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The Story of Canberra

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The Limestone Plains


Explorers on Horseback Explorers Joseph Wild, James Vaughan and Charles Throsby Smith set out from 'Throsby Park' near Moss Vale and discovered the Limestone Plains, following the discovery of Lake George earlier that year. They crossed the stony range of hills beside Lake George and soon reached a point from which they saw what is now the site of Canberra. Next morning the party climbed Black Mountain and in the afternoon followed the Molonglo River upstream to its junction with the Queanbeyan River.


Dr Charles Throsby, ex-naval surgeon turned grazier and explorer, set out from Lake George to search for the Murrumbidgee River which had been described by local Aborigines. Twenty-five miles from Lake George he found vast quantities of limestone, specimens of which he took with him.

Travelling south from the Molonglo River he discovered the Murrumbidgee, which ran strongly to the west Throsby returned to Lake George

'...happy to report that the country is perfectly sound, well-watered with extensive meadows of rich land on either side of the rivers, contains very fine limestone, slate, sandstone and granite fit for building, with sufficient timber for every useful purpose.'

Slab Hut Country of this description, which was the ideal of early pastoralists, did not have to wait long for settlement.


Joshua John Moore took up the first land grant on the Limestone Plains, naming his property 'Canberry' after hearing local Aborigines using the word 'Kamberra' in their conversations. Slab huts were built on the ridge above a bend in the Molonglo River near the site of the present Royal Canberra Hospital.

Two years later, Moore applied for more land.

'...The land I wish to purchase is situated at Canberry on the east bank of the river that waters the Limestone Plains above its junction with the Murrumbidgee, adjoining the grant of Mr Robert Campbell. My having had possession of that land upward of three years on which I have caused huts, stockyards etc to be built, and have enclosed about thirty acres, part of which is now under cultivation.'

The area covered by the name 'Canberry' was the basin at the foot of Black Mountain, now partly submerged by Lake Burley Griffin and partly occupied by the Australian National University, stretching back beyond Civic Centre to the foot of Mount Ainslie. Near the site of the original huts, Moore built a pleasant cottage looking over the wide valley towards Duntroon, which, after a varied career of over 100 years as a home stead, rectory and courthouse, was pulled down to make way for the hospital in 1941.

(Inscribed on a fountain in the hospital grounds are the words:

'On this site Lieutenant J.J. Moore, the first settler in this district, built his residence about AD 1826. Some stones from it now form this fountain AD 1954.')

KAMBERRA - this Aboriginal word, spoken by tribes on the Limestone Plains, meant 'a meeting place' either of rivers or of tribes joining together to feast on Bogong Moths in mountains to the south.


Robert Campbell, wealthy Sydney merchant, sent his overseer James Ainslie to collect 700 sheep from the government flocks at Bathurst and to go southward looking for suitable pasture. The land was to be compensation for the loss of his ship 'Sydney' wrecked while under charter to the government to bring food from India.

Aided by Aborigines, Ainslie reached the Limestone Plains and built huts on the slopes above the Molonglo River where the Royal Military College now stands. Campbell applied for and received his grant, naming it 'Duntroon' after the family castle in Scotland.

In 1833, Campbell built a one storey stone home with wide verandahs and a large two-storeyed extension was added by his son George in 1862.

Duntroon House

'Duntroon House' became the centre around which revolved the life of the many employees of the station-the manager, the servants, the stockmen, gardeners, carpenters, horsebreakers, shoemakers, masons, brick- makers, tailors and tenant farmers.

Beautiful gardens containing many fine trees were planted around the homestead, an intricate maze was set out, and an orchard, conservatory, vineyard and dairy farm were established. Duntroon was in fact, a self-contained community.

The house, consisting of twenty rooms with servants' quarters, is a fine example of colonial architecture.

Today it houses the Officers' Mess and the Commandant's office of the Royal Military College. Guided tours of 'Duntroon' are available weekdays at 2.30pm from April to October inclusive.


By this date the best land on the Limestone Plains was being rapidly occupied.

One outstanding property remains as an example of the solid gracious homes erected by the settlers as they made a success of their grazing ventures. It bears the name of one of the original land- owners, John Lanyon, a free settler who stayed only three years in Australia. With the brothers James and William Wright, he used convict labour to establish the pastoral industry in the valley of the Murrumbidgee River.

Lanyon Homestead - House

The cluster of early buildings in the courtyard of Lanyon Homestead bear witness to the self-sufficiency of the early settlers in what was then a remote area. Here are the dairy, workers' barracks, storerooms, and kitchen built from stone and wood quarried and cut on the property. The turret of the ivy-covered kitchen holds a bell which was rung to call the shepherds and labourers to their work.

In 1848 Lanyon was sold to Andrew Cunningham, a Scot who gave up a career in banking to try his hand at sheep-farming in Australia. His progressive methods proved successful; and in 1859 he built the older part of the existing homestead in a simple and elegant style, and here he and his wife Jane raised their eight children. In 1905 their third son, A J Cunningham, extended the house on the occasion of his marriage, and it acquired the form it has today.

