Canberra Citizen of the Year


Rotary Clubs of Canberra (first charter 1928)

Rotary Conference at the Albert Hall, Canberra 1929 

Rotary Conference, Albert Hall, Canberra, March 1929

SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 003696

Rotary was introduced to Australia in 1921 by two Canadian Rotarians, James W Davidson and J Layton Ralston. By 1928, when the first Canberra club was chartered, there were 17 Australian clubs. In 2010 there were 17 clubs in Canberra alone.

The first meeting of Rotarians in Canberra, on 20 June 1925, included a masterly exercise in logistics. The Rotary Club of Sydney decided to investigate the new federal capital site – was it a wasteland or did it flow with milk and honey? In pouring rain, twenty Rotarians boarded the special carriage added to the Cooma mail train, detrained the next morning and drove to the Hostel. After a soggy day of sightseeing an after-dinner meeting was addressed by John Butters, chairman of the Federal Capital Commission and an ex-Rotarian from Hobart. He assured the visitors that their initial impression of Canberra as a “great city of promise” was indeed true, and that Rotary would play a part in its development.

It was still raining next morning when the party attended church at St John’s; as the only members of the congregation were Rotarians the rector forsook the sermon for a history of the church and the surrounding settlement. By now the roads were flooded and driving to Goulburn to catch the Sydney train was out of the question. Resourceful Rotarians arranged a special train from Goulburn to Canberra and back, and all arrived home on time on Monday morning. The account in the Pinion, the club’s newsletter, concludes: “It is good to feel that our visit is thus the historic origin of Rotary’s place in the civic life of the Capital City of the Commonwealth.”

The Rotary Club of Canberra began with great enthusiasm but little knowledge of the meaning of Rotary, John Butters and another early member, Rev John Walker, being the only members with previous experience. Neither took office. Sir Robert Garran was the first president, with vice-president Frank Green (Clerk Assistant to the House of Representatives), secretary Fred Somerville (Royal Insurance) and treasurer Gwilym Thomas ‘Digger’ Evans (accountant). The Sydney club acted as mentor.

Although the first meeting of the provisional Canberra club took place on 22 February 1928, the formal charter was not signed until 16 June and not received until 25 August. It was presented at a dinner at the Hotel Canberra, to which wives and relatives were invited. Except for this charter meeting, women were not admitted to a club until 1991.

Rotary is an international network of business, professional and community leaders who, by practical means such as fundraising for other organisations, strive to improve the circumstances of others. The motto is “service above self”, and the ethical framework is the Four-Way Test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Rotary’s contribution to Canberra began with the city, although in the late 1920s the Federal Capital Commission was already providing many of the social services that Rotary funded in other places. As the city grew, so did Rotary’s involvement, and in 1935 club members decided that a definite community activity would help focus the club’s efforts. During the Depression and World War 2, Canberra Rotary funded a building for the Scouts, brought the YMCA to Canberra and helped it establish Camp Sturt, supplied radio listening facilities for patients in Canberra Hospital, ‘adopted’ local prisoners of war, was involved in Food Parcels for Britain and, at war’s end, assisted returned servicemen and women to return to civilian life.

There may be some hands-on involvement in projects but Rotary typically prefers to provide funds, advice and ongoing encouragement to other groups. Sometimes, as with Rotary Cottage at Calvary Hospital, the club name will appear, but more often a line in an annual report, a paragraph in a newsletter or a photograph in the newspaper is all that the general public sees of Rotary’s extensive contribution to Canberra.

Probably the most well-known activity is the weekly Belconnen Trash and Treasure Market at Jamison Centre. The market fulfils two of Rotary’s obligations by raising money that it then distributes to charities and community projects, and by providing an opportunity for organisations to raise money for themselves by being stallholders. Another benefit is indirectly supporting local cottage industries. The Market has raised millions of dollars since its establishment in 1974 and generates community goodwill by its carnival atmosphere.

Helping others help themselves is a key activity. Each Rotary Club contributes to one or more projects that support education or personal development, such as the Young Aboriginal Rotary Network (YARN), Rotary Adventure in Citizenship or the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA). While the primary support area is local, assistance is also given nationally and internationally, for example the Western Desert Health Project, a five year project in the Northern Territory that developed medical support services for remote communities.

Contributing to world understanding and world peace is another aim of Rotary. International service is supported both by individual projects and by Rotary Foundation projects such as study exchange programs and scholarships. The Foundation, later Ambassadorial, Scholarships scheme is the largest privately funded scholarship program in the world and aims to further international understanding and friendly relations across all countries. A Rotary District (Canberra is included in the surrounding region) “purchases” a scholarship to send someone from its own area to study overseas; several Canberrans have been granted scholarships.

In Canberra each club maintains its own style of contribution: some have mainly local projects, others have moved out to regional and national to avoid crowding the market. The longer established clubs have begun writing anniversary histories that are gradually revealing the extent of Rotary’s involvement in the city and surrounding area.

After the war Rotary in Canberra began looking outwards, and in 1948 agreed to sponsor the formation of Apex, another service club. In 1952 Rotary began in Queanbeyan, but it was not until 1965 that a second club was formed in Canberra – Rotary Club of Canberra East. By this time public servants were arriving in complete Departments, Canberra was spreading out into town centres, and Canberra North and Canberra Woden were chartered in 1969 followed by Belconnen in 1971.

In the 1950s the ideal of service really took hold: the first Rotary Foundation Scholarship was awarded, medical equipment was supplied to Canberra Hospital and books to school libraries, and Canberra Technical College received support. During the 1960s the emphasis was on youth and has remained so ever since. International obligations became seriously important in the 1970s.

When the Rotary Clubs of Canberra were collectively named the 2010 Canberra Citizen of the Year, their service to the community had touched every aspect of the life of Canberra: financial and other support for just about every charitable, youth, medical, educational and social organisation; parks and gardens; national and local memorials and national cultural institutions. Members had been on hand during and after every disaster and helped celebrate every success, giving a leg up, a steadying arm and an encouraging push onward.


2003 Rotary Club of Canberra – seventy five  years of service 1928 - 2003. Canberra, the Club

2005 Rotary Club of Canberra-Weston Creek Inc; twenty-five years of service 1980 - 2005. Canberra, the Club

2009 Fit and forty! A club celebration ... Forty years of service and fellowship by the Rotary Club of Woden 1969 to 2009. Canberra, the Club

2011 Sheldrick, John; Oldham, Peter, Rotary International. The first forty years. A history of the Rotary Club of Belconnen ACT Incorporated. Canberra, the Club

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.