Our house: histories of Australian homes
26 - An outer suburban house of the 1950s
6 Lewellin Grove, Carrum, Victoria
Lewellin Grove house in 1997.
After World War II Australia shared in an economic boom created by the rejuvenation of the world economy. Work was plentiful and to ease labour shortages the federal government introduced an immigration program, which added to the economic momentum. These were good times, coming after years of depression and war which had restricted consumer spending and household formation, but the building industry was unable to meet the demand for housing. For around 15 years after the war, shortages of labour and building materials meant that average income earners had to downscale their expectations of housing space, style and amenity.
Many built their own houses, or provided unskilled labour to cut construction costs and delays. New houses were smaller and more expensive than before the war. As Robin Boyd put it, 'the traditional plan and structure remained unaltered, but one by one the decorations and embellishments went'. This simple weatherboard house, built in outer suburban Melbourne in 1955, was typical. Modest and unadorned, it enabled the owners to live and raise a family in a suburban setting, during a period of escalating building costs.
In 1948 John 'Jack' Frost, a toolmaker from Coventry, migrated to Australia. Born in 1919, he was still single and by making a new start in a new land he hoped to put the sadness of the war years, in which his mother and brother had been killed during the Blitz, behind him. After stints as a mechanical fitter at Yallourn, and as a gold miner in Kalgoorlie, Jack worked as a toolmaker around Melbourne. He was never out of work until the day he retired. He met Gwen Warry, an Australian, and they married in 1954.
Jack Frost in the 'bush' on his Lewellin Grove block, 1955.
Gwen lived with her parents in Carrum, a seaside resort on Port Phillip Bay, around 35 kilometres from Melbourne. It was located at the edge of a large area of swampland which had been drained and made available for selection during the 1870s. Like most of the small towns along the Bay, Carrum in 1945 was ready to blossom as a suburb. The railway to Frankston had been electrified in the 1920s and provided an excellent service for commuters. A fine beach was nearby and there were ample homesites, their cheapness compensating for the lack of sewers and made roads. Carrum would never be a salubrious suburb because it was flat and flood-prone, but the area had useful community facilities, including a primary school, and later, a high school.
After they married the Frosts lived with Gwen's parents. They liked the area and bought a nearby block of land. Close to the shops, school, station and beach, it was an ideal homesite, but a lot of work was needed before a house could be built on it. The lot was covered in tea-trees and banksias and the road was a sand dune. But the land was cheap, and cost only £300; similar lots in nearby Chelsea, served by made roads, were around double the price.
The co-operative building society said they didn't mind me building the house myself, as long as I had each progressive stage checked by a qualified builder. The man who sold me the land recommended a builder. 'I've seen people who try to build their own place and then get into all sorts of difficulties', the builder said. 'Why don't you let me build it for you and you can do as much of the building and painting as you can yourself.'
The Frosts chose a design within their price range from the builder's book of plans. A fibro-cement garage was included in the price. Jack was earning little more than the basic wage, which in 1955 was less than £12 per week. New three-bedroom houses in Melbourne's outer suburbs typically cost around £3,000. The Frosts could only afford to borrow £2,500, which was still over four times their annual household income. This indicates how difficult things were at the time for working-class families.
The house under construction at Lewellin Grove.
Many families in Carrum responded to these high costs by building small, basic bungalows at the rear of their property and living in them until they could afford to build a full-size house. The Frosts instead chose to compromise their living space. Their house was only 11 squares; before the war 15 squares had been closer to the norm. It had only two bedrooms; luckily, this did not cause accommodation problems later, for Gwen and Jack's two children were boys (in the late 1960s the lack of space was partially alleviated when Jack built a fibro-cement bungalow in the backyard, which became a third bedroom).
The hallway was a mere 38 inches wide. The dining room was a token area too small for its intended purpose and the family and visitors took meals in the kitchen. The dimensions of the front porch ran to only a few square feet. Moulded cornices in the lounge/dining room and an iron porch light and screen door were the only ornamentation. The bathroom did have a separate shower and bath, and the laundry and toilet were inside.
Having the house built professionally took a lot of the stress out of the construction process. Jack recalls that, 'A man further up the street who was building his own place was constantly chasing materials which were in short supply - even nails. He insisted on going to pick his own wood, and chose the wood which looked the best, but which turned out to be the worst'. The builder used his contacts to obtain materials promptly, but because he was working on three or four jobs at the time 'progress was jerky'. 'There'd be times when things moved really quickly. Then there'd be frustrating periods when nothing happened. Our hopes would go up and down.'
The house under construction at Lewellin Grove.
Jack and Gwen provided 'sweat equity' by doing much of the unskilled labour. On weekends they painted weatherboards and window frames. They painted the interior, varnished floorboards and put down the linoleum. Jack and a neighbour built the fences. When a hole was dug in the sand for a septic tank it flooded so quickly that the plumber was convinced that a pan toilet would be necessary. Instead, Jack designed and built a handpump to draw out the water while the septic tank was being built. This toil took up all of their spare time, but they ended up with a soundly-built home.
Barbara and Graeme Davison have detected a pioneer spirit amongst post-war suburbanites who 'did battle with the elements, creating little oases of domestic safety and comfort in a dangerous world'. Jack's perspective was that, 'I felt rather like a pioneer because you don't have the chance to do that sort of thing in England. In England you saved up and bought a house which was already built. This idea of a buying a block of land and building your own house was new to me.'
Gwen died in 1984, at the age of 59. Jack still lives in his first home: he feels a strong sense of attachment to the place he worked so hard for and sees no reason to move. The house is now sewered, has a concrete driveway and path (laid by Jack), and has been painted inside and out several times, but essentially has remained unchanged. The open fireplace remains the main source of heating and in summer the windows are opened and sea breezes relied upon for cooling.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
The 1955 photographs are from Jack Frost and the 1997 photograph was taken by Lionel Frost.
Boyd, Robin, Australia's home: Why Australians built the way they did, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1952.
Davison, Barbara and Graeme Davison, 'Suburban pioneers', in G Davison, T Dingle and S O'Hanlon, eds, The cream brick frontier: histories of Australian suburbia, Monash Publications in History, Clayton 1995.
Greig, Alastair, The stuff dreams are made of: housing provision in Australia 1945-1960, Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1995.
Hibbins, GM, A history of the City of Springvale: constellation of communities, Lothian Publishing, Port Melbourne 1984.
McGuire, Frank, Chelsea: A beachside community, The City of Chelsea Historical Society, Chelsea 1985.
Lionel Frost is an Associate Professor in the School of Business at La Trobe University. He has written several books and articles on aspects of Australia's urban history, including Australian cities in comparative view (1990) and The new urban frontier: urbanisation and city-building in Australasia and the American West (1991). In 1994 he was co-winner of the prestigious Dyos Prize in Urban History, awarded by the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester.