Filming the naming of
the Federal Capital of Australia, Canberra

On the morning of Wednesday, 12 March 1913 a ceremony took place that is considered to be the starting point for the city of Canberra, Australia's Federal capital: three foundation stones of the Commencement Column, the first public construction on the site, were laid; and Lady Denman, the wife of the Governor-General, announced the officially-chosen name of the city-to-be.

The standard film of these events is Naming the Federal Capital of Australia, March 12th, 1913: The Ceremony, title number 9382 in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. This film was made by Raymond Longford and cinematographer Ernest Henry Higgins, and probably another cameraman (if not Longford himself), possibly Ernest Higgins' brother, Arthur Embery Higgins, for Spencer's Pictures Ltd and to the order of the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs.

The intertitles given to the scenes in the film are (with my numbering):

  1. The Hon. A. Fisher and Colonel Miller
  2. A group of Federal Ministers. Senators Howe, West, Finlayson and King O'Malley
  3. Senator Pearce (Minister for Defence) and General Bridges
  4. The Hon. W. Hughes Federal Attorney General
  5. Arrival of Her Excellency Lady Denman
  6. Arrival of the Governor General (Lord Denman) and suite
  7. The Field Battery firing the Royal salute
  8. His Excellency Lord Denman laying the foundation stone
  9. The Prime Minister (the Hon. A. Fisher) laying the second stone
  10. The Hon. King O'Malley laying the third stone
  11. Lady Denman naming the Capital "Canberra"
  12. Lord Denman and the Hon. A. Fisher proceeding to the saluting base
  13. The march past; Lord Denman at the saluting base
  14. The telegraphists at work sendning [sic] the news to Sydney; 200 words a minute; a record
  15. Panoramic view of site from Mt. Pleasant

The announcement of the name of the city was made by Lady Denman while standing on a platform that was put on top of the base of the Commencement Column after the foundation stones had been "well and truly laid". With Lady Denman on this platform were her husband, the Governor-General, Lord Denman; the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher; and the Minister for Home Affairs, King O'Malley. As per the ceremony programme,1 and according to both the official book2 that recorded the event and contemporary newspaper reports, after Lady Denman declared the name there was cheering from the onlookers and a 21-gun salute by cannon, followed by the bands playing Advance Australia and God Save the King; and after this the Prime Minister called for three cheers for Lady Denman. The book says: "The enthusiasm evoked by the announcement made by Lady Denman was long sustained, ...".

What is shown in the relevant scene in the film, number 11 in the list above? The four persons on the platform are facing away from the grandstand; after about a second they all turn around to face the stand, and Prime Minister Fisher then calls for three cheers, as evidenced by three rounds of hats being waved. Obviously, the cheering of the crowd and the salute and most of the bands' playing have already occurred before the scene begins.

So despite the title of the film and the intertitle, the scene starts minutes after Lady Denman had made her announcement. The uttering of the few words by her - "I name the capital of Australia 'Canberra'"3 - is not in the film. And there are obvious give-aways:


Whether the relevant section of film was long ago "souvenired", or whether the cameraman did not start filming in time, or there was a problem with the film or its processing is not known. The programme for the day has the item "Photographs and Cinematographic pictures will be taken for historical record purposes." following the item for the bands' playing: did the photographers and cinematographers take this literally to mean that they were to wait before they started shooting?!

The still photograph image5 below was shot from a viewpoint close to that from where scene 11 was filmed, and shows those on the column base not long before the commencement of the scene in the film. (Note Lord Denman and the two guards saluting.) The inscription on the mount of the original photograph is: "Commencement Ceremony, 12th March, 1963 [sic] The National Anthem, after the Federal City has been named".

Playing the National Anthem at the Canberra naming ceremony, 12 March 1913

Playing the National Anthem at the Canberra naming ceremony, 12 March 1913.
Those on the base of the Commencement Column are, from left to right:
the Governor-General, Lord Denman; the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher; Lady Denman; and the Minister for Home Affairs, King O'Malley.
(Photograph by William J. Mildenhall)

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, for the centenary of these events, has produced a digital version of the original film, which is accessible online. This is a superb copy and has been painstakingly restored and dust-busted, and looks as good as new.

(The australianscreen Web site has a clip of scene 11 (with particularly facile comments) which has been thoughtlessly and needlessly cropped.)

Several of the still photographs of the event, as well as Spencer's film, show cameramen at work. In the image below, three still photographers with cameras can be seen and, on a tripod, a cinecamera, though the cinematographer is mostly hidden. The photograph was taken at the time Lord Denman was laying the first foundation stone, and because the cinecamera is in a position that appears to have the field of view seen in the film, it is almost certainly that of a Spencer's Pictures operator.

Close-up from the scene when Lord Denman was laying the first foundation stone

Close-up from the scene when Lord Denman was laying the first foundation stone

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Possibly Arthur Higgins at the Canberra naming ceremony

Possibly Arthur Higgins at the Canberra naming ceremony
(Detail from photograph by Frank H. Boland)

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
Enlargement kindly provided by Brian Dunne

Some of the scenes (5, 6, and 7) in the Spencer's film were shot from the west end of the grandstand, which is where the cinecamera in the image6 on the left is positioned; other scenes were taken on the ground, as in the image above.

