Our house: histories of Australian homes

Iris Iwanicki
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

16 - Adelaide Workmen's Homes

Rose Street, Mile End, South Australia

John Hayes at his Rose Street 'Workmen's Home' in 1997.

John Hayes at his Rose Street 'Workmen's Home' in 1997.

These attractive semi-detached cottages owe their origins to the philanthropy of Sir Thomas Elder, a wealthy pastoralist and mining investor, who died late in the nineteenth century. A recluse with no heirs, he left generous bequests for various good causes, including £25,000 left expressly to provide housing, 'libraries, schools, infant nurseries, laundries, baths and washhouses and for any other purpose tending in the opinion of the trustees to the health and moral welfare of working men and working women'.

The Adelaide Workmen's Homes Inc was set up under the bequest and the Trustees engaged Edward Davies and Rutt to design cottages in Rose Street at Mile End to provide a good standard of low-cost rental housing. When the first row of eight semi-detached cottages was built on the northern side of Rose Street in 1901-2, the Trustees were well into the process of building other low-rental accommodation.

There was a real need for such housing. In Adelaide, many workers lived in sub-standard housing owned by unscrupulous landlords and Charles Reade, who became the State's first town planner, caused a stir in 1914 with his slide presentations showing Adelaide's 'City Slum Housing'.

Built in Mile End on the western side of the parklands buffering the city of Adelaide from its suburbs, these cottages are well-situated for workers near the industrial areas of Hindmarsh and Brompton and close to the main railway artery from the south into the city. The design, with its crenellated entrance porticos, high ornate chimneys and 'good red Hindmarsh brick' walls, with a dressed stone façade, provides a sense of style quite distinctive in contrast to the surrounding suburban and semi-industrial area. The cottages squarely face each other on either side of Rose Street; their current use and smaller allotment configuration indicating the changing needs and nature of the occupants.

Each dwelling was provided with a bathroom, pantry, cellar, washing copper and an outside privy under the main roof. The 48 cottages at Mile End provided a range of five, four and three rooms each and were built on land considered 'of even more suitable character for the particular purposes of the Trust' than land originally purchased in North Unley, an upper middle class suburb. A typical 4 roomed cottage included the entry lobby opening onto a living room of 16 x 14 feet (4.88 x 4.25 metres), two bedrooms, each around 12 x 14 feet (3.6 x 4.3 metres), and a kitchen/meals area of about 16 x 9 feet (4.9 x 3 metres), as well as a bathroom, laundry and cellar.

In 1906, the vacant land around the cottages was enclosed with a substantial fence and planted with shade trees. This had been 'granted to the tenants for use as a Recreation Ground during the pleasure of the Trustees'. Originally on two large allotments, the northern one measuring 800 feet by 198 feet, the cottages have been altered in recent years by the division of the original deep individual allotments to a courtyard equivalent, with provision for additional 'villa' housing at the rear. This reflects the smaller households of today and the decline in vegetable gardens and the ubiquitous chook yard that characterised family living until the late 1950s.

Originally the occupations and average weekly wage of the occupants were stipulated in the Trust's annual reports, providing a rare insight into the lives of these working men and working women. The average weekly wage was £1/17/8 and three farthings, with the rent set at nine shillings and twopence halfpenny (or 2/4 per room).

Occupants included boilermaker, brewer's assistant, bootmakers, carpenter, charwoman, clerk, cellarman, commission agent, chauffeurs, a hawker, machinist, messenger, painters, railway employees, seamstresses and dressmakers, tinsmith, and waitress. Most of the women tenants earned a living from sewing and many of the men were employed in the SA Railways. By 1907 there were three saleswomen included amongst the tenants.

During World War I, the annual report noted that many tenants 'are at present serving with the colours or at munitions making and some are soldiers wives or widows'. Tenants included a laundress, packers, painters, printers, six railway workers, nine coachmen and drivers and nine labourers.

