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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Tim the Yowie Man

Acton is where the action was at

X marks the spot.

Well in this case, it's actually four Xs meticulously drawn in chalk on the surface of the car park at the National Museum of Australia.

"They represent the corners of what would have been Charles Weston's hut," explains history buff Trevor Lipscombe.

Charlie Weston lived in this hut from 1913-1921. If it was still standing today, it would be in the middle of the National Museum of Australia's carpark. Picture courtsy of the National Archives of Australia

Weston, of course, was the visionary horticulturalist responsible for much of the early plantings in Canberra. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, he established the first government nursery in Acton in 1912, not at Yarralumla. That one came a few years later. "If the Acton nursery was still here today, it'd be be in the area between the museum and where AIATSIS [The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies] now is ... under Lake Burley Griffin," says Trevor.

Just as Trevor and his industrious colleagues from the Canberra Region History Researchers (CRHR) pored over old maps and aerial photographs to painstakingly pinpoint the site of Ryan's Cottage, Canberra's first dwelling, they've adopted similar techniques to geolocate the former sites of Canberra's other "first" buildings on what is now Lower Acton Peninsula.

"From 1911 until around 1950, this part of the peninsula was actually the capital of the new capital," says Trevor as he leads me around on a preview of his "Acton Peninsula - Canberra's Forgotten Heritage" exposé scheduled for this Sunday.

"Just over there, in what is now the museum's Garden of Australian Dreams, the first public servants beavered away in their offices," explains Trevor, handing me a map which highlights the exact spot where the first Commonwealth government offices would have stood in 1913.

The headquaters of the Department of Home Affairs/the Interior, circa 1913. If still standing, this building would be in the National Museum of Australia's Garden of Australian Dreams. Picture courtesy of the Canberra & District Historical Society

However, one former building which the posse of historians didn't need to rely on old maps and aerial photographs to mark its location is Canberry Cottage.

Instead, they have a tree which has survived more than 150 years of development on the peninsula - a lone Roman Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens Stricta), also called a pencil pine, which stoically still grows on a mound in the middle of the museum's bus turning bay. This tree is easily recognisable due to its unique appearance with a bulging branch that once grew, but is now dead, on one side of the tree.

"It has been suggested that this tree was planted around 1855-1873 in the garden of the original Canberry Cottage, then the residence of Reverend Pierce Galliard Smith, who was an avid gardener," says Trevor.

The "pregnant" pencil pine, first planted in the garden of Canberry Cottage, photographed a century later outside the obstetrics unit at the Royal Canberra Hospital. Inset: History buff Trevor Lipscombe checks out the same specimen this week outside the National Museum of Australia. Pictures courtesy of National Archives of Australia, Tim the Yowie Man

Regular readers will remember is was Galliard Smith who, on a typical Sunday, rode his horse 35 miles to conduct at least two services, including one at St John's in Reid and another at St Paul's in Ginninderra.

But the good Reverend wasn't Canberry Cottage's first resident.

Allen Mawer, author of Canberry Tales: an informal history (Arcadia, 2012) reports the shingle-roofed building was "40 feet by 24, lime plastered inside and out, two bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen and veranda that ran the length of the eastern side, built in the early 1830s, around the same time as Duntroon Dairy, making it one of the first stone buildings in the ACT".

Acton House during its days as a courthouse with the "pregnant pencil pine" in foreground, circa late 1930s-1940. The police station and lock-up are in the "wing" to the left which is the original Canberry Cottage. Picture by RC Strangman/NLA

Mawer believes an 1834 sixpence found more than a century later by workmen digging near the house provides a tantalising clue as to when Canberry Cottage was built.

"The depth of the find, 60 centimetres, suggests burial rather than loss and it might have deliberately been placed there, after the house was finished, to mark the date of completion," he states.

Regardless of exactly when it was constructed, that modest rubblestone cottage housed a passing parade of who's who in early Canberra.

Until 1850 it was home to a procession of tenants including superintendents and stock overseers of Canberry Station, and in 1850, "as one of the most respectable abodes on the Limestone Plains", it became the Church of England parsonage for St John's (yes, the church in Reid).

The Brasseys in the garden of Canberry Cottage, circa late 1880s, before it was extended in 1890 to become Acton House. Picture courtesy of Canberra & District Historical Society

In 1890, the cottage was extended by Arthur Brassey and became known as Acton House and after Canberra was named as the site of the capital, it became home for various movers and shakers, including Charles Scrivener, the first director of commonwealth lands and surveys, and later (1930s) it housed Canberra's first permanent courthouse and lock-up.

All the time, that oddly shaped pine continued to grow. Despite its irregularity, it must have impressed Weston, who, according to nursery records, in 1916, collected seeds from it.

"Those seedlings, along with others he brought with him on the train from Sydney in May 1913, were raised by Weston to plant Roman Cypress Hill near today's National Arboretum," reveals Trevor. "That means they were among the first plantings (1918) made to reafforest the inner hills, part of Burley Griffin's scheme for an arboreal backdrop to the city."

