Glimpses of Canberra



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Glimpses of Early Canberra-Oaks Estate by Ann Gugler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at


Oaks Estate: an overview
Weaving the fabric of history

History defines the identity and sense of place of individuals and of a community. History is explained through the stories told about the relationships that have occurred over time between people, places and events. Those relationships are understood by interpreting the social, cultural and environmental interaction that exists between, within, and around the material features and objects that characterise a place. That interaction is physical, conceptual, emotional and spiritual, and will consist of competing interests and attachments. The stronger the perception and experience of those interests and attachments, the more vigorous and sustained the interaction will be. Which means that history should be perceived as ‘living’ and not locked in the past.

In present-day Oaks Estate the interweaving of the different interests and attachments manifest in various ways: old and new residential and commercial buildings, backyard sheds, studios, gardens, parks, fence lines, track ways and roads, a burial ground, various manufactured and creative objects, rural pastures and natural landforms and river corridor. Oaks Estate and its surrounding area is special because examples from all of the natural, social and cultural layers of history that has occurred since the very first settlement and even before then, during Aboriginal occupation, are still visible, can be found or have been recorded in some sort of story form. People can still perceive remnant landscapes, features and objects, experience the relationship between them as part of their present lives and respond to them through their intentions for the future.

Parts of Oaks Estate’s history and heritage are located in NSW. Bull’s cottage and the Queanbeyan Railway Station, on Henderson Road, for example, are directly connected to the earlier times of Oaks Estate’s development. Oaks Estate’s original southern boundary was Derrima Road, and there are direct connections between the river crossings near and at Oaks Estate between the Uriarra Road and the old South Road.

In the present-day, standing at the intersection of River Street and Hazel Street, a visual connection can still be made between the Robertson house at 9 Hazel Street (formerly 4 Railway Street), the Queanbeyan Station and The Oaks, each illustrating a key turning point in local history. Collectively those places reflect the rationale underlying the development of Oaks Estate and symbolise the transition between the colonial and the federal eras and the links between the districts of Canberra and Queanbeyan in that transition.

The Oaks illustrates the first substantial building in the Queanbeyan district during the shift between an Aboriginal socio-cultural landscape to a colonial one. Built shortly before 1838, the dwelling was known as The Oaks from the 1860s, the name being used by Dr Hayley who lived in the dwelling during that time. John Bull also applied the name, in the 1870s, to the 100 acres surrounding the stone dwelling and his Hazelbrook fellmongery. The stone dwelling was built by the Campbell family of Duntroon and later named by Joseph Kaye and William Hunt as the Elmsall Inn between 1838 and 1841. There was a store adjoining the inn and a burial ground near by, in what is known today as Florence Street. The burial ground was used from the mid 1830s until 1846, with one further burial in 1863.

The Queanbeyan Railway Station illustrates the consolidation of colonial economic growth in the region and marks the timing and rationale of the subdivision of Oaks Estate. The arrival of the railway line to Queanbeyan prompted Matthew McAllister to buy and then licence The Oaks house as a hotel from 1886-87. At that time The Oaks consisted of the 100 acres, on which Oaks Estate now stands, of which a strip at the southern end was acquired to build the railway line and station complex. A few months after the opening of the station, 300 blocks on the Oaks Estate subdivision were auctioned.

The advertisement for the auction highlighted the position and symmetry of design, harmonising with surrounding subdivisions in a way that would encourage the rapid expansion of the town of Queanbeyan toward the station. The plan for the estate illustrated symmetry of design, linking a key crossing of the Molonglo River to the station and on to the northern end of present day Crawford Street, which is, again, another centrally located street in Queanbeyan.

The Robertson house illustrates the shift in the focus in that economic growth following federation and the decision to build the national capital in the region. An example of what, at the time, was sometimes termed ‘humpy’, the house was built in various stages without reference to building regulations. The type of construction was governed by what money and materials were available. Money and building materials were in short supply. As supply improved so did the standard of makeshift houses. This type of structure was common during the early construction era of Canberra, but because the administration deemed such houses temporary, they were later demolished. The Robertson house was constructed using bush poles, opened out tar, oil and kerosene tins, packing case boards, weatherboards and later fibro. This is the only known construction workers’ ‘humpy’ remaining in the ACT.

