Our house: histories of Australian homes
23 - State Bank Cal Bung
3 Alma Terrace, Williamstown, Victoria
The Alma Terrace house in 1997.
Our house is what is known in Melbourne as a 'State Bank Cal Bung'. It was built in 1927, nine years after the end of World War One, as part of a plan to make Australia a better, more egalitarian society. The Victorian government had decided in 1920 that the best way to provide workers on low incomes with better housing was to offer them long term housing loans at low interest to enable them to buy a home of their own.
The State Bank of Victoria ran the scheme with a fierce paternalism. It drew up a book of house plans from which prospective clients must choose. It specified all the materials to be used and insisted that the building could only be carried out by an approved builder. The bank's building inspectors made frequent inspections on site. Over 12,000 houses were built like this. Most survive and have lasted well.
Number three is a Type 13T [T for timber] in the Californian Bungalow style which was immensely popular at the time. It is a compact design with all rooms clustered around a shortened hallway - very different from the Victorian cottage it replaced where the long central corridor bisected the whole house. The wood of which it is largely built was almost all imported: weatherboards and floorboards of baltic pine, framing of oregon from west coast America, and doors, skirting boards, picture rails, architraves and window frames of Californian redwood. Only the redgum stumps and hardwood floor joists and bearers were grown locally.
Note: Alma Terrace differs slightly as it has six light rather than four light windows and no fireplace in the front bedroom.
Internal walls are clad with fibrous plaster, an early use of this material, which is far easier for the renovator to revive than the lath and plaster which it replaced. It had almost all the modern conveniences available in 1927 - there was electric lighting and an Early Kooka gas cooker shared the cooking alcove with an IXL wood-fired range. In the bathroom a gas water heater provided warm showers while hot water in the laundry came from a wood-fired copper. The toilet was out the back, but it was connected to the sewers.
This was the first home of newly-weds George and Hilda Bennetts. George worked for the Victorian railways at nearby Newport station and rode a bicycle to work. They decorated cheaply and roughly. In the small yard there was a substantial fernery of slatted wood, probably built professionally soon after the house had been finished. George also put together a ricketty shed from scavenged materials.
Rose, shrub and tree varieties popular in the 1920s were planted. Cotoneasters and lilly pillys grew to dominate and shade most of the yard while in the front garden a gum tree, an unusual planting in the 1920s, filled one corner. Cut down at some stage when it became too large it suckered and sprang up to become a large tree once more.
George and Hilda would remain in the house for the rest of their lives, a span of almost 60 years. They were not infected by the consumerist ethic of the twentieth century and assembled only a modest collection of furnishings. They made few alterations to the house, probably because it continued to fulfil their limited requirements. Because they had no children there was always ample room.
During the 1950s or 1960s the front verandah was partially weatherboarded and glassed in, probably to provide a sheltered sitting spot. While the house was rewired, they never installed a hot water system to pipe hot water to the kitchen and bathroom sink.
George eventually lost his job with the railways. He did not find other work and Hilda had to work in a shop selling lottery tickets to bring in enough to meet the house repayments. She had also worked during the war at the Angliss meatworks. George died in the house in the mid-1980s. In her final years on her own Hilda lived only in the kitchen and on a couch in the breakfast room, warming herself in front of a small electric radiator. When she was found disoriented one morning, having spent the night outside, it was decided she should sell up and go to live with her former neighbours.
The Alma Terrace house looked like this when we bought it in 1990.
We saw the house first in 1990. Refugees from Melbourne's south eastern suburbs and 20 years in a large, open plan house, we were looking for a new lifestyle after the kids left home. We scoured Williamstown for a year in search of an affordable but sound Victorian house, but without success. We saw number 3 before it went onto the market. The house was dirty and gloomy, windows shrouded with filthy lace, blinds and heavy curtains. Coal dust from the chimneys of the old Newport power station had permeated everywhere but the T shaped hallway was elegant and inviting. We could see what we were looking for beneath the mess - a vision that would sometimes fade during the next few months of renovations - and bought it before it could go to auction.
We did not wish to live in the house as it was. There was no hot water and kitchen and bathroom seemed tiny and primitive, so we planned alterations and a modest extension. An architect gave shape to our ideas. We wanted to move back to private enclosed spaces but to retain a central kitchen and living area which was open and communal and would also integrate house and courtyard garden. A builder set about the extension and structural work while we did demolition and removal.
We found beer bottles and fortified wine bottles by the score under the floor of the outside toilet and shed and buried in the garden. Someone had been a secret drinker. We then began to renovate the existing rooms. Plaster was repinned to the wall, floors were sanded and varnished and the redwood had its dull matt black coating of meths and tar laboriously scraped away before varnish revealed its wonderful deep red lustre. More hours of backbreaking labour were involved in scrubbing water-based kalsomine paint from walls and ceilings before they could be recoated with modern paints.
Note: The sunroom faces a tiny hidden back garden.
We were not restoring, but renovating the house. A garage was added to the side, significantly changing its appearance. Here, much of the renovation work has been carried out. Cars are not allowed in. Enclosed by high fences the back yard has become a serene secret cottage garden. The demolished kitchen chimney and laundry copper provided the bricks for pathways, while the jarrah from the back verandah was recycled as kitchen cupboards.
Not everything is yet finished to our liking, but we share a real sense of achievement in creating a new living environment. The design has worked as we hoped it would and visitors can be accommodated in their own private spaces. While the house has still not reared any children, periodically it shelters two boisterous grandchildren and it is home to two lively puppies who have taken to excavating the garden.
Tony Dingle teaches economic history at Monash University and has researched extensively in Australian and British economic and social history and urban history. His five books include: Settling, Vol 2 of the three volume 150th anniversary history of Victoria, 1984; Vital connections: Melbourne and its Board of Works, 1891-1991, 1991 (with Carolyn Rasmussen); as well as The cream brick frontier: histories of Australian suburbia, 1995 (with Graeme Davison and Seamus O'Hanlon).
He is presently involved in the Encyclopedia of Melbourne Project as an associate editor. His current projects include studies of house and home in postwar suburbia, owner building in Australia, the growth of consumerism and a history of the relationship between Melbourne and the River Yarra.