Tim Jarvis and John Stoukala pulling a sledge across the snow in Antarctica for a documentary retracing Mawson's expedition

Australian History Timeline 2

Australian History Timeline: 1900s to 1940s

1900s to 1940s

The Australian History Timeline features over 90 film clips showcasing a unique collection of Australian history documentaries.

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Go to Australian History Timeline Part 1: Pre-1770s to 1890s


A new century and Australia begins life as a federated nation. Politicians and opinion-makers embark on nation-building exercises. They choose the site for a new capital, and debate and pass laws that lead to a fair and reasonable wage, unemployment benefits and a universal pension – universal, that is, unless you're Indigenous.

CLIP 1: Getting Even

In 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to grant white women both the right to vote and to stand for election. The documentary Getting Even asks why – despite this early achievement – women occupied fewer than 15% of Australia's parliamentary seats in 1994. Getting Even, 1994.

CLIP 2: The Velvet Soap Advertisement

The Velvet Soap advertising campaign is also a reminder of Edmund Barton's role in formulating the White Australia Policy. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

CLIP 3: Andrew Fisher's Lunch Box

Andrew Fisher's tin lunch box reminds us that humble beginnings informed his political career: he went from union organiser to three-time prime minister, inventing the Australian ideal of a 'fair go'. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

Naming the Federal Capital of Australia, March 12th 1913 – digital restoration, 2013. Music devised and performed by Elaine Loebenstein. NFSA: 1151512


The global catastrophe of the First World War becomes the newly-federated nation's 'baptism of blood'. The losses are incalculable, not just on the battlefield but also on the home front.

CLIP 1: Constucting the East-West Rail Link

Rare footage from 1910 shows camels carrying heavy supplies across the desert. Railway labourers are building the 1,400 km railway that will finally link Western Australia with the eastern states. Clip from The Rail Way, 1979.

CLIP 2: Foundation of Canberra

On the morning of Wednesday 12 March 1913, 500 invited guests, over 700 mounted and artillery troops and a public crowd of over 3,000 locals came to witness the formal naming of Canberra. Clip from Canberra 1913: Naming the Federal Capital of Australia, 1913.

CLIP 3: Mawson's Expedition to the Antarctic

Douglas Mawson sets off with Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, Xavier Mertz and two dog teams to explore the coast of Antarctica as far east as possible. Clip from Australia Today – Antarctic Pioneers, 1963.

CLIP 4: Mawson's Other Purpose

In 2007, polar adventurer Tim Jarvis returns to Antarctica to try to answer his own questions about the epic journey made by Douglas Mawson in early 1913. Clip from Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica, 2007.

CLIP 5: Mawson's Quest

Tim Jarvis has completed the journey, covering 480 km across the ice. Clearly exhausted, he speaks to camera about the experience, acknowledging that what he achieved is not the same as what Mawson did. Clip from Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica, 2007.

CLIP 6: First Surfboard

Huge, heavy and finless, the first Aussie surfboard was actually handmade by a visiting Hawaiian in 1914 using a piece of local wood. Clip from Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown, 2004.

CLIP 7: Gallipoli Boat

A small lifeboat, retrieved from the shores of Gallipoli, is a direct link to the first Anzacs and the day that helped forge Australia's identity. Clip from Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown, 2004.

CLIP 8: William Hughes and the Conscription Badge

William Hughes, 'The Little Digger', campaigned twice for national conscription to boost an Australian army decimated by the First World War. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

CLIP 9: The Sentimental Bloke film

The classic 1919 silent movie The Sentimental Bloke is regarded as one of the greatest Australian films. Clip from Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown, 2004.

Australasian Gazette: Mimic Warfare, 1917. Please note: this clip is silent. NFSA: 1112


With war's end, this is a time of hope and optimistic renewal. State and federal governments create massive public debt (to go with pre-existing war debts) as they embark on ambitious nation-building projects.

CLIP 1: The Bridge: Construction

The greatest engineering challenge of its day, construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge began in 1923 and was completed in January 1932. Clip from The Bridge, 2006.

CLIP 2: Newsreels Before Sound

Newsreels included events of both political and social importance and were screened all day long in specially designed cinemas. Clips from Australasian Gazette newsreels, 1916–33.

CLIP 3: Stanley Melbourne Bruce's Cigarette Case

Throughout his life, Stanley Melbourne Bruce treasured Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's gift of a gold cigarette case. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.


Stock market collapse on Wall Street leads to British banks calling in their loans to Australia. The decade is swallowed in a great global depression. By 1932 almost a third of Australians are out of work.

