Australian Heritage Commission, 2001
25 - The family bungalow
16 Banchory Street, Essendon, Victoria
The Banchory Street bungalow in 1997.
War-clouds were gathering when Mum and Dad began house-hunting. George Davison, a self-employed plumber, lived in Washington Street Essendon, just down the hill from May Hewett, a typist with the Eagle Star Insurance Company. They had met years before but they were both in their late twenties when Dad popped the question and Mum accepted, early in 1939. They had been saving to gather a deposit and keeping a lookout for houses in the more recently developed streets half a mile or so to the west of their parental homes. Dad had been doing repair jobs for local estate agents and one of them, EG Goddard, passed on the word that 16 Banchory Street was coming up for sale. It was a five-room Californian bungalow, a bit run-down, but in what Dad had already sized up as the best street on the Deeside Estate.
Matt Atkinson, a local builder, had built the house for his own family in the mid 1920s but it had recently been occupied by tenants. 'I feel sure you will like the house', Atkinson later wrote in reply to Dad's request for a copy of the plan. 'I was in it again a few years ago, and remarked to my wife when I came home what a big comfortable house it was.' By today's standards, it was a modest house - just two bedrooms and a sleepout - but Mum and Dad did like it. Almost sixty years later, it is still their home.
The Banchory Street house in c1952.
The asking price was £800 but £100 was all they could afford as a deposit - too little for a bank loan. 'Try old man Hood', Mr Goddard suggested. (William Hood, a local businessman, lent a bit of money on mortgage.) 'How much do you need?' Mr Hood asked, when Dad called a few days later. 'Seven hundred pounds.' 'Well, look in that drawer.' Dad took out a couple of bankbooks. 'How much is in that one? Alright. And how much in that one?' ' Well, that's enough, isn't it?', said Hood. And so the deal was done. Every month or two Dad would write a cheque to Mr Hood's solicitor, and by 1944 they had paid off enough to transfer the mortgage to the National Bank.
Mum and Dad married and moved in at the end of January 1940. They had made a list of their expenses: £13 for bedroom carpet, seven guineas for the hall, £18 for the lounge and dining room, £2 for lighting, £40 for the bedroom suite and bedding, £5 for the kitchen lino - leaving just enough, they calculated, to buy a wireless (radio). But they had forgotten just one little item. 'Bang goes the wireless', said Mum as they left the solicitor's office, after writing a cheque for the legal fees.
The author in the backyard of Banchory Street c1942. Note the open sided shed, air-raid shelter (left) and emergency water tank in case of air-raids.
The house was built of weatherboard with terracotta tiles. Inside, it had hardly changed since it was built. You entered the front door, with its diamond-pattern leadlight windows, and proceeded from the hall through a redwood arch, with umbrella cupboards either side, to the kitchen. Dad replaced the combined gas and one-fire stove which Mr Atkinson had found so 'very good and effective' with a more modern gas-stove. A kitchen table, covered with linoleum, an ice-chest, a Coolgardie safe and some cream painted lattice-backed chairs were the main items of furniture. The lounge, next to the front door, was our best room, furnished with a club lounge and Mum's piano, and heated, later on, by a gas-fire. Behind the glazed double doors was the dining room. On festive occasions the dining table would be drawn out from the wall to the centre of the room; but most of the time this was our living room. Here, on wintry afternoons, we children would sprawl in front of the radio (the Radiola console which Uncle Dick had somehow found for us), listening to the 'Argonauts' or thumbing through the second-hand set of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia.
After the arrival of my younger sisters I had moved from the second bedroom to the sleepout. Lying in bed at night, with the earphones of my crystal-set clamped over my ears and the wind rushing though the unglazed windows, I would stare at the skies, looking for the sweeping searchlights from the Essendon aerodrome or the blinking pink neon from the nearby Circle picture theatre, as it signalled: H- O - Y- T- S. From the sleepout you descended a ramp down past the gully-trap to the wash-house and the outside lavatory.
Close to the house were one or two fruit trees, but most of the backyard was occupied by Dad's workshop, and, until the war ended, by the large air-raid shelter which he had erected for our protection in the event of a Japanese assault on the nearby Essendon aerodrome, then an American base. It became our favorite childhood hide-out.
By the early 1950s Dad had begun business again on his own account, working for spec builders along Melbourne's north-western weatherboard frontier. The suite of outhouses in our backyard began to grow, with racks for the storage of pipes and sheet metal, a woodshed and a small office, knocked together from motor car packing cases, lit through louvre windows and roofed with malthoid sheeting.
Life was becoming more prosperous, a trend I now plot by recalling our increasing stock of household appliances: the second-hand gas fridge, acquired from Uncle Dick, which replaced our old ice-chest, the hot water service which made the bath-heater and sink heater obsolete, the Hoover washer which superceded the gas copper, the radiogram which did away with the old Radiola. We were modernising the house too. The old redwood door jambs and hall furniture were ripped out or painted over, the lead-lights replaced with frosted glass, and the kalsomine walls covered with paper and painted with plastic paint, acquired at a discount from Uncle Bill who travelled for Dulux.
In 1951 Dad's mate, Hec Jackson the builder, demolished our old external wash-house to build a new bedroom for me and a new laundry for Mum. (My sisters continued to share the small second bedroom.) The old sleepout was glassed-in to make a sunroom. And the kitchen extended into the old pantry to give an outlook to the back garden. Dad hated painting, so I was given the job of consulting the Dulux paint chart and painting the sunroom's lemon, lime-green and water-melon pink feature walls.
Not too much has changed at 16 Banchory Street since those days. As we children left, Dad reclaimed my bedroom for an office. Once the business wound down, the potted fuschias gradually encroached on the old workshops, turning the backyard into a garden again. Inside there have been several rounds of redecorating and re-furnishing, and Mum's oil paintings now cover most walls, but the floor-plan remains unaltered. Dad and Mum are now the oldest inhabitants of the street by at least twenty years. A wave of flat-building in the 1960s threatened to transform the neighbourhood, but it receded and now the street is filling again with young professionals. Next door, in another of Matt Atkinson's Californian bungalows, Paul and Rhonda have painstakingly restored the open fireplaces, redwood hall furniture and lead-light windows. Mum and Dad look on, admiring their handiwork, quietly preferring their own.
Note: Not to scale
Thanks to George & May Davison and my sister, Jan Tranter. George died, not long after this essay was written in September 1998. May, now 91 years old, is still living at 16 Banchory Street. Photographs: the Davison family.
Graeme Davison is Professor of History at Monash University. He is the author of The rise and fall of Marvellous Melbourne and other works in Australian urban history and heritage. He contributed a chapter to Troy's A history of European housing in Australia, and his latest book is The use and abuse of Australian history, 2000.
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