The day Mr Menzies launched Lake Burley Griffin

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Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies inaugurates Lake Burley Griffin on October 17, 1964.

On October 17, 1964, with the sails of small boats billowing behind him, Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies inaugurated Lake Burley Griffin. “Yesterdays” columnist NICHOLE OVERALL traces the lake’s controversial history.

IT was a mid-autumn day 55 years ago when the skies over Canberra erupted after seven parched months. As the rain finally fell, the dusty remains of a golf course and racetrack, and the skeletons of former abodes, disappeared beneath the artificial new lake at the capital’s heart.

Nichole Overall.

The moment had taken almost as long to reach as the time that’s passed since. And drama, criticism, controversy – and tragedy – have shaped Lake Burley Griffin as much as the bulldozers that altered the landscape in preparation for it.

On October 17, 1964, with the sails of small boats billowing behind him, Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies declared: “I have a great feeling of official privilege, a great feeling of unfeigned personal delight in declaring this lake to have been inaugurated by me a quarter of an hour ago.”

While his speech was short, it was back in 1911 that LBG’s American creators, Walter and Marion Griffin, first crafted it as the pièce de résistance of their “ideal city”.

Drama, criticism, controversy – and tragedy – have shaped Lake Burley Griffin as much as the bulldozers that altered the landscape in preparation for it. Photo: ACT Heritage Library

Similar to New York’s Central Park, with its man-made waterscapes that emerged from swampland, Canberra’s lake was to grow out of a willow-clogged river that meandered across a desolate floodplain. 

Once complete, the 11-kilometre-long aquatic centrepiece covered an area of almost seven square kilometres – the equivalent of 1200-odd football fields. Although smaller than originally intended, it had been saved from being axed completely.

Waiting for the lake to fill. Photo: Richard Clough / National Library of Australia

Essentially cleaving the city in two geographically, equally did it divide opinion.

The site for the Australian capital was selected in part due to its existing river systems and the ambitious potential this afforded.

As Menzies would allude much later, centralised water bodies have long been associated with the world’s great cities.

With their artfully balanced, geometric design incorporating such a concept, the Griffins’ submission was “the grandest” of the international competition entries for the planned First City.

At its core were three basins – Central, West and East – and two larger lakes, further east and west.

Praised for its “simplicity and clarity”, it didn’t stop some, including those who wielded a level of bureaucratic heft, declaring it “grandiose”.

Early earthworks in anticipation of the lake. Photo: Richard Clough / National Library of Australia

Public agitation over the proposed watercourse also grew. Concerns ranged from flooding, it turning into mud flats, the loss of valuable acreage, becoming a fog trap, attracting mosquitoes and, inevitably, its cost. 

“Community and stakeholder opposition” eventually reached “near hysterical proportions”.

As a result, the “paper” lake would be revised, modified, excised, remodelled and rescaled. 

So dramatic were the alterations, by the early 1950s, what was left was little more than “a central basin and a ribbon of water”. 

Having reached an unfathomable impasse, contributing to yet more stalling of the capital’s momentum, Menzies stepped in. For the first time in Canberra’s sporadic development, a single, powerful body responsible for its cohesive progress was created.

In 1957, a fellow by the name of John Overall was appointed as the inaugural commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission.

The priority of the 44-year-old architect and war hero was to fulfil the Griffin plan – and that meant he needed to build a lake.

With elements restored and other significant undertakings kicking off in rapid succession, in 1959 a sizeable spanner was thrown in the tracks of the bulldozers when the prime minister headed off to visit the Queen.

In his absence, the initial million pounds agreed by cabinet to jump-start the massive project was removed from the Budget. 

Rather than try to convince those responsible otherwise, Overall patiently marked the days until the PM’s return. As the plane touched down at Canberra airport, the commissioner was waiting for his boss – on the very tarmac itself.

The necessary finances were promptly reintroduced and when approved by Parliament in 1960, the next morning, Overall had that earth-moving equipment ready to roll.

Trees, sporting facilities, farms and houses made way for what would become the bottom of a lake.

Hundreds of workers removed thousands of tonnes of soil, deep enough to dispel insect infestations, prevent weed growth and provide for boat keels. Islands were created and two bridges to traverse the watercourse were built.

Up rose the dam to hold back the Molonglo River which would come to be “ranked fifth of 25 dams in Australia with heritage listing”.

On September 20, 1963, the five gates of the 33-metre-high (108 feet) concrete wall named for surveyor Charles Scrivener, were locked in place. 

It would be another year before LBG was welcomed as Canberra’s focal point – socially, economically and environmentally: “A lake that will complete the amenities of life… really, there’s something here for all of us.”

Soon after, John Overall, son of a Sydney publican, was knighted for his professional efforts.

In a quarter of the time it took to attain the engineering marvel, LBG was adorned with monuments and institutions of national significance.

As its status evolved, so too, its controversies. 

Urban legends of bodies allegedly swept into it during flood events, to an unexplained “beast” lurking in its depths; accidental drownings and more sinister occurrences also. Problematic occasional algae blooms, while recent disputation on the development of its foreshores has seen the rise of the Lake Burley Griffin Guardians.

For all of that, today, LBG is referred to as the capital’s “greatest treasure”.

According to Sir John Overall: “Without it, Canberra would have been a failure”.

While there are those who can remember when the lake named for the man who conceived it did not greet them at virtually every turn, could anyone truly suggest they can imagine a Canberra in which it wasn’t there to sparkle?

Nichole Overall has written about her father-in-law Sir John Overall, “the man who built Canberra”, in the newly released anthology, “Capital Culture”. For more on all of this, see anoverallview.wixsite.com/blog.

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Nichole Overall
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist, author and social historian.

1 COMMENT

  1. And a rousing ‘hear hear’ for both Menzies and Sir John Overall. Such strong commitment to our National Capital and a wonderful legacy you have left us!

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