North Arm Cove was never considered as a site for Australia's capital city

By bobreid, 26 February, 2023

I have been interested in the history of North Arm Cove for some time, and whenever I get the time I continue my research.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this history was that some publications had stated that North Arm Cove was one of the possible sites for the Federal Capital of Australia, that Canberra was the 6th site and the North Arm Cove peninsula was the 16th site, and that Walter Burley Griffin had prepared plans for both sites.

The federal capital site selection process was done by a Royal Commission appointed by the NSW Government in 1899. Fortunately the records from this Royal Commission – “Royal Commission on sites for the seat of Government for the Commonwealth” have been kept at the NSW State archives in Kingswood, Sydney.

Last week I was in the area so I used the opportunity to inspect these records.

It is really good that these records have been kept, and an ordinary citizen such as myself can read all of the original documents.

The records include manilla folders with correspondence on all of the sites nominated, and the results of any investigations and public inquiries held on them.

There were no records for a site at North Arm Cove.

However there were records for Port Stephens. These records were in a very thin manilla folder with just a few handwritten letters.

I can categorically say that North Arm Cove was never nominated or considered as a possible site for the Federal Capital. The nomination for Port Stephens was a short two page letter from a E Holmes of Tanibla House, dated 28 November 1899, and suggesting that Port Stephens be considered because the new capital would have “to be strongly fortified” and Port Stephens “could be made impregnable” and “building materials of all kinds would be found on the grounds viz timber, stone, coal and lime”.

There were no plans or maps supplied with the Port Stephens nomination.

I have attached files that provide a copy of this letter, and a page from the Commissioners Report in late 1900 that lists all of the sites nominated.

The criteria for selecting the site for the federal capital were that it should be determined by Parliament, that it was to be in the State of NSW, that it was to be no less that 100 miles (161km) from Sydney, and it was to contain an area of not less that 100 square miles (260 square kilometres or 64,000 acres).

On these criteria, the North Arm Cove peninsula would not have been suitable, it was far too small being only about 1,400 acres.

The Commissioner inspected sites that he considered may have met the criteria, and held public inquiries into promising ones, eventually selecting the site where Canberra is situated.

Port Stephens was not inspected by the Commissioner, and no public inquiry was held. Out of the 40 sites, 23 were inspected, some as many as three times. Public inquiries were held on 14 of these 23 sites.

In assessing the sites, the Commissioner determined not to consider any sites north of the Main Western Railway Line, considering that the population in this area was too small, with the population in the south being much greater than the population in the north.

The statement that Walter Burley Griffin’s plan for North Arm Cove was for the federal capital nomination is also not correct. This plan was done in 1918 as part of a speculative subdivision proposal by Arthur Chapman of Land Ltd, which was the owner of most of the North Arm Cove area at that time.  

Chapman had Port Stephens City designed by Walter Burley Griffin, hoping to profit from the proposal to establish a naval base at Port Stephens. Chapman didn’t profit at all from Port Stephens City, and Land Ltd went bankrupt just a year later in 1919.

Henry Halloran then took over the land, but that’s a story for another day.


1 month 2 weeks ago

Marion Mahony Griffin in “The Magic of America” confirms that Port Stephens City was designed after their arrival in Australia, which was long after the location of the federal seat was decided.

The timeline includes: 
1911, April: The Federal Capital City design competition is launched.
1912, May: Walter Burley Griffin's entry (number 29) is announced as the winner of the international competition to design Australia's new capital.
1913, August: WBG is invited to Australia by the Commonwealth Government and in October is appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction.
1914, May: Walter Griffin arrived with Marion Griffin and his relatives, the Lippincotts, in Sydney.
1918, May: Port Stephens City plan approved.

Regarding the timing of the design, she wrote:
During that first year in Australia Griffin advised clients of the nature of this district between Sydney and Brisbane and they purchased this strategic promontory. He designed the city. It was surveyed, the allotments staked out and the whole was sold from the plan in the Sydney real estate office. This meant contour surveys were made in the course of which he became personally acquainted with Aboriginals.”

About Port Stephens City being a “capital”:
When Griffin went to Australia he did locate and design the port and capital for the new state of Northern New South Wales when the time comes for that division…”

And what the Griffins thought of the exercise:
Griffin had expected to take up the development of Portland later as a seaport for that is the other opportunity, a harbor with a sea level entrance in Victoria. But since Port Stephens really proved to be a hoax he would not lend his name to another such.”

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