Our house: histories of Australian homes
7 - Argyle, a port worker's home
19 Forbes Street, Carrington, New South Wales
Argyle (red roof) and its neighbours in Forbes Street in 1997.
The Hunter River estuary has provided a harbour for ships collecting locally mined coal since 1798. Ships visiting the port of Newcastle dumped ballast at Bullock Island creating a Dyke where cranes were set up in 1878 to load the coal, where it is loaded still. Dredged river mud connected the island to the mainland, leaving only lower Throsby Creek and a Basin for the ships. The former island was renamed Carrington and was soon built over with rails, workyards and houses. Broken Hill Pty Co opened Australia's first steelworks near the northern end in 1915. Carrington's small homes were surrounded and defined as a community by ships and trains, coal dust, smoke and water. The male residents were mostly waterside workers - especially coal trimmers - and seamen.
In 1905 a section of land near Throsby Creek was subdivided as Forbes Street and this house was built in 1908 on a block measuring 33 x 99 feet (30 x 10 metres). The weatherboard cottage with corrugated iron roof and bull-nosed verandah was typical of Newcastle's working-class housing. After the steelworks opened, the city's population surged and houses nearly doubled in number but most were very small and three-quarters had wooden walls like the pine tongue-and groove 'shiplap' walls at Forbes Street.
Nearly half of Newcastle's houses were owner-occupied by 1921. William McKay, the first owner, rented this cottage to several tenants, including the coal trimmer and bare-knuckle boxing champion Bursten (Butson) Oliver, who lived there from 1908 to 1914. The house was valued at £28 in 1919 when purchased by Edward Charles and Emma Luxton. They named it 'Argyle' and Emma lived there for nearly 70 years.
The Luxtons emigrated from Liverpool in 1919. Ted had trained in naval salvage during the war and worked as a salvage diver in Newcastle, NSW. He earned good pay but soon had six children to keep. His daughter Jean, who was born at 'Argyle' in 1922 remembers, 'It was us kids' job to clean his big canvas diving suit and hose out his big heavy boots'. They laid the suit out on the grass in the yard, scrubbed it with soap and water and hung it on cross bars propped up against the shed to dry. 'It used to look like a big giant.'
There were two bedrooms for the children, and Jean shared a double bed with her two sisters. In such conditions bed bugs and head lice thrived and every so often Ted carried the beds into the yard and poured boiling water and cans of soda over them. The parents had the front bedroom where Jean heard 'Mum crying out' giving birth to Clara in 1932. There were only two other rooms. The main front room was called the dining room although they could never afford dining room furniture. 'When we got rich we bought a wireless and Mum had a treadle sewing machine under the front window.' At the back was the kitchen with a lino top table and stove fuelled with coal picked up illicitly along the Dyke and carried home in a pram. The children washed in a tub in front of the stove. There was no water laid on in the kitchen. 'We never ever did have a kitchen sink in the kitchen like other people.'
Ted Luxton, photographed by the Newcastle Morning Herald in about 1930 reading his diving log in the family's dining room. He made the ship's model on the mantlepiece.
In the 1920s the house was lit by gaslight and then Ted installed a meter to pay for the new electric light. 'The light used to go out at the wrong time and you couldn't find a shilling.' The 'dunny' down the back yard was emptied by the council's pan man once a week. 'I can still see the thing across his shoulder and sometimes it would slop over, aagh.' Sewerage was laid on in about 1935.
Throsby Creek used to come up to our back fence. We had a little yard and at high tide the water would come right up. Oh, we lived in that creek when we were kids. We'd go catching prawns, catch crabs, we'd swim. And my brothers made us tin boats out of corrugated iron and tar and wood and we'd paddle them all over the creek.
'Argyle' was flooded in about 1932 and Ted had the house lifted and put on blocks, then with friends' help added a bathroom, a back porch and asbestos walling in the kitchen. English relatives employed as stewards and stewardesses visited when the tourist ships tied up in the Basin, and Ted brought back sailors from the pub, telling them 'Mum'll give you a feed'. Seamen with fine voices joined the Luxton family in song. 'My dad used to say lovely monologues about ships and the sea. I can still see him standing up at the kitchen table.' But Ted often spent all his money at the pub. Emma managed until the Depression when 'things were very, very hard'. Ted was sick with TB and couldn't work for months.
'All togged up to go to Jack and Melva's wedding', Jean Roggers on the front verandah of 'Argyle' in March 1946.
Poor Mum, she got into debt with the house payments and rates. There was a terrible row at our house over it. He took over then. It was his fault, he'd never give enough. He used to give Mum five pound a week, to pay the bills and pay off a house and feed and clothe six kids. I was old enough then to understand what it all meant and I thought, if I can possibly help it I will never ever get into debt. And I never have.
