This site is dedicated to the life and work of Edwin Hubert Henderson, architect (1885-1939). Henderson was Chief Architect of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1929-1939.
Henderson loved to play golf – and his passion extended to helping extend and design the club house of the Royal Canberra Golf Club – which now lies beneath the waves of Lake Burley Griffin. A month before he died, when we know he was in the grip of depression, a close golfing friend left Canberra. What impact did this have?
Early Golf in Canberra
The foundation stone for Canberra was laid in 1913. In the same year, golfing enthusiasts established a nine-hole course nearly the city centre. By 1926, the Federal Capital Commission (FCC) constructed a new golf course at Acton. The new course lay on river flats next to the Molonglo River. The first tee and the last green of the nine hole course were just two minutes’ walk from the Hotel Canberra.
Undoubtedly this was a picturesque setting but it was very prone to flooding. Indeed the official opening had to be postponed due to rain. Holes had to be relocated because of a flood in June 1925. The course had holes on either side of the river, which could be reached by a suspension bridge. However, this did have a upside for local golfers –
with the river as a constant threat to wayward shots, soon earned a reputation as a superb and challenging test of golf.
In the typical fashion of pre-war Canberra, sheep were later introduced to graze on the grass and control the rough, reducing the cost of maintenance.
On 19 July 1926, the Canberra Golf Club was formed in a meeting at the Hotel Canberra. A number of people with whom Henderson worked were closely involved. Harry Rolland was elected chair – he was the Works director for the FCC. Colonel Owen, Rolland and Henderson’s boss, was Director-General of Works and a club committee member.
The facilities were rudimentary when the Club opened. The Kaye family had constructed a new slab home in the early 1890s with a brick fireplace and chimney. This house was renovated by the FCT for use by the Club in 1926, being “somewhat austere” – indeed, members waited two years for an electric light to be installed in 1928. A shower and wash facilities were added in 1928. The building was too small for meetings (which were held at the Hotel Canberra or Albert Hall).
Henderson and the Club
Henderson was an active member of the club. He played every Sunday for 10 years with a group known as “the big four” which included, R.R. Gibson, C. Thompson and N.Parbery.
Henderson helped design extensions to the Club House (see below). He also designed the Canberra Cup which was one of the highest awards the Club could offer. The Cup had 55 ounces of silver, and was engraved with a Crown, the Club having obtained the Royal Privilege in 1933, with the support of the Prime Minister.
Henderson and the Club House
With membership growing, the Club approached the FCT for support to lease the course and build a proper clubhouse. In 1930 extensions were made. A new building similar to Kaye’s cottage was constructed with a similar gabled roof and exposed chimney. A new main entrance and vestibule was constructed linking the new building with the original cottage.
The first AGM was held in the clubhouse on 25 August 1930. The improvements allowed for a liquor licence, which brought in revenue greater than membership fees. (previously the Club, like the rest of the Territory, had been ‘dry’, with members enjoying a strong cup of tea after a game).
The committee wanted more. “The present structure is small, old and unsightly compared with the general scheme of buildings in the Federal Capital Territory. It was formerly a homestead of a sheep run, and had fallen into decay.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1932, page 4).
In 1932, they approached the government for further improvements and succeeded in securing a loan at a favourable interest rate.
In 1933, Henderson designed the building of a further extension which incorporated the existing buildings, at a cost of £2,200. With these extensions, the club house would contain drawing rooms for members and associates (i.e. female members), a dining room and a “well appointed bar”, as well as “many other conveniences”. The Canberra Times reported that “Mr Henderson has been widely congratulated on the success of his design” (24 January 1933).
His 1933 perspective drawing (below) shows how he sought to integrate the various elements, and provide them with a measure of symmetry.
The new clubhouse was officially opened on 19 February 1933 by the Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, who was reported to remark that:
“the new clubhouse was artistic, commodious and solid, and upon its completion he congratulated the architect, the builders, the club and the city it embellished. In the sincere hope that the new premises would further promote competition with other clubs, and would assist the club in many further prosperous seasons, he had much pleasure in declaring the Clubhouse open”. (SMH, 20 February 1933)
Harry (later Sir Harry) Sheehen, Club President (and Secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury) paid tribute to Henderson in his remarks saying that Henderson:
“Mr Henderson’s work in connection with the club house was a labour of love. He had put as much work into producing the club premises as he had in planning that imposing £500,000 bank building in Sydney, which was a monument to his ability” (Canberra Times, 20 February 1933, page 2)
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the event and noted :
“The new premises, with which certain portions of the old club house have been incorporated, are of artistic design, and comprise spacious and conveniently arranged rooms for the use of club members and associates, and are claimed to be the equal of any club house in New South Wales outside the metropolitan area.”. (20 February 1933, page 10)
This next extension was well received by members. “Social evenings became a regular feature of club life. The singsongs which were held in the small bar at the conclusion of club socials brought to light many a well primed artist” (pp8-9).
This enabled the club to add a billiard table with billiard and snooker tournaments becoming part of the social calendar. Henderson played there on a Wednesday night (Canberra Times, 28 August 1935, page 3).
Golf and Henderson’s last days
As membership reached 500 in 1938, the Club again faced the need for expansion. In 1939, a special general meeting on 28 March gave the Committee the approval to proceed with the construction of a new clubhouse on a nearby site. Prime Minister Lyons presided over the meeting as Club President (he was a late but fervent convert to golfing). “Mr E.H.Henderson generously undertook to prepare sketch plans for the new club house”. This was even as this workload was growing.
Henderson prepared preliminary plans and a rendering of the new club house. A copy of this rendering only recently emerged at the Royal Canberra Golf Club, when a member was cleaning out his father’s garage.
On Sunday 7 May 1939, Gibson played his last round as part of the big four due to being transferred to Sydney. The event was reported in the Canberra Times. An impromptu ceremony was held to farewell Gibson, just as glasses had been filled for 100 members gathered in the bar, the drinks being on Gibson. He thus “had the distinction of being toasted with his own ‘shout’”.
That this happened only a few weeks before Henderson’s death must surely be significant. We know that the weight of his work and the Royal Commission was weighing on this mind. The breakup of this group, so central to his social life for a decade could have been a contributing factor to his state of mind in this crucial period.
The design featured art deco style rounded bays at the front with metal windows. The pitched roof pays homage to the original Kaye Cottage. There were separate entrances for men and women coming in from the course.
Alas Henderson would not see these plans realised. His death intervened. Final drawings were prepared by Canberra architect, K H Oliphant. Members endorsed the plans and plans were made to raise the funding. However with the outbreak of the war, the plans were shelved.
In 1948, further extensions to the existing structure (a new lounge and veranda) were added. This was the final form of the club until it moved.
On 31 October 1962, the last competition on the old course was played. Preparations were then made for the new lake, including removing the trees lining the fairways and smoothing the ground.
Henderson’s clubhouse and the whole course disappeared under water.
This article draws heavily on “The Royal Canberra Golf Club: The First 75 Years” (2001) Royal Canberra Golf Club.
My thanks to Sue Montgomery of the Royal Canberra Golf Club for her time and generous support for my research.