CLIP 1: Bradman's Bats

Donald Bradman's bats are a reminder of how this cricket legend played himself into the record books, earning the status of Australian icon. Clip from Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown, 2004.

CLIP 2: James Scullin and the GCMG

James Scullin inspired the people when he offered to rent out the Lodge during the Depression, but his fierce nationalism is best revealed in his campaign to install an Australian-born Governor-General. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

CLIP 3: The Bridge: Opening

Half the population of Sydney, which was 1.2 million at the time, came to witness the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March 1932. Clip from The Bridge, 2006. 

CLIP 4: Francis De Groot's Sword

When right-wing agitator Francis De Groot upstaged the 1932 opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and sliced through the ceremonial ribbon, the antique sword he wielded cemented its place as an Australian national treasure. Clip from Australia's Heritage – National Treasures with Chris Taylor, 2009.

CLIP 5: Equal Pay Paradox

This clip examines the situation for women in the 1930s Depression when many were forced to work as the men in their families were unemployed. Clip from For Love or Money, 1983.

CLIP 6: Phar Lap's Hide

In the 1930s, a New Zealand-born horse called Phar Lap won the hearts of Australians and became one of our most loved and enduring icons. Clip from Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown, 2004.

CLIP 7: Joseph Lyons' Love Letters

Politics rarely produces impassioned romantics, which makes the hundreds of letters Joseph Lyons wrote to his adored wife and confidante, Enid, as fascinating as they are unexpected. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown – Phar Lap's Hide, 2004. NFSA: 1435037


With the Second World War, Australia realises it can no longer rely solely on Britain for protection and looks to America for support. A generation of women discover the possibilities of life in the workforce and outside the home. Australia no longer exclusively encourages British migration but welcomes arrivals from postwar Europe.

CLIP 1: HMAS Sydney's Carley Float

A tiny, war-ravaged liferaft from the HMAS Sydney is our only physical link to Australia's worst-ever naval disaster. Clip from Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown, 2004.

CLIP 2: Women's Land Army

Various media from 1942 – posters, newsreels and promotional films – show the recruiting campaign for the Women’s Land Army. Clip from Thanks Girls and Goodbye, 1988.

CLIP 3: John Curtin's Australian Journalists' Association Badge

John Curtin's journalistic instincts came in handy during the Second World War when he kept the media onside with secret press briefings. He wore his AJA badge every day he was in office. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

CLIP 4: Kokoda – War on Film

Alister Grierson, director of the 2006 feature film Kokoda, talks about historical accuracy and representing war experience on film. Clip from Talkback Classroom Learning Journey, 2008.

CLIP 5: Ben Chifley's Pipe

Prime minister and former train driver Ben Chifley was rarely seen without his pipe, as he guided the country through the austere postwar years. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

CLIP 6: Bonegilla Migrant Camp

More than 300,000 migrants had their first taste of Australian life at the Bonegilla Migrant Camp in Victoria before moving out to transform Australia socially and culturally. Clip from Australia's Heritage – National Treasures with Chris Taylor, 2009.

CLIP 7: The Postwar Wool Boom

With 125 million sheep spread across the country, and 90 thousand tons of lamb and 3 million tons of wool exported annually, Australia truly rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back. From Men and Mobs, 1947.

CLIP 8: Aboriginal People Make a Canoe and Hunt a Turtle

Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. On the beach it’s time to play out one of the dramas of daily life – the return of the hunters. Clip from Aborigines of the Sea Coast, 1948.

CLIP 9: The Cane Cutters 

This short film takes a look at the life of Queensland sugar cane cutters. It shows itinerant workers contracting with a cane farmer, cutting the cane and loading it for transport, from early morning to dark. From The Cane Cutters, 1948.

CLIP 10: Robert Menzies' Camera

Robert Menzies' lifelong passion for home movies resulted in a surprisingly personal record of the war years, including footage of a young Princess Elizabeth. Clip from The Prime Ministers' National Treasures, 2007.

CLIP 11: The Timber Getters

In postwar Australia, the milling of our nation’s prized hardwood timbers was a rapidly growing industry. The skill and stamina of the axe workers were indispensable to timber getting. From The Timber Getters, 1949.

Cane Cutters, 1948. NFSA: 40346

Go to Australian History Timeline Part 3: 1950s to 2000s


Main image: Tim Jarvis and John Stoukala pulling a sledge during the filming of Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica (2007). Photograph by Frederique Olivier © NFSA Film Australia Collection