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Terry Birtles. Charles Robert Scrivener: The Surveyor Who Sited Australia's National Capital Twice.

Terry Birtles. Charles Robert Scrivener: The Surveyor Who Sited Australia's National Capital Twice.

Arcadia, North Melbourne, 2013. Paperback, xvii + 284pp., ISBN 9781921875588. A$40.

Canberra is celebrating its Centenary, 100 years since Australia's then capital-to-be was officially named. Needless to say the Centenary has generated a spate of historical publications including Terry Birtles' biography of Charles Robert Scrivener. Scrivener, an exceptionally capable field surveyor and mathematician, initially came to public prominence when asked to report on various sites contending to become the national capital. Later, after he moved from the employ of the NSW Lands Department to the Federal Government to become the first Director of Commonwealth Lands and Survey, he was involved in marking out the boundaries of the ACT, city site surveying, planning, and land acquisition. His role also involved Australia-wide responsibilities, one unfulfilled hope of his being to commence a triangulation survey of Australia.

Most Australians have some awareness of Walter Burley Griffin, the Chicago architect whose design won the international competition for Canberra. Scrivener's name has some resonance, courtesy of the dam bearing his name that now holds back Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Between 1904 and 1915 Scrivener's carefully reasoned, tough-minded, and on occasions controversial reports and recommendations came before State and Federal Parliaments and the wider public. It was on a contour map signed by Scrivener that Burley Griffin and the other design competition contestants drew their entries.

Terry Birtles has been writing about Charles Scrivener for many decades, including in The Globe, championing Scrivener's claims to greater recognition. The surveying profession too, is understandably appreciative of their erstwhile colleague, while the Scrivener family ensured that the few personal letters and papers he kept have ended up in national collections. Besides these sources there are numerous Scrivener-generated parliamentary papers, maps, and official files in the National Archives of Australia. The author also has had exceptional access to the records of the NSW Lands Department. Doing so has allowed him to stitch together the fullest account to date of Scrivener's surveying activities prior to his capital site work, some of which were epic in the physical demands placed on him and the technical difficulties he overcame.

The biography also records the personal tragedies that beset Scrivener: most significantly the death of his first wife from typhoid fever, and his second after childbirth, leaving him to care for three surviving children. His third marriage saw another five offspring, the family then often having to cope with his long absences and relocations to distant Deniliquin, Wagga, Hay and then finally Canberra as he pursued his career.

Scrivener's initial contribution to site selection, in 1904, involved assessing the Monaro region of Southern NSW: he particularly favoured Dalgety to the chagrin of his actual employer, the NSW Government, who definitely did not. In fact, Scrivener accentuated State and Federal Government tensions by floating the possibility of a federal territory around Dalgety up to 15 times larger than the figure mentioned in the Australian Constitution. In 1909 he was tasked with assessing sites in the "Yass-Canberra" region. He judged Canberra as the best of the half dozen on offer, although it is clear that he thought Dalgety was still superior, mainly because the Snowy River offered a better water and power supply than the Cotter River did for Canberra.

Besides his careful explanations of the technical considerations affecting the sites, Scrivener argued that the Commonwealth should have within its own territory and under its direct control the catchments of the rivers that flowed through, or provided water to, the national capital. While the eventual Federal-State negotiations resulted in a more compact ACT than the one he initially suggested, the consideration was central to the discussions and accommodated by riparian understandings as well as by boundaries.

Scrivener was central to one of the formative struggles that marked early Canberra, the contention between Walter Burley Griffin and key bureaucrats who developed an alternative city design, the so-called Departmental Plan. They are routinely depicted as knowingly disruptive and malevolent and out to thwart Burley Griffin. Scrivener, more than any other, took the lead in developing this design. In today's Canberra the Burley Griffins are regarded with teary reverence by historians, architects and academics who universally deplore the nefarious bureaucrats and see the Departmental Plan as vulgar compared to Burley's Griffin's architectural elegance. Not so Birtles, who argues the Scrivener-driven design is superior, ascetically, symbolically and in its practicality. The 'Burley Griffin versus the Bureaucracy' dispute ultimately led to the establishment of a Royal Commission enquiry in 1916, an act of political hypocrisy of the first order, and Scrivener being summoned out of retirement to give evidence.

This is a biography for those with an active interest in the history of Australian surveying, national capital site selection, and early Canberra. It adds considerably to what is publicly available about Charles Scrivener's important role in each of those contexts.

I do have some reservations. One quibble is that, as in earlier writings, Birtles refers throughout to Scrivener as "Charley" because "that is what his family and friends called him." His contemporaries and colleagues certainly did not. Doing so implies close familial connection and the absence of objectivity that comes with that and, to my mind, diminishes Scrivener. Also at times speculative claims are made as to what may have happened or been intended that overlook contemporary accounts. As the records reveal, Scrivener was an important, substantive, complex and interesting man, very possibly taciturn and self-effacing, but also ready to chance his arm beyond his field of expertise, as the Departmental Plan and extended territory around Dalgety demonstrate. For the cognoscenti the biography also steps back from some of the author's earlier claims that Scrivener's site selection involvements began pre-1904, claims that regrettably continue to be quoted in other Canberra histories and in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The book brings together a very interesting selection of historical photographs and maps though I was personally disappointed that one of the unpublished "missing maps" that explain how Canberra came into serious contention as the national capital site is wrongly attributed, dated and located, so likely to remain "missing".

Greg Wood

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Author:Wood, Greg
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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