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Canberra Today 9°/13° | Wednesday, October 20, 2021 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Feisty and fond memories from Dawn of Canberra

Dawn Waterhouse OAM… “I’m so proud I’m a Canberra girl, if only they would stop building with concrete; they have lost the plot.” Photo: Belinda Strahorn

ONE of Canberra’s oldest residents identifies the “concreting” of Canberra as her greatest sadness as she reflects on a near 100-year association with the city.

As she approaches her 98th birthday Dawn Waterhouse – who grew up in Calthorpes’ House, on Mugga Way – is looking back on a lifelong connection to the nation’s capital.

Mrs Waterhouse, whose late father stock and station agent Harry Calthorpe, played a part in the settling of well-known Canberra suburbs Kingston, Griffith and Red Hill, laments the poor planning of the city that has allowed parts of it to be overwhelmed with “concrete” buildings.

“I don’t like cement, I don’t like the overcrowding and I don’t like what seems to be disrespect for the city’s poorer citizens,” says Mrs Waterhouse. “Where has our community spirit gone?”

For someone whose family has been connected to the national capital almost for the entirety of its existence, the shape and form that Canberra’s development is taking greatly concerns Mrs Waterhouse.

“I’m so proud I’m a Canberra girl, if only they would stop building with concrete; they have lost the plot.” 

Born in Queanbeyan in 1923, Mrs Waterhouse spent her formative years in the nation’s newly formed capital at a time when she said there was “really nothing there”.

“It was just a bare paddock,” Mrs Waterhouse said.

“I remember when we moved into Canberra from Queanbeyan and my father waved his hand across the land and said to my sister Del and I: ‘One day, girls, all this will be a city’.”

From close quarters, Mrs Waterhouse watched the city grow, observing its transformation from sheep paddock to modern city.

Her youth was spent riding bikes, looking for fossils at Mugga, swimming at the Cotter and roaming anywhere she liked.

“One day I walked all the way from Red Hill to Mount Ainslie and back, that was a long way, it was such an adventure,” Mrs Waterhouse said.

Witnessing the first steps of Canberra’s urbanisation, she recalls with great clarity the day the Manuka pool opened in 1931.

“Dad bought us a season ticket that cost 12/6d, that meant we could go day and night. It was absolutely wonderful,” said Mrs Waterhouse.

A well-known local historical landmark, Mrs Waterhouse’s childhood home, Calthorpes’ House, is now a museum.

Built on Mugga Way by her parents Harry and Della, Calthorpes’ House was designed by Oakley and Parkes, the same architects who designed the Prime Minister’s residence, The Lodge. 

“The bathroom in The Lodge and our bathroom were exactly the same,” said Mrs Waterhouse.

“It was my mother’s dream home, she absolutely loved it, and she never wanted to alter it. That’s why it’s a museum because it has never been changed.”

Mrs Waterhouse attended school, first at Telopea Park, then at Girls Grammar.

Her childhood ambition was to be a nurse. However on leaving school she worked as a lab assistant at the CSIRO where she met her future husband Douglas Waterhouse, an entomologist and the inventor of “Aerogard”.

“All the boys were heading off to war so the girls got the jobs. There were lots of experiments to do. I fed grasshoppers and mosquitoes, I learnt how to crutch a sheep and drive a gas producer,” said Mrs Waterhouse.

“It was a wonderful time.”

During World War II, Mr Waterhouse, who would go on to become the chief of the CSIRO entomology division, researched extensively on controlling malaria outbreaks affecting soldiers in Papua New Guinea.

He died in 2000, aged 84.

“Doug was a very plain man, but absolutely the most witty and very clever. I loved him so much,” said Mrs Waterhouse.

The couple’s 57-year marriage produced four children, Jill, Douglas, Jonathon and Gowrie, two of whom are septuagenarians.

On top of raising her family, Mrs Waterhouse found time to join the Red Cross, the Canberra and District Historical Society, the Blood Bank and the first Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI) committee.

In 1954 she was invited to arrange the flowers for the Queen’s visit to Old Parliament House.

“Then I was asked to do the flower arrangements for the Queen Mother’s visit and Princess Margaret’s visit, too; I had a bit of a flair with flowers,” Mrs Waterhouse said.

The nonagenarian has only recently slowed down, having moved into a retirement village, leaving her Forrest home of some 70 years.

For someone who has lived through a world war, the Great Depression, a polio epidemic, bushfires and drought, Mrs Waterhouse is able to put the COVID-19 pandemic into perspective.

“I am very upset at the way people are behaving. If people just stayed still it wouldn’t spread, but it’s just gone mad,” she said.

“When we were young and had chickenpox or measles, we had three weeks of isolation. I think they are letting people out too early.”

Stylishly and carefully dressed, with her hair cropped close, Mrs Waterhouse does not appear as a woman eyeballing 100.

The grandmother-of-four has written two books, can make a mean cheese scone, took up bridge in her 40s, and was recently awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

Time spent with her is uplifting, invigorating, and when you ask for her secret she doesn’t hesitate: “Always be involved in something”. 

That, coupled with a “positive attitude” is the key to her longevity, she says.

While she insists she is nothing special, Mrs Waterhouse is happy to share her advice.

“Keep busy,” she said. 

“And love one another… everyone needs to love each other a bit more.”


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Belinda Strahorn

Belinda Strahorn

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