In 1919 it was observed that high building prices were at a level 'at which the Trustees did not feel justified in expending the funds of the Trust' and further building was deferred. Trustees expressed a preference for tenants with large families. To cope with expanding family sizes, sleepouts were attached to dwellings in the ensuing years and the lean-to kitchen in some dwellings was not counted as a room in determining rents.

In 1951, the annual report still referred to high building costs, stated the average rent was 25/6 (25 shillings and sixpence), and observed that 'it is expected that the new Landlord and Tenants Act will enable us to obtain more adequate rents in the future'. This Act was administered by the State's public housing authority, the South Australian Housing Trust. The Trust, formed in 1936, had a wide-reaching program of constructing public housing and also administered rent control of privately-owned houses. In 1952 an amendment to the legislation exempted Adelaide Workmen's Homes from Housing Trust rental assessment. The average rent was 29/4, a fairly substantial rise over 12 months.

Elevation and layout of a Workmen's Home by Ivar Nelsen, 1983.

Elevation and layout of a Workmen's Home by Ivar Nelsen, 1983.

Note: Front entry opens onto living room alongside two bedrooms (all three with fireplaces), with kitchen, bathroom, laundry and cellar at the back.

Today, the southern cottages in Rose Street are privately owned although the Workingmen's Homes Inc still owns the northern property. Owners of the freehold cottages like their unique design and the proximity to Adelaide's city centre. For example, Natalie, a postal worker, purchased her home in 1996 for just over $105,000, and lives there with her cat. She works shifts and finds the location close to work in the city and the western beaches ideal, the street comparatively quiet 'except when the planes come over heading for the Adelaide Airport'. She loves the distinctive character of the place and has been assisted by the State Heritage Branch in repairing the heritage-listed building.

Changes to her cottage have included polishing the floorboards - lightening the rooms compared to the original dark japanning treatment - new plumbing and drainage and a shiny new rainwater tank outside the kitchen door. The outside lavatory, part of the main building but entered separately from the back, has been replaced by a small laundry. The bathroom, up a flight of stairs from the small rear kitchen, provides bath, toilet and washbasin. A flight of adjacent stairs leads down to a spacious cellar.

John, who works for the Police Department, lives in a bigger cottage of similar design. He plans to replace the missing leadlight window in the entrance portico and has been financially assisted by the State Heritage Fund to repair the chimneys. Other sections of the building have also been repaired. The price of these homes ranged between $103,000 and $120,000 when sold in 1996, reflecting their varied sizes and condition.

When they were built there was no State public housing authority nor rent relief and the Rose Street cottages provided a rare opportunity for struggling families to get a decent home. Now no longer the domain of large families, the dwellings reflect the changing pattern of living since 1901 and the smaller household sizes in their current occupants.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

My thanks to two of the owners, Natalie Walter and John Hayes. The photograph is by Iris Iwanicki and Ivar Nelsen's elevation and plan is reproduced courtesy of John Hayes.

Adelaide Workmen's Homes Inc, Deed of Trust.

Adelaide Workmen's Homes Inc, Annual Reports.

Cockburn, R, Pastoral pioneers of SA Vol 1, Adelaide, 1927.

Burgess, HT, ed, Cyclopaedia of SA, Vol 1, Adelaide 1907.

Goss, F, 'Sir Thomas Elder, ECMG', Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (SA Div.) Proceedings Vol 63.

Hanrahan, Barbara, A scent of eucalyptus, Fontana/Collins, Melbourne, 1980.

Interviews with Natalie Walter, owner, and John Hayes, owner, 1997.

Marsden, Susan, Business, charity and sentiment: the South Australian Housing Trust 1936 - 1986, Adelaide 1986.

Pascoe, JJ, History of Adelaide and vicinity, Adelaide 1901.

The Author

Iris Iwanicki is a fifth generation South Australian living in a 1960s house perched on the edge of the hills overlooking the city of Adelaide. She has lived and worked in South Australia all her life, variously as a housewife, student, historian, local government planner, teacher and consultant. She has always been intrigued by the rich, hidden vein of Australian history sourced from ordinary people's lives.