Ruth Lane Poole's work in designing the interiors of the first official residences for both the Prime Minister and the Governor-General give her a unique place in Australian history. She created an interior style as distinctive as the 'Federal Capital' architecture now widely recognised as characteristic of Canberra's early public buildings.
The residences of the head of Australian Government and of the representative of Australia's head of state were among these public buildings. But they are also required to retain a private character, as homes for first families. There were no precedents, as Australia's state premiers did not have official residences and all the state governors occupied pre-Federation buildings.
The new Canberra residences were the first to be planned in a 'civic' style, suitable for the leaders of a constitutional democracy. Like Australia's federal Constitution, these are 'Washminster' buildings, drawing on both London's No. 10 Downing Street and Washington's White House in their combined constitutional and domestic functions.
The Prime Minister's Lodge under construction, July 1926
NAA: A3560, 2035
With The Lodge, architects Percy Oakley and Stanley Parkes successfully merged the Georgian Revival and American West Coast architectural elements favoured for Australian houses in the 1920s. An example was 'Pinehill', the private home built in 1926 for Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Ethel Bruce in Frankston, Victoria. But The Lodge's young architects also addressed elements of the Federal Capital style to provide a unique fusion with Canberra's other public buildings.
Other Canberra homes tied to the duties, and the tenure, of public office included those of some heads of department. One of these was the Lane Pooles' own home, Westridge House, the official residence of the head of the Forestry School. The interior style of public residences like these is just as significant as their exteriors in understanding Australia’s national history.
Federal 'Furniture Specialist'
The Federal Capital Commission was set up to create the national capital and arrange the transfer of the Parliament and the public service from Melbourne, which had served as a temporary seat of government since Federation in 1901. The Federal Capital Commission was responsible for all design and construction of the new city, the provision of services such as electricity, water and sewerage, and road and bridge building.
Construction of Northbourne Avenue and the Sydney Building, Civic Centre, September 1927
NAA: A3560, 3635
The official residences for the Governor-General and the Prime Minister were among the essential public buildings to be completed for the opening of Parliament in the new Parliament House on 9 May 1927.
Work on the residence for the Governor-General Lord Stonehaven and Lady Stonehaven was already under way when the foundations for the Prime Minister's residence were laid in December 1925. The furnishing of both was first discussed with Ruth Lane Poole in February 1926 and the Federal Capital Commission formally engaged her as 'Furniture Specialist' from 29 March 1926. She remained their consultant until 5 September 1927.
Letter from the Secretary of the Federal Capital Commission to Ruth Lane Poole, 29 March 1926
NAA: A6266, G1926/2359, p.46
Ruth Lane Poole was required to prepare a furnishing plan for each house. Cabinet specified that the furnishing was to be done with Australian materials and 'Best British' manufactures. She needed to design the furniture as well as having it made by Australian artisans of Australian timbers and to select all furnishing materials and fittings, ordering imports from Britain as necessary. She was instructed to consult Ethel Bruce, the Prime Minister's wife, and Lady Stonehaven about her plans for their new homes.
Letter from Ruth Lane Poole to CS Daley, Secretary, Federal Capital Commission, 22 July 1926
NAA: A6272, E100, p. 274
In her design report submitted in July 1926, Ruth Lane Poole estimated that furnishing the Governor-General's residence would cost at least £12,000, but Cabinet restricted the expenditure to £10,000 for the Governor-General's residence and £5000 for the Prime Minister's (about $575,000 and $288,000 today). Her brief included interior design and furniture for the separate residence of the Governor-General's aide-de-camp in the grounds of Yarralumla.
Memo from JW Glasgow, Minister for Home and Territories to the Chairman, Federal Capital Commission, 31 July 1926
NAA: A6006, 1926/07/27, p. 1
When she offered to resign the commission, which she considered impossible without sufficient funds, Cabinet ordered a review of her estimates. When the review supported her original costing, Cabinet increased the allocation and the work proceeded.
Ruth Lane Poole had a very long shopping list. Most of the orders were placed with Melbourne suppliers. The largest single source was the rapidly expanding department store established in Bourke Street by Sidney Myer. Among other goods, Myers supplied the substantial quantity of imported carpets. Ruth Lane Poole ordered dinner services and Morris and Company fabrics and wallpapers direct from London, where Lily Yeats acted as unpaid buyer and Australia's High Commissioner as official dispatcher.
Draft cablegram to Lily Yeats, 9 October 1926
NAA: A1, 1926/9335, p. 18
Ruth Lane Poole dealt with the conflicting demands of a tight schedule and the requirement to adhere to proper public service processes. She was expected to place and control every order, receiving and checking quality and quantity. Upholstery materials were delivered direct to the furniture makers and other goods dispatched to Canberra through the Department of Home and Territories' Melbourne store. Keeping track of the deliveries and accounting for the materials created frequent confusion and delay, as well as a mass of correspondence. Hold-ups were made worse by having to deal with architects, suppliers and government officials in both Melbourne and Canberra.
Memo from JH Butters, Chief Commissioner of the Federal Capital Commission to the Secretary of the Department of Home and Territories, 14 December 1926
NAA: A1, 1927/6507, p. 202
John Butters, head of the Federal Capital Commission, kept an eye on her procedures. Supervising architect for the Federal Capital Commission, Henry Rolland, kept even more minute surveillance of every item and any error. The most serious was in the first consignment of the Tasmanian mountain ash panelling she ordered for the dining room at Government House. Rolland's irritation on discovering the panels had been assembled with screws increased when he realised that Ruth Lane Poole might not have specified that only battens and glue could be used. He ensured responsibility for this error was repeatedly recorded as hers.
Letter from H Rolland, Architect, Federal Capital Commission, to Ruth Lane Poole, 7 December 1926
NAA: CT86/1, 190 Part 1, p. 146
Ruth Lane Poole made more than 100 working drawings of her designs for the furniture and photographed some of the completed work. There was much to be done even after the residences were occupied in May 1927. Both Ethel Bruce and Lady Stonehaven requested additional household items over the following months and as each invoice and inventory from the complex projects was processed, she was called on to confirm receipt and condition of goods.
As a consultant without staff or even an office, her determination was as important as her training in her success as Furniture Specialist for Australia's new national capital. Equally important were her expert advisers, Charles Lane Poole and Desbrowe-Annear in Melbourne and Lily Yeats in London.
Ruth Lane Poole's role in the historic enterprise of building a city still awaits assessment. There is ample evidence waiting to be read in National Archives' records of the creation of Canberra.