Our house: histories of Australian homes
42 - The Shell Company house
4 Mangola Court, Larrakeyah, Northern Territory
The Larrakeyah house (front view, from the east) in 1997.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941 during the Second World War, the Commonwealth government ordered that all women and children be evacuated from Darwin, Australia's most northern town. Darwin had first been settled in 1870. It had suffered major cyclones in 1897 and 1937 and had barely recovered when this latest disaster struck. After the first bombing raid on Darwin by the Japanese on 19 February 1942 the town (and most of the Top End) came under military control; not until February 1946 were civilians allowed to return to their homes. The place was a shambles. Apart from structural damage, all town lands, formerly freehold, had been resumed and the only tenure available was short term leases.
The plan had been to relocate and rebuild the centre of Darwin further up the peninsula on which it stands but after the bureaucrats in Canberra decided that neither the Hotel Darwin nor the Shell oil terminal was to be moved and the Roman Catholic bishop flatly refused to move his church, the plan was doomed. In 1949 the first leasehold auctions of residential land were held. The Shell Company bought eight lots. This house was built on the only lot to be utilised (the other seven being surrendered for non-compliance by 1953). It was in the newly-established suburb of Larrakeyah, although the area was included in the original 1870 survey of the town.
Note: In the original design the living room, lobby and bedroom 3 formed a large verandah.
The spacious lounge room looking towards Mangola St (north), showing fans, louvres and panelling.
Mangola Street (now Court) was one of a series of new streets named for well-known Burns Philp ships which traded regularly to the port. Shell was also entitled, by virtue of its pre-war holdings, to the lease of three other lots and this house was the third of four company houses which were built between 1949 and 1952. It appears on the company's December 1951 inventory. Darwin had no reticulated water or sewerage until after the war and building posed enormous difficulties. Despite that the Shell houses (and those built by other oil companies) were of a far better standard than the small houses built by the Commonwealth government for its public servants.
This dwelling remains substantially as built. It is one of the best examples of non-government post-war housing still standing, though it is increasingly surrounded by three and four-storey blocks of units; it is less than one kilometre from the Central Business District. It has a timber frame and asbestos cement walls with a corrugated galvanised iron roof. The windows are push-out casements with wooden surrounds and louvres. The original lower louvres were wooden. Some were replaced with metal in 1976. All the fly screens still have their original catches. Metal external awnings were put up prior to 1974.
The floors were of polished boards but carpet was laid in 1983 except for the kitchen and a small entrance porch which have vinyl covering. The house is elevated and stands, very substantially, on 45 nine inch square concrete stumps, nine feet high. It measured approximately 60 by 34 feet and was 1,512 square feet in area in marked contrast to the government standard of about 900 square feet. It has ceilings nine feet high. It was designed as a two bedroom house (all that the government provided at that time) but a door between the front verandah and the verandah off the main bedroom was removed (in the drawing before the house was built) so as to create a third bedroom at the front adjacent to the other two.
It is a very cool house and even today the sole air conditioner in the main bedroom is only required about three weeks every year. The original fan still turns slowly in the second bedroom; it is dated 1941. There are overhead fans in all rooms.
The whole town was photographed in 1975 to help in official assessments of the damage wreaked by Cyclone Tracy. The Mangola Ct house is revealed in a stripped-bare garden.
An advanced feature for its day were the built-in wardrobes in the main and middle bedrooms. The main bedroom measured 15 feet 6 inches by 14 feet and the combined lounge/dining room 34 feet by 14 feet. In the original drawing the dining room was meant to be separated by an archway with doors but these were not built so the room remains very large and airy. Another modern feature for its time is a built-in buffet. Above the garage space, the kitchen measured 14 by 9 feet and was galley style. Although the cupboards have been renewed, the layout is original.
Another unusual amenity for the 1950s was a shower separate from the bath. The toilet is in a small room in a corner of the back verandah. The original cast iron plumbing remains. The bathroom and shower, built of Tilux, have now been tiled and a number of the walls have timber panelling. The reason for this is that after Cyclone Tracy some of the asbestos plaster began to deteriorate and the quickest way to deal with the problem was to cover it with a decorative panelling. Many houses in Darwin were treated this way after the cyclone. Also in common with other houses which survived the cyclone, the roof was strengthened.
The roof has slatted eaves which help to provide good ventilation. Downstairs is the laundry, a storeroom and another shower and toilet repainted the original green, discovered after scraping back. Shell's policy was to repaint all its properties every three years whether they needed it or not and sometimes the paint job was not all that it should have been.
Rear of the house from the western end. The nearest upstairs room is the back verandah, then the dining room with the casements open.
One of the first tenants was chief clerk, Bill Marsh. At one time it was the home of transport manager John Edwards, and at the time of Cyclone Tracy in December 1974 it was occupied by Tony Jones, head clerk. The only damage that this house suffered was a broken window. The terminal manager lived at Nightcliff (a beachside suburb) but that house was destroyed by the cyclone, so for about two years this was the manager's residence until the Shell company mess in Zealandia Crescent, Larrakeyah, was rebuilt as the terminal manager's house. Peet Menzies, who had been appointed maintenance supervisor, and his wife, Judy, arrived in Darwin in 1976 and they moved into this house. Shell charged them $12 per week rent.
The Menzies still live in the house which they bought when Peet retired in 1993. He had served 25 years with Shell and was technically on secondment from Sydney. Rather than return to Sydney he took early retirement. An inground pool had been constructed and they also bought the furniture which Shell had provided. The Menzies have added a large corrugated iron shed/garage in keeping with the house where Peet spends time restoring old vehicles, currently a World War II jeep in its original livery. Two children were reared in the house and four grandchildren now come to visit.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Thanks to the owners, Peet and Judy Menzies, for their co-operation. The photographs were taken in 1997 by the author except for the 1975 view, reproduced with permission from the NT Department of Lands. The plan and views were drawn by Shibou Dutta using a sketch plan by Helen Wilson and a copy of the house layout, courtesy of the Shell Company.
Welke, A and Wilson, H, 'Darwin Central Area Heritage Study', Report to the Conservation Committee (Northern Territory) through the National Trust of Australia, Darwin 1993.
Owner, Peet Menzies near the downstairs toilet and shower, showing their original green. One of the substantial piers can also be seen.
Helen Wilson is a mature age history graduate (University of Queensland) who carried out several research commissions while living in Darwin. These included a heritage study of Darwin with architect Adrian Welke and later, on her own, a study of Tennant Creek, for the National Trust (Northern Territory). Now retired she lives in northern New South Wales where she and husband run a macadamia orchard. She is also a member of the heritage advisory committee of the local Council.