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The History of Australia House
Australia House is the oldest Australian diplomatic mission and it is the longest continuously occupied foreign mission in London.
King George V laid the building’s first foundation stone in 1913 but it was not until August 1918 that he officially opened the completed building. The stringencies of World War I – principally shipping difficulties and labour shortages – had delayed construction considerably.
Federation of the six Australian states formally took place on 1 January 1901 but it was not until 1906 that the Federal Government sent an Official Secretary to London to represent Australia. In the intervening years Australia was represented by State Agents-General, the first of whom was the Agent-General of Victoria.
Victoria House had been built in 1907 on the corner of an island site, bounded on the south and east by the Strand, on the north-east by Aldwych and on the west by Melbourne Place. A massive demolition scheme many years before had left this vacant triangle of land, which had been empty so long that wild flowers bloomed there and the Daily Graphic called it “a garden of wild flowers in the heart of London . . . this rustic spot in urban surroundings”. In 1912 the Australian Government bought the freehold of the entire site.
The cost of the land was £379, 756 and building and other associated costs brought total expenditure to about £1 million.
The building was designed by Scots architects, A. Marshal Mackenzie and Son, following an architectural competition, the judges of which included Bertram Mackennal, John Longstaff, George Lambert, Fred Leist and Arthur Streeton. The judges reported “we are united in the opinion that this building will be a lasting monument to the importance of the Commonwealth and a splendid addition to the architecture of London.” The Commonwealth of Australia's chief architect, Mr J. S. Murdoch, travelled to London to work with the Mackenzie firm on the building.
The builders, Dove Brothers of Islington, began work in 1913 but were soon delayed by problems caused by World War I. However, the High Commissioner and former Australian Prime Minister, Mr Andrew Fisher, and some of his staff were able to move into temporary offices on the site in 1916, while work went on around them.
On 24 July 1913 King George V laid the foundation stone. He was accompanied by the Queen and Princess Mary. Much was made of the enthusiastic shouts of “Coo-ee” from the predominantly Australian crowd at the end of the ceremony. The Daily Express reported “it started suddenly and drew into a long-drawn, plaintive cry, which swelled and died again and again, coming to Londoner’s ears with almost startling novelty.”
King George V officially opened the building on 3 August 1918. The Australian Prime Minister, Mr W. M. Hughes; Mr Andrew Fisher, High Commissioner and former Prime Minister, and Mr Joseph Cook, Minister for the Navy and former Prime Minister and later High Commissioner, were among the official party.
Australia House is on the UK statutory list of Government buildings as a Category II building.