First Person

A Canberra Childhood in the 1950s

The Canberra in which I was born and grew up, in the 1950s, bore little resemblance to the city of today. The main physical difference, apart from the remarkable difference in size, was the absence of the large artificial lake which was the central feature of Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for the nation’s capital. Once the lake appeared, in the mid-1960s, Canberra started to take shape as the fully-formed national capital we now know. Prior to that, it was a series of small settlements on a dusty plain, aspiring to unity—“seven suburbs in search of a city”, as the Duke of Edinburgh quipped during the 1954 Royal Visit—scattered on either side of the Molonglo River. In my childhood, we crossed this sluggish stream on a rickety wooden bridge for our occasional visits from the “south side” to what was amusingly termed Civic Centre. Anything less “civic” and central to community life was impossible to imagine. If you went there on a Sunday afternoon, you could, as my father would say, “fire a gun”.

This memoir appears in Quadrant’s latest edition.
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Canberra in those far-off days was regarded as a joke by the rest of Australia. The essence of this ridicule was the notion of a “Bush Capital” making even less impression on the visitor than such neighbouring country towns as Goulburn, with its two cathedrals, a comparatively bustling main street and a sense of a cohesive and historic community. Visitors from Sydney passed through it on their way to the national capital (sans any cathedral then), often breaking the (then) five-hour journey there. And compared to the great coastal cities, whence most of Canberra’s population in the 1950s had derived, it was embarrassingly unimpressive, a kind of incomplete experiment.

Later, when Canberra started to amount to something, the joke was transferred (where it has remained) to the principal inhabitants, politicians especially and public servants more generally, for whom it had originally been raised out of the sheep country: hot, with swarms of blowflies in summer; frostily cold in winter. And the scorn was seasoned with resentment that this oddity, “the Canberra bubble” (as we now call it), had had to be created to mollify Sydney’s and Melbourne’s competing sense of themselves as the leading city of the nation. Further fuelling the resentment was the costliness of building and maintaining this folly while it contributed nothing in return to the Australian economy in terms of agriculture or industry.

Canberra in the 1950s was conspicuously deficient in many of the features and facilities which even a moderately-sized city acquires as it develops in the natural way. And our regular holiday visits to Sydney acutely accentuated my sense of Canberran impoverishment—with its beaches, the excitement of the crowds, trams, underground trains, swaying double-decker buses, the ferries to Manly, the picture palaces in town, the Prince Edward the grandest, with its mighty Wurlitzer organ, the several great department stores: Anthony Horderns, most notably, reputedly the world’s largest store.

No one I knew in Canberra worried about any of this—certainly not my mother or father, who were from Sydney and Melbourne, respectively, both arriving there to work in Parliament House (where they met) during the Second World War. A Sydney-sider and a Melburnian, they should have been warned about a mixed marriage, as the witticism used to go when people still understood what “a mixed marriage” was. Canberra-baiting didn’t bother me much either, although the customary jibes of relatives who had driven for hours to see us, and always seemed to manage to get lost, endlessly going round the various circular roads and roundabouts that had been created by Griffin’s plan, did start to wear over the years.

We all have our first, often vivid memory in life. Mine is the briefest sight of a waving white-gloved and bejewelled hand as a young Queen Elizabeth II whizzed past, through the paddocks, en route from Government House in Yarralumla to Parliament House for a state reception during that Royal Visit of 1954.

Two years later, my father replaced our Studebaker with a Ford Customline, and as it was the year of the Melbourne Olympics, the new car came with a small crest of the Olympic rings attached to the front numberplate. Not that the Games made much of an impression on us, because unlike the people of Melbourne and Sydney, who watched it on their brand-new television sets, television didn’t come to Canberra for another seven years—just in time for JFK’s assassination and funeral, which we watched, in flickering reception, on our first set.

