Glimpses of Canberra

Riverbourne & Russell Hill Settlements


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Glimpses of Early Canberra-Riverbourne-Russell Hill by Ann Gugler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Riverbourne & Russell Hill Settlements were two temporary settlements where married men again had to build their own humpies.  When work on the city resumed in 1921 the authorities - Federal Capital Adivsory Committee attempted to provide accommodation for married construction workers.  First were less than a hundred small brick cottages at Westridge, Civic Centre [Braddon], Power House [Barton] in 1921 followed by a few more in Blandfordia [Forrest] in 1923. Then it was the conversion of the tenements in the Molonglo Internment Camp - some of which were dragged to new site - Eastlake, Westridge, Civic Centre and other places of need.  They were followed in 1924 by temporary portable cottages erected in 1924 at Westlake, Acton and in 1925/26 at Causeway.  In 1925 the Federal Capital Commission took over and they were responsible for the 100 odd cottages at Causeway - and then gave up building - with the result sites at Riverbourne and Russell Hill were set aside for men to build their own cottages.  





The building of a city from scratch requires a large workforce.  They need to be housed and this need was never fully addressed by those in charge of the building of Canberra - the capital city of Australia.

Somewhere I read that in order to provide decent accommodation and facilities for the workers a township was planned.  But it never eventuated.  What developed between 1912-1925 was an ad-hoc system of accommodation. Single men were housed in tents or if lucky the timber barracks of the Bachelors Quarters at Acton and married men provided their own housing by building humpies.  From 1921 a few brick cottages were made available along with tenements in the converted Molonglo Internment Camp and temporary portable cottages erected at Westlake and Acton.  But these were never enough and many married men left wives and families behind to come to work in Canberra.

Camps and temporary settlements [suburbs] were set up near to work sites, but wherever possible, out of sight of permanent Canberra.  In 1925 when the Federal Capital Commission [FCC] took over from the Federal Capital Advisory Committee [FCAC] they had three semi-permanent single men’s camps erected: White City near Civic Centre; Capitol Hill and on south side, Causeway.  They continued the practice of setting up tent camps near worksites and in 1926 began to convert some into timber cubicle camps.

For the married workers the FCC had another 100 temporary portable cottages erected at Causeway and a few permanent timber cottages built at Westridge [Yarralumla] and North Ainslie [Ainslie in the vicinity of Corroboree Park].  The FCC then gave up attempts to provide cottages for married construction workers.  Their solution to the continuing urgent need for housing was to set aside 80 cottage sites on an area of land on the south side of the Molonglo River roughly opposite Harman Naval Base. It was named Riverbourne.  Here men again built their own humpies.  Riverbourne was followed in 1926 with 120 humphy sites at Russell Hill [near Campbell Shops].


Riverbourne was known to the locals as THE THREE MILE because it was three miles from the Queanbeyan Post Office off the Uriarra Road.  Very little information about Riverbourne is found in the National Australian Archive [NAA]. It is from the stories of those who lived there that some knowledge of life in the settlement has survived.

Hazel Hartley nee Williams belonged to a Riverbourne family and her story is typical of many of the families who came to build the city.  Her father, Fred, came to FCT in 1925 to work. He was a horse and dray man.  Prior to the arrival of his family, Fred lived in a single men’s camp at Black Mountain.  When his family arrived they moved to [Colonel] Walker’s Camp.   It was a big tent camp for married men situated between Scott’s Crossing and the Power House.   Scott’s Crossing was below Blundell’s Cottage. The family’s next move was to Riverbourne.

Hazel’s husband, Reg Harley, was  also a Riverbourne dweller. Hazel described her family home at Riverbourne.  It was constructed with hessian walls and galvanized iron roof.  Hazel’s mother lined the walls with paper [news & brown].  The small home had two bedrooms.  Her parents, with the newest baby, a boy, slept in one room and the children in another – five girls head to toe in a double bed and in the single bed the two boys head to toe. The children of school age attended the nearby Molonglo Primary School at Molonglo Settlement.

Cooking was carried out on an open fire with camp oven and the washing done in the kerosene tin on the open fire.   Outdoor lavatories used the pan system and were shared.

The William’s cottage was in the street nearest the river and one of Frank William’s jobs as camp caretaker was to bury the night soil.  This task was carried out at night and it was often Hazel’s job to hold the torch to light the area where the digging and burying took place – in the soft sand of Black Creek near the river.

The Molonglo River provided a playground for the children.  Hazel recalled that the kids, none of whom could swim, used to go down the rapids and before being swept too far away grabbed overhanging willow branches to stop.  They used logs to travel the river. 

When Hazel was twelve the family moved to Russell Hill[1] where Hazel attended the Russell Hill School[2] that opened in 1927. Hazel recalled that the school had one big room. Down one end the children in the classes 1st, 2nd and 3rd sat and the other end, 4th, 5th and 6th.  Following the closure of the school in 1929 the school building was moved around 1930 to Corroboree Park Ainslie where it is still in use as a community Hall.

As in the other settlements, a strong community developed and one of the important annual events was the Children’s Christmas Party. One of the documents found in the NAA contained the information about 1926 collection of moneys by Mrs Williams for the Christmas party.  The amounts collected ranged from 6d to 4/- with the majority paying 2/-.  The names of those who donated were: Kennedy, Hicks, Paper Agent, Moore, Kean, T Parker, Nigger, Stewart, Bamford, Mack, a Friend, D Power, Hart, Wells, Phipps, OK, Harrington, Hammond, Tracey, Casey, Clark, Stranger, Brownlea, Fowler, Mitchell, Cassidy, E Fitz, O’Connors, Cassidy,  Santa, Williams, Mathews, Bromley, Whitaker, Stranger,  M Parker, Evans, Bradley, Dooley, Buckley, Mrs White, Lassie, Heffernon, Kelly, Carson, Moore, Mrs Power, Friend, Schumack, Williams, Goodin, Sullivan, Gardiner, No Name, Dunn, stranger, Smith, Dickerson, Surety, Mick, Friend, Mrs Johnson, DC, Owen, Weis, Digger, Single Agent, McAuliffe, Wilson, W O’Brien, Brown, J Dean.  R& H Parker of Riverbourne delivered the goods for the party.

Karen Williams in her reply to the Discussion Paper Eastern Broadacre Planning Study 2011  [area of land that extends between Oaks Estate and Fyshwick and north to Wamboin] voiced her concerns about the lack of  recognition of sites, and the need to thoroughly examine remaining sites  before any decision to build is made.  She made the point:  The location of the old Duntroon windmill and temporary construction workers’ camp of ‘Riverbourne’ have not been noted. Without mention in early reports and discussion papers, the chance to, at least, recognize their existence in future development, while old landmarks still exist...

As the city grows the remaining surviving sites that include areas of Stirling Park, Brickyards, Mt Pleasant, Mt Ainslie, Causeway and Riverbourne are in danger of being built over without recognition and without archeological studies to record what remains. They are an integral part of our history, for this is where our city began.    

Without the knowledge of our temporary suburbs and camp sites and their stories our history is lop sided because it is missing the crucial years of our beginning – the years when the paddocks began their transformation into the city we know.


[1] Russell Hill Settlement near the Campbell Shops.

[2] The school was the former Masonic Hall Acton built by John Howie & Sons.

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