Housing has many historic meanings in South Australia. It is the expression of a basic survival instinct, a craft, a business and an instrument of public policy; it is a means of making and passing on wealth; and a home of one’s own is the great aim and achievement of most adults. Thus, housing has large significance in South Australia’s history and heritage.

Aboriginal Housing and Its Influences

In 1836, when British colonists first pitched tents at Holdfast Bay, they encountered an ancient housing tradition well adapted to the environment. The whole of South Australia was occupied by Aborigines whose housing varied according to climate and custom. In the wetter coastal districts of Adelaide and the South East housing reflected the local people’s semi-sedentary lives as they moved seasonally between the coast and inland hills. In the South East thatched shelters gave ample protection during summers on the coast but during the cold winters people moved behind the dunes into solid mud or timber structures covered with brush and skins. In the arid interior housing was simpler. On his northern expedition in the 1840s Charles Sturt described a camp of 400 people with well-constructed beehive-shaped shelters made of grass.

Some features of Aboriginal housing were adopted by the new settlers, who erected their first huts of reeds, bark, thatch and saplings. But their ambition was, as it generally remains, to build solid-construction homes for their families. For that purpose, British and later German settlers imported vernacular architectural styles from their homelands. Prefabricated houses, joinery, glass and nails were also shipped from home, together with the craft skills, tools and machinery to fashion local materials. Vernacular European methods using readily accessible materials were first used, such as pisé (rammed earth), pug-and-pine (pine trunks with clay render) and wattle-and-daub (basketwork of light timber, such as acacia, plastered with mud). Some original walls still survive, protected by cement render or interior plaster.

Local Land, Local Materials

Although the houses built by Europeans were strongly influenced in design and form and even building materials by those used in their places of origin the process of adaptation to the new climate and the use of uniquely Australian materials was swift. These characteristics are strongly represented in the surviving colonial houses of South Australia. Indigenous materials included reeds and wattles, stone and clay, as well as a variety of hard timbers including native pine and the remarkable river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and other eucalypts. The use of these materials forms another defining characteristic of South Australia’s housing.

Building houses with local materials continued well into the twentieth century in rural areas (until motor transport brought down the cost of mass-produced items such as bricks and asbestos). By contrast, in Adelaide within a year of settlement brick-making and lime-burning had begun in the park lands, and most of the city’s housing from then until the 1960s was constructed of brick and stone. Brick was more common in the other main colonial cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

South Australian Regional Variation

Regional variations in housing form the most widely-recognised difference in built heritage between Australia’s states and territories. In the national context South Australian houses are significant both because a remarkable range of them has survived dating from the first years of British settlement, and because of the regionally distinctive and widespread use of masonry, in particular the ‘bluestone’ found nowhere else in Australia or the world. This was often combined in a uniquely South Australian style with locally-made red bricks. Until the 1930s wood was Australia’s most common building material except in South Australia, where three-quarters of the nation’s stone houses were located. Masonry (stone, brick and brick veneer) construction has remained a distinctive characteristic of South Australia’s housing.

Housing was far more varied in form than four walls and a roof. People also set up home in hollow trees and in caves or dugouts; in tents, hessian-and-tin humpies and sheds. Some famous historic ‘homes’ include Herbig’s Tree at Springton, the Burra Burra Creek dugouts, and underground housing created in the desert conditions of Coober Pedy. These places and many forms of nineteenth and twentieth-century housing are heritage-listed, and a range of houses are conserved and displayed by the National Trust of South Australia.

Some row houses were built (mainly by landlords, as at Burra in the Mid North), but the warm climate and abundant land meant that the detached, single-storey cottage of rural Britain and Germany was commonