North Arm Cove’s place in Australian history explained

E. Holmes, of Tanilba House, sent in the ‘nomination’ to have Port Stephens potentially considered as a capital site.

CONSIDERABLE confusion exists over North Arm Cove’s place in our nation’s history, which News Of The Area has undertaken to explain in the recent wake of Australia Day.

“One of the most intriguing aspects of this history was that some publications had stated that North Arm Cove was one of the possible sites for the Federal Capital of Australia,” Bob Reid, President of the North Arm Cove Community Association Inc (NACCAI) told NOTA.

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“Last year I went to the NSW State Archives in Kingswood, Sydney, to inspect the records from the Royal Commission appointed by the NSW Government in 1899 to select the site for the capital.”

One of the primary documents unearthed in Kingswood and shared with NOTA was an 1899 handwritten letter from ‘E. Holmes, Tanilba House’, addressed to the Commissioner, strongly suggesting the area for the capital.

Seemingly, as a direct result of this informal nomination, ‘Port Stephens’ (not North Arm Cove) was placed on an initial ‘long-list’ of potential capital sites, along with 44 others, although the same list shows Port Stephens was never inspected, nor subject to any public enquiry.

Port Stephens, let alone North Arm Cove, was never seriously considered as the site for the national capital.

Historical inaccuracies have been compounded by the fact that the paper subdivision North Arm Cove, then titled ‘Port Stephens City’, was a Walter Burley Griffin project, although it occurred almost a decade later than Canberra’s.

Burley Griffin’s ‘Port Stephens City’ plan happened around 1919, at the behest of Arthur Chapman of Land Ltd, and started selling lots by March 1920.

“Chapman had Port Stephens City designed by Walter Burley Griffin, hoping to profit from the proposal to establish a naval base at Port Stephens,” Mr Reid explained.

“Chapman didn’t profit at all from Port Stephens City, and Land Ltd went bankrupt just a year later.”

The competition to design Canberra, based on the selected land near Yass, began in 1911, and was won by Burley Griffin in 1912, nearly a decade before North Arm Cove’s plan was conceived.

The connection between the concept of a national capital and North Arm Cove is, therefore, really just a coincidence of having the same designer, and a century of wishful thinking and conflation.

Mr Reid has made most primary sources viewable on the NACCAI website at

By Thomas O’KEEFE

North Arm Cove’s position (in red) on the relatively large Port, hidden behind Soldiers Point, lent itself to Holmes’ ‘impregnable’ concept.

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