The Capitol Theatre at Manuka was the focus of such entertainment that youngsters didn’t devise for themselves in those days: sixpence to go in and sixpence to spend, for the Saturday matinee at the “pictures” (never the “movies”, then; our speech—like our currency, indeed our culture at large—was still dominated by British terms and thinking). This shilling’s-worth consisted of the National Anthem (everybody standing), “God Save the Queen”, with the youthful Elizabeth on horseback; then the Movietone newsreel; a cartoon (Mr Magoo was a favourite of young and old); the serial (unlike the other pictures, usually British, rather than Hollywood, and often set by the seaside); the “B” picture (cowboy films were regular); the interval to get the Jaffas (chocolate and orange balls); and then the main feature—sometimes a musical, such as Oklahoma (1957) or, later, State Fair with Pat Boone in 1962, which was one of the last I saw as a matinee-goer. Having hit teenage years, I was getting beyond these kids’ outings.

While four hours at a go seems a longish session, that was it, for the week. These were the dying years of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as television was beginning to make its devastating impact on movie-going worldwide and on many other aspects of social life—such as family dining, music-making, games-playing and story-telling, reading to children (as my father did to me, most nights) or even simple conversation—in all of which you were an active participant rather than a mute, passive recipient of pre-packaged entertainment. Sunday evening church-going—for Anglicans to Evensong, for example—was also on the way out. Drive-in theatres were a last-ditch attempt of the movie business, in the 1960s, to turn the inevitable tide to the small screen.

There was the very occasional feature film set in Australia. I remember Smiley (1956) particularly, but not fondly. It was not Australian-made—it was a British/American product, set in the Australian bush, and starred Ralph Richardson, Chips Rafferty and Colin Petersen as the eponymous Smiley. Always alert to rhyme and rhythm, I can still hear the catchy theme song: “Every Dad would be glad / If he had a lad / Like a little boy called Smiley”. Well, I wasn’t anything like that revolting child (“with his cute irresistible smile”, as the song had it—very resistible, I thought) but Dad loved the film and sang the song. So it occurred to me that I may well have failed to measure up to some paternal, possibly even national standard and benchmark of authentic 1950s Australian boyhood.

Not that Smiley and his existence bore any resemblance to the lives of the vast majority of Australian boys, then or even less so now, for the simple reason that he was a country lad. Nearly all Australians are city dwellers, but the fantasy of us as, essentially, bush people at heart who have by perverse mischance wound up in metropolises, continues even today, and the bushwhacking larrikin remains the international image of the Aussie, Crocodile Dundee being a more recent incarnation of the type.

My parents seldom went to the pictures, but they and I, along with everyone else in Canberra (and, no doubt, Australia), lined up to see Cecil B. de Mille’s epic The Ten Commandments in 1956 and I remember the fuss that was made when Hitchcock’s Psycho came to Manuka four years later, and the mysterious-to-me age restrictions, published in the Canberra Times, that were placed on those who were permitted to see it. My parents didn’t go. Nor did we attend the Billy Graham Crusade which rolled into the Manuka Oval in those years and attracted big audiences around the country. Graham reassured Australians that “There is nothing sissy about Jesus Christ. He would be a star athlete in Australia. He was every inch a man.”

It was to theological discourse conducted at this elevated level that thousands of Australians came forward to declare their faith in Christ. But in the lucky country where, as Donald Horne famously observed, “sport is life, and the rest a shadow”, this is hardly to be wondered at: Jesus in the green and gold.


So far as my parents’ social life—and, social life, in general, in Canberra then—was concerned, there was precious little of it. Going out (other than to work, to which both of them were devoted—she as a stenographer for the Liberal MPs in the House of Representatives; he as a journalist in the Press Gallery there, and later still for the Canberra Times)—did not generally appeal. They were neither party-givers nor party-goers. Neither of them were “joiners”; and as my mother, especially, had a low regard for human beings generally, they were not active seekers of sociability outside working hours, nor interested in developing and sustaining a circle of friends.

But, very occasionally, parliamentarians would visit us. Living around the corner in the now-inner-city suburb of Barton (there was no “outer” city in the 1950s) was the young Malcolm Fraser, future Prime Minister, for whom my mother worked in those days when he was a junior member. He went fishing in Lake Burrinjuck, not far from Canberra, and turned up on our doorstep one weekend with a fish wrapped in newspaper. Later, a very popular guest at a couple of my parents’ rare social gatherings was Sir Fred Chaney, from Western Australia, a minister in the Menzies government. I was enthralled to see how a witty and engaging conversationalist and story-teller could become the life of a party.

