Inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, Sydney

This is a photograph of Australia’s first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, taking his oath of office at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in the Federation Pavilion at Centennial Park, Sydney, New South Wales, on 1 January 1901. Next to Lord Hopetoun are Edmund Barton and the other members of Australia’s first federal ministry.

Educational value

  • This photograph depicts the moment at which Australia officially became a nation, the ceremony for which was attended by nearly 8000 guests, 10,000 schoolchildren, a 1000-voice choir and more than 100,000 spectators. Queen Victoria had signed her assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 on 9 July 1900, providing the blueprint for the federation of the six Australian colonies into one nation. The Queen appointed Lord Hopetoun (1860–1908) as her representative and declared 1 January 1901 as the day of inauguration of the Commonwealth.
  • This photograph shows the members of Australia's first federal ministry waiting to be sworn in. Edmund Barton (1849–1920), who became Australia's first prime minister, and four of the colonial premiers – George Turner (1851–1916), Victoria; William Lyne (1844–1913), New South Wales; John Forrest (1847–1918), Western Australia; and Neil Lewis (1858–1935), Tasmania – joined the temporary first Cabinet, awaiting the first federal election on 20 March 1901.
  • The desk in the photograph was also used by Queen Victoria when she signed her Royal Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. Upon signing, the Queen presented a duplicate of the document, together with the pen, ink stand and table (made of brass and ebony, with gilded ormolu decoration and a surface of tan morocco leather) used during the signing ceremony at Windsor Castle, to Edmund Barton to take back to Australia.
  • The photograph illustrates women's high fashion of the time. In late Victorian times, women's clothing was influenced more by Princess Alexandra (wife of the Prince of Wales) than Queen Victoria. The bustle was being replaced by pleated skirts and new corset shapes changed their wearers' postures into an 'S' shape rather than the typical hourglass shape of earlier times. Under the skirts, women wore many layers of underclothing, and hats were often elaborate and extended high above the forehead.
  • Despite their presence at the inauguration, women did not actively participate in the ceremony and the rights and the powers that came into effect on that day were primarily granted to white men. Only women in South Australia and Western Australia were able to vote in the first federal election, although all white women (as well as some Aboriginal women) gained the right to vote in 1902. It was not until 1962 that all Aborigines were granted the right to vote in federal elections.