The House of Representatives is closed. Learn more

The Thieving Diva: Behind the scenes of the opening ceremony at Parliament House

  • Written byStephanie Pfennigwerth
  • DateTue, 09 May 2017

The opening of Parliament House on 9 May 1927 by His Royal Highness the Duke of York was a major theatrical event. 

The Sydney Morning Herald called it ‘a pageant of Empire’. The Canberra Times recalled ‘scenes of epic pageantry’. The Argus agreed that it was a ‘brilliant pageant’ and in an interesting slip of the pen, the Melbourne Herald referred to the review of troops in the afternoon as a rather jolly-sounding ‘revue’.

The performance even had a dress rehearsal, attended by the Duke of York himself. Dame Nellie Melba sang the national anthem on a stage – the landing at the front of Parliament House – decorated with a red velvet canopy. And no performance is complete without costume: 

Military and naval officers, their uniforms brilliant with gold braid, and rows of sparkling decorations, stood shoulder to shoulder with consular representatives scarcely less brilliantly arrayed. The blaze of scarlet tunics contrasted with the robes of the ecclesiastical dignitaries. Black busbies and grey wigs, cocked hats and nodding white plumes, scarlet banded and gold-laced headgear all added to the picturesqueness of the scene.

- Canberra Times 13 May 1927

The Federal Capital Pioneer said ‘the splendid pageantry … lent a dignity and solemnity difficult to describe, but fully felt by all who were present.’  The grandeur and gravitas were fitting for what the Sydney Morning Herald called an ‘epoch-marking event’. The Argus called it ‘the great day ... on which the young Australian Commonwealth will enter into its new heritage of dignity.’

But an insider’s recollections reveal that behind the scenes of this performance, some guests were more dignified than others. 

Diva steals food from dysphagic official

Hilda Abbott was a Red Cross leader and wife of Northern Territory Administrator Charles L. A. Abbott. She was also a distinguished guest at the opening of Parliament House and the events that followed. Her recollections, held in the National Library of Australia, include a description of the State Luncheon in what is now the Member’s Dining Room: 

'Here the Prime Minister was host at Canberra in his own Parliament House for the first time. He and Mrs. Bruce sat in the middle of a long table, that had many tables at right angles to it, and you can imagine this scene was now gay and very beautiful, with all the flowers down the tables and the lovely dresses and uniforms.'

The guests lunched on turtle soup, poached snapper, fillets of beef, roast chicken and ham, straw potatoes (aka French fries!), green peas, Canberra pudding, fruit ices, coffee and cheeses. There seems to have been some jelly too, because Hilda continues:

My husband and I had the luck to be near the centre and next to Dame Nellie. Beside her was Captain Batterbee, Political Secretary to His Royal Highness, and the high collar of his Foreign Office uniform was very tight. It so pressed on his throat he simply could not eat. 

‘Undo it,’ Dame Nellie suggested. But he replied – ‘No, no. I’d never be able to hook it again.’

‘Well, never mind,’ she then said. ‘I am very hungry.’ And she picked pieces off his plate.

I think poor Captain Batterbee had nothing but a little jelly at that historic and most delicious banquet.

Or perhaps jelly was all that was left by the chip-nicking Nellie! 

It doesn’t taste like chicken

The banquet was certainly historic: according to the Routledge History of Food, turtle soup was considered a ‘sophisticated and aspirational’ dish and was served in British colonies at only the most important formal occasions. Various early US Presidents enjoyed turtle soup; Abraham Lincoln also ate a chewier terrapin stew. The soup even appeared on the menu of a number of Presidential inauguration banquets, perhaps a legacy of that nation’s colonial past – or surfeit of turtles.

But in 1927 Canberra, hot chips and turtle were not to everyone’s taste.

Ethel Baird, Lady Stonehaven, was the wife of the Governor-General and the author of an extraordinarily succinct diary. She summarised the many glittering events of 9 May 1927 in just 83 words – and that includes the date! 

‘To P.H. & waited for Yorks’, she snipped. ‘Ceremony went off without a hitch’. Then: ‘Ghastly Banquet Lunch.’

Too bad Dame Nellie wasn’t sitting beside her.


Stephanie Pfennigwerth is an Exhibitions Curator at MoAD.