Academia Local Government PhD Politics/Government

A Capital On the Highlands

Canberra, by Brendan Ashton on Flickr

On Wednesday March 1, 1899, the town of Bowral and it’s neighbours in the Southern Highlands joined other contenders hoping to become Australia’s capital city.

Moss Vale-based newspaper The Scrutineer records that “there was fairly good attendance, between 40 and 50 gentlemen being present, including residents of Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, Exeter, and in fact the district generally.”

The Southern Highlands, with mooted capital sites between Bowral and Moss Vale, and what was then known as Barber’s Creek (south of Wingello).

Most of the region was considered to be within the Melbourne-imposed 100 mile limit of Sydney, so areas north of Moss Vale were ruled out, and there were moves to suggest “the territory between Cable’s Siding and Barber’s Creek, where there was a good water supply, an unlimited amount of superior building stone, a good climate and land capable of easy drainage.”

Bowral’s Alderman Oxley objected “and said he had attended the meeting with the object of advocating the capital to be in their midst and not away from them as it was proposed… He advocated the site to be between Bowral and Moss Vale.” Eventually, the meeting formed a committee consisting of representatives from each of the three main towns (Bowral, Mittagong and Moss Vale) and the local member of the New South Wales Parliament William Rupert McCourt to press the case. It was also agreed to contact Goulburn and seek co-operation “as it [Goulburn] would not have much chance of being itself selected.”

On Saturday, March 4, 1899, the Bowral Free Press reported

if the new capital is to be on the highlands, it cannot but prove to be a most attractive place for residences. There are not likely to be many factories or industrial establishments within it but the ideal should be miles of pretty villa residences, each on three acres and possessing a cow.

The paper continued with what might be described as NIMBYism in more modern times:

The expansion of all the neighbouring townships is hardly likely to take place with such an attraction near by, therefore all the more reason why water works and improvements entailing ratepayers’ money should be considered with the utmost circumspect.

The Southern Highlands bid was just one of many among regional towns in New South Wales. The Singleton Argus newspaper described this politicking in terms more reminiscent of a sports report:

Albury punches poor little Bombala in the political stomach, and scornfully orders it out the scramble when Bombala makes a vicious grab at the scanty hair of old feeble Yass, which is struggling to oust Cootamundra. Goulburn, meanwhile, has its academic thumb set firmly down upon the shadow and frantically calls on Bowral to come and assist in nailing it. Bowral replies that it wants to secure the illusive thing for itself, and demands help from Goulburn.

From out west, Bathurst complains of the unseemly selfishness of all these places, and declares that it had acquired pre-emptive rights before any of them was federally awake. It is immediately shut up with a backhander in the mouth from Orange, which […] is laid out by a vicious kick from the nasty Blucher of despised Dubbo.

Then Morpeth even puts in a plea, with the explanation that it is the head of Hunter River navigation […]; while sleepy Maitland utters a gasp in defence of a claim that she is supposed to have…

As history shows, the New South Wales government eventually settled on the Canberra region and granted 2,358 square kilometres there (plus headland at Jervis Bay) to the Commonwealth for the purpose.

A version of this post was originally published at on November 9, 2015, with assistance of the Berrima District Historical and Family Society.

Leave a Reply

Only people in my network can comment.