Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Starting from Scratch

Today is Australia Day and I’ve been pondering the idea of building a nation, starting from scratch. 

On 26 January 1788 the built environment did not exist anywhere in the vast continent on Australia, save for the flimsy shelters of the Aborigines. It’s a stunning thought … every structure we see around us today has been built in the last 228 years, with us able to pinpoint the exact day when Australia’s gigantic construction project got underway. It stirs my imagination because my forebears were here at the start.
Aborigines, Julia Woodhouse
The building of Australia began with not-so-simple tasks – the felling of the trees around Sydney Cove was the first indication of the unexpected challenges facing the incoming settlers, whose axes were no match for Australian hardwood. Their tent encampment slowly gave way to bark huts and brick buildings. 
Sydney Cove, 1788, State Library of NSW Collection
Soon they faced the destruction wrought by Australia’s geographic exposure to the El Nino/La Nina climate phenomena. Aborigines knew about our droughts and floods and European settlers quickly encountered them too. Sydney suffered severe drought conditions in 1789. In 1794 the fledgling Hawkesbury settlement and food bowl experienced the first of the numerous floods which swept down that river over the next 25 years, taking houses and crops with them. Bushfires raged too. It all comes into sharp focus in 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', an archetypal tale of the little Aussie battler coping with the harsh realities of farming life in this country. 

As well as building farms to produce food, schools and churches were needed, and Robert’s friend Paul Bushell, a tough survivor among the Second Fleet convicts, stepped in to help. He played his part in the establishment of two schools and two churches at the Hawkesbury. Both churches survive, with Ebenezer Church the oldest continuously-functioning church in Australia. 
Ebenezer Church & Schoolhouse
The arrival of convict architect Francis Greenway in 1814 saw the flowering of architectural gems in Sydney and surrounds. Greenway's masterpiece was St James Church in King Street, Sydney, where my grandparents were married in 1916. The historian Dan Cruickshank selected this church as one of his 80 man-made treasures defining the civilizations of the world. 
St James, Sydney
Another of Greenway’s churches, the famous St Matthew’s Church at Windsor, fell prey to the type of building scam which dogs our construction sites to this day. Charles Homer Martin and others were punished for filching building materials from the site, the story told in my book ‘Southwark Luck’. Charley later redeemed himself as a sawyer in the bush, producing timber to feed the housing boom of colonial Australia. 
St Matthew's, Windsor NSW
To preserve the evidence of our convict era, which ended in 1868 with the last convicts arriving in Western Australia, the convict sites at Port Arthur in Tasmania were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2010. 
Port Arthur, 1843, State Library of NSW Collection
Within 100 years of the First Fleet's arrival the impressive city of Melbourne emerged from the wealth created by the frenzy of Victoria’s 1850s gold rush. The first European settlers had only arrived on the site of Melbourne in 1835 yet by 1888, when it hosted the Centennial International Exhibition, it was one of the great and stylish cities of the world with an international reputation as ‘marvellous Melbourne’.
Melbourne in 1888, from Fitzroy Gardens, State Libary of Victoria
The ambitious Federal Capital Design Competition was launched in 1911, famously won in 1912 by Walter Burley Griffin and the panoramic inland city of Canberra gradually came into being, with stunning vistas everywhere you look. Even the trees have been planted with an eye to design. 
Walter Burley Griffin's Plan for Canberra
There’ve been some grand building projects in Sydney too. The Sydney Harbour Bridge which opened in 1932 has worldwide recognition and I'm proud that my great uncle Spenser Dennis was a designing engineer. (There's a chapter about him in 'From Buryan to Bondi'.)
Sydney Harbour Bridge under Construction, c 1930, State Library of NSW Collection
Even more iconic and spectacular is the Sydney Opera House, officially opened in 1973 and now on UNESCO's World Heritage List. 
Sydney Opera House, 2015
Throughout, Australia has been lucky. We’ve had our share of drought, flood, fire and storm damage but we’ve not suffered the widespread destruction of seismic activity or war. The Japanese bombing raids over Darwin and Broome and a minor attack on Sydney by Japanese midget submarines in WW2 do not compare with the horrendous artillery battles fought by our soldiers (including my Boulton great uncles) on the Western Front in France and Belgium in WW1. We've never suffered the Blitz, like the Londoners in WW2, bombing lives, structures and cultural treasures out of existence.
Pozières Village, c 1914
Pozières Village, 1916
In keeping with the grand scale of our country, we’ve created big things, including the world’s leading long-distance airline, Qantas which began humbly in 1920. The dams and tunnels of the transformational Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme were constructed after WW2 using the labour of another influx of migrants, this time voluntary and mostly refugees from Europe. By contrast, the massive mining sites, railway lines and bulk handling ports in Queensland and Western Australia now depend largely on ‘fly in, fly out’ workers. 

We boast several of the great train journeys of the world, the ‘Indian Pacific’ connecting Sydney and Perth (4,352km), ‘The Ghan’, connecting Adelaide and Darwin (2,979km) and the Spirit of Queensland, connecting Brisbane and Cairns (1,681km). Making endless changes then, because of the different railway gauges in each state, my adventurous grandmother travelled by train from Sydney to Perth when it first became possible in 1917, before the new rails across the Nullarbor had bedded down.
Indian Pacific Route
As I think about my forebear on the First Fleet, it gives me a thrill to compare then and now, to see what we’ve all created.
Sydney Cove from Kirribilli, 2015