Although the tree continued to thrive, the development of the Canberra Hospital on Acton Peninsula in the early 1940s sounded the death knell for adjoining Acton House.

Acton House was the national capital's first court house. Picture courtesy of the Mildenhall Collection

"Given its importance in Australia's history, the demolition of Acton House was a serious act of vandalism," laments Trevor. "This was a time before there were national laws to protect such built heritage."

Thankfully, that prominent pencil pine, complete with unusual bump on its belly, was spared the over-zealous bulldozers that roared in to demolish Acton House on January 31, 1941.

The pencil pine, outside the National Museum of Australia, photographed earlier this week. Picture by Tim the Yowie Man

As the hospital developed further, for many decades it stood sentinel at the entrance to the obstetrics ward where it rightly lived up to its contemporary moniker as "Canberra's pregnant pencil pine".

STOP PRESS: Acton Peninsula - Canberra's Forgotten Heritage tour - a collaboration between National Trust (ACT) and Canberra and Region Heritage Researchers - is booked out on Sunday April 23. To add your name to a waitlist for repeat tours, email:

Reverend's fruitful detective skills

Reverend Pierce Galliard Smith's family preparing to leave Glebe House for an outing on horseback in 1898. Those staying home are about to farewell the riders from the veranda and first-floor balcony. Picture courtesy of St John's Archives

When he wasn't galloping between Sunday services around the region, the Reverend Galliard Smith was often found in his veggie patch and orchard, and in his 18 years (1855-1873) at Canberry Cottage he planted many trees, not only the now infamous pregnant pencil pine.

According to Allen Mawer in Canberry Tales: an informal history, the good Reverend loved getting his hands dirty in the garden and he "planted potatoes, beetroot, carrots, parsnips, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, and pumpkins, peas and beans". Meanwhile, his orchard boasted apples, cherries, peaches and plums. Apparently, he also made wine from his grapes.

With such bountiful produce, it's not surprising the Acton House orchard was raided on more than one occasion. But the peach pilferers didn't always get away with it.

Just before he moved from Canberry Cottage to the new parsonage at the Glebe (now where Glebe Park in Civic is located) Galliard Smith used his detective skills to track down two thieves who had stolen fruit by matching their boot treads to those left in mud in his orchard.

"Like Galliard Smith before him, Charles Scrivener found that the fruit trees around Acton House that had been planted by the parson half a century earlier were a blessing and a curse," reveals Mawer.

In a letter to his daughter, Ethel, in 1912, Scrivener wrote: "We have quite a number of visitors who do not call at the house. Mother meets them, sometimes lectures them severely on the evils of neglecting to note the difference between meum and thine [mine and yours], they usually concurring, leaving with a handsome supply of fruit and no doubt in the solitude of their humpies, stirred by the operation of unripe plums, they register vows never again to trespass upon another's property - unless the fruit is ripe."

Talk about getting their just deserts.


Recognise this vista? Picture by Janette Asche

Rating: Medium - Hard

Clue: Same era as last week's photo.

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to The first correct email sent after 10am, Saturday April 22 wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.

The view west from Mt Pleasant, circa 1968. Picture by Janette Asche

Last week: Congratulations to Scott Trotter of Ainslie who was first to identify last week's photo as a view west from the lookout on Mt Pleasant. Several readers, including Steve Leahy of Macquarie and Chris Ryan of Kirrawee, determined that as the new National Library of Australia building was visible (far right) and that construction on the Edmund Barton Building (south side of Kings Avenue) had not begun, that the photo was likely taken circa 1968.


One frequent visitor to Acton when Charles Scrivener (1912-1915) and later surveyor Percy Sheaffe called Acton House home was junior surveyor Frederick Johnston who surveyed much of the ACT's south- eastern border.

A young West Australian, "Freddie" was expecting a much easier job, and arrived thinking he could undertake part of the survey in a T-Model Ford. Of course, the Canberra bush was far too rugged, and he quickly had to abandon that idea. He eventually set off with a horse and sulky, before returning the sulky and continuing the job with packhorses.

If the following poem, written by Freddie and reproduced in Mawer's Canberry Tales: an informal history is any guide, while pitching his canvas tent in the scrub, I suspect he was a tad jealous of his boss's digs at Acton.

While toiling on my stony way

Where Cotter's silvery waters play,

An image in my heart held sway,

It was of Acton.

From One Tree hill to Coree cold

From Mt Clear to Bimberi bold,

No brighter vista does unfold,

Than that at Acton.

Later in his career, Johnston became commonwealth surveyor general (1944-49) but by that time Acton House had been transformed into a court house/police station and then demolished to make way for the construction of the Canberra Hospital.

CONTACT TIM: Email: or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, GPO Box 606, Civic, ACT, 2601

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