The role of key track ways

Prior to established roads in the Queanbeyan/Canberra region, people relied on landmarks to find their way across the landscape. The junction of the Queanbeyan and Molonglo Rivers was a major landmark. The early generations of colonial settlers said that the meaning of the junction of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers in Aboriginal Australian cultural terms meant ‘clear water, beautiful woman’.[1] They did not say which tribe this meaning is associated with. The embodied meaning, the old settlers said, came from a mosaic of stones in the bed of the river. Major Aboriginal camping grounds and meeting places surrounded the junction, at Pialligo and Kowen.

Various Aboriginal groups shared access to the local region surrounding the junction of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers. Being part of Ngunawal territory the region can be perceived as an open space of pathways, a local network of mountain ranges and river corridors linking, at one level, the frontiers of adjoining headwaters, food bowls, ancient lake catchments and swamplands, sources of material for tool-making, and places significant in the life and death events of family relationships.

On another level, that mundane level of human and environmental interaction is interwoven into or, perhaps more accurately, underscored by a greater national network of inter-group trade and other social and cultural relations. The meeting places of southern Aboriginal socio-cultural groups in the southern alps and tablelands are linked by the ancient Murrumbidgee, Shoalhaven and Lachlan River systems. The significance of these different pathways can only be appreciated in the local context of a Dreaming trail when knowledge of the Ngunawal creation story and the various residences of key Ngunawal spirit ancestors are known and understood.

Colonial explorers looking for good grazing lands followed Aboriginal pathways into the lands immediately surrounding the junction of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers. Later, Campbell’s Duntroon (at Pialligo) and its extensions were described as being at the junction of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers.

In 1834/35, and earlier, what was probably a bridle track crossed over the Cullarin Range from Bungendore, through present-day Kowen Forest, forking just near the junction. One track went to Duntroon. The other track crossed the river somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Oaks Estate on its way to where Timothy Beard had his Quinbean squattage, just west of the present-day Queanbeyan sewage treatment works. That track also went on to link with what became the main track south, to Michelago and Cooma (crossing the Queanbeyan River roughly at the Monaro Street bridge in Queanbeyan). At about that time a store adjoined The Oaks (licensed as the Elmsall Inn in 1837-38) and a burial ground was nearby. The track ran past both, then through to another store beside the river crossing in Queanbeyan and the road south.

By 1866 the Yass-Queanbeyan Road was surveyed, and crossed the Molonglo River where the bridge on the Yass Road is today. However, a track still crossed the Molonglo River at The Oaks crossing and went on into Queanbeyan via present Uriarra Road/Crawford Street. By this time the burial ground had one addition in the 1860s, but had otherwise ceased to be used. The store had closed when the Elmsall Inn moved to Queanbeyan in 1841. However, the 1874 flood washed away The Oaks crossing, and the River Street crossing came into use until the 1950s.

A surveyed road was formed in 1887, using the River Street crossing, around which the Oaks Estate subdivision was laid. That road was designed to join the Queanbeyan Railway Station, and the proposed residential/business hub of Oaks Estate, directly to the main Yass-Queanbeyan Road. Thus encouraging the town to expand towards the new railway station, stockyards and goods yards.

The railway station had been placed at the intersection of key stock routes from the local agricultural districts, on land acquired by the railway from the southern portion of John Bull’s 100 acres. John Bull was Queanbeyan’s second mayor. Bull operated, among other businesses, a butcher shop from his house (present-day 24 Henderson Road) and a slaughter yard on the junction of Mountain, Nimrod and Oaks Estate Roads, as well as being involved in the syndicate that owned and operated Hazelbrook fellmongery and The Oaks house.

The 1913 landscape

In 1913, two years after the present-day Australian Capital Territory boundary was drawn, economic focus in the Queanbeyan district was on the Queanbeyan Roller Flour Mill and the Railway stock & goods yards at Oaks Estate. The presence of a key road between Canberra and Queanbeyan formed connections between seemingly disparate elements. The focus on The Oaks, the Queanbeyan Roller Flour Mill and the railway station and yards influenced the use of track ways.

