Creating Community

A challenge for those who came to the nation’s capital from 1913 onwards was to build a community as the new city developed. Public Service departments were moved to Canberra, and individuals and families had to adjust to an unfamiliar place without the social structures that had supported them in their home states. Canberra has grown steadily since those periods of expansion in the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1970s, and community organisations and individuals have sought to address areas of need as they have emerged.

One community has always been here – the Indigenous community. For Indigenous people the current geographical boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory have no cultural meaning. The country of Indigenous people in Canberra who belong to the Ngunnawal, Ngarigo, Ngambri, Wiradjuri, and Walgalu groups extends from Yass to Tumut and Brungle and down to the south coast.

Matilda House, 2006 Canberra Citizen of the Year, helped to establish the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 and the Aboriginal Legal Service in the 1980s. In February 2008 Matilda gave the welcome to country that preceded the historic apology to the Stolen Generations by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, entering the Parliament House Members' Hall with a didgeridoo player and her granddaughter, who presented Mr Rudd with a message stick. ‘A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors' spirits who have created the lands,’ Matilda said.

Agnes Shea, Elder of the Ngunnawal people

Agnes Shea, Elder of the Ngunnawal people, 1998. Loui Seselja. National Library of Australia.

Agnes Shea, an elder of the United Ngunnawal Elders’ Council, has contributed to the health and social equity of Aboriginal people, and to the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Aunty Agnes is a familiar figure at official Commonwealth and ACT government events, where she often delivers the traditional Welcome to Country. She was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2004 for her service in improving and developing services to the Indigenous people of the ACT and region.

Adele Mildenhall, known as ‘Jill’, was a pioneer of the Canberra community, arriving in the small settlement of Upper Acton with her husband Jack, and their infant daughter in January 1920. In this ‘City of Dreadful Distances’ residents had to create their own society. Jill’s musical and sporting talents were put to use in organising entertainments and performances. She participated in establishing Child Welfare organisations and was on the YWCA Canberra Branch Board of Directors.

Pattie Tillyard, a botany graduate from Cambridge, also arrived in Canberra in the 1920s and became involved in sporting, community and university associations, and in 1935 was elected to the Canberra Hospital Board. Pattie became known for welcoming newcomers to the city, and was later regarded as the ‘grande dame’ of Canberra. Her four daughters – Patience (Pat Wardle), Faith, Hope (Hewitt) and Honour – were also Canberra identities. Pat Wardle, a librarian, was active in the Girl Guides, and a foundation member of and keen worker for the Canberra & District Historical Society. Hope Hewitt, in addition to her work as a university lecturer, also acted as a hospital volunteer, taught English to new arrivals, and supported several charities.

Pat Wardle

Pat Wardle. Canberra Historical Journal, No. 30, September 1992.

Beatrice Holt and Loma Rudduck were both instrumental in providing services to assist mothers and their growing children. Beatrice Holt was one of the Territory’s first female doctors, and became involved in school and community affairs as her children were growing up. She became President of the Canberra Mothercraft Society in 1935, at a difficult period in its history, and oversaw significant initiatives over her nine-and-a-half years in the office, motivated by her ‘absolute conviction that the giving of health services and assistance to mothers and babies is of primary importance’.

Loma Rudduck, who arrived in Canberra in 1943, was a founder and later President of the Canberra Nursery Kindergarten Society (later Canberra Pre-School Society), and represented it on the National Council of Women. For fourteen years from 1954 Loma presented a ‘Canberra Roundup’ on ABC national radio as part of the women’s session. Jean Mulvaney, who came to Canberra in 1965, began to work for the community soon after she arrived. A founding member of Canberra Lifeline, ACT Girl Guides Commissioner, and president of the Canberra Mothercraft Society for ten years, Jean also served on the National Council of Women until her death in 2004.

The Country Women’s Association has been a presence in Canberra since 1946. Its members knit and cook to raise funds to support people in need, and also provide bootees and beanies for newborn babies in the Canberra Hospital, and knee rugs for patients in the Hospice and nursing homes. Funds from the estate of a CWA member, Salme Koobakene, an Estonian national who migrated to Australia as a refugee from Germany after World War II, and worked in the Menzies Library, ANU, are used to award grants to Year 12 students in the Canberra region who otherwise might not be able to complete their secondary education.

Churches and other religious organisations have played an important part in creating community in Canberra, and providing assistance when families encounter times of crisis. Marymead Child and Family Centre was established in 1967 by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to provide residential care for children from families undergoing temporary crises. Transferred to the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn in 1986, Marymead is now one of the major social service agencies in the ACT, and provides both in home and out of home care to children in need across the region.

Marymead Auxiliary

Marymead Auxiliary, 2012. Marketing Office, Marymead.

The plight of homeless and drug-addicted people in the ACT, particularly during the long cold winter nights, inspired Stasia Dabrowksi to begin serving hot soup and bread, and providing clothes and blankets to those in need from a mobile soup kitchen she began in 1979 in Civic. Her dedication to the needy has been recognised by several awards, including the inaugural ACT Senior Australian of the Year award in 1999.

Portrait of social worker Stasia Dabrowski at the National Library of Australia, 26 July 2004

Portrait of social worker Stasia Dabrowski at the National Library of Australia, 26 July 2004. Loui Seselja. National Library of Australia.

As the ACT community becomes more diverse and complex, and new needs arise, women continue to create community in Canberra. Why not suggest the name of someone you may know whose contribution to creating community in Canberra could be recognised by an entry in the Australian Women’s Register?

Ros Russell

Women's Stories

Read more about women and organisations working for communities in Canberra in the Australian Women's Register.