In the soft soil under his childhood house, Brisbane writer Matthew Condon built a little city with timber off-cuts, rocks and old plastic flowerpots. He dug a ditch for the river and filled it with tap water, watching the water soak away into the dirt.
His house sat on a slope, and he was probably playing where the floor above was close above his head, not where there was space for the laundry and the car. He could hear footsteps and the television from the house above, which gave him a sense of security and belonging in this secret space that adults never visited.
There was a space like that under my childhood house in Nambour, too, with little cone-shaped antlion traps in the dirt, designed to trap passing insects. You could drop a small ball of spit into the little trap and hope to lure out the antlion lurking underneath, or try to tease it out by tickling the soil softly with a twig.
“Grandfather Noble lived under our house in Velution Street,” Con tells me. “The ground was mainly dirt there, too, but there was a concrete pad with his bed and a wardrobe.”
There would have been carpet snakes and cane toads as well as mosquitoes under that old Innisfail house. I hope Grandfather had a mozzie net.
“Grandfather always smoked a pipe, and he had a bone-handled knife for cutting up his tobacco. I wonder where it is now? He’d come upstairs for meals.
“Grandfather was kind to me. I was ten when he died, and I wish I could remember more about him.
“And when we moved across to East Innisfail we played cards under the house. That’s where I learned to play crib. We’d play all day down there, my brother Jim, Old Con, Uncle George and I.”
“Under the house” is a Queensland concept, a tropical thing. There were many reasons for building these timber houses on stumps, with open space underneath. It made them easy to move from place to place and it provided some protection from pests. It kept the dwelling space above flood waters. If built high enough, it doubled the amount of usable shelter. There was more chance of catching a breeze.
You might have to watch out, though, or you’d bump your head on the beams supporting the bare floorboards above. Another under the house hazard.
Visitors – from Britain or the USA, for instance – might see the many houses up on stumps and ask why.
“It’s because of the snakes. If there’s a space under the house they’ll crawl right through and disappear. Otherwise, they’ll come inside.”
That’s a story to tease tourists with, but it has some truth in it. Rosevale, outside Ipswich, was notorious for snakes, and we lived there in an old timber house on low stumps. Out in the yard one day, toddler Matt saw our cat staring fixedly at a patch of long grass. He started over to see what she was looking at.
The cat suddenly reared back. Con snatched Matt up in his arms and then watched in horror as two long brown snakes slid out of the grass, across the concrete path, and disappeared into that low, dark space under the house.
Our Joe went down one night, bare footed, to get a bottle of wine from the fridge under his North Queensland house, and glimpsed something scaly underneath the fridge. It turned out to be a deadly taipan sheltering in the warmth there, its belly full of eggs.
If the house is high enough the hot water system will be set up down there, and usually the laundry, too. It’s a place for storage, for drying the washing in wet weather, and for children to play – riding their scooters round the posts, drawing with chalk on the concrete, building roads and rivers in the dirt. You can park the car there, and the lawn mower. You can entertain friends there, or sit with a cold drink and a book, because under the house has one particularly fine feature: it’s always cooler than upstairs.
Many sprawling new housing developments consist of houses on concrete slabs, including in regional areas – Kingaroy, Atherton, Roma. Those houses are easy to air-condition, but people must miss having that extra space underneath; and sometimes new house slabs go under floods even before building begins.
In Townsville, since the construction of the Ross River Dam upstream, hundreds of new houses have been built on low land; and when extreme rainfall in early 2019 forced the release of water from the dam, many hundreds of them were flooded, to the despair of their owners.
In the older houses on stumps anything under the house was wrecked, but the living areas were spared.
Nowadays, people often decide to lift their houses up high and build in underneath. Perhaps you own an old house near the river and want to lift the living space above flood level, or you’ve bought a house in town and moved it out on to a block of land in the country. You’ll need to check the building regulations. If you want to build in under your house, you will need to allow 2100mm minimum ceiling height for utility rooms and hallways, and 2400mm for living spaces; and you’ll need to replace those old hardwood or concrete posts with steel.
Old houses that have been hoisted up high on steel posts look silly, like a long-legged lady with her skirts hitched up. That’s until they’ve been built in underneath, painted grey and white and turned into lush “Hamptons” style dwellings that look great on a real estate website.
I ask my grandson Jim if there is anything hazardous about being under his house, with its old concrete posts a little under regulation height. Maybe snakes or spiders?
He puts his hand on a beam perfectly positioned for hitting your head.
“Just this,” he answers wryly.
Our Burketown house was a government-built dwelling, regulation height. Under the house was dirt and gravel, with a meat-ant nest in one corner, but there were clothes wires strung between the steel posts. Washing hung there at night would be dry by morning.
The concrete-floored laundry was down there, with concrete tubs and a gas-fired clothes boiler. It also held our 32-volt wringer-style washing machine, powered by a generator with storage batteries in a shed down the back.
One night I left a load of sheets in the machine, soaking in the rinse water, and in the morning went down to put them through the wringer before hanging them out to dry.
During the night, a big green tree frog had hopped into the water. The first I knew of it was the sight and sound of that frog disappearing feet-first through the wringer rollers.
A frog being crushed in a wringer makes a horrible noise.
It had gone through before I had time to click the rollers apart.
I told Marg from down the road about it, sitting on the back steps with a mug of tea.
“That’s nothing,” said Marg, a typical frankly-spoken Gulf Country local.
“I heard of a woman who got her tits caught in a wringer.”
Not so difficult to imagine in the heat of the Tropics, where many a woman, reaching a certain age, decides that a bra is unnecessary torture. In the Gulf Country I heard so many bizarre and unbelievable stories that turned out to be true I decided I might as well just believe the lot; including this one.
Snakes, mozzies, cane toads, floods, concussion – and the wringer.
“Under the house” is a fine Queensland institution, but it has its hazards.
 “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. UNSW Press, Sydney