From 1905 The Oaks was owned and occupied by part owner/miller of the mill. The mill, having been built next to the road leading to the railway goods yard from the River Street crossing, placed its pump on the main creek, closer to the river. In 1913, wagons of grain were brought to the mill from the agricultural districts of Canberra, Ginninderra, Majura, Canberra and Tharwa using River and Railway Streets. The wagon drivers would deliver their loads to the mill and would camp in Gillespie’s paddocks, opposite, overnight. Drovers also brought sheep and cattle to the stockyards. Oaks Estate houses had fences to keep the animals out.

It was around 1913, that the Robertson house was being constructed near one of the thoroughfares to Queanbeyan. By that time Oaks Estate had become part of the Territory for the Seat of Government (present-day Australian Capital Territory). The Robertson family’s focus, as did the focus of the majority of other Oaks Estate residents, shifted from the mill and Queanbeyan rural industry (the mill being one of the last major employers of labour in Queanbeyan) to the construction of the new federal capital, the first buildings begun between 1909 and 1913. The Robertson family story, like so many other families of the Oaks Estate, reflects the transition from the early colonial/agricultural era and the construction era of Oaks Estate, and Canberra, in their own right.

Mary Jane and Walter Richard (Dick) Robertson built the earliest stages of their house in about 1911/12/13. Mary Robertson was the daughter of Thomas and Sarah McCauley (nee Plummer) and was originally from Queanbeyan. Thomas McCauley was a noted Queanbeyan bricklayer. Dick Robertson was the son of John and Rebecca Robertson (nee Gardiner, formerly Forrester). John Robertson was a farm labourer from Queanbeyan, originally from Canberra.

Dick Robertson worked at the Queanbeyan Roller Flour Mill, living with his family in the miller’s house on Florence Street till about 1911 (perhaps as an engine driver). After leaving the mill he moved his family to Hazel Street. Living in a temporary dwelling, they began building their new home. Dick and Mary had eight children. Dick Robertson worked at RMC Duntroon in 1914 as assistant mechanic. Then between 1914 and 1919 he was a Gardener’s Assistant. From 1919-1921 his position was that of Canteen Control. He then left the college, working as a plumber on the construction of the Westlake workers’ settlement and other construction jobs including the provisional Parliament House, and the two storey houses in Manuka.

Two of Dick and Mary’s sons, Les and Tom, remained in Oaks Estate all of their lives. Les Robertson was born either in a temporary dwelling or the early stages of the Robertson house in 1912, and lived in the house for most of his life. Les worked on labouring jobs in and around Canberra -pulling down farm fences to make way for the new suburbs, road construction, clearing blackberry and briar bushes on railway land. Tom was a plumber on the construction of key buildings including the provisional Parliament House, St Andrew’s Cathedral, and the two storey houses at Manuka.

A typical family

The Robertson family has a long association with Oaks Estate. That association has forged links through marriage to other early families of the Canberra and Queanbeyan region. Members of the Robertson family have married members of the Blundell, Bainbridge, Gillespie, Waters, McCauley and Southwell families (all represented in the early days of Oaks Estate).

John Robertson was the son of Duncan and Janet Robertson. Duncan arrived from Scotland in about 1835 and became the superintendent on James McCarthy’s Glenwood property at Ginninderra. John went to school at St John’s schoolhouse. John was first married to Susan Blundell, daughter of Joseph and Susan Blundell of Canberra. After Susan’s death, John married Rebecca Gardiner (formerly Forrester). Some of the younger Robertson/Forrester children went to the Springbank School in 1880.

The Robertson family moved to Irishtown Queanbeyan then, later, to Oaks Estate in 1888. Family members found work on Hazelbrook. The family were living in a house on land at the bottom of George Street till the house was washed away in the 1891 flood. The Robertsons sold that land to the Queanbeyan Wool and Manufacturing Company (owners of the Hazelbrook property) and moved further back from the river, onto a group of three blocks on River Street. Two of John and Rebecca’s sons, Dick and his brother Edward Duncan (Ned) Robertson, remained in Oaks Estate with their families all of their lives. John Robertson died in 1911 and Rebecca died in Sydney in 1934.

