Overall / Maurie’s Christmas came in lashes

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A Canberra family on Christmas morning, 1962.
A Canberra family on Christmas morning, 1962.
ASKED what he’d like for Christmas, I’m fairly sure convict and hutkeeper at Lanyon, Maurice Welsh, would have been disinclined to suggest 50 or so lashes to go on with.
Nichole Overall.

Nonetheless, on December 25 in the mid-1800s, Welsh was said to have been the last man to receive the punishment in this area in what is today the grounds of Government House at Yarralumla.

Referred to as “the strongest man in County Murray”, it seems Welsh was regularly tied to the “flogging tree” for the most minor of indiscretions, and while the year of that final whipping isn’t clear, he did die on another holiday: Easter of 1874, on the Queanbeyan Racecourse (yes, the record doesn’t suggest “at”), “vile firewater” the cause.

Have no fear though, mortified modern Canberrans, because after the nation’s capital was properly resurrected, the local festive season became a much more civilised affair, indeed almost something straight out of Jimmy Stewart’s yuletide treasure, “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

It was 1926 before the “City of Sunshine, Flowers and Gladness” (now there’s a reputation to live by), was reported as having its “first real Christmas” – an acknowledgement that while that original stone had been laid 13 years earlier, not much else had taken place in-between – and in the “Federal Capital Pioneer Magazine”, it was described thus: “Can older nations picture Christmas at Canberra? The golden sunshine, the blue skies, the rare crisp, life-giving atmosphere, the rustling of Cotter’s waters, the green trees, the wealth of brilliant flowers in homes and streets painting the city with kaleidoscopic beauty?”

Well, who wouldn’t want to spend the holiday period in a region as marvellous – and bracing – as this? (And here I am, kindly, overlooking the times it was estimated that up to a third of the city’s population left town).

The YMCA's Christmas Eve Carols by Candlelight on the lawns of the then Parliament House in 1958. Photo by W Pedersen
The YMCA’s Christmas Eve Carols by Candlelight on the lawns of the then Parliament House in 1958. Photo by W Pedersen

As the Christmas bells rang out with each passing year the burgeoning city would be abuzz with activities to entice all those newly arrived civil servants and their families: carols on the lawns of Parliament House; gift shopping at JB Young, the largest secondary department store chain in the country (and started over the border in Queanbeyan, but I digress); swimming and picnics at Cotter Reserve; parties with “an international accent” organised for children of diplomatic officials in order that they might be entertained with traditional Aussie festivities and, at the other end of the spectrum, ever-so-slightly sombre luncheons for the local senior citizens, all emerging as a celebration of Canberra’s unique – and yes, slightly quirky – personality.

Picnickers at the Cotter Reserve on Boxing Day, 1958. Photo by W Pedersen
Picnickers at the Cotter Reserve on Boxing Day, 1958. Photo by W Pedersen

And come the big day itself, the marvel of 1950s photography reveals that in the flurry of early-morning present unwrapping, Mother and Father would already be fully attired in heels and brooch, necktie and appropriately shined shoes, while little Johnny was thoroughly delighted with his hand-made wooden train, completely befitting the description of Santa’s visit here as “one more port of call in the great and glorious British Empire”.

So, with such a pedigree, what can we expect for Christmas in Canberra 2016 style? Might we take something from those grand times of old?

I guess one thing we can be thankful for is that the upstanding Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, first Member for the County of Murray in the first Legislative Council of 1843 and owner of Yarralumla, was merciful enough to do away with that particularly nasty tree that was a symbol of anything but the spirit of Christmas.

And with that in mind, spare a thought for poor Maurice when the day comes around and the very best of the season of peace and goodwill to you all.

Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist and social historian with a predilection for bringing to light the unsolved mysteries and conundrums of the Capital Region.

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