Australia’s National Capital was named CANBERRA and the Commemoration Stone for the city was laid on Capital Hill just over 100 years ago, in March 1913. At the time of its naming, the city had a population of just 2,000. Over the following three decades, accelerated by the opening of Australia’s National Parliament in Canberra in 1927, Canberra’s population grew quickly, as did the bonds of friendship among its citizens and with the citizenry of surrounding rural towns (e.g. Bungendore, Goulburn, and Yass). By the end of the Second World War in 1945, the desire to form a social club in Canberra had gained considerable momentum, culminating in the Club’s formation in 1954.
The credit for initiating the successful drive to establish the Commonwealth Club belongs to General (later Field Marshal) K.M. Cariappa. He came to Australia in 1953, succeeding Colonel Bedi as the High Commissioner for India. Kodendera Madappa Cariappa was a tall, lean, impressive looking man whose stately carriage, gentle manners and friendliness made him a popular figure in Canberra. He had been Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 15 January 1949 to 14 January 1953 and had then retired; he was 54 years of age. In April of that year he was offered and accepted the appointment as the High Commissioner in Australia and New Zealand.
Not long after settling in Canberra General Cariappa expressed his surprise that there was no club in which diplomats could meet colleagues and members of the Canberra community. At a private dinner party in January 1954 he conveyed his surprise to guests, including Mr R.G. (later Sir Robert) Menzies, the then Prime Minister of Australia. With the encouragement of the Prime Minister, he initiated meetings with interested members of the community and the surrounding rural areas, culminating in the constitution of a Provisional Committee to establish a social club. The Committee moved quickly to find suitable premises and to establish the membership required to finance the Club’s operations. At the time of its incorporation in February 1955, the Club had 116 First Foundation Members. While in the traditions of the day the Foundation Members were men, there was no constitutional barrier for women to join, and many did so in the now-defunct category of Associate Members. General K.M. Cariappa was the Club’s first President.
‘Old Canberra House’ was chosen as the initial venue for the Club, leased from the Australian National University where it had previously served as the Staff Centre of the University. The Club was officially opened in May 1955. In the ensuing years, membership numbers grew and the facilities in Old Canberra House were under strain. Faced with these challenges and a desire to secure a permanent venue, the Club’s Board decided to find a new site. The Club opened the doors of its new premises at Yarralumla, its current site, in July 1965 and was awarded the Meritorious Architecture Award in 1967.
A detailed account of the Club’s history can be found in the 2002 publication ‘The History of the Commonwealth Club, 1954 to 2000’, copies of which are located in Club’s library.