The world of old Parliament House was a small and convivial one. Once, my mother saw Bob Menzies walking down a deserted corridor with his arm round the shoulders of his opponent, Arthur Calwell. Before her marriage, she had stayed at the Hotel Kurrajong, along with Phyllis Donnelly and Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who eschewed The Lodge (his wife declining to come to Canberra from their humble Bathurst home). The two Phyllises became friends and my mother always maintained that the rumour that Chifley and his secretary were conducting a liaison was groundless.

The unsocial, if not precisely anti-social character of our home-life was, I tended to think at the time, a peculiarity of it. One of the lessons of the mature years is that you find out that what you imagined to be perverse in, or unique to, your own experience—and especially the supposed shortcomings and deficiencies of your parents—more often than not turn out to be much more common than you thought. The English novelist and literary critic David Lodge (another only child, like me) writes in his autobiography of his parents’ non-existent social regime in the 1950s, which, if anything, was even more restricted than my family’s. His father and mother “had virtually no social life together—no friendships with other couples, no entertaining or being entertained at home, no outings to theatres or cinemas or restaurants together”. And the Lodges were living in London where there were far more opportunities for such excursions and associations than there ever were in 1950s Canberra.

My parents effectively carried off their professional lives and such minimal social demands that they imposed and could enjoy themselves (“up to a point”, my mother would have characteristically said) and were acceptably gregarious and impeccably conventional in those situations. But once at home, with the shoes kicked off, their assessments of their work associates, high and low—no one was spared—to whom they would always be polite and pleasant in public, could be scathing. In so many aspects of life then (and so regrettably different from today’s society) there was a great gulf fixed between the private and public lives of people. Men and women knew how to behave in public situations of all kinds (how to dress decently, to speak and to conduct themselves properly, and the codes were clear and all but universally accepted and respected), and children were taught to behave themselves in accordance with these standards. As an only child, hearing only adult conversation at home and attentive to language, I soon picked up that there were ways you acted and spoke in public, but such behavioural and linguistic constructions were not necessarily a true reflection of your more considered ideas and feelings.

Undoubtedly, there were serious flaws in my parents’ (and most other people’s) taken-for-granted division between the public face and the private life (which was the social contract, so to speak, of the 1950s), but on balance it worked much better and was certainly much more conducive to social harmony and well-mannered behaviour and consideration towards individuals, and in all sorts of situations and within institutions, than the complete breakdown of the division between public and private mores which is part of the grim legacy of the 1960s’ social and sexual revolution. Letting it all hang out in public, literally and figuratively, became obligatory for the “liberated” person. The self-centred disregard, even contempt for others (and allowing children to indulge in appalling behaviour to an extent that would simply have astonished people prior to this cultural upheaval) that has now become commonplace is every bit as offensive in its practical manifestations as the often-hypocritical and much-derided rectitude of the past.

For concerts and other serious musical entertainment in Canberra, the only venue that was available then was the hilariously named Albert Hall (its difference from its London namesake was breathtaking). Dad took me to the Hall for my first experience of live musical theatre, The Mikado—tuneful comic opera being as good an introduction as any for a small child to concert-going. Later, we went to see Winifred Atwell, the Trinidadian pianist whose phenomenal keyboard talent was an early inspiration to me, as I was beginning to learn the instrument. The Canberra eisteddfod was also held there and I was entered a few times, nervously rushing through some much-practised pieces, but never being able to bring them off in public with anything like the panache I managed at home. And worse than the Albert Hall was the mean provision made for live theatre, with the Canberra Repertory Company performing in a weatherboard hut on a hillside in our suburb of Barton.

