A Capital Idea?

Could Wagga Wagga have been a suitable site as the Federal Capital of Australia? It was certainly in contention for a time, making the shortlist of towns to be inspected as a potential site.

With the dawning of Federation in 1901, the NSW Government acted on the need for a Federal Capital, and set up a Royal Commission to find a suitable site. In 1899 the Royal Commission began with the appointment of Alexander Oliver, who would investigate and report on the suitability of sites within New South Wales for the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth. Commissioner Oliver invited applications from country towns to show their town’s suitability as the capital site. Circulars were sent out giving details of the kind of information required to undertake proper examination of the applications.

The information requested included climate conditions, accessibility to State Capitals, physical conditions such as water supply and soil types, ownership and value of land, as well as other details such as food supply and commercial and industrial development.

There were a total of 40 responses from NSW towns, 23 of which were chosen to be inspected.

The Application

President of the Wagga Wagga Federal City League, Mr C.F. Bolton, along with Committee members, C. Hardy, G. Sheppard, B.B. Bennett, J. Hayes, D. Copland, H.O. Heath, J.J. McGrath, P.J. Kelly, L.A. Fosbery, and R. Emblem, submitted a lengthy report to Commissioner Oliver on the many favourable traits of the town.

The details of their report can be found in the Wagga Wagga Advertiser on Saturday, 31 March 1900.  Part of the report included a summary  as to the “Reasons why Wagga Wagga should be the Federal Capital”, as follows:

  1. It is near the centre of Australian population.
  2. It is midway on the main line of railway, connecting the four principal capitals.
  3. It is on the principal river in Australia.
  4. It is central between two principal cities.
  5. It is far enough from the seaboard to be safe from sudden invasion.
  6. It is a splendid district for sheep, cattle, and horses.
  7. It produces corn, wine, fruit, and flowers in abundance.
  8. It is a splendid tree-growing district, both for use and ornament.
  9. It has a never failing water supply for all purposes.
  10. It has splendid brick, clay, granite etc., for building.
  11. The site is picturesque, beautiful and unique.
  12. It has a beautiful portion of land and water for a federal park.
  13. It is in the temperate region of Australia.
  14. It has a healthy, equable, and pleasant climate.
  15. It is near the highest mountains and the greatest number of streams in Australia.
  16. It is the centre of the fertile Riverina District.
The view of Wagga Wagga from Willans Hill c.1900 [from the Pym Collection, RW2735/118]

The Tour

Although thought to be more out of compliment and courtesy than any real consideration, Wagga Wagga was included on the itinerary of the grand ‘Federal Capital Tour’. Other sites included Albury, Orange, Bathurst, Armidale, Nowra, Bombala, Dalgety, Queanbeyan, Yass, Gundagai and Tumut.

The Federal Capital Tour visited Wagga Wagga on the morning of Friday, 23 May 1902. Greeted at the railway station by the Mayor, Alderman Charles Hardy, the party of around 20 gentlemen proceeded to the site of Willans Hill. Although impressed with the pleasant aspect upon the summit of Willans Hill, it was felt locally that “its charm did not ensure its utility, and that Wagga would be a good way from the federal capital when the question was narrowed down to a decision.”

The party were then escorted to the Experiment Farm, the highlight of which was being met by the fruit expert Mr Hogg, who allowed them to sample the preserved prunes which “were universally voted as superior to any they had before tasted, either imported or otherwise.”

The Federal Capital Tour
From the Wagga Wagga Advertiser, 24 May 1902 [Trove Digitised Newspapers, National Library of Australia]

The Result

Whilst Wagga’s candidacy for the Federal Capital ended that day in May 1902, the challenge to find the site for Australia’s Capital Territory continued for many years.

With a final focus on the triangular area between Yass, Goulburn and Queanbeyan, the decision was finally made at the end of 1908 in favour of Yass-Canberra. The land was transferred to the Commonwealth Government in January 1911, and was soon followed by a competition to design the nation’s capital, which was won by Burley Griffin on 23 May 1912.

On 12 March 1913, Australia’s Federal Capital was officially named Canberra, which was the name of the original site, casting aside other such choices as Southern Cross, Cook, Myola and Parkes.

Originally compiled by Lauren Carroll

State Archives and Records NSW, A New Seat of Government http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/state-archives/guides-and-finding-aids/federation/part-3-a-new-seat-of-government/part-3-a-new-seat-of-government;
State Archives and Records NSW, NRS1460 Correspondence and Minutes of Evidence and Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Sites for the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth (2/884.12);
State Archives and Records NSW, Archives Investigator Agency Detail – Royal Commission on Sites for the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth;
Wagga Wagga Advertiser, 31 March 1900, 24 May 1902;
The Gundagai Times, 4 March 1913.


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