The tiny homes that solved Melbourne’s first housing crisis

ABC Radio Melbourne

By Nicole Mills

Posted

May 03, 2018 06:45:48

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These tiny homes would have initially housed middle-class families. (Supplied: National Trust)
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(ABC News: Nicole Mills)
Mr Ambrose said a Living Heritage Grant would allow the National Trust to complete conservation work both inside and outside the building. Hidden among the crowded lanes and expensive streets of South Melbourne lies three remarkable tiny houses. As part of the Australian Heritage Festival the homes will be open to the public on May 6 from 11:00am to 4:00pm. “It’s two parts of [Melbourne’s] development life: the gold rush period when you’ve got a great amount of people coming into Melbourne, and then also the slum clearance time when there’s a lot of change in Melbourne as well, so it’s representative of multiple periods.”The buildings themselves are also rare — the Bellhouse cottage is believed to be one of only two iron homes built by the manufacturer remaining in the world.The other is at the royal estate at Balmoral in Scotland.”That’s of international significance,” Ms McCue said.National Trust Victoria chief executive Simon Ambrose said the houses were significant because they provided a glimpse of what early housing was like for many Victorians.”They also demonstrate early prefabrication methods developed as a result of the Industrial Revolution that dramatically streamlined the process of building construction throughout Australia and the world,” he said. But they’re not the kind being lauded in modern-day design magazines or snapped up by hip young couples trying to get a foot in an out-of-reach property market.In fact, these three homes are among the first permanent buildings in Melbourne, having been shipped from England in packing crates and rebuilt here to solve a housing crisis from another era.The history of the original kit homesIn the 1850s Melbourne’s population was booming. Nearly all of these came from Britain, which at the time was in the grips of the Industrial Revolution.National Trust assets coordinator Alyce McCue said it might seem like an inefficient process, but at the time it was the best way to erect mass housing in the new settlement.”A lot of the ironwork that would have been produced in the UK couldn’t have been done here,” Ms McCue said. “This would have been quite a good way of living back in those times.”Escaping slum clearances, finding refugeOnly one of the three prefabricated homes still standing in South Melbourne was built on site.The building facing the street is the original, which was built by Robert Patterson.The other two, which are placed behind the Patterson house, were relocated to South Melbourne around the time of the slum clearances. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
Ms McCue said these basic homes, ordered from a catalogue, were part of a push to improve housing standards in the city.In their day, they would have been considered quite luxurious.”The sort of people that lived here, even though it seems a bit primitive to us now, they would have probably been middle class, so your administrative types, your clerks,” Ms McCue said. A substantial number also came from the United States. Photo:
The Patterson house is in the best condition of the three iron houses. (Supplied: National Trust)
Most were made of timber; about half came from Britain, and almost as many came from its colonies including Singapore. Some, including those still standing at 399 Coventry Street, South Melbourne, were made of iron. Prospectors were flocking in from around the globe en route to the goldfields.The gold rush created a chronic housing shortage and also an exodus of skilled tradesmen from the city.Enter kit homes — kind of like flat-pack furniture only for entire houses. The works will include exterior cladding repairs, treatment of corrosion, restumping, replacing the verandah floor and pinning back peeling wallpaper. “The iron houses are an intrinsically valuable place for all Victorians, but they also make an important contribution to the cultural life of inner-city Melbourne and the place is demonstrative of Melbourne’s unique aesthetic architectural characteristics.”The need for repairThe three iron homes are in varying condition. Entry fees apply. “We didn’t have the manufacturing industry present in order to do this, so it was a simple solution to get a complete packaged house.”The iron homes were freezing in winter and stifling in summer but they arrived at a time when most people in South Melbourne were living in tents.They were the first type of semi-permanent housing in Melbourne. These prefabricated homes were built overseas then dismantled, every component labelled, loaded into packing crates, shipped and reassembled in all corners of the British Empire. “We’re not just about looking after grand buildings, we’re about looking after what’s considered important or significant. Photo:
The buildings may be rudimental but are an important part of Melbourne’s history. Photo:
The Abercrombie house is transported from North Melbourne to South Melbourne. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
Volunteer property manager Justin Croft dedicates many hours to preserving and opening the buildings to the public. Photo:
Alyce McCue says the Abercrombie house will undergo repairs later this year. He said they told a story of the earliest British occupation of the area known as Emerald Hill, which was later renamed South Melbourne.”This important heritage place helps tell complex stories of the area, empire, political systems, global commerce, communication, industrial and transport networks, dispossession of the first peoples of the land, migrants and their aspirations. Photo:
Portable iron houses in Patterson Place, South Melbourne, in 1966. (Supplied: National Trust of Australia)
“They were brought over by the National Trust to save them from demolition in the 1960s and ’70s period when we had slum clearances across many inner-Melbourne suburbs,” Ms McCue said.”They wouldn’t have survived without the National Trust.”The Abercrombie house came from North Melbourne and the Bellhouse building was moved from Fitzroy.Why bother saving these tiny, basic homes?Ms McCue said the buildings might be rudimental but were an important part of Melbourne’s development story. The Patterson house is in reasonable shape and is kitted out with simple furniture including beds in the two second-floor rooms, which are accessed by a steep and narrow wooden staircase.The Bell house, which has been stripped back to its bare bones inside, needs some repairs, while the Abercrombie house is in dire need of work.

Words worth more than money for Melbourne street poet

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“I walked out of about two or three jobs after starting them because my heart just wasn’t in it.”

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Mr Wilkinson uses a 60-year-old Adler Tippa typewriter. “It sounded nice but I didn’t think it was a liveable idea.”So I looked into it and turns out that I would make enough money to survive.”

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Mr Wilkinson’s poems have been read at weddings and funerals. Swanston Street is heaving under the midweek pedestrian traffic. “I have a great level of life satisfaction,” he said. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
But this job is different.”I love doing it, it’s something that makes me very happy,” he said.”In terms of the interactions I have with people and the impact I can see that my work has on people, it’s pretty special.”It was Mr Wilkinson’s American girlfriend Kelsy who came up with the idea of writing poems for strangers on the street.They were looking around the bazaars of Chapel Street when she spotted the 60-year-old typewriter and suggested a career move. Get a poem.”The British backpacker is there almost every day. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
The price of a poem is set by the customer. The 27-year-old sits patiently on an orange milk crate, smiling to himself and waiting.On a card table before him sits a pristine Adler Tippa typewriter and a colourful, hand-painted sign that reads: “Choose your subject. “I sort of scoffed at the idea,” he said. He died not long after and Mr Wilkinson’s poem was read out at his funeral, something he described as “an honour”. Photo:
The most anyone has paid for a poem is $100. Pick your price. It’s not a secure job, it’s not a secure income.”I never know what’s going to happen or how the day is going to go so I work every single day.”But the joy he gets from interacting with those who stop to buy a poem far outweighs the steady income of the sales jobs he left behind. Office workers, tourists and shoppers are carried along in the lunchtime throngs, barely glancing up at their surroundings.But for those who do look up they may catch a glimpse of Alex Wilkinson. The most someone has paid was $100, from a lovely gentleman who had been stopping by for a chat every day, Mr Wilkinson said.”We had a bond going there.”I’m not sure that he actually saw the poem and valued it at $100, I think he just wanted to help me out, which I appreciate.”It’s not the only special connection Mr Wilkinson has made on the street.He once wrote a poem for a deaf and blind woman who spoke to him via an Auslan interpreter.Her brother had been in a serious car accident that day. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
He has also worked at a party for a man with terminal cancer who gathered all his loved ones to enjoy his favourite things, including his favourite beers.Each party guest spent five minutes with Mr Wilkinson, telling him about their relationship with the man and by the end of the party they had created an anthology of poems about the most valuable relationships in the man’s life.”It’s really touching to know that I can help alleviate some pain or bring some joy to people with just some simple words that sound nice.”Mr Wilkinson has been in Melbourne for six months and will leave in 50 days to continue his travels up north.You can find him across from the Town Hall on Swanston Street on weekdays from noon until late evening.On weekends he sits outside the National Gallery of Victoria from noon till about 5:30pm.He’s also on Instagram @paintandpoems. He sells poems to strangers to make a living. “Don’t get me wrong, it is hard.
Meet Australia's 12-year-old slam poetry champion
ABC Radio Melbourne

By Nicole Mills

Posted

May 03, 2018 10:23:27

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Alex Wilkinson sells poems to strangers on the streets of Melbourne. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)

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