Our house: histories of Australian homes

Rod Fisher & Vivien Harris
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

10 - From Whangerei to Ajmer

48 Tennessee Avenue, Annerley, Queensland

Queensland style... 'Ajmer' in 1997

Queensland style... 'Ajmer' in 1997

This interwar house on Brisbane's southside was built by 1928 when subdivision was carving up the eucalypt-clad hollow between Annerley and Tarragindi. The highset, verandahed, timber-and-tin bungalow looks like a quintessential 'Queenslander' but was actually one of over 20,000 houses financed between 1910 and 1940 under Queensland's pioneering Workers' Dwellings Scheme.

The landowner modified a standard five-roomed government design costing £769. Its sweeping roofline, full front verandah and vertical-jointed lining boards were old-fashioned by then, considering the latest Californian-influenced multi-gabled styles. Yet its decorative timber facade and weatherboarded sleepout with timber venetian blinds, were state-of-the-art. The central living room was a beauty, surmounted by an oval-domed ceiling of stylish plaster motifs and linked to the rear breakfast room by a wide timber arch with plant pedestals on either side.

As with many Queensland houses after World War II, fibro sheets and glass louvres enclosed the verandahs, sliding aluminium windows replaced the breakfast-room casement windows and woven wire formed a new front fence. The tankstand was made redundant by reticulated water - also the backyard dunny, as sewerage followed septic and the pit became a fishpond.

In the latest cycle of gentrification, the verandah and living room were opened up for speculative resale of the property in 1981. The next owners proceeded with refurbishment upstairs while inserting rooms in brick, glass and concrete behind the timber stumps and battens, and installing fire alarm and security systems. They also screened the house with native trees rather than reinstating hydrangeas, wisteria, roses, gerbera and monstera at the front or citrus, bananas and vegetables at the back; no chooks or Hills rotary clothes-hoist either.

The house in 1937

The house in 1937

Walls, windows and the trappings of family life come and go, while carparking, laundry and storage continue underneath, underlining the adaptability of the open-nested house. This Queenslander endures as a traditional family home, despite the differing aspirations, values and circumstances of successive occupants.

The Workers' Dwelling was erected but not occupied by Evan John Harris, a drill instructor of South Brisbane, following building approval in 1927. The next owner's daughter, Isobel Deacon, heard that Harris had been jilted by his fiancee. It became the first marital home of Max Bray Deacon, a Queen Street and Cooroy solicitor, who purchased the property in 1929, including furniture made by Harris. Deacon and his wife Lola named it Whangerei after the northern New Zealand town where his mother lived.

'Every square inch of that house was used,' Isobel said, recalling the grand piano and brown Genoa suite in the lounge room, used for visitors as well as performances by Lola, a professional singer, and for Isobel's music lessons. Isobel recalled the sleepout with roll-up blinds where she slept on hot nights; chip heater in the bathroom; recessed electric stove in the kitchen; bitumen-floored laundry underneath; Ford car with dicky seat; flower beds which her father lovingly tended, intersected by bitumen paths and front driveway; and large backyard with a tall tree for climbing.

Home away from home ... Blondie Camp (in chair) with American service personnel, Alma, Marge and Jaff, 1943.

Home away from home ... Blondie Camp (in chair) with American service personnel, Alma, Marge and Jaff, 1943.

The semi-rural neighbourhood created opportunities for childhood adventures. The highlight was riding in a sulky with the local newsagent from Chardons Corner. Isobel remembered a half-dozen houses dotted around Tennessee Avenue, the creek opposite, bush as far as Cracknell Road, and the Aboriginal camp at the end of Wonderlost Outlook where Doreen, their household help, lived.

Tarragindi was still a bush suburb when English-born William Stanley Camp (Bill) and his Belgian wife Blondine Josephine Louise (Blondie) bought the house in 1937, naming it Joslaine from her second name and that of their second daughter. They moved from Holland Park to provide more space for the children: Gladys, Peggy and Jack. There were no footpaths or sealed roads, though only a short walk to Ipswich Road, and a 30-minute tram ride into the city where Bill worked for AMP Insurance.

The rustic environs shaped Jack's Yeronga State School holidays - yabbying and swimming in the creek, climbing trees, and pranking with snakes. The house was part of a close-knit community. Neighbours lived there for years, everyone knew everyone else, gates connected backyards and doors stayed unlocked.

'Ours was a musical and family-oriented home,' Peggy said. The open plan, with all entry points converging on the living and dining areas, lent itself to social get-togethers. The house was always full of people. 'Mum and Dad both sang and we grew up with musical evenings around the piano.' During the Second World War, when Brisbane was a garrison town, American servicemen and women visited them to enjoy what Peggy called a 'bit of home'.

