Our house: histories of Australian homes

David Dolan
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

33 - Perth's Anzac Cottage

38 Kalgoorlie Street, Mt Hawthorn, Western Australia

Anzac Cottage and its flagpole in 1997.

Anzac Cottage and its flagpole in 1997.

'Anzac Cottage' is a four-room bungalow built in an ordinary suburban street in Perth in 1916. This pleasing but nondescript place is also unique and famous nationally as 'the house that was built in a day' by hundreds of workers watched by a crowd of thousands. Without signs to attract attention, it looks like any other residence, except for the tall flagpole on which the original resident Cuthbert Porter raised the Australian flag every dawn for 48 years. Anzac Cottage was Australia's first World War I memorial: a practical memorial, in the form of a home for the first wounded Anzac soldier to return to Mt Hawthorn from the ill-fated but legendary Gallipoli campaign.

Local architect Alfred Levido designed Anzac Cottage to be frontally symmetrical around a central passage, on a plan widely favoured in simple houses of the period. In keeping with its symbolic significance it was well finished with picturesque detailing, such as the ornamental woodwork and glass, and two small finialed gables in its tiled roof redolent of the pre-war 'Federation' style. Local street names proclaim the wartime patriotism which inspired the building of this cottage at 38 Kalgoorlie Street, near Anzac and Britannia Roads, not far from Federation Street.

Saturday 12 February 1916 was a big day in Mount Hawthorn. At 3.30am to the accompaniment of a ringing bell a town crier appointed for the day exhorted residents: 'Arise! arise! Anzac Cottage is being built today'. There had been some groundwork done on the previous two Saturdays. On 29 January a group of men had cleared the block, reducing its trees to firewood, after which they enjoyed afternoon tea provided by the Ladies Patriotic Guild. The following Saturday saw a 'carters' bee'. The souvenir booklet documenting the building of Anzac Cottage (which went to several editions) blends the big theme with the fine detail in its description:

"No finer display of Patriotic and industrial effort has ever been seen in Perth than ... when 70 drays, laden with building material, formed up in procession.... Fully 150 men gave up their Saturday afternoon... and the procession was about half a mile long. Mrs. C. Roberts, the 'Soldiers' Queen' headed the procession in her motor car, which also carried a Metters' stove and copper, and was accompanied by two other decorated motor cars. Then came 20 drays of stone, 27 of bricks, 1 of lime, 3 of tiles, 12 of timber, 1 of cement and paints, 1 of scaffolding, 1 tiled grate, 1 large enamel bath, 1 of refreshments, and 1 of sundries. The procession was viewed by thousands as it proceeded to Mt. Hawthorn, and on arrival at 'Anzac' was greeted by hundreds of enthusiastic men women and children."

The Soldiers' Queen starts the trench for the foundations of Anzac Cottage.

The Soldiers' Queen starts the trench for the foundations of Anzac Cottage.

This was a prelude to the grand day a week later when 4000 people turned up to watch 200 voluntary workers (about the usual ratio) actually build the house which they aimed to complete including the fence, gateposts, and instant turf lawn. Mrs Roberts started the digging of the first trench for the foundations, and by 2pm the walls were at ceiling height. While the finishing touches were being put in place between 3.30 and 5pm, various parliamentarians, councillors, the Mayor, and the Governor spoke, unveiled, laid, and hoisted a selection of speeches, plaques and flags - assisted of course by the Soldiers' Queen whose military royalty appears to have been earned in a fund-raising competition.

Anzac cottage was built by a community for a person - not at the time yet nominated as an individual - who symbolised that community's pride and imperial loyalty. It grew out of a social mood and a community movement in the then working-class Perth suburb of Mount Hawthorn. It all turned out very Australian, and could not have been more so if it had been manipulated by a public relations expert. It was not a flat or apartment that the War was fought for, but the expectation of a house of one's own on its own block as a family home. How apt that Fortune so arranged it that the recipient, on behalf of all soldiers, of the community's recognition, was not a commissioned officer or even an NCO but an enlisted man of the lowest rank.

Hoisting the flag while Anzac Cottage (background) is completed on Saturday 26th February 1916.

Hoisting the flag while Anzac Cottage (background) is completed on Saturday 26th February 1916.

Private Cuthbert John Porter was at first understandably embarrassed at being the sole beneficiary of the city's gratitude to his military colleagues. His reluctance to accept the free house, available to his family in perpetuity as long as they occupied it, only made him more of a celebrity. He formally took over the property on 16 April 1916, less than a year after the original Anzac landing, to the accompaniment of community singing featuring 'Rule Britannia' and 'Home Sweet Home'.

Just as the community events surrounding its erection reinforced as well as drew on patriotic sentiments, Anzac Cottage helped entrench the legend which gave it its name. With its flag aloft, it was a local landmark until Porter's death in 1964. Private Porter's war wounds did not prevent him from fathering a family of four children, who grew up in an official monument, as the conditions of their occupancy required that the place remained a memorial to the Gallipoli landing. Mrs Porter survived her husband by four years, and later some of their grandchildren occupied the house.

After that, the story got muddier, with disputes over entitlements, attempts at eviction, and confusion over responsibility for maintenance as the house deteriorated with its nominal owner the Mt Hawthorn Progress Association no longer operative. Partly for this reason it was effectively unchanged over three-quarters of a century. During the 1970s minor additions were made at the rear, but the original fabric remained virtually untouched. In the early 1990s the cottage was vested in the Vietnam Veterans Association. Lotteries Commission funding allowed restoration and interpretation to commence in 1995.

 'Mt Hawthorn's monument to Australian valour'.

Anzac Cottage in 1916: 'Mt Hawthorn's monument to Australian valour'.

Enthusiasts claim that Anzac Cottage is Australia's only practical war memorial, but that ignores the usefulness of dozens of memorial hospitals, schools and clubs. It is, however, unique as the first Australian war memorial, and the only one in the form of a single dedicated domestic dwelling. It may eventually become a museum rather than a residence, but the involvement of a new local body, the Mt Hawthorn Anzac Cottage Restoration Group, is evidence of continuing community interest, and will ensure that it retains its primary role as a war memorial.

Anzac Cottage plan

Anzac Cottage plan

Drawn by K Aris & C Sefton, B Architecture students, from an unpublished report, Curtin University 1988

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

Photographs are from the Anzac Cottage souvenir booklet, 2nd edition, 1916, and the author.

Anzac Cottage souvenir booklet, 1916.

Gray, Laura, Anzac Cottage Conservation Plan, 1996.

The Author

David Dolan is Professor and Director of the Research Institute for Cultural Heritage at Curtin University, Western Australia. He is a member of the Heritage Council of WA, and a Councillor of the National Trust of Australia (WA). He has been Curator of Lanyon Homestead near Canberra, Manager of Collection Development and Research at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and a Director of AusHeritage Ltd.