The interior of the homestead is being painstakingly restored, and each section is being decorated and furnished in the style of the time when it was built. The garden with its fine trees, flower and vegetable beds provides a restful setting for the house and outbuildings.

(A visit to Lanyon is a pleasant experience. The homestead, courtyard, garden and the new Nolan Gallery nearby, can all be inspected Tuesday to Sunday and public holidays 10am-4pm).


Saint John's Church of England was completed, becoming the centre of village life in the infant Canberra.

St John's Church

The site of St John's, on a hill overlooking the Molonglo River and part of 'Duntroon' was donated by the Campbell family together with $2 000 towards building costs.

Materials were obtained locally, bluestone from near Mount Pleasant, sandstone from Black Mountain. Interior furnishings were of cedar and the roof of shingles.

The interior of St Johns today has many features of interest - there are memorials to early residents and the east window, above the altar, a memorial to Robert Campbell is one of the first stained-glass windows made in Australia.

Many pioneers of Canberra lie at rest in the graveyard. The oldest marked grave is the Guise family vault (1844) and there are seven descendants of the Campbell family in a special hedged enclosure.

Close by St John's Church stands Canberra's first and only school from the early 1840s until 1880 when a State school was opened at Acton.

The schoolmaster was also Parish Clerk and lived in rooms attached to the school. Enrolments varied from 23 pupils in 1859 to 49 in 1865.

Today the schoolhouse has been restored and, staffed by volunteers, it is open as a museum of school life in the Canberra of a hundred years ago. A visit is a memorable experience. Open Wednesday morning 10am - 12noon, Saturday and Sunday 2pm-4pm and by special arrangement for groups.


Blundell's Farmhouse, today cared for by Canberra and District Historical Society, was built by the Campbells of 'Duntroon' as a home for their head ploughman.

The stone is the same as that used in St John's Church and Schoolhouse, locally quarried from Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie, its colours varying from the sunny gold of sandstone to a rock of contrasting darker reddish-purple colour.

It was built close to the ground at front, with steps at the rear where the land sloped away towards the nearby Molonglo River. The doorways were low and windows small. The roof was shingled and a narrow verandah added because of the warm Australian sunshine.

Ploughman William Ginn and his family were the first to live in the farmhouse, departing ten years later when they moved to their own selection.

George Blundell and his family were the second residents, moving in through the sixties and living there for fifty years, hence the naming of the farmhouse. Eight children were born and raised there in that period. Blundell worked for the Campbells as their bullock driver and his talents included leather-working and bee keeping. His wife Flora was the local midwife.

Visitors today can inspect the parlour, the main bedroom, the original kitchen, the girls' bedroom, the new kitchen, the shed and the garden, all featuring items of great interest, displayed as they would have been used last century.

(Blundell's Farmhouse is open every afternoon from 2.00pm-4.00pm as well as Wednesday mornings 10.00am- 12noon).

1860 - 1900

Transport and communications linking Canberra and Sydney gradually improved although a traveller in 1872 remarked that the road was very rough and in places there seemed to be no road at all only a dry watercourse. At first all goods had to be transported by bullock wagon.

Horse drays came in the fifties and wagons a few years later.

The railway reached Goulburn in 1869 and Yass in 1876. Queanbeyan was linked to Goulburn by a coach service. Post offices were established at Ginninderra, north of Black Mountain, in 1859, at Lanyon in 1860 and at Canberra, near the present Hotel Ainslie, in 1863.

The way of life changed gradually as farming and grazing techniques improved. Hand-tools were replaced by primitive machinery and, as paddocks were fenced, a small number of boundary-riders could do the work of a multitude of shepherds who led their flocks out to graze each day and returned them to the folds at night.

The best land was concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy families who added to their holdings by purchase and intermarriage. 'Yarralumla', today the official residence of the Governor- General, was purchased in 1881 by Frederick Campbell grandson of Robert Campbell of 'Duntroon', and it soon became one of the finest properties in New South Wales.

One great contribution to agriculture occurred in the Canberra area through the 1880s. William Farrer settled at 'Lambrigg' near Tharwa and for the next eleven years he carried out experiments to produce varieties of wheat resistant to drought and rust, suitable to the varying conditions of Australian farming - experiments that laid foundations of the modem Australian wheat industry.

However, by the end of the century life had changed only a little from the days of the pioneering settlers on the Limestone Plains.

So it remained until the arrival of surveyor Charles Scrivener with the first Commonwealth surveyors in 1909, heralding a new era: the development of Canberra national capital.

Next: Australia's Capital City

Adapted by Tom Worthington from the pamphlet "The Story of Canberra", with the permission of Canberra Tourism.

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This Web Site Was Moved Here, February 1999

Web page by Tom Worthington.

Note: This information is no longer being updated but has been retained for reference.