The Acton Memorial. Photo by Bradley Cummings.

The Acton Memorial. Photo by Bradley Cummings.

Life Sentences: Sunken Canberra

As Canberra grew into its role as Australia's capital, the centrepiece of Walter Burley Griffin's masterplan hid large parts of the city's past, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography's DR MALCOLM ALLBROOK explains.

It is hard to imagine Canberra without its lake, a body of water large enough to reflect the changing weather.

One day reflective, the next stormy and ruffled.

Yet over much of the short life of the city, Walter Burley Griffin's vision of a body of water filling the visual gap between north and south seemed unattainable, as politicians debated its virtues and Canberrans grew accustomed to a life along the banks of the narrow, meandering Molonglo River.

In the suburb of Acton, where ANU now stands, a number of buildings survive from the pre-lake days; Old Canberra House (built 1913), the old Bachelors' Quarters opposite (1912), the Institute of Anatomy (1930s, now the National Film and Sound Archive) and Canberra High School (1939, now the ANU School of Art).

A few weatherboard cottages remain in Liversidge Street and Balmain Crescent, while parts of the old Hotel Acton are now immersed in the NewActon development.

But down on the banks of the Molonglo was 'Lower Acton', where Frank Dunshea lived between 1926 and 1946.

Telling his story to the Canberra historian Ann Gugler, his memories are a vivid reminder of a place that was slowly evolving to house the nation's capital.

Here lived the workers in 15 small weatherboard cottages below Old Canberra House on the way to the now submerged Lennox Crossing.

A suspension bridge over the river joined the two fairways of the Royal Canberra Golf Club and Dunshea recalls that "paddling for and finding golf balls in Springbank Creek was a useful source of pocket money".