My first weatherboard, Nambour

I was born in a weatherboard house.

Well, not actually in the house. I was born in the hospital down the road.

The doctor who’d delivered me dropped in on Dad on his way home. They were old army comrades, so the doctor walked straight into the house, into the bedroom and shook Dad awake.

“You have a baby daughter,” he told him.

“That’s good,” said Dad, and went straight back to sleep.

Dad was an excellent sleeper.

Ours was a post-war weatherboard house, almost ground-level at the front and on high stumps at the back. For the first year or so the timber was oiled brown, because there was a paint shortage post-war. My earliest memories are of that house, and I love that simple wooden style still, with the elegance of its horizontal lines of overlapping boards, layered to keep the rain out. No fretwork or iron lace, just some battens, perhaps, or geometrical woodwork trims. It’s how they built through the depression, wartime and post-war years.

As a teenager, my mother lived in Landsborough, in a late nineteenth century timber house. It’s still there, beside the road to Maleny. It has verandahs round three sides, pretty timber fretwork on the many verandah posts, a fancy front door, French doors on to the verandah, and a separate kitchen out the back.

My mother’s family’s house in Landsborough

In the vandalistic years of the 1960s and 1970s I mourned for these charming houses as Brisbane bulldozers knocked them down to be replaced by brick six-pack blocks of flats or pretentious mansions.

Now they are valued, for their charm and for their timber. Irreplaceable hardwoods from Queensland forests.

There are mid-twentieth century weatherboard houses by the thousands across Brisbane and the regions, and they have proved their durability.

Derelict, but still standing – weatherboard cottage in Oxley

They sprawl across the outer-inner suburbs (or is it inner-outer?) such as Kedron, Holland Park, Moorooka and Tarragindi. Many of them are simple housing commission houses, now valued for their location and for their solid timber construction. In the old streets of Holland Park the street plantings of the period, jacarandas and poinsettias, are now gnarled, shady and beautiful; and young families build cubby houses in huge backyard mango trees.

Holland Park houses
Weatherboard house in Ashgrove that my parents lived in in the 1970s, since beautifully renovated

My Dad’s family lived in a 1920s-30s weatherboard beauty in Nambour, with gables, timber arches and a handsome staircase.

My father’s family house, William Street, Nambour; since removed

It was sold for removal, years ago. That’s another feature of timber houses: they can be cut up, loaded on a truck, moved to another town and put back together again. I’m always amused when driving through Burpengary at the sight of all the houses perched up on blocks there, ready for sale, just like items in a shop. Many of these houses come from the rapidly developing suburbs of Brisbane, and they’re often moved to subdivisions in nearby regional areas. A tricky business, always undertaken at night when the roads are quiet.

In Woodford, the old school house we’d been living in was sold for removal, to make way for a new administration block for the school.

Under the old timber Woodford school house, lifted up and ready to be towed away.

Many grand, two-storied, verandahed country hotels were built of timber, because there was so much hardwood available in Queensland forests early last century. Now it would be impossibly expensive, and the hardwood would probably be imported from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia’s threatened forests.

In Killarney, on the south-eastern Darling Downs, Killarney Hotel is proof of the durability of hardwoods. I spent a couple of nights in that fine old weatherboard building, several years ago, and heard from the publican about all the times that the Condamine River, only a couple of hundred metres behind the hotel, has risen up and flooded it. And yet it stands, still providing beer and beds.

Killarney Hotel. Trees in the background mark the Condamine River

I like the charming timber public buildings in the regions, such as the spectacular Surat Shire Hall, built in 1929; the School of Arts, Mount Morgan, built in 1924 and setting up for early voting when we visited; Ravenswood Courthouse, a tropical-style government building dating from 1884 and now a museum; quaint Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Theodore, dedicated in 1934, that I spotted on a recent road trip down the Leichhardt Highway; the pretty Emerald Railway Station, dating from 1900.

Shire Hall, Surat
Mount Morgan School of Arts and Library
Ravenswood Courthouse and Museum
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Theodore

 With the distances involved and cost of transport, with economic stress and the problem of termites, in some parts of the state, especially in the tropics, other building materials have been used in preference to timber. Concrete is popular in the north, and so is fibro; and earlier last century, corrugated iron. I’m pleased I haven’t had to spend a summer in a house made of corrugated iron.

