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Dreaming of marvellous halls

Lenore Coltheart

If town halls in Australia are the capillaries of our democratic vitality, then Canberra’s Albert Hall is the heart. Lenore Coltheart’s history Albert Hall: The heart of Canberra tracks its pulse from the 1920s to today.

The 1920s were still roaring when Canberra became Australia’s national capital and, if you know the right places, you can feel those first passions of the new city still. In March 1928,  prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce declared open the city’s ‘town hall’ – though as the national capital it could not really have one. Standing close by the brand new Parliament House, it was named Albert Hall, a place ‘destined to be the centre for culture and learning and the embodiment of the great national ideal’.

That splendid opening day was the city’s first civic celebration. Schoolchildren thronged the afternoon bazaar, among them Gough and Freda Whitlam, the  twin daughters of the city’s first realtor and all the toddlers transferred with their public servant families. In the evening, Sydney Conservatorium artists performed Puccini at a grand concert featuring items from the new opera Turandot.  Within a decade, Australia’s brand new Broadcasting Commission had begun a magnificent half-century of regional concert tours in which the Albert Hall was a keynote.

As in every twentieth-century town, Canberra’s success depended on its people, but as a planned city practically everyone was a transplant.  And not everyone was ready to be shaped to approved forms. You could see it at the Albert Hall, where the official attempt to outlaw jazz and alcohol and quiet the remnant roar of the 1920s instead stimulated subversive creativity, making gods of jazz musos as well as turning the Albert Hall’s surrounding shrubbery into shadowy, al fresco speakeasys.

While the ‘quiet tip’ of the public service town made conformists of more than a few, the exceptions were all the more colourful. At the Albert Hall a repertory society offered a stage for elegant flappers, secret passions and lashings of light fare like The Unfair Sex and The Naughty Wife. Even more controversial, prompting Sunday sermons and weeks of letters to the editor, were more challenging contemporary works like feminist playwright Clemence Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement.

The ‘New Woman’ of the interwar era was much in evidence at the Albert Hall, where an exhibition of women’s work included not only a modern infant health clinic complete with real baby, but the model clubroom considered essential to women’s participation in public life.  

Town halls in Australia are symbolic of such civic, cultural and community vigour, the very capillaries of the democratic vitality that shows the health of a nation. Along with the schools of arts and mechanics institutes, town halls nourished us to nationhood, with thousands of meetings and fêtes and fora all feeding into the 1901 ceremonies of nationhood attained.

That vitality glowed in creating the nation’s capital city too – a city that would be both  mirror of the nation and inspiration to the world, with the ideals of civic democracy enshrined in its form and its daily life.

It’s not nostalgia that makes this vivacity so appealing to us. Like Canberra itself, in Albert Hall are secreted the ideals of a vigorous civic democracy enlivened every day in the exchanges between people. So how’s your town hall? Can you still call a town meeting there? Can local musicians put on a concert? Can community groups hold a fundraiser ball?

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Albert Hall: The heart of Canberra by Lenore Coltheart is published by UNSW Press/NewSouth in December 2014. This is an edited excerpt from a speech by Dr Coltheart.