Australian Heritage Commission, 2001
If, as Robin Boyd wrote, 'Australia is the small house', then here is Australia.
These are the stories of the small houses to be found in their variety and their similarity in every state and territory, in city and country, in hot climates and cool. More than 40 historians from throughout Australia write about their own homes or tell the histories of other people's houses.
There are farmhouses and flats, terraces and shacks, cottages built of brick, stone, timber, fibro and flattened kerosene cans. There are residences built for the police, teachers and soldier settlers; suburban bungalows and migrant workers' houses. Some houses are uniquely owner-built, others were constructed to a government plan repeated in their hundreds, and 'Anzac Cottage' was built in a day for Australia's first Gallipoli veteran. Some houses are drawn from the Register of the National Estate (Australian Heritage Commission); others are listed on state heritage registers or classified by the National Trust.
Some houses are well over a century old, others were built as recently as the 1960s. Almost all of them are still lived in. Some houses may be heritage-listed but none of them are museums with all of the original fabric and interiors kept intact. Museum houses help us to revisit earlier times but most Australians live in places that are constantly altered and adapted. That is our history, written in the walls, the furniture and the gardens of Our house. Each house in this book also tells the story of its builders and residents, generation after generation. As they raised families, took in boarders, formed new relationships, grew old, they constructed, fixed, extended, modernised and moved away.
Our house was compiled between 1995 and 1999 when I was a Visiting Fellow at the Urban Research Program, Australian National University. Professor Patrick Troy (Program Head) and I conceived of the work as part of his larger project exploring the history of housing in Australia. At the same time I was preparing a social history of Newcastle's waterfront. Interviewing Mrs Jean Roggers and reading her written memoirs aroused my interest in publishing stories of ordinary Australian houses, including her childhood home, 'Argyle'. Patrick Troy and I agreed that a collection of these stories would provide popular 'case studies' for the broader work. That has since been published in two volumes: Settlement: a history of Indigenous housing in Australia (edited by Peter Read) and A history of European housing in Australia (edited by Patrick Troy).
We decided that Our house should be a series of 'house biographies', describing individual homes typical of those built at different times and in different places and of varied types, styles and ownership. We drew up a list of 'typical' nineteenth and twentieth century Australian housing types that we hoped to include, and then sought contributors. There were some disappointments, as well as many pleasant surprises in this 'match and search'.
As I collected and edited the individual Our house histories it was clear that they vividly illustrated what Patrick Troy describes in his own introduction as the 'intersections between the house as built form and the home, and the material, technological, economic, regional and cultural contexts which surround it'. Together, the three Urban Research Program publications explore the housing history of the nation.
They also represent a large collaborative effort by Australian historians and other researchers. For Our house we took care to invite contributions from every state and territory and equally from academics and from professional, as well as voluntary historians. Several authors (including me) are also contributors to A history of European housing in Australia, some of them presenting, with obvious pleasure, the histories of their own homes. Our house benefits greatly from many other family, local and oral histories and heritage studies. Current and past residents and half the neighbourhood seem to have contributed to several of these histories.
Our house is also a pictorial history. Most of the stories are illustrated with contemporary and historical photographs - showing people and their place - and plans. Each history has a plan of the original house with additions or alterations (if any). This architectural history may be the simple history of a cottage which has been unchanged except for essential maintenance or the provision of sewerage and electricity.
Our house brings to life the architectural and social histories of the small Australian house. Each story sets out the historical context, outlines the history of the building and the social history of the house. Each writer describes where the house was built and why, who built it and how, and the changes made by later residents. Hot water is laid on, vegetable gardens are replaced with gum trees, kitchens and laundries are plumbed, verandahs are enclosed as sleepouts and then restored. One house, in a distinctively Australian tradition, is moved to another location altogether. Even the least-altered places are used differently by each new generation.
These histories reveal much about the lives of their residents. Contributors tell the story of the succession of residents, how they used the house, how their occupation of it reflected their lifestyle, and what each generation did to make themselves more comfortable. The long 'life histories' of these houses demonstrate not only changes in the composition and character of households but also changing types of tenancy. Some houses were built for rent, sometimes by large landlords such as Burra's copper company, and were later bought by tenants. Even the smallest houses were sometimes co-occupied by their owners and boarders. Other houses have always been rented, for example, from the Victorian Housing Commission.
I have arranged the Our house collection by state alphabetically, followed by the territories. House stories within the states are arranged according to location: that is, in the capital city; or in the country and non-metropolitan towns; and then chronologically, from the oldest to the most recently-built house. Apart from the 'social architecture' of each house, larger themes are developed though the histories overall, such as the clear relationship between income, class and housing type and amenities.
Story by story Our house also illustrates other large histories of Australia: the nature of settlement in all parts of the continent and the historical changes that have altered the surrounds, the uses and the nature of the people who lived in each house; economic phases that affected ordinary Australians and their lives as householders; technological change and its impact on the amenities of the home; and the effects of war, immigration and the transformation of social relations.
In particular, Our house conveys a strong sense of Australia's twentieth century, as every home expresses in its very fabric the impact of the past century's profound social, technological and economic changes.
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