Apart from the “pictures” and these minimal public diversions, and organised amusements such as the occasional suburban bonfire on “Cracker Night” to mark Empire Day (May 24), children of the 1950s—whether in Canberra or elsewhere—made their own fun: even my trips to the Capitol Theatre and to the Manuka swimming pool were not parent-initiated, let alone accompanied and supervised, and I associated freely and easily with whomever I encountered on my rambles. And it was not uncommon for a child from the age of eight or even earlier, to be gone from home for hours on end in unplanned play, during such as school holidays and weekends, without any “helicopter parent” hovering above, let alone organising activities down to the last minute (and often expensive) detail. Footage of children in 1950s Australia invariably shows skinny boys and girls, and constantly “on the go”. A fat child was an exception and much teased. We were slim because we ate nourishingly, but moderately, and were active all the time we weren’t in school. Any child who was sedentary and inside all the time—as now, spellbound by this or that electronic device—would have been assumed to be seriously unwell or physically handicapped.

At the end of many a long day that I had spent running all over the countryside (Canberra, then, was a series of paddocks dotted with buildings), my mother in the late afternoon would be calling me home from the upstairs living-room window, looking in all directions, without the faintest idea where I was, and only the sketchiest notions of where I had been or what I’d been doing and with whom. Writing of similar experiences, at much the same age during his childhood, in this period in England, David Lodge observed: “It may surprise today’s parents that I was allowed to go to the cinema unaccompanied in early adolescence … but children then were given more freedom, and expected to be more self-reliant, than nowadays.”

Imagine—a “self-reliant” child! On one of our visits to Sydney, in 1958, my mother deposited me in the Mayfair Theatre in Castlereagh Street for an afternoon’s screening of South Pacific while she went to have her hair done in David Jones. A parent who did this to an eight-year-old today would probably be arrested for child neglect. Then, no one would have regarded it as remarkable.

Prior to any of these outings, I was never told by anybody to be terrified and suspicious of adults, especially men, or warned about the child molesters who are supposedly lurking to make off with any kiddy who so much as steps out of his or her front door unprotected and unguarded. Quite the contrary: we were told to look up to and respect adults, not to regard them as objects of fear and suspicion. As Yorkshire man and author, Blake Morrison, born, like me, in 1950, reflected: “Few parents today would allow their kids the freedom we had.” Which, of course, is a reflection of the character of the society in which we now live.

But there was one special time, most days for several years, when I was well and truly inside—at 5 p.m., glued for an hour to the “wireless” (as we called it), when I tuned into The Children’s Hour. Like many other Australian children of that generation, I joined the Argonauts Club, as Aspasia 13 (characteristically, Argonauts can remember their ship name and number for life). The program offered a rich array of characters, stories, art, music (“Mr Melody Man” was the composer Lindley Evans), and with contributions from Argonauts around the country. I loved every minute of it.

Another favourite radio show was The Quiz Kids with John Dease. On one occasion, they came to Canberra to record an episode at the Police Citizens Boys’ Club and we went along to see them in action. In these pre-television days, encountering such people (who today would be called “celebrities” or “icons”) in the flesh was a mixed blessing. One had developed exotic, even superhuman images of them in one’s mind from their non-visual radio presence, and the reality could be (as it was on this occasion) more pedestrian.

My father (who had left school at fourteen and had educated himself, through wide reading, well beyond that of most university graduates today) bought me the ten-volume Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia for Christmas 1955, and I pored over it for years. Other early books I was beginning to read were Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree, being transported to its fanciful world, and her Noddy series (subsequently banned for racism and suspicion of the hero’s homosexual misbehaviour with Big Ears—which, needless to say, would never have remotely occurred to anyone, child or adult, then), Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (subsequently banned for racism), A.A. Milne’s stories of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh (which surely should have been banned for something) and, best of all, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

People (more often than not, those who were not even born then) look on the 1950s with scorn and derision as a time of mindless, stifling conformity and life-inhibiting dreariness, underpinned by constant anxiety deriving from Cold War tensions. My childhood memories of the decade could not be more different, for all the inevitable shortcomings of the still-developing Canberra of those days. It was a time of prosperity, confidence, secure family life and values, pride in one’s country and much innocent and simple happiness. All of that was soon to be utterly swept away in the 1960s, as a counter-cultural tsunami inundated Western societies.

