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Canberra’s Tiny Timeline

Roslyn Hull

Blundells Cottage sits within the National Triangle at the heart of the Griffins’ design for Australia’s capital city. So why is it still here and why should we care? 

On this date, exactly 150 years ago, at Blundells Cottage … nothing happened.

Nothing happened that affected the march towards Federation. Henry Parkes wouldn’t find his voice for another 22 years. No gold was found. No telegraph was constructed. Although the district did have its first Post Office, courtesy of a local teacher, we were seven years away from the first local shop and Ned Kelly was still in short pants.

The Blundells hadn’t even moved into the cottage now named for them.

However, in that cottage, I am sure plenty happened. Walter Ginn would have been kept busy in the paddocks of Duntroon. William might have chopped firewood or worked with his father. Henry and Agnes would have gone to school after doing their usual farm chores and baby Gertrude would certainly have gotten under the feet of their busy mother, Mary.

Which is exactly why this rudimentary workers cottage is so important in the story of our national capital.

History is not just made up of the great events, the landmark decisions and the march of progress. It is made up of millions and millions of ordinary lives, not noted down in textbooks.

Think about the unknown for a moment – a zero gravity environment or a remote island, for instance. If we met the occupants for the first time, would we be more likely to ask how their civilisation developed … or what exactly they were eating for lunch? Would we want a lengthy tome on industrial progress or would we want to know how they made their clothes and what they did for fun?

Inside Blundells Cottage

Inside Blundells Cottage

We would be curious about their every day – and our past is the same. It is a remote environment we cannot visit but we can discover more about by looking at those humble lives. Paid work, women’s work, children’s play, food and the necessities of life can tell us what was important to these people and how they coped in the same physical place as we are now.

Blundells Cottage was home to many families in the more than 100 years it was a domestic dwelling. After the Ginns came the Blundells, living there from 1874 until the last family member moved out in 1933. Then Harry and Alice Oldfield moved in. When Harry died, in 1942, Alice started taking in boarders (public servants, builders and others needed for the nascent city) and their families until her death in 1958. That wasn’t the end of tenancy though, with the Sainsbury family remaining until 1960 and the newly wedded Smiths moving in for a short while after that. There was no running water, no sewerage, no electricity right throughout those 100 years – seems impossible in the middle of our modern city, doesn’t it? No wonder the National Capital Development Commission proposed knocking it down rather than having it clutter Kings Park.

That they didn’t and that it survived the rest of the 20th century was due to community support. The cottage was made over into what volunteers hoped looked like a typical ‘pioneer’ dwelling. But it was never a cottage on the edge of civilisation; it was a home for workers. People with real lives, lives that did not include lace and silk and fine china. Lives that raised chooks, grew produce and made do with whatever was to hand – or swapped and shared with other families doing the same.

That was their story but it is ours too.

Blundells Cottage reminds us, in a mad era of fake news and hyperbolic faction, that the everyday counts. What we do and who we really are matters, even if we just drive a bullock team or herd sheep.

Blundells Cottage is open to the public every Saturday 10am – 2pm. Entry is free. Group and school bookings are available on other days through www.nca.gov.au

 Roslyn Hull is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the National Capital Authority, which manages Blundells Cottage.

Images: Supplied

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Ros Hull

Roslyn is a writer and storyteller who loves all things Canberra, her family, sci fi and movies – but not in that order. She has worked in museum education since 2001 and has a passion for imparting knowledge to others. Writing is her happy place, particularly if there is a dog at her feet and a coffee in her hand.

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