Arthur Embery Higgins Despite the lack of detail in the larger image, the face of the man behind the camera bears a strong resemblance to that of Arthur Embery Higgins, Ernest Higgins' younger brother, shown in the photo immediately to the left.

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

James Pinkerton Campbell filming at the Canberra naming ceremony

James P. Campbell filming at the Canberra naming ceremony
(Detail from photograph by Frank H. Boland)

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
Enlargement kindly provided by Brian Dunne

Another cinecameraman shooting at the ceremony was the official Commonwealth Government cinematographer, James Pinkerton Campbell.7 (He was employed by the advertising branch of the Department of External Affairs, who sent him from Melbourne without knowing that the Department of Home Affairs had engaged Spencer's to film the ceremony.) Campbell was also given a prime position on the grandstand, at the east end. What became of his film is not known; he gave some of it to Pathé Frères, and this was probably used in one of their gazettes.

Campbell appears in a still photograph8 of the ceremony - see the image on the right. And he can also be seen cranking his camera in the background of scenes 6, 7, and 11 of the Spencer's Pictures film.

Were there any more cinematographers at the ceremony? The Yass Courier newspaper states that "[t]here were three dozen cameras, including biographs, continually in use throughout the proceedings", so possibly there were. The Department of Home Affairs originally wanted Pathé Frères to do the filming, but Spencer's offered a far better deal and so were chosen. As Pathé showed the ceremony in one of their Australian Gazettes, they may have had their cameraman there anyway, or they may have used some of Campbell's film as mentioned above.

Exhibitions of the films

A film of the ceremony was planned to be shown at the Jubilee Theatre in North Carlton, Melbourne on 13 March, but the copy was erroneously sent to Sydney instead of Melbourne. It is not known whose film this was.

The Spencer's film was shown publicly for the first time on Wednesday, 19 March at Spencer's Lyceum theatre in Sydney. Advertisements named the scenes in the film as:
Getting to the site; Distinguished Guests; Federal Ministers; Arrival of Vice-Regal Party; Laying the Foundation-stones; Naming the Capital; Telegraphists at Work; Military Review; Panorama of the District.
This suggests that the film shown had the scenes in a slightly different order from that in the existing film (see list above). The film was only run for a week, finishing at that theatre on Wednesday, 26 March. The Sydney Morning Herald remarked of the 22 March showing:

One fault in the screening, however, caused everyone to move too fast. The impression was conveyed that after the ceremony the Governor-General, Lady Denman, Mr. Fisher, and Mr. O'Malley were seeking shelter from a shower of rain.
(This was almost certainly the projectionist's fault.)

J. D. Williams' Crystal Palace theatre in Sydney also showed the Spencer's film, but only on 20 and 22 March.

Melbourne got to see a film on 31 March at the Majestic Theatre, which was managed by Amalgamated Pictures Ltd; later it was mostly only shown at matinees. Presumably this was Spencer's film, but Pathé's Australian News [Gazette] was also on the bill, so possibly the film of the naming ceremony was from Pathé. Other Melbourne cinemas showed a film of the ceremony early in April.

As part of the Government's campaign for a coming election, Senator Allen McDougall (of New South Wales) presented films and photographs taken by James P. Campbell while on a tour of the Northern Territory in April and May 1912. Campbell's Canberra film was also shown at these exhibitions.

The Swastika Electric Picture Company showed Spencer's film at the Protestant Hall, Queanbeyan, New South Wales on 7 April 1913, claiming they were the first to show it "outside the metropolis". Pathé's version (in their Gazette) was shown at Queanbeyan's Triumph Pictures the following night, possibly also with Spencer's.

During April and May 1913, the Spencer's film or the Pathé film was shown at cinemas around the country.


[1] National Archives of Australia: M4071, 44:
Sheaffe Papers. Laying the Foundation Stones of the Commencement Column at the Federal Capital City. Programme. 12th March 1913.

[2] Canberra: Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia. Laying the Foundation Stones of the Commencement Column and Naming the Federal City. 12th March, 1913.; A. J. Mullet, Government Printer, Victoria, [1913].

[3] Lady Denman's exact words are not certain. Some reports state that she said: "I name the capital city of Australia 'Canberra'".

[4] There are also photographs of her facing away from the stand that are titled "Lady Denman naming the Capital" or similar. But, as with the film, these were likely all that were available that looked like Lady Denman actually making her declaration.

[5] Details at

[6] Details at

[7] Campbell's efforts at the naming ceremony were the subject of criticism, and together with supposed unsatisfactory work on other occasions were used as the excuse for his dismissal in April 1913. His supervisor, David B. Edward, wrote: "Part of the Canberra film is good, some of it is poor, and a great deal of it is useless." Campbell refuted this, though too late to save his job.

Campbell's problems at the inauguration ceremony were not, from his account, really his fault. He was sent on short notice, without accommodation previously arranged; there was no or little introduction organised to those running the ceremony, and they resented the appearance of a latecomer; and he was expected to take both still photographs and motion pictures on his own.

[8] Details at

Copyright © 2012 - 2014 Tony Martin-Jones Film history index Edition 2.4  (2014-09-24)