Do people do Sunday drives anymore? We did- across the Yarra and down to South Melbourne to look at the Portable Iron Houses in Coventry Street South Melbourne.
There are three galvanized iron houses on the South Melbourne site. The one facing Coventry Street, shown above, is still in its original position where, in 1855 it was one of nearly one hundred portable buildings in the vicinity that included cottages, two-storey houses, shops, stores and a coach house. It was valued at 60 pounds when it was erected in 1853/4. Portable iron houses were packed in wooden cases (which could be used to line the internal walls) and easily transported by ship or cart. They were quickly erected and could be unbolted and dismantled to be taken elsewhere for re-erection as a practical and enterprising solution to the dire housing shortage in gold-rush Melbourne. The house above contained four rooms on the ground floor, with two attic bedrooms that are reached by a precipitous stairway. I found it hard to envisage negotiating these stairs- barely more than a ladder really- with a babe in arms. The temperature of the attic rooms in summer must have been fearsome too.
The second house on the side, Bellhouse House, was originally built at 42 Moor Street Fitzroy.
It is believed to be the only remaining example of the work of Edward T Bellhouse of Manchester England. In 1851 he displayed his portable houses at the Great Exhibition, where they exemplified the practical use of new technology, especially for an imperial context. There had been iron houses available previously- say for example, this house designed for St Lucia in the West Indies, but the cost and the weight were prohibitive
(by the way, it should be ‘jalousie’ window, which apparently is just a louvre window).
There had been timber pre-fabricated houses as well (La Trobe’s cottage is a good example) but with these iron houses we are talking mass-produced, cheap, urban housing that could be manufactured in Britain and shipped to colonies throughout the world. The iron on the Bellhouse House runs horizontally, and it would have originally contained three rooms. I must admit that I found it rather charmless.
The house that I was most intrigued by was Abercrombie House, which faces Patterson Place at the back, where there were originally fourteen houses of a smaller size erected by the entrepreneur who erected the Coventry Street House.
This particular house was moved from its original location at 59 Arden Street, North Melboune in about 1980. You can see a picture of the house still in North Melbourne here and it being shifted by semi-trailer after being cut in half here. They must have had their hearts in their mouths while they were moving it, because it is certainly in a very precarious condition. It was last occupied in 1976, and standing there looking at the single light bulging hessian-covered ceiling and the layers of wall paper, it’s hard to credit that such primitive living conditions still existed in the middle of Melbourne forty-odd years ago. But conversely, on a wet and cold winter’s day, it’s also important to recognize what a vast improvement this house would have been on the canvas tents that were the alternative.
The Portable Iron Houses are presented by the National Trust, and they are open on the first Sunday of the month 1-4 p.m.