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Ahern, John

Canberra. Forerunner to Canberra

Lyall's study of the origins and development of Ginninderra, published in 1992, is a major work of local history. Its thesis is in the title; Ginninderra pre-dated Canberra - by nearly a hundred years - and its early settlers led the way in developing a successful way of life on the Limestone Plains. In the earliest years of settlement the centre of modern Canberra was taken up by a relatively small number of very large land holdings, Campbell's Duntroon being the best known. This was less the case at Ginninderra, and the Robertson Land Acts of 1860 enabled a lot of smaller farmers to purchase land and establish homes.

Lyall's 'history of the Ginninderra district', after acknowledging the aboriginal prehistory, recounts developments from George Palmer's establishment of 'Palmerville' (c.1826) to the resumption of land by the Commonwealth (from 1911). This is in part a familiar settler history, relating the stories of the Palmers, William Davis, Henry Hall, the Craces, the McCarthys and others, and their efforts to make the unfamiliar soils and climate productive, followed by the much larger numbers of selectors on their much smaller holdings - the Shumacks, Gillespies, Rolfes, Coultons, Camerons, Kilbys, Southwells and Smiths in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Palmerville was the embryo for Ginninderra. Many of the Palmer's employees, and former convicts, went on to establish farming and other enterprises of their own. Gardener Edmund Ward created a nursery; Palmerville accountant George Harcourt became a store owner and farmer. This genesis, and the growth of the putative village of Ginninderra along the Queanbeyan-Yass road, led. according to Gillespie, to the Ginninderra 'heyday' when William Davis was the 'Squire'.

The book chronicles the history of all the Ginninderra institutions - police station, church, school, School of Arts, the Cricketers Arms hotel, the Ginninderra show, sports teams - and the social and recreational life of the community - the balls, shooting parties, picnics, weddings and funerals, and celebrations of great national occasions. Chapters on mining in the district, political activity, the environment, murders and other tragedies broaden and enrich the story.

Although Ginninderra was in many ways still developing, the departure of William Davis in 1877 seems to mark an inflection point. The new village of Hall was proclaimed in 1882 and the 1890's was a decade of rural depression. In 1908 Canberra was selected as the site of the future capital and the land was ceded by New South Wales to the federal government. The text concludes with some reflections on Ginninderra after acquisition when 'Canberra takes over'.

The book continues for a further eighty pages however. In addition to the very detailed index and bibliography there are nine appendices, some of which list comprehensively the Ginninderra police officers, postmasters, and teachers, burials at The Glebe, and licensees of the Cricketers Arms. Another - a major research achievement by itself - proffers biographical notes on 563 'early residents and landholders of the Ginninderra district'. Some are one-liners; others quite extensive. Collectively they populate Ginninderra with the convicts, squatters, aboriginals, selectors, sportsmen, teachers, enlistees, labourers, shepherds, horse breeders and racers, mothers and children who bring Ginninderra to life and help us understand where we have come from.

Our 2015 exhibition 'Rediscovering Ginninderra' drew extensively on 'Ginninderra. Forerunner to Canberra', the photos, research notes and maps that it was based on. The subsequent on-line database of the same name extends well beyond the coverage of that exhibition - and continues to grow. The book unfortunately is out of print; we hope that 'Rediscovering Ginninderra' on-line will be seen as another way of getting to grips with the Ginninderra story.


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