Ned Robertson married Elizabeth Jane (Jane) Waters and lived in a house on land in River Street, opposite his parents, from the late 1890s. Jane was the daughter of another Oaks Estate family - Thomas and Mary Waters. Ned and Jane had nine children – several remaining in Oaks Estate, if not for all their lives, then for a good many years. Ned worked as a Shearer and, later, as a Carrier (1914-19). He then became a contractor, clearing land and constructing and patrolling roads in the region, and supplying wood. He supplied wood to the Queanbeyan Roller Flour Mill in Oaks Estate.

There have been six generations of Robertson family living in Oaks Estate; at least three at any one time.


The Robertson family illustrates the story of so many families of the Canberra and Queanbeyan region. The Robertson house is a rare example of a construction era workers’ ‘humpy’, illustrating ‘making-do’ ethic of the federal capital construction era. The Oaks is the first substantial stone dwelling built in the Queanbeyan district. Being at the eastern end of what was then known of the limestone plain it links this part of the Campbell family holdings to Duntroon. The Queanbeyan Railway Station complex marks the extension of the railway to the southern part of the colony. It also illustrates the early development of Queanbeyan as a thriving centre in the region. The examples, presented above, are linked by key roads/track ways, and their location on the junction of the Queanbeyan and Molonglo Rivers. Interweaving the stories of fabric and connection between people, places and events shows how the history of Oaks Estate provides a significant insight into, firstly, a significant landmark of the Aboriginal landscape, secondly, Canberra’s early links to the Queanbeyan district and, finally, Canberra’s transition from an agricultural district to a federal capital.


[1] In 1999 Bert Sheedy, a now-deceased local historian with a long family connection to the land surrounding the junction of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers, told me the story that his father had told him. He told me that Jack Collett (from another old family of the region) had been told the same story by his own family.

the builders heritage - karen williams

The Builders Heritage

On Thursday 27 October 2011 the ACT Heritage Unit conducted a tour of ‘The Robertsons’ House’ (9 Hazel Street, Oaks Estate) for the local community. The Robertsons’ House was the home of Les Robertson and, before him, his parents Richard (Dick) and Mary Robertson. Following Les’s death, some years back now, the house was left to deteriorate until 2010, when the ACT Government allocated money to stabilize the building and write a conservation plan.

Having lived around the corner from the house for many years and gotten to know its occupant, I know the house better as ‘Les’s place’. With hindsight, I cannot help delighting in the irony of the heritage status that The Robertsons’ House has finally achieved (although, like most of surrounding Oaks Estate, it is not yet on the ACT Heritage Register).

I think that much of the irony is encapsulated in the response that people have had to the use of the term ‘humpy’ on the interpretive signage that is now attached to the new paling fence delineating part of the property. The discomfort in the use of the word ‘humpy’ during the tour was obvious. The heritage consultant in his address very strongly qualified his own usage of the term. One of the Robertson descendants present, who had lived for a period in the house, very passionately defended the fond memory of her time there.

After the tour, and because I am regarded as something of an authority on the history of Oaks Estate (my book ‘Oaks Estate – No Man’s Land’ was published in 1997), I was approached to explain the use of the term. The use of the word ‘humpy’, in this instance, was not meant in any way to detract from the status of the Robertsons’ house as a much-loved family home.

The heritage sign uses information from many sources. I referred the composer of the sign to my book (see pages 33 and 39), so I assume that the term 'humpy' was used on the sign because I used it in reference to the style of construction. It was a term used on official documents to describe a house built by the owner without reference to building regulations. My use of the term was not derogatory. I remember when writing my book I discussed the term at length with Ann Gugler, who at the time was writing her series on the builders of Canberra. Ann showed me instances of its usage, examples of which can most likely be found on this website.

