibition of 1851, had proposed that a permanent facility be built to celebrate and promote the Arts and Sciences. When the Prince died in 1861, the project had still not begun. A new proposal was put forward for a complex including a memorial in Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite and on May 20, 1867, the foundation stone was laid.

The Hall was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Colonel H.Y Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers. Inspired by the shape of the ancient Roman and Greek amphitheatres, it was constructed in local brick, with a dome of glass and steel. A mosaic frieze around the outside of the building depicts sixteen subjects including “Various countries of the world bringing their offerings to the great exhibition of 1851” as well as the disciplines of arts and sciences. One foot high terracotta letters spell out biblical quotations as well as a dedication to the Prince Consort and a recognition of his contribution to the building.

The Royal Albert Hall opened on March 29, 1871 and saw its first concert, Arthur Sullivan’s Cantata, on May of the same year. Since then it has hosted innumerable ballets, operas, countless classical concerts, the annual summer Proms and many rock concerts including performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeplin, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones (on the same programme!) as well as Pink Floyd (who were banned for life after firing two cannons during their performance); it has seen sporting events including the first Sumo wrestling contest held outside Japan, conferences, ballroom dancing and yes, even the famous Cirque du Soleil.  2069

Brick Lane, Part 6, the Jamme Masjid

Today, Brick Lane still meanders along in the path of old Whitechapel Lane, linking Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

Jamme Masjid
Jamme Masjid

Brick Lane’s Huguenot past reflects in street names like Fournier and Weaver and in the last few Georgian town houses. Fashion Street and Petticoat Lane recall Jewish tailors and seamstresses. Their sweatshops and factories live again as million dollar apartments. The first Bangladeshi piece workers who toiled in those sweatshops and factories  have left their legacy in Banglatown.

Nothing, however,  tells Brick Lane’s story more eloquently than the austere brick building on the corner of Fournier Street. In 1976 it became the Jamme Masjid, the Great London Mosque. Under the sun dial on its plain façade a Latin inscription reads “Umbra Sumus”, “We are shadows”. Chase the shadows back across the centuries – to 1898 when this was the Machzikei HaDath, the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, to1819 when it was a Methodist Chapel, to 1809 it when was the Jews Christian Chapel, to its beginning, in 1742, as the Protestant Huguenots’ Neuve Eglise.

On the pavement in front of the Mosque is a postscript, or perhaps a final chapter, to the tale, a roundel, inset with a globe. There is the world of races, cultures and religions which, over the years, have built today’s fascinating, multi-cultural, creative Brick Lane.


Brick Lane; Part 1, Now and Then

This series of posts was first published as an article in the Travel and Indulgence section of The Australian (newspaper) in October, 2008

Saris and salwars blend with hip urban wear. An urgent techno beat underscores the plaintive sound of Bollywood. Loud graffitti spills across a scarred brick wall. Skeletal stalls straggle along a stretch of footpath, their feet in the debris of the day’s market. A chic boutique, its window dressed in yesterday’s glamour, shoulders a convenience store. Scaffolding shrouds a Georgian terrace. Curry houses crowd around it. There’s a tang of tumeric in the fumy city air.  Sylheti voices, as mysterious as the Brahmaputra mingle with English, as fast and unfathomable as the Thames. This is Brick Lane, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, the curry  capital of the UK and the hub of cutting edge London fashion, art, retail and nightlife. It is a place of sharp contrasts, with a vibrant, dynamic present and a long, endlessly shifting past.

Graffitti in Brick Lane
Graffitti in Brick Lane

Brick Lane’s story turns on bricks, brewing and migration.

The Romans built 8th century Londinium with clay from  the area . In the 15th century, the first brickworks was established on rustic Whitechapel Lane, which linked the hamlets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Soon  Whitechapel Lane became Brick Lane and it has remained so ever since.

In the 17th century the first brewery was built;  the fighters of the Great London Fire slaked their thirst with Brick Lane beer.  After the fire, the city was rebuilt with Brick Lane bricks. In 1724 Benjamin Truman founded the Black Eagle Brewery and it was the lifeblood of the lane until 1988.

For centuries the dispossessed and the hopeful poured across the London docks and settled in this enclave between the sea and the old city walls. The first great migrant wave, in the 17th century, brought Huguenot silk weavers, “refugiés” from religious  persecution in France. By the end of the 18th century, the area was a thriving centre of weaving and textiles and the lane was lined with brick townhouses with wide windowed upper-storey workrooms. But in the 19th century mechanized looms and printed fabrics  gave the kiss of death to the old craft. Brick Lane slumped.

Into the Huguenots’ abandoned houses and workrooms poured thousands of Ashkenazy Jews, fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Most were craftsmen, tailors, and leather workers. Of  cruel conditions and punishing hours, London’s rag trade was born.

In the 1920s the first Bangladeshi, mostly single men from Sylhet in the north, arrived. Packed into tiny Brick Lane bedsits and rented rooms, they laboured on the docks, in sweatshops and in clothing factories. The first curry houses opened and the great tradition of Anglo-Southern Indian cuisine began. Within fifty years, Brick Lane was little Bangladesh. The Jewish community slowly sold up and moved away.

