Those Post-War Houses

It’s seven in the morning, and somebody’s knocking down a house.

I’ve heard this noise before, in this suburb of post-war public housing – humble buildings with large backyards. With Brisbane changing and property prices increasing at an appalling rate, these places have become very valuable.

Last year, a plain 1960s brick house a couple of hundred metres up the street from us sold for $870,000. Within weeks, the house had been demolished. The price was for the land alone – an ordinary suburban block.

Young couples and families wanting to own their own home will be out bidden at auction by developers and investors. Often, it seems, the house will then be demolished. In its place will be built a large, two-storied structure that takes up almost the whole block: probably a grey and white painted, gabled “Hamptons style” place like thousands of other new Brisbane homes. It’s this style that has sent grey and white paint spreading across the suburbs of Brisbane like some kind of contagious disease.

Magnificent new Hamptons style, Holland Park

Alongside them are those box-shaped places that seem entirely out of harmony with traditional Brisbane houses.

Box style, Holland Park. Hamptons style under construction next door. Post-war house on the right

Many of the houses that are demolished are not as comfortable or elegant as their replacements will be. I’m sorry to see them go, though, along with their mango trees and old-fashioned gardens of crotons and random brickwork.

A quarter of a century ago, we bought our house in what was then an “inner-outer” suburb, eleven kilometres by road from the CBD.

We now live in one of Brisbane’s “outer-inner” suburbs, with views of the tall buildings of the CBD; but we haven’t moved. The city has changed and sprawled.

In art, television series and novels, Brisbane houses are quaint, in the style called ‘Queenslander”, built in colonial years or the early 20th century, with verandahs, fretwork or cast iron, and frangipani trees.

Beautiful old Brisbane house: iron lace, fretwork and frangipanis. Woolloongabba
Splendid “Queenslander”, Graceville, 1920s-30s

Throughout the older, inner suburbs, this is true. There are houses like this sprinkled through the outer suburbs and beyond, as well: original farmhouses, country mansions of colonial times, and some that have been transported from the inner suburbs to make way for apartment blocks and modern mansions with multi-car garages, multiple bathrooms, pools and tennis courts.

However, far more Brisbane houses, thousands and thousands of them, are still the simple post-WW2 Housing Commission houses that were built from the 1950s onwards to cope with population growth and the results of wartime shortages of materials and labour. They don’t get the attention or respect that they deserve. Over 10,000 houses were built across the state through the Housing Commission in the post war period alone, most of them in Brisbane; and most of them still exist today.

Queensland’s Labor government of the day constructed these houses across enormous swathes of what were then outer suburbs. A huge undertaking in social housing, the Commission was set up to acquire and develop and build on, farmland, bushland, and superfluous wartime facilities such as the vast Military Hospital in Holland Park and the Leave and Transit Centre at Moorooka, and to manage sales and rental of the finished houses and cheap housing loans.

“129 acres of bushland being cleared for the Queensland Housing Commission, Belmont, 1950” State Library of Queensland

From 1950, 1000 houses were built at Carina, another 1000 at Coopers Plains. Thousands were built at Inala, Wavell Heights, Stafford, Chermside, Mount Gravatt, Zillmere and other outer suburbs, as they were then. Expensive real estate now.

One of the many designs for Queensland Housing Commission houses, 1950 State Library of Queensland

The houses were built to a variety of plans, two and three bedroom, some with sleepouts or small verandahs. They were built of a variety of materials: brick, chamfer board, weather board, and fibro, with corrugated steel or tiled roofs; and they could be bought for around £2,000.

“Housing Commission houses at Norman Park, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1950” State Library of Queensland

A famous 1950 photograph shows rows of newly constructed Housing Commission houses, built on both sides of a gently sloping dip in the land. Close together and almost identical, each has a long, treeless back yard and, startlingly, an outdoor toilet, a reminder of the fact that Brisbane wasn’t sewered back then. The location details are included with the photo, held by the State Library, and last week I went to see what changes have occurred there in the seventy-plus years since it was taken.

