WHEN radio and television pioneer George Barlin arrived in Canberra on a Friday night in February, 1933, he didn’t think he would outlast six months.
The fledgling city of 6000, struggling to its feet in the midst of the Great Depression, was a long way from his hometown of Lansdowne, near Taree on the NSW mid-north coast.
“My first impression was that I couldn’t live in such a scattered place, with nobody around,” George recalls. “It wasn’t a town as I knew it; Taree was a good, flourishing little town serving the fishing, dairy and timber industries.”
The “strange concept” of leasehold land discouraged many from moving here, he says, and for the government employees who moved from Melbourne, “this was like being banished to Siberia”.
“Canberra consisted of a few scattered houses in Ainslie and a few scattered buildings in the civic centre,” George says.
Most of the shops in Civic were empty, the Melbourne Building was half-finished and the newly planted trees stood little more than six feet. At Molonglo (Fyshwick), construction workers lived in what was intended to be a World War I internment camp, further contributing to the feeling of isolation.
But by the time Australia had begun to emerge from the economic gloom shortly before World War II, George had grown to love the city he has lived in for the past 80 years. He married his wife Iris in 1938 and the couple celebrate their 75-year “diamond anniversary” on Tuesday, March 26.
Iris has lived in Canberra even longer, having moved from Bega to Queanbeyan as a child in the early ‘20s, and then to Canberra in 1926.
“In the beginning when I came to Canberra, my parents took us to all the foundation-stone laying ceremonies and all the openings of, say, Civic or the War Memorial or the different churches,” she says.
“It was a Saturday afternoon out, because that was somewhere to go, and there were only four shops in Kingston when we came.”
After 75 years with George, Iris sums up her relationship advice with one phrase. “Give and take,” she says. “If you don’t give, there’s nothing coming back. It’s not all easy, clear sailing, but you get over those bumps.”
“You need a bit of luck, too, and don’t take your worries to bed at night,” adds George.
As Canberra looks back over a century, most of which the 97-year-old couple took part in, the broadcasting trailblazer thinks that for the most part, “whoever was responsible did a good job”.
“Canberra’s gone through tremendous changes – not all for the better,” George says, referring to a diverse economy and facilities such as medical specialists, but also pointing out the inevitable increase in crime.
The era he remembers most fondly is the late ‘30s when he and Iris had just met, when there was plenty of trout to be caught, and his neighbours felt safe going on a month’s holiday without bothering to close the front door.
“Everybody knew everybody; you’d go down the street and be stopped at every 10 yards. It was different then, even though there was, in the early stages, some class distinctions. ”
George got to know the Crown Solicitor’s son – a young Gough Whitlam – and used to pass Prime Minister Ben Chifley in the street.
“I was driving home one night and there’s this bloke walking along beside the road, and I knew him because I used to see him every Friday morning to do a recording for him. I said, ‘Mr Chifley, can I take you somewhere?’
“‘No,’ he said, ‘don’t worry about that. I like to get a bit of fresh air and get away from the mob before they get at me.’ That’s the sort of place it was.”