The term 'humpy' is indeed a loaded term and is usually associated with very rudimentary dwellings. However, during the period in which the Robertsons’ house was being constructed, and following, the bureaucrats using the term had very strong opinions of appropriate housing for the national capital, and anything 'make-shift/make-do' was lumped into a general category intended to imply temporary and unsuitable. Certainly, Charles Daley, one of Canberra’s senior public servants, viewed the entire of Oaks Estate as an eyesore and (after finding that he couldn't give it back to NSW) did his best to ignore it, in the hope that it would fall down from lack of government maintenance and support infrastructure. An edited version of my article on that topic was published in the Canberra Times, 10 July 1997, in Robert Macklin's column. The following is the full text of my article, which sums up the situation nicely and illustrates my point.

‘Damnosa hereditas’

‘Damnosa hereditas’, loosely translated, means damaging inheritance. Charles Daley, Canberra’s then-Civic Administrator, used the term in 1937 in a letter to the Director-General of Works. He was using the expression to describe Oaks Estate, a place he believed to be an embarrassment to the Territory and one that should never have been partitioned from Queanbeyan. Daley was a well-educated man with very strong aesthetic principles and a firm idea of the Federal Capital plan. As far as he was concerned, Oaks Estate did not fit into either of them.

He had, in fact, tried to have it given back to New South Wales in 1927. When constitutional difficulties prevented this, Daley then looked for alternative methods of ‘elimination of the settlement’. These involved the Commonwealth either leasing the settlement back to New South Wales or acquiring the relevant freehold titles and simply demolishing the buildings. In the mean time, he strongly resisted any development of the area at all, despite continual requests for improvements from the Oaks Estate community. Debate about whether the settlement should be ‘liquidated’ or provision made for its continued, albeit staggered, development was still going on in 1950.

The economic climate of the 1920s to the 1950s placed Daley in a frustrating situation. He saw the growth of industry in Oaks Estate, so near to Queanbeyan railway station, as detrimental to planned development in Canberra. He also saw Oaks Estate housing as below the standard of that being prescribed for the inner city areas and to be treated as temporary. But on the other hand, Canberra was facing an acute housing shortage partly due to insufficient Commonwealth funding.

For many, Oaks Estate was an easy way into the Territory, a way around the long waiting lists for government housing. The land was freehold and therefore free from many of the regulations of leased land in the Territory. Land values having been artificially held at 1908 values also meant that rates were lower. This was at a time when, to be eligible for a government job, a worker had to have an address in the Territory. Almost from the moment the first sod was turned on the provisional Parliament House site, there was a dramatic increase in the turnover of land titles in Oaks Estate. By the early 1930s, and probably the late 1920s, the Federal Capital administration viewed the area as a temporary workers' settlement with most residents being dependent on work in Canberra.

Before the influence of the Territory for the Seat of Government was ever felt, Oaks Estate had been part of Queanbeyan. The area was sliced off, in January 1911, after the boundaries for the Territory were finally agreed upon. In these earlier times the Queanbeyan to Cooma railway line, and the station complex itself, were a major focus for investment and employment. Industry on the Estate had consisted of the Hazelbrook wool works, the Queanbeyan Roller Flour Mill, John Bull's tannery and slaughter yards and the Chinese market gardens.

Many Oaks Estate landholders were Queanbeyan people, involved in the local industry, buying investment property around the station. But there were a good proportion of people from pioneer families of the Canberra, Ginninderra and Yass districts settling on the Estate. A number of these people were teamsters and came to the area in the mid 1890s to be close to the flourmill and the railway yards. George and Mary Gillespie came to Oaks Estate and built their house on land opposite the railway stockyards. George had originally come from the Ginninderra district and was a teamster. His brother-in-law Thomas Bambridge, from the Canberra area, was a carrier on the Nelligen Road and he also lived in the area of the railway yards.

John and Rebecca Robertson [Les Robertson’s grandparents], people long associated with the early Canberra, Queanbeyan and Yass districts, had been living in Oaks Estate since about 1888/89, having moved from Dodsworth, Queanbeyan. Members of the family found work locally at the flourmill and the wool works. By the late 1890s, however, most industry in Oaks Estate had ceased, leaving only the mill and the Chinese market garden in operation.

