Alexander Marshal Mackenzie
- Original design
- Alexander Marshal Mackenzie, 1918
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Australia House was opened by King George V on 3 August 1918, marking our nation’s first diplomatic mission abroad. It was established when Australia was at the heart of the British Empire and marked one of the first major construction projects undertaken by the Federal government following Federation.
The building signified our unique relationship with Britain but was also a strong reminder of Australia down to the finest details – much of the interior stone, marble and timber was shipped by sea from Australia during WW1.
Australia House provided a home for diplomatic, defence and trade workers but was also admired by visitors for its spectacular exhibition hall, library, cinema room and bank – it even housed a safe for gold bullion.
Back then and even today, this magnificent monument is a symbol of the ambition and pride that Australians have for our nation.
The building was designed by Scots architects, A. Marshal Mackenzie and Son, following an architectural competition, the judges of which included Bertram Mackennal, John Longstaff, George Lambert, Fred Leist and Arthur Streeton. The judges reported “we are united in the opinion that this building will be a lasting monument to the importance of the Commonwealth and a splendid addition to the architecture of London.” The Commonwealth of Australia's chief architect, Mr J. S. Murdoch, travelled to London to work with the Mackenzie firm on the building.
The builders, Dove Brothers of Islington, began work in 1913 but were soon delayed by problems caused by World War I. However, the High Commissioner and former Australian Prime Minister, Mr Andrew Fisher, and some of his staff were able to move into temporary offices on the site in 1916, while work went on around them.
On 24 July 1913 King George V laid the foundation stone. He was accompanied by the Queen and Princess Mary. Much was made of the enthusiastic shouts of “Coo-ee” from the predominantly Australian crowd at the end of the ceremony. The Daily Express reported “it started suddenly and drew into a long-drawn, plaintive cry, which swelled and died again and again, coming to Londoner’s ears with almost startling novelty.”
King George V officially opened the building on 3 August 1918. The Australian Prime Minister, Mr W. M. Hughes; High Commissioner and former Prime Minister, Mr Andrew Fisher; and Minister for the Navy and former Prime Minister and later High Commissioner, Mr Joseph Cook were among the official party.
Over the years, the building has been a safe and welcoming base for all Australians. During both World Wars, Australia House was a home away from home for Australian troops and also served as a headquarters. During the Second World War, the building also became a source of relaxation and entertainment with the formation of the Boomerang Club. The Boomerang Club allowed troops returning from war to catch up on news, meet friends, and attend dances.
From the building’s original opening until around the 70s, it was open to all visitors and served as a ‘post-restante’ for Australians who visited to collect mail. Until the 90s it served as a library, with Australians calling in to read newspapers from home. In the 60s and 70s, adventurous Australians were often seen outside the building, buying or selling old Kombi vans used to travel across the European continent.
Australia House has certainly provided a place for Australia to ‘do business’ in Britain, but it has often been most valuable at providing a venue for the softer side of diplomatic relations.
There have been celebrations, citizenship ceremonies, memorial services and fresh food markets – highlighting the very best of Australia together with the very best of Britain.
Representatives of British and Australian communities have included Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, HRH Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Henry the Duke of Gloucester, Australian soldiers and veterans, innumerable sporting teams and heroes, politicians and businessmen, actors and actresses, and of course, our own serving prime ministers and cabinet ministers.