Corrugated iron and weatherboard side by side in Saint Lawrence, Central Queensland
Derelict corrugated iron farmhouse outside Babinda

Starting with the Nambour house where I was born, I’ve lived in twelve timber houses, including six school residences dating from the early 1900s to the late 1970s. I now live in a mid-1970s house of brick and weatherboard, so I haven’t gone all that far from my origins.

Brick – and weatherboard

There won’t be many more of these Queensland hardwood houses built.

Perhaps we should all plant eucalypts in our back yards. In a hundred years’ time, they’ll be worth their enormous weight in gold.

Princess Helen


My cousin Nadine and I are on a family history road trip. She flew in to Brisbane from Adelaide this morning, and we’re heading for Stanthorpe, swapping family stories as we drive.

Just south of Warwick on the New England Highway we pass a road sign pointing to the small town of Killarney.

“Killarney!” says Nadine. “Our cousin Helen – did she ever tell you this? – she was Killarney Show Princess in 1968. And then Queen of the Darling Downs. We’re related to royalty!”

“Yes, she told me. She’s still got the sash. And she’s says she’s still Killarney Show Princess because a tornado wrecked the Show pavilion, and the next year’s ball was cancelled, so she never got to hand over to the next princess!”

Helen grew up outside Warwick, in Yangan. She is a pretty woman with a dry sense of humour and a great fund of family stories to share. She loved the beautiful gowns she wore to balls all over the Darling Downs, as part of her duties as Princess and Queen. I liked ball gowns, too, and the long kid gloves, stoles, elegant mesh evening bags and corsages that went with them. I even loved the hair-does – teased up and rigid with hairspray.


We all danced in those days. In Grade Five at Nambour State School, I learned the Gypsy Tap, Pride of Erin and Barn Dance. As a teenager at ballroom dancing classes at the O’Connor Boatshed at North Quay, Brisbane, I practised more sophisticated dances: foxtrot, quickstep, cha-cha. The girls sat along one wall, boys along the other, and when given the word the boys would come across and ask a girl for a dance. The boy had to be brave and risk rejection. The girl took a greater risk: the humiliation of not being asked at all.

Every city and town had annual balls: Catholic, Anglican, Masonic, Highland, Show Ball or Race Ball. There would be a local band, and the dances would be a mix of modern, old time and jive, with covers of The Shadows, The Monkees or Normie Rowe for jiving.

“Did you know that Helen’s husband Keith played in one of the local dance bands?” I asked Nadine. “They’ve both always loved rock music. Helen went to see the Beatles in Brisbane, in 1964.”

“Lucky girl!”

Many of the balls were Debutante Balls. In the mid-‘sixties, when I lived in Jandowae, on the northern Darling Downs, I went to the Bell Anglican Deb Ball. Bell is a small town on the western slopes of the Bunya Mountains, and the ball was held in the public hall, its smooth timber dance floor improved by the application of Pops wax flakes, shaken from a cardboard box. Between dances, kids would go sliding across that slippery floor.

In the Progressive Barn Dance, at Bell and elsewhere, we would change partners as we went around the hall, and there were always a few unavoidable characters: the showy dancer with the tricky steps; the sweaty-palmed man who held his partner too close; the drunks.

The supper room couldn’t cope with everyone at once. While in the first sitting we were enjoying our sandwiches and cream-filled sponge cakes, the second sitting was pounding on the door to hurry us up.

Helen didn’t make her debut. She told me she thought it was out-of-date and silly. I didn’t, either. My friend Carol was a deb in Ayr, North Queensland. “I have no idea why, looking back,” she says. “We trained for weeks. We learned to walk, sit, curtsey. It was a big commitment, especially for the poor blokes we had for partners! We learned all the dances, too – even the Dorothea.”

“The Dorothea? I never heard of that one.”

“We had an arch covered in flowers to walk under, and a special cake to cut…”

Con and I went to balls from Stanthorpe to the Gulf Country, back in the day, but my elegant gowns are gone now. I’ve still got my long, white kid gloves, my stole, and my Glomesh evening bag. They’re quaint and retro now, and my granddaughters use them for dress-ups.

This article was written three years ago. Helen, princess and queen, teacher and nature lover, wife, mother and friend, died recently after a short battle with cancer. I will always miss her. Rest in peace, dear cousin.           

6. Keith and Helen Lees

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