The three brothers went to sea on BHP ships which moored a short walk away. In 1942 Edward ('Boyo') was on BHP's Iron Chieftain when it was sunk in the first Japanese torpedoing on the Australian coast. When another Japanese submarine shelled Newcastle the Luxtons watched through their porch lattice the shells bursting dramatically over the harbour. Jean left home when she married Tibby Roggers in 1943, renting a converted garage around the corner and returning to chat in her mother's kitchen while Tibby was away in the army. Her father dug an air raid shelter and flew an Australian flag from a flagpole in his back yard.
Ted died in 1948. Clara and Boyo stayed on with their mother. Legacy helped pay for conversion of the front verandah to a brick-walled room where Boyo's ship mates often slept overnight. Emma still did all the housework, boiling clothes in a copper in the yard until she could finally afford to install a gas copper and tubs on the porch, where she also washed the dishes. 'Poor old Mum had it hard.' Clara's husband Bruno later had the phone connected and panelled kitchen and porch with masonite. Emma and Clara both died in 1985 and Bruno buried Clara's ashes by the back steps under a rose bush.
The house was sold for $32,000 in 1986 to a third generation 'Carro' family, Tracey and Les Avison. Les works locally as a marine linesman and Tracey runs a sandwich bar around the corner opposite Carrington School where their two daughters go, as did the Luxton and Roggers children. The Avisons borrowed from St George's Building Society, which required them to add hot and cold water to the kitchen and a vanity basin in the bathroom. They also qualified for payments under the First Homeowner's Scheme which were very useful.
Les did all the work on the house himself. 'It's taken me ten years but everything major has now been done. About tax time if I got a decent return I'd say to Trace, I've got enough to do another room. Let's go'. He removed the timber wall separating the 'verandah' room from the dining room, opening up a more spacious living room. He 'bought a complete kitchen out of the paper for $300', redoing kitchen and bathroom twice, and built in the back porch, adding a new wooden porch. He pumped insulation under the roof, erected TV aerials and new fences. An elderly neighbour hated the colourbond dividing fence so Les obligingly reinstalled the old galvanised iron fence on her side. He removed fluorescent lights and pulled up five layers of lino - as we walk together through 'Argyle' Jean recalls lino right through the house - replacing it with carpet, with slate in the kitchen.
'Argyle' residents past and present: Jean Roggers, Les Avison and his daughter outside the back porch in 1997.
The Luxtons lived in the kitchen or clustered around the Astor radio in the dining room. The Avison family is more dispersed. There is a TV in the living room, a computer in the tiny front study and an in-ground swimming pool in the yard, 'the smallest size you could get'. Their two daughters each had her own bedroom until 1997 when Tracey's great-aunt came to live with them.
Throsby Creek was filled in around 1940 but remained vacant crown land until the 1990s when the Maritime Services Board announced it would build a workshop there. The residents' group 'made a fuss so they put in housing instead'. A surviving section of the creek was landscaped and new housing was built called Honeysuckle Grove Estate, transparently reflecting attempts to redefine and sanitise Carrington's identity. Behind it, 'Argyle' and the other Forbes Street cottages speak of an older, still-enduring identity.
Note: The house remains the same size but with some walls and doors removed and a new back porch.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
My warmest thanks to Mrs Jean Roggers, whose happy recollections of childhood in this small house first prompted me to think of producing Our House. I also thank Newcastle's former Bicentenary Events Corporation for permission to use material collected for the waterfront history, present owners Les and Tracey Avison, and the staff at Newcastle's Local Studies Library.
Docherty, JC, Newcastle: the making of an Australian city, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney 1983.
Interviews by S Marsden: Bob Power (30 April 1996) and Jean Roggers (tape, 1 May 1996, written memoirs 1996, and interview notes 1997).
Marsden, Susan, 'Waterfront alive', in Cynthia Hunter, ed, River Change: six new histories of the Hunter, Newcastle Region Public Library, Newcastle 1998.
Newcastle Local Studies Library, Hunter District Water Board rate assessments; LH map B 333.38 529 (1905).
Dr Susan Marsden is National Conservation Manager at the Australian Council of National Trusts and a member of ACT Heritage Council. She has worked for 25 years as a professional historian and heritage consultant, including as South Australia's State Historian (1988-95) and as a Visiting Fellow at the Urban Research Program, Australian National University (1995-99). Her many publications (some co-authored) include: South Australia's heritage (part 2); Heritage of the City of Adelaide; 'Waterfront alive', in River Change (Newcastle); and Urban heritage: the rise and postwar development of Australia's capital city centres. She contributed a chapter to Patrick Troy's A history of European housing in Australia and is the editor of Our House.