Our house: histories of Australian homes

Meredith Fletcher
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

32 - The house with two lives

21 Church Street Yallourn/ Stringers Road, Toongabbie, Victoria

The attic house at Toongabbie in 1997.

The attic house at Toongabbie in 1997.

This house has had two lives. Built in 1930, its first 47 years were spent at 21 Church Street in the city of Yallourn, housing families employed in brown coal mining and electricity generation. The town was planned, built and owned by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, whose aim was to secure a contented workforce by providing ideal living conditions. When Yallourn was no longer essential for the SEC, the town was demolished to make way for the coal deposits that lay under it. In 1977, the house began its second life. It was sold for removal and transported 60 kilometres east to the small country town of Toongabbie and placed on a paddock.

AR La Gerche was appointed architect of Yallourn and began designing the first houses for the model town in 1921. He had to determine the type of housing and facilities that should be provided for SEC workers and their families. La Gerche was influenced by the current housing debates and decided that to live under 'hygienic conditions', a family required a five roomed house: three bedrooms so that the sexes of the children could be segregated, a kitchen and a living room. Because he was designing 'ideal' housing, a bathroom and laundry were provided under the main roof. A fuel shed was also considered essential.

Yallourn streetscape in the 1920s showing the staff hostel, recently planted deciduous street trees and neat gardens.

Yallourn streetscape in the 1920s showing the staff hostel, recently planted deciduous street trees and neat gardens.

Attic houses, of which 21 Church Street was one, had all of these features. Built in the late 1920s and 1930, La Gerche designed this set of two storey houses to add variety to the streetscape, and to place more prominent designs on corner blocks. The houses were weatherboard and had steeply pitched roofs that seemed to dwarf the base of the house. Roofs were tiled with warm orange tiles that were made at the Yallourn brickworks. The houses stood on red gum stumps with white ant (termite) caps, the floors were hardwood and interior walls were plywood with black strapping.

Attic houses had a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was equipped with a fuel stove, sink and wooden draining board. At Church Street, a generous pantry opened off the kitchen. There was a cupboard under the stairs and a linen press near the bathroom. The bathroom had a bath and hand basin. The laundry, with its trough and copper, opened off the back porch. It was a hike to the toilet in the corner of the yard against the back fence.

There was no private ownership or local government as the town was owned and controlled by the SEC. Residents had limited control over their space. Maintenance of the houses was regular and scrupulous, but for many years, the SEC decided on such things as paint colours. At first the weatherboard houses were oiled, their dark brown walls contrasting with the orange roofs, but by the end of the 1930s, most were painted. During Yallourn's limited lifespan of 50 years, modernisation of the homes was carried out to the SEC's timetable, with electric stoves gradually replacing fuel stoves, the installation of hot water services and showers built over the baths. When the town was sewered after World War Two, the new toilets in the attic houses were built on the back porch.

Yallourn was a garden city with leafy streetscapes that glowed in autumn. Residents were expected to keep their home gardens, bordered by regulation wire fences, at an acceptable standard. In contrast to the beautifully landscaped streets and parks, Yallourn lived under the pall of coal dust, that settled on gardens and food and furniture in the houses. After the war, the SEC's regular maintenance included vacuuming the roof space of houses, in an effort to get rid of the coal dust that accumulated in the ceilings.

The corner-sited attic houses can be seen in this aerial view of the newly built Yallourn Primary School.

The corner-sited attic houses can be seen in this aerial view of the newly built Yallourn Primary School.

Children loved the attic houses because of their nooks and crannies. The cupboard under the stairs and the one from the landing to the roof space were large enough to hide and play in. From their bedroom windows, they had a view over the streets and watched the world go by. Then a speedy descent down the banisters and into the kitchen for a warming by the heater.

Joan Scott lived in this house from 1939 to 1950 when she left Yallourn to train as a nurse. Her father was a storeman with the SEC. Joan ran the house after her mother began work at the Yallourn Hotel to help finance Joan's brother's training as an engineer in Melbourne. When the family first moved in, water was heated in the copper in the laundry and bucketed into the bath. Later a Little Hero chip heater was installed.

Joan remembers the living room as a visitors' room, with the family sitting in the kitchen at night, warmed by the Little Dumpy briquette heater. She also remembers a dreariness about her childhood during the war years. Blackout curtains made the rooms dark, and members of the family were busy with first aid and ARP work.

Patricia Dorgan and her husband James, a rigger, were living there in 1961 when the SEC announced that the town would be demolished to mine the extensive coal deposits underneath. After 1969, the town was divided into sections and dismantled systematically. Yallourn houses were sold cheaply for removal. They became holiday houses on the Gippsland Lakes, share farmers' houses on dairy farms or were re-sited in towns that had no association with electricity generation.

Roger Ries bought this house in 1977, to move to Toongabbie, 60 kilometres away. Roger was only interested in buying an attic house, an icon of Yallourn. He bought the house for $4,000 and paid another $4,000 to move it. In preparation for the journey, the chimney was dismantled, the tiles removed and the house was cut into four pieces. Two trucks carried the ground floor to Toongabbie and then returned for the second storey. Coal dust came too, a lingering legacy of Yallourn. The sections were deposited on Roger's one acre block in Stringers Road - a Christmas present for the new owner.

Roger Ries photographed the attic house in Yallourn in 1977, just before removal.

Roger Ries photographed the attic house in Yallourn in 1977, just before removal.

For 47 years, the house had belonged to the SEC who made all the decisions from who lived in it to when it was painted. The house was now occupied by its owner. But for Roger who had the freedom to change it, much of its charm lay in the fact that it was a distinctive attic house. Apart from a few modifications, he did not want to change it. The plywood was ripped out, downstairs rooms were plastered, new kitchen cupboards were fitted and the toilet was moved into the bathroom. Roger built a door in the wall between the kitchen and living room. The fireplace was removed and the chimney was not rebuilt.

A small part of Yallourn settled into Toongabbie. The Yallourn tiles are back on the roof, the same windows and front door face the street. But they look onto a different landscape. Toongabbie is flat and spread out, in contrast to the carefully landscaped model town with its dampness, fogs, constant rain of coal dust and amphitheatre of hills. Red gums in nearby paddocks form a backdrop to the house, and native gardens have been planted next to it. And where the house once faced south, it is now oriented to the west, with afternoon sun flooding the living room and front bedroom.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

Joan Scott and Roger Ries for their help in compiling this house biography. The early photographs are from the Centre for Gippsland Studies, those of the attic house in 1977 by Roger Ries and in 1997 by Meredith Fletcher.

Correspondence 1921-1939, Y/ST, SEC Archives.

Fletcher, Meredith, 'Classical symmetry versus geraniums: planting the garden city of Yallourn', Australian Garden History vol 5 no 3, 1993.

McGoldrick, Prue, Yallourn was, Gippsland Printers, Morwell, Victoria, 1984.

The Author

Meredith Fletcher is a historian, Director of the Centre for Gippsland Studies at Monash University Gippsland Campus, and editor of the Gippsland Heritage Journal. Her book, Digging up people for coal: a history of Yallourn, will be published soon by Melbourne University Press.