Our house: histories of Australian homes

Seamus O'Hanlon
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

17 - A standard company design

Para Hills, South Australia

The Para Hills house in 1997.

The Para Hills house in 1997.

The story of my house begins less than 40 years ago when Reid Murray Developments (RMD) (SA) Pty Ltd bought farm land from the Kester family at Para Hills on the north-east fringes of Adelaide, subdivided it and began to build and sell houses, mostly to migrants newly arrived from Britain, Ireland and Europe. In 1964 my parents and their six children were among those migrants. Their seventh child, Tom, was born four months later.

My parents were Irish but lived in London. They were seduced by advertisements extolling the sunshine and opportunities of Australia and applied to emigrate as 'ten pound tourists'. After reading literature presented to them at Australia House they decided on Adelaide and Para Hills as their destination. They were sponsored by Realty Development Corporation (RDC) - the successor company to RMD which had gone broke - but were told by Australian officials they were under no obligation to buy from the firm once in Adelaide.

As it turned out they bought an established RMD house in a mortgagee sale from the State Bank of SA rather than a new RDC home. It was a three bedroom, gabled, double brick house with a protruding lounge, on a block 60 feet x 125 feet. The house had been built in 1960/1 to one of the firm's standard designs. Like most development companies of the period, RMD built a series of basic designs which they spread around their new estates. Replicas of our house can be found scattered throughout Para Hills. The house was arranged lengthways on the block facing the main arterial road through the suburb. It faced west and overlooked sheep paddocks that were later developed as open space and sporting fields. It cost £ 3,700, with my parents simply taking over the existing State Bank mortgage.

The O'Hanlon family, posed in front of their house in Australia c1966.

The O'Hanlon family, posed in front of their house in Australia c1966.

We moved in June 1964, on the same day as the original owners moved out - our newly-bought furniture on one side of the front lawn and theirs on the other. We rented the house for a month until the settlement was finalised. My mother's major recollection of what attracted her to the house was its large kitchen and dining area. This area was connected to the lounge by a servery half-door, which has since been replaced by a full door. The three bedrooms were arranged off the main hall in an arc at the southern end of the house. The bathroom was also off this hall and the laundry and toilet were off the kitchen. The living and sleeping areas were therefore reasonably separate.

The back garden was a paradise for the older children. It was huge. Having bought an established house, my parents didn't have the bother of planting lawns and trees as these were already in place. Also in place was a wooden patio that ran the length of the house. The top and upper levels were covered in vines but the rest was perfect for climbing and swinging on. At the top of the garden was an old shed and over the years it acted as a venue for 'boys' clubs' and 'girls' clubs' at which members of the opposite sex weren't welcome. The best part of the back garden was an old willow tree that seemed enormous to us, and which we climbed whenever we could. It was probably one of the few remaining features of the old Kester farm. The tree eventually rotted and fell down in the mid-1970s.

Within months of moving into the house there were nine people, two adults and seven children under ten, living in it. Throughout my early childhood I shared a small 12 feet by 12 feet room with my three brothers while my three sisters shared the slightly larger room next door. My parents slept in the front bedroom at first but then swapped with my sisters. We boys remained in place until 1970 when the decision was made to extend the house by building a new bedroom adjoining, but much larger than our present one.

The extension, or 'new room' as it was called for twenty years, was funded by a second mortgage on the house. It cost $1,200 and was a large (17 ft x 14 ft) double brick rectangle built onto the back. The boys gained extra living space but we all lost the play facilities that the patio had provided. Internally, the extension featured some of the 'buzz' fashions of the period, such as exposed brick and, eventually, timber veneer panelling on one wall. My father, a painter and decorator by trade, reduced the building costs by finishing the internal work himself - assisted of course by seven little helpers.

Apart from cosmetic changes such as painting and wallpapering, the house has remained basically the same since. Through the 1970s and early 1980s it housed studying teenagers and young workers. By 1983 only my parents were left, the rest of us having left home to travel, get married, or simply live independently. In 1983 the house began to be explored by the first of many grandchildren and in the same year it became my parents' retirement home. In January 1984 it became fully theirs after they paid the last instalment on the mortgage.

My house and suburbs' story is similar to many others across Australia. My house has gone from being a family home to one that is now too large for my mother to manage on her own. Similarly, Para Hills is now the home of a large number of retired people and grandparents, whereas it was once an area of young families with children. Australian cities have been characterised by new fringe suburbs populated by young families whose children then grow up and move to new suburbs even further out. The older houses are eventually bought by new young families who renovate them and revive the suburb in the process. Given changing household structures and economic decline in Australia, it is a debatable proposition whether or not this will happen to my house and suburb.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

Information and photographs are from the O'Hanlon family.

Dingle, Tony, 'People and places in post-war Melbourne' in G Davison, T Dingle and S O'Hanlon, eds, The cream brick frontier: histories of Australian suburbia, Melbourne 1995.

H John Lewis, Salisbury South Australia: a history of town and district, Adelaide 1980.

City of Salisbury, Settlers on the Hill: a local history of Para Hills, Salisbury 1985.

The Author

Seamus O'Hanlon teaches in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University in Victoria. He has not lived in Para Hills since 1982, although he visits as often as he can.