MEJ Masthead

Ornamental Waters: The History of LBG

Bec Fleming

For anyone who has moved to Canberra in the years since its construction, it is hard to imagine the city without its centrepiece – Lake Burley Griffin. Though ‘ornamental waters’ were always part of the plan for the city and had been a feature of Walter Burley Griffin’s vision, it took more than forty years for construction to begin.

In the years after 1912, when Griffin’s design was selected, disagreements arose about the form the lake would take. Griffin’s plans were amended and the development languished until the late 1950s when the National Capital Development Commission reinvigorated the project.[2] Sir Robert Menzies was a strong supporter of the lake. At one stage, in recognition of this support, it was even suggested the lake be named after Menzies, “but place naming conventions required the person to be deceased.”[3] Though the finished product ultimately varied considerably from his original vision, the lake was named after Griffin, who had died in 1937.

Many Canberrans still remember a time before Lake Burley Griffin. Jennifer Hollis was about eleven years old when the lake was being constructed. She remembers riding her bike with a friend to the area now known as Apsen island, where she planned to have a picnic.

We had bought along some bread and sausages to cook on a fire for lunch. We looked for somewhere to make a small cooking fire, but there was a lot of excavation work going on, so it was quite difficult to find a suitable site. Eventually, we settled on a rather large mound of dirt, which later I realised was the beginning of Aspen Island where the National Carillon now stands. Satisfied that we had found the best site, we busily gathered sticks and leaves to make a fire. We had such a lovely day, one that I will never forget. Much later I realised our firewood collection had cleared the Aspen Island construction area of all their survey pegs.

The other thing that stands out in Jennifer’s memory is the anticipation of waiting for the lake to come to fruition.

I remember a particular day when my family was driving south over the old Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, an old and rickety timber bridge, when the conversation turned to the Lake which was soon to be constructed. My sister and I were sitting in the back of the car gazing out at the then peaceful rural scene trying to imagine what it would be like when the Lake was completed. We imagined romantic scenes with young couples in rowing boats and brightly coloured sailing boats. It was very exciting waiting for the Lake to fill. It seemed to take forever. I never did get to row in a boat or sail in a colourful yacht on the Lake.

Jennifer and her family were not alone in the sense of anticipation, but not all views were as romantic as hers. Once the project was underway the lake attracted concerns that it might “breed mosquitos, produce thick fog, degenerate into mud flats, grow weeds and discolour with silt.”

Others were worried about the cost, suggesting that it was inappropriate to spend the money on the construction of the lake when other parts of Australia still lacked essential services. Some simply thought the name was ‘a mouthful’, in a letter to the editor of the Canberra Times in July 1963, ‘NOMEN’ of Canberra city suggested that the lake might be abbreviated to ‘Lake Bee-Gee’. History suggests the nickname didn’t catch on

Others lamented the loss of the recreational activities that had formed around the river flats. As Canberra developed in the years before the lake, the river flats around Acton had become a hive of activity: they included a racetrack, sports fields, a riding school, a swimming hole and two golf courses. As the water began to fill the lake, the Royal Canberra golf course club historian recorded its rise, “covering fairway by fairway, green by green, until only the higher parts of the course remained.”

The story of the golf course, and many other stories and photographs about Old Acton are posted on the fabulous website Sunken Stories which is a treasure trove of history about life before the lake, with an amazing photographic and oral history collection.

In September 1960, work began on the construction of Scrivener Dam which would fill the lake with waters from the Molonglo, it was completed three years later. From that moment, it took roughly a year for the lake to fill. Finally, in October 1964, then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies officially inaugurated the lake. Footage of the event, which included a fireworks display over the lake that night, can be viewed on the British Pathe Youtube channel.

Another well recognised feature of the lake, the Captain Cook Memorial Jet and Globe was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1970 to commemorate the bicentenary of the landing of Captain Cook on the east coast of Australia.There are a number of other memorials and features around the lake worth exploring. The National Capital Authority have put together a great self-guided walking tour to help visitors learn more about the lake and its surrounds. A great idea for entertaining guests from out of town on a sunny day.

Fifty years after its inauguration the lake remains a central part of life in Canberra. The yachts Jennifer envisioned are a welcome sight each spring, marking the end of winter. Cycling and walking around the lake is a much loved past time. Kingston Foreshore is developing as a trendy lakeside dining venue and there has even been a proposal for the construction of a beach. The future of the lake looks to be as interesting as its history.

Images courtesy of Visit Canberra.

Bec Fleming

Bec Fleming moved to Canberra in 2010 to join a graduate program and, after surviving the first winter, fell in love with the city. She loves Canberra for its museums, galleries, festivals, interesting food and lovely people. She has always loved listening to other people’s stories so it is no surprise that she works as an historian during the day. She aspires to one day have the discipline to read one book at a time. You can follow Bec on Twitter @becincanberra More about the Author

  • Roslyn Hull

    Lovely article Bec, LBG is very close to my heart. There is another great little film on Youtube: and if anyone would like to watch in full on a TV we have it on at the National Capital Exhibition at Regatta Point. We even have a small temporary exhibition on the history of the lake.