In the 1980s a new migration began. These were not dispossessed refugees but pioneers of a new inner urban lifestyle. Innovators and artists set up studios in former factories and warehouses. Developers, entrepreneurs and cashed-up trendsetters followed. A new Brick Lane was born (to be continued)


The Tower of Big Ben

The Tower of Big Ben, at the north-eastern edge of the British Houses of Parliament, on the bank of the Thames at Westminster Bridge, is a dominant point of the London skyline. It has become a symbol of the city and of all things British.

The Tower of Big Ben
The Tower of Big Ben

The gothic revival tower was designed by Augustus Pugin for architect Charles Barry’s rebuild of the Palace of Westminster, which had been destroyed by fire in 1834. The stone-clad, brick structure is topped with a framed spire of cast iron. The clock faces and gilded dials, also designed by Pugin, are set in a 7 metre frame and covered with 312 pieces of opal glass. Gilded inscriptions at the bas e of the clock-face read “Domine salvat fac reginam nostram Victoriam Primam” “God save Victoria the first, our Queen”

The clock’s mechanism was designed by lawyer and amateur horologist, Edmund Beckett Deniston. It is famously reliable, ticking its way even through the Blitz without missing a beat. The only major breakdown occurred on August 5, 1976, due to metal fatigue, which put the clock out of action until May 9, 1977.

The name Big Ben, now applied to the tower and the clock, comes in fact from the largest of its bells. Officially, and appropriately, known as the Great Bell, it weighs 14.5 tonnes. It was cast by Warners of Cripplegate, in Stockton-on-Keys on August 10, 1856. The bell is thought to have been named either after Sir Benjamin Hall, commissioner of works at the time or the contemporary heavyweight boxer, Benjamin Caunt.

Big Ben is the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world. It is probably the famous and reputedly the most reliable. It is the certainly the arbiter of British time; it rings in every New Year; its chimes echo up and down the Thames, marking the time for the people who live and work within earshot; they echo through radios across the nation and millions of timepieces tick to its beat.

It is possible to tour the tower and see the great clock and its bells from the inside but only by prior arrangement. UK residents can arrange a visit by writing to their MPs and overseas visitors can request a tour by writing, 3 months in advance, to;

Clock Tower Tours, 1 Parliamentary Works services Directorate, 1 Canon Row, London, SW1A 2JN

Victoria Embankment

Sitting on a bench, overlooking the tamed and ordered paths and gardens of Victoria Embankment, it’s hard to imagine that little more than a century and a half ago, the turbulent waters of the Thames rushed right through here. Just as difficult to believe is that, deep in the bowels of the earth, below these crocus-dotted lawns, blossom-cloaked trees and majestic monuments, tonnes of London sewage gurgle away, through a colossal pipe, to safely distant disposal.

Spring in Embankment Gardens
Spring in Embankment Gardens

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the city’s sewage discharged directly into the Thames. The stench of the water was foul and the diseases it carried, right to the very doorstep of the city, were deadly. After an outbreak of cholera killed 10,000 people in 1853, the engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to design a new and safe sewage system. Fifty-two acres of land were reclaimed from the Thames to create Chelsea and Victoria Embankment to the north and Albert Embankment to the south. Beneath them, Bazalgette located two “interceptor” sewers to divert the city’s waste away from the river. The project was completed in 1859 and it was decided that public gardens should be established on the Victoria Embankment.

In 1864, Alexander MacKenzie began work on the Embankment Gardens Topsoil was brought from Barking Creek and twenty acres was laid out in garden beds, lawns, trees and shrubberies. The York Water Gate, a confection of pillars, lions, pediments and pilasters built by Balthasar Gerbier in 1626 and once part of the Duke of Buckingham’s riverside mansion (demolished in 1676) was incorporated to serve as the west end entrance. Statues were erected to famous Britons, including Robert Burns, Arthur Sullivan and John Stuart Mill. In 1877, 180 tonne Cleopatra’s Needle, built originally for the Pharoah Thothmes III in 1467, was installed in the gardens. The Royal Camel Corps memorial and the Golden Eagle of the RAF are also located here. Victoria Embankment was the first London area to be lit by electricity.

Today, Victoria Embankment is a popular retreat, always busy with strollers, tourists, picnicking families, school groups and workers on lunch breaks. It is a quiet detour along the back of the Strand through to Covent Garden or Fleet Street. There are pleasant green vistas and clean, earthy smells to enjoy at any season, beautiful blossom and bulbs in Spring, bright flowers in Summer and leaves of every shade in Autumn.

The British Museum

The Grand Foyer of the British Museum
The Grand Foyer of the British Museum

The British Museum is one of London’s landmark buildings, home to some of the world’s most precious treasures, birthplace of many great works of history and literature, the inspiration of poets and an eternal source of interest and wonder to countless visitors from all over the world.

The British Museum was originally established to house the collection of more than 71,000 objects, a library and a herbarium gifted to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane. It opened on January 15, 1759 in a 17th century mansion, Montagu House, on the present Bloomsbury site. However, over the next century the rapidly expanding collections outgrew it. The present imposing rectangular structure was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1852. The circular reading room, in the centre of the grand court, was added in 1857. A glass and steel ceiling now covers the court, linking the reading room to the main building and creating new indoor spaces for restaurants, cafes, shops and ticketing.