Once construction of the Federal Capital began, the Robertsons like most families, looked to Canberra for work with Dick Robertson finding employment at the Royal Military College, Duntroon and, later, on government construction projects such as Westlake and Government House. Dick's brother Ned found work constructing the Cotter Road and continued patrolling the Territory's roads with horse and dray.

The arrival of the Federal Territory brought employment opportunities but for tenant farmers living in the proposed inner city areas, it meant that the time they had left on their farms was limited. When it became likely that Canberra would be selected as the site for the Federal Capital, the owners of Duntroon, one of the first properties to be acquired by the Commonwealth, stopped granting leases to their tenant farmers, who became tenants at will. Many had occupied their leases for many years. Until their lands were needed for some purpose the Government did not see a need to disturb these farmers. Arthur William Moriarty, who had lived in Oaks Estate since about 1898, was responsible for many of the valuation surveys of these properties.

By 1913 a large number of the Duntroon tenants were employed by the Commonwealth, many engaged in construction work or in some other capacity. Thomas and Elizabeth Kinlyside had been tenant farmers of Briar Farm, on the Duntroon estate, since the 1880s but had had their lease changed to a month by month basis. They moved to Oaks Estate from Briar Farm, at what is now the site of the Canberra Yacht Club, in late 1913. Thomas Kinlyside, a long-time agitator for the labour movement, wrote under the name ‘Jingler’ and made many contributions to the local press on issues including the location of the Federal Capital.

As the construction of the inner areas of Canberra progressed, most signs of any pre-existing settlement eventually disappeared except for those buildings that could be adapted to fit into the plan for the Federal capital. As the suburbs of Canberra spread, more and more properties were absorbed. In some instances, a suburb or street name is the only indication that there was ever any previous occupation.

The impeded development of Oaks Estate has resulted in an environment that has allowed early layers of occupation to co-exist with modern. Even where properties have been cleared and bare paddocks are all that remain, measurements and further archaeological investigation is still possible.

Contained within Oaks Estate and the area that immediately surrounds it is evidence of Aboriginal camping activity and the remnants of some of the Canberra/Queanbeyan district's earliest European history, dating back to the 1820s. Examples include the site of Timothy Beard's Queenbeeann, the first European settlement of the Queanbeyan district [now the site of the new industrial suburb of Beard]; The Oaks house, believed to have been built around 1837 by Robert Campbell; and The Oaks burial ground, which was Queanbeyan's first cemetery, used during the 1830s and 40s. More recent layers of occupation include the Chinese market gardens, the River Street ford, the Hazelbrook property, on which activity dates back to the 1870s; the Queanbeyan railway bridge and station complex of 1886/87 and houses of various styles dating from the 1880s to the present day.

Charles Daley's damnosa hereditas?

It has been one of life's ironies that Daley's resistance to the development of Oaks Estate should ultimately have contributed to the preservation of much of what he had initially sought to rid himself of. 

The Robertsons’ House, one of those ironies, was less substantial than today. The original house had four rooms and was constructed using bush poles and lined (at least in part) with opened out kerosene tins. I don’t know what the original exterior cladding, was. A shed constructed of bush poles and kerosene tins (to the right of the house, as seen from Hazel Street) was used as a cookhouse, and, I think, laundry). The back part of the house, which became the kitchen, was built over time and lined with tin off-cuts from the construction jobs that Dick Robertson was working on at the time (Old Parliament House, Westlake cottages and such). The weatherboards came from the Duntroon Cottages when they were demolished in the 1930s.

Walking through the house during the heritage tour I remembered the pride I perceived in Les’s face, all of those years ago, as he told me the story of his parents building their home and raising their children in Oaks Estate. I reflected that pride as I answered questions and pointed out the lost know-how of adzing bush poles to build a house frame and the craftsmanship that had gone into folding the edges of kerosene tins and off-cuts of flat iron together, and the old-fashioned riveting techniques used in the construction of the sheets to line the walls and ceilings of the house; all of which has held those pieces together and in place for nearly 100 years. What happens next as the community struggles to find ways to maintain The Robertsons’ House and the character of the surrounding area of Oaks Estate in the face of a growing and changing Canberra will determine how long the house will continue to hold and reflect the heritage of the builders of Canberra.