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The Foundation of Australia’s Capital Cities

29 August 2023

The capital cities of Australia’s states and territories are quite different in character. By taking a uniform approach to seven of these states and territories (Canberra is not included), Anthony Webster’s book provides a valuable, readable, and balanced account of the many reasons underlying those differences. The founding of Australia’s capitals, from Sydney (1788) to Darwin (1869), is more fully documented elsewhere; this book explores their foundations in the sense of what lies underneath and what was there before. 

Webster has assembled evidence from many sources, including notebooks, correspondence, sketch maps, and scientific and amateur descriptions of the landscape, topography, ground conditions, and vegetation. Information for each city is summarised on maps at two scales, reconstructing the landforms, watercourses, and flora, and summarising the bedrock and superficial geology. Early infrastructure is also plotted in relation to whatever grid layout was eventually surveyed and planned for the cities’ ensuing central business districts. The text covering each city details available evidence for pre-settlement cultural activity, site selection (including access to anchorages, water supplies, and building materials, such as timber, brick clay, stone, and lime), together with the general lie of the land, the pattern of early settlement, and the role of the same influences on later expansion. A selection of roughly 10 photographs illustrate key cityscapes and the characteristic building materials for each capital except Darwin. As Webster points out in the concluding chapter, his cartographic compilations should have practical applications, as well as historical and cultural interest, since detailed 3D information of Australian city centres has yet to be centralised.

The book is generally well produced, but the big problem is the illustrations: the only use of colour is the photograph on the front cover, while the maps and photographs are all in greyscale. The maps are so reduced in size that some of the annotations are illegible, with the captions divided between the relevant page and the Appendix. The 58 photographs are assembled on only two pages, reducing each to a thumbnail. It turns out that full colour versions of all maps and photographs, at good resolution, are available as a large pdf file, but only through a well-hidden link on the website of the publishers, who have badly failed this author. The book is recommended, but the ebook version (not seen) may prove to be a better buy than the hardcopy reviewed here.   

Reviewed by David Smith 



BY: Anthony Webster (2022). Lexington Books. 327 pp. (hbk/ebook) 

ISBN: 9781498597951/68 

PRICE: £92/£35 https://rowman.com