Over the years the British Museum has acquired one of the largest and best collections of documents, artefacts and antiquities in the world, although some collections, like the British Library and the Natural History section have been re-located and become separtae enmtities. Star among the museum’s antiquities is the Rosetta stone, key to the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the mother of the written word. Its documents include the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne gospels and the manuscripts of Beowolf. It has halls of treasures from Asia, peat-preserved men from pre-historic Britain, fine porcelain from the Royal Courts of Europe and spectacular feather head-dresses and beaded cloaks from North America. It has dark-polished glass-fronted display cases full of fossils and crystals, artefacts and effigies from the Pacific including taonga from Aotearoa-New Zealand; carved waka huia (feather boxes) along with patu and mere (weapons) of bone and of greenstone of a weight, depth and lustre no longer seen.

The museum played a significant role in the lives and work of many political figures and writers. Karl Marx researched Das Kapital in the British library here. Charles Dickens was a member. Wyndham Lewis worked constantly in the reading room during the 1920s. The Bohemian Socialists, including George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, used to meet here. Colin Wilson wrote his first novel, the Outsider here. The British Museum features in the work of many writers including Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Arthur Conan Doyle (The Adventures of Wisteria Lodge) and Bram Stoker (Dracula). Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn were both inspired by objects in the Museum. Finally and best of all, for the sentimental and tender-hearted, romantic Malcolm Bradbury (The History of Man) wooed his girlfriend in the British Museum reading room, with notes left between the pages of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.

Entry to the British Museum is free. It is open daily but times are subject to change. Further Information on the museum times, special exhibitions, collections and history visit

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf on the West India Dock, in the far east of London, was once one of the country’s busiest most important ports. It was also a key link in the chain of London’s early growth and prosperity. It was, however, prosperity, built partly on a shameful trade.

Concrete, steel and glass at Canary Wharf
Concrete, steel and glass at Canary Wharf

It was from West India Dock that ships set sail for Africa where they picked up slaves bound for the plantations of the West Indies. After delivering their living cargo to its destination, they reloaded with sugar and returned to London. The docks gradually died in the 1960s and 70s and finally closed when all shipping trade moved to the container port down river at Tilsbury.

In 1991, the docklands were re-born as “London’s most ambitious commercial development” with the opening of the magnificent Canada Tower on Canary Wharf. Designed by Argentine Cesar Pelli, who was also the architect of Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, 50 storey Canada Tower is 250 metres high and the tallest office building in Europe. It dominates the city’s eastern skyline and those who are lucky enough to live or work there, enjoy fantastic views. And not just from the outside. The likelihood of a pristine building such as the Canada Tower being just as clean on the inside is very high, especially if they have access to professional janitorial services who can guarantee this for them. This just makes it all the more appealing to residents and workers who pass this building every day.

Twenty three years later, Canary Wharf is a booming twenty-first century urban village. It sounds like a great place to live and work. Trains glide in and out of the spanking clean, light-filled, convenient underground station, on the Jubilee line, regularly and frequently and a ferry service operates from Westminster.

There are 21 gleaming office buildings with stunning views. The complimentary glossy magazine, Canary Wharf City Life lists thousands of beautiful, luxurious, state-of-the-art apartments for rent or sale in complexes catering to every conceivable modern need, wish or whim, including of course the “commanding view”. For some people, leisure facilities, including cinemas and a theatre. While Canary Wharf is based in London, there are equivalent establishments in Ame,rica that have state-of-the-art apartments and leisure facilities. In the US, you can find such apartments (and similar) on sites like Shoppok classifieds which acts as a directory for ‘all things’.

The Museum at Docklands is devoted to the history of the docks. The Sugar and Slavery Gallery is devoted to exhibitions on the slave trade, the sugar trade and their contribution to London’s prosperity. Also on display is a full, real-life salon from the Queen Mary.

A wide range of cafes and restaurants cater for every palate and ethnicity both above and below ground. Above ground, around the piazzas, diners can enjoy a glimpse of the old docks – the sea, the wharves, the odd boat bobbing at its moorings and seagulls wheeling overhead – a little chilly at this time year perhaps, but beautiful in the summer. You might want to check out the Bella Cosa restaurant in Canary Wharf, London. We’ve heard great things from various people.

Shopping in Canary Wharf’s splendid underground caverns is similar to shopping in one of Asia’s sumptuous malls, like Kuala Lumpur’s KLCC; no day or night, just neon light time; neither summer heat nor winter chill, just air-conditioned constancy; seductive piped music; shop after shop full of wonderful things interspersed with cafes and eateries exuding exotic smells and a giant Waitrose Supermarket, with shelf after shelf of colourful tempting stock.

Community life appears to be thriving in this fast ultra-modern setting. Citizens’, Residents’ and Neighbourhood flourish in Canary Wharf’s concrete courtyards and corridors just as they do in the suburbs or the village. Every season and festival sees a community celebration. Soon the Christmas lights will go on and then Santa will come to town.