In Australia, the ensuing tumultuous and troubled era (from which many of our profound societal problems, today, derive) had a terrible beginning in the kidnapping and murder in 1960 of the Bondi schoolboy Graeme Thorne, who was about my age, which made it all the more alarming for me. This horror, as has been noted by historians, “caused massive shock at the time and attracted huge public attention; such events were unknown in Australia”. It marked the end of an era. “Never”, in Philip Larkin’s phrase, “such innocence again”.

Barry Spurr is Quadrant’s Literary Editor. This is an abridged version of the first chapter of his memoir-in-preparation, A Life in Words

16 thoughts on “A Canberra Childhood in the 1950s

  • Andrew Griffiths says:

    I grew up in Canberra,while the Albert Hall was I suppose the cultural centre of Canberra in the 1950’s,there was the Childers St Hall ,where I heard my first orchestral concert, a performance of the Hadyn Trumpet Concerto performed by the Canberra Orchestral Society.The string section of the orchestra was amateur according to my father, but the brass and percussion were boosted by professional bandsmen from the RMC Duntroon,including a splendid trumpeter whose performance of the concerto has stuck in my mind since 1950 something.
    Childers St Hall was a lecture theatre for the University College /ANU by day , at night it hosted wrestling matches, boxing and rock bands, who said Canberra was dull and boring?

  • profspurr says:

    Thank you, Andrew. Fascinating. I accompanied the Haydn on the piano on a number of occasions for student trumpeters who were at school with me at Canberra Grammar, performing for concerts and their AMEB exams.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Choosing to live in Canberra, or places like Eden in the case of my family, came to be recognized as a solution to the ‘mixed marriage’ problem; roughly halfway between the two sets of in-laws.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Thanks, Roger, for an inspired choice of illustration to lead Barry’s essay. You may well get flooded with interpretive essays on visions of sheep in the foreground of our Capital Hill.

  • DougD says:

    I had a year in Canberra in 1959. The most read publication was the section of the (weekly ?) Commonwealth Gazette listing public service promotions.

  • Adelagado says:

    Canberra is a national disgrace. The biggest financial scam in Australia’s history was siting of Canberra just a few hours drive from Sydney. NSW has benefitted immeasurably ever since, as Canberra has hoovered up money from all around Australia and spent it mainly within the NSw border.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    My dear wife of 59.7 years of marriage was born in Canberra in 1943 in the general hospital that was destroyed with flying brickwork a decade or two ago. Her father was being groomed for Postmaster General, so for experience they were moved to Bathurst about 1953. There he met an untimely medical end. My wife mixed with the Mrs Chifley youngster group, often travelling with her in her limo. In Canberra, she attended the stately Methodist Church across the road from a later big development, half buried under the hill, that lowered the tone of the neighbourhood. We saw their home, surviving in Manuka, last time we visited. Now we have a granddaughter married and working in Canberra, with a home recently purchased. Geoff S

  • Brian Boru says:

    Thanks Barry, I enjoyed your article, it rekindled my memories. Seems like life for kids was pretty much the same in Canberra too but you didn’t have the beach I was fortunate to have.
    Was nice to read about Menzies and Caldwell.
    We had the TV which we got to watch by knocking on the neighbor’s door and joining the rest of the local kids on the lounge room floor.

  • sonofscott says:

    Growing up in Canberra in the 70s and 80s I had no idea why it was called “Civic”, and laughed out loud at this article’s description of it – not much had changed.

    Moving to Melbourne was a huge culture shock for me. In retrospect it was having Canberra as a point of origin that did me the disservice. It wasn’t until I read Hancock’s description of it in Australia (1930) – “Neither growth nor planning is a virtue in itself; there can be untidy, ugly growth, or an empty, pretentious plan… The design becomes invisible; all that is left is a series of bewildering jerks” – that I started to make sense of things.

  • Rosemary says:

    These memories made me laugh, and almost cry. My late husband was Sermyla 2.

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