Standing on the site of a demolished house on Walker Avenue in what is now the suburb of Morningside, near the spot where the 1950 photo was taken, I looked north-west along that low valley, between Agnew Street and Moolabar Street.

The same view today, from Walker Street. The house on the right is the house in the centre foreground of the 1950 photo above.

You can see it on Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/DnQ5hdUAG1ZtegMz7

Those long back yards are now full of trees. No dunnies in sight. Perhaps a few have been kept, out of a sense of history, hidden among the banana plants and palm trees.

Walking up Moolabar Street and down Agnew Street I saw that many of those little houses, built close to their neighbours, are still there, although mostly extended and altered.

Moolabar Street houses – new and old, grey and white
Agnew Street – new and old, grey and white

Many are charming.

Cute originals

Some look as if they are rental properties, waiting for the owners to redevelop them. Some of them have gone, replaced by large, two-story houses that make the most of those long blocks.

This is now a suburb much in demand in the real estate industry, and the value of those quarter-acre blocks has soared. The average sale price of houses in Morningside is over $955,000, according to recent figures on www.realestate.com.au.

This story is repeated over most of the sprawling public housing developments of the 1950s and 1960s, and these changes are not unique to Brisbane. In many cities, older suburbs are redeveloped as populations grow and middle classes want more than basic housing.

Still, there are thousands of those little post war Queensland Housing Commission houses to be seen across Brisbane’s inner-outer suburbs.

Post-war houses in Mt Gravatt East, as far as the eye can see

Some look virtually untouched, sitting there with only a mango tree or jacaranda in the yard, or surrounded by a carefully tended garden.

Almost unchanged for 70 years

Some have been lifted up, built under, moved aside, or extended with verandahs and extra rooms.

Up there on top of the brickwork is an old Housing Commission house, Mt Gravatt East

I look out for them as I walk around the suburbs. I like them. Maybe one day I’ll move out of our family-sized house and into a cute and snug post-war cottage.

If I can afford to buy one.

Cemetery Birds

Toowong Cemetery is a miniature of Brisbane’s inner suburbs. It has main roads and side streets, steep hills, valleys, outlooks, hoop pines and fig trees, butcher birds and lorikeets. Wealthier citizens inhabit the hilltops, and the humbler spill down into the gullies. There are elaborate memorials, and neglected graves covered in cobblers’ pegs.

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From Toowong Cemetery, looking over the Western Freeway

Many of the family names on the gravestone are from the colonial past.  This place is a history book of Brisbane.

It’s spooky after dark. I walked through with friends one evening at dusk, and I wouldn’t want to be there alone. Strange people lurk in Toowong Cemetery.

There is quite a lot of my DNA buried here, but I have ancestors in graveyards outside Brisbane, too. A few years ago, my cousin Nadine and I went on a ten-day, ten-cemetery family history road trip to find them.

Nadine researched the names and burial places of family members in the cemeteries of Warwick, Texas, Dirranbandi, Saint George, Mitchell, Barcaldine, Longreach, Roma, Dalby and Toowoomba: a three thousand kilometre loop by road. She is fascinated by family history, and I’m always happy to take a road trip, looking for stories along the way.

So off we go. Most of the graves we visit are of people we never knew: great-great-grandparents, great uncles and aunts and distant cousins. Some, though, are of our own generation.

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Along the road to Dirranbandi

At Dirranbandi, we stop and ask for directions to the cemetery. It’s along the river, on the outskirts of town. Crows croak, the ground is dusty, and at the gate a woman on her way out warns us there are lots of burrs in there.

Our little cousins, Peter and Judith, have been lying next to each other for over half a century in this sad, hot, dry place, in this hard countryside. Peter died of peritonitis, aged four, and Judith a few years later, aged five, drowned in the river. The bush can be cruel.