Mum kept open house and they often used to come over on Sunday night to listen to an American radio show. If there wasn't a spare chair they'd sit on the floor in the lounge room. Many of them were in tears thinking of home. They put photos of their loved ones on the piano when we had singalongs, saying things like 'I'm going to kiss my wife goodnight,' and kiss the photo.

US services wedding in the sleepout at Tennessee Avenue, July 1945.

US services wedding in the sleepout at Tennessee Avenue, July 1945.

Photographed by WD Palmer.

In July 1945 this home hospitality extended to a sit-down wedding reception for an American nursing lieutenant and a sergeant. The flower-decked sleepout was draped with Australian, British and American flags. The front verandah was used a few months later for Peggy's wedding breakfast, following her marriage to returned sailor Leslie James. In the event of a bombing raid, the house windows were taped to prevent glass flying. Bill Camp, as air-raid post warden for the neighbourhood, built a shelter into the slope of the back garden. This was whitewashed and stocked with kerosene lamps and provisions.

The large subfloor area absorbed the overflow of domestic life - the typical laundry with its three concrete tubs and brick copper, a bird aviary and sleeping quarters for the dog and cat, storage for household tools, and parking for Bill's 1936 Chev and Jack's 1939 Morris E. The house became an empty nest in the postwar years, prompting Blondie to sell it in 1962 to Roy and Mavis Biddle. They moved to be near his work in chainwire making and welding, and to provide more space for their six children.Then the front verandah was enclosed on either side for the son and boarders, while the sleepout was partitioned into daughters' bedrooms.

Teena said it was a happy family house, recalling the informal lounge room with piano; the kitchen where everyone ate except for special occasions in the dining room; and parties under the house, which garaged up to three cars. The family's diverse activities were also reflected outside the house - the functional backyard with above-ground swimming pool, vegie garden, bananas, bantams, fishpond and rear gate into the neighbour's property, to cracker nights on vacant land opposite and roller skating at the rink.

The house served Biddle family needs for 17 years before purchase by Stuart and Margaret Greenwood in 1979. Its renovation for resale typified the investment gains in gentrifying Brisbane's timber-and-tin housing. Stuart, a Yeronga TAFE carpentry teacher, opened up the verandah, replaced the lounge-sleepout wall with a replica timber arch, modernised the kitchen with built-in cupboards including a pantry in the old stove recess, and employed his father to brick-in the laundry and toilet underneath.

Ken and Sheryl Ramsay made a snap decision to purchase the place in 1981, just after relocating from Sydney, as it fitted their bill for a three-bedroom Queenslander with verandah in an affordable southside suburb. They renamed the house Ajmer, after the inspiring Indian town where they met, and set about refurbishment to enhance its interwar character. The main concessions to modern living were made downstairs and outside. The subfloor fit-out included a large office for Ken, a town planner, and Sheryl, a psychology lecturer; a bedroom and bathroom to accommodate guests and the future teenage needs of their children: Christopher, Louisa and Gina.

The almost treeless garden was transformed into a leafy glade with paved seating areas and watering system. 'We were obsessed with natives and used to buy tubes of plants by the dozen from the Salisbury Forestry Commission,' Sheryl said. Otherwise the family uses the house much like the previous occupants, except for the sleepout which is the piano and TV room. Neighbourhood conviviality continues, with young families rejuvenating the long-time homes of a previous generation. The local Yeronga school still meets the needs of their children, as do the corner shops; and the park, where the creek is mostly piped, remains a playground of the street. From Whangerei to Ajmer, and several life-cycles in between - it's still a Queensland family home.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

The authors are indebted to the Camp, Deacon and especially the Ramsay family for oral, site and other historical information, as well as their hospitality, Brisbane, 1997. The historical photos are from the Camp family and the 1997 photo by the authors.

Certificate of Title Registers vol/fol. 1593/207, 1677/222-3, 2399/189, 1924-91, Queensland Titles Office.

Commonwealth Electoral Rolls, Brisbane, 1925-79.

Detail Plan, Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, Brisbane City Council, 1949.

Drainage Plan, Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, Brisbane City Council, 1971.

Fisher, Rod ed, The Queensland house: a roof over our heads, Queensland Museum, Brisbane, 1994.

Queensland Post Office Directories, Brisbane, 1925-41.

Queensland Workers Dwellings Scheme Annual Reports and Design Books, Brisbane, 1923-28.

Rechner, Judy, Brisbane house styles 1880-1940: a guide to the affordable house, Brisbane History Group Studies No 2, 1998.

Register of New Buildings, 1927, p102, Brisbane City Archives.

Suburban picture and cuttings files, John Oxley Library, Brisbane.

The Authors

Rod Fisher has written widely on community history and heritage, including the Queensland house. He currently directs the Applied History Centre at the University of Queensland and edits publications for the Brisbane History Group.

Vivien Harris is responsible for marketing the Queensland Government's Community Renewal program. With a background as a historian she has maintained her interest in all things historic and enjoys researching and writing popular history.