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In the Dirranbandi Cemetery

We pick bottlebrush from the cemetery’s few shrubs to place on their graves; and back in the car we pick burrs out of our clothes and shoes and skin.

Our seventh cemetery is Longreach. As we drive there from Barcaldine, the sides of the road look like The Somme after a battle, with bodies lying everywhere – the bodies of kangaroos, hit by vehicles.

I drive, and Nadine looks at the map.

“The cemetery is in Raven Road. Go past Thrush Road and turn into Lark Street. If we get to Falcon Street, we’ve gone too far. What’s with these street names?”

“All the streets in Longreach are named after birds. The water birds run east-west and the land birds run north-south.”

“Well, that doesn’t work. There’s a Sparrow Street running east-west. And here’s a Crane Street, running north-south!”

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The bird streets of Longreach

“I don’t know. Just so long as we can find Raven Road, and the cemetery. We don’t want to drive all over town searching for it, like we did in Dirranbandi…”

In the cemetery we tread carefully. The dusty soil is falling away, leaving cracks in the ground around the graves, and it would be easy to misstep and sprain an ankle. The ground is so dry it’s shrinking.

There is a smell of death in the air. It’s probably a dead kangaroo nearby; but disconcerting, in a cemetery.

We find a distant uncle’s grave. It is marked by a substantial block of sandstone, crafted by the well-known A.L.Petrie Monumental Sculptors, of Brisbane. A stone like this must have been expensive to bring out here, over a thousand kilometres from Brisbane. The inscription indicates that it was placed here by his friends and admirers; but days earlier we’d found his own mother’s grave in Roma Cemetery, with no marker on it at all.

Mysteries of the past.

Last time I was in this cemetery, twenty years ago, Con and I were looking for the grave of Leonard Pitkin. Con’s mother Min had been married twice, the first time to Len, and it was his grave we trying to locate. A phone call to the local council had provided us with the grave number, and we eventually found the spot; but there was no name on the grave, no headstone.

Len and Min had moved out here in the early 1920s, looking for work, and in 1923 he died here of typhoid fever. Min was pregnant, and her father made the long journey by train from Mackay to take her home.

There are many unmarked graves in the cemeteries of western Queensland. In the early days, people worked hard, far from their homes, building roads and railways and wrangling stock, or cooking over open fires while wearing long dresses. Life was primitive, and accidents and illnesses were common. Many graves here are marked only by a rusted steel number peg and a sprinkling of red gravel.

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Len’s grave, in Longreach Cemetery

We’d sent a photo of Len’s grave to his daughter Joy, Con’s elder sister. She’d never seen her father’s burial place. She arranged for a headstone and came out on the train to place flowers on the spot where her father had been lying unacknowledged for over sixty years.

A few days after our Longreach visit, Nadine and I are at the Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery. Founded in 1850 and heritage listed, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Queensland, built to hold forty-five thousand graves. This cemetery, unlike the others we’ve visited, has avenues with of tall trees, mossy or lichen-covered: kauri and hoop pine, London plane trees, camphor laurels and eucalypts.

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Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery

Lichen makes the inscriptions hard to read. No lichen in Dirranbandi or Longreach. We find the headstone of a distant cousin we never knew, take photos, and move on.

Our last graveyard of the long trip is the Toowoomba Garden Cemetery. The grave we visit is fresh, the red earth bare and the headstone newly planted. This is where our cousin David had been buried just three months earlier, after losing his battle with cancer. David was the brother of little Peter and Judith. This was someone we had known and loved. This wasn’t family history research. This was personal.

So many cemeteries we’ve visited on this long trip, and this would be the last. And the saddest.

When I’m planted in Queensland earth, I’d like it to be in Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt Cemetery. It’s a serene place with gum trees and lots of bird calls – like a country town cemetery, but greener; with pale headed rosellas and king parrots, magpies and kookaburras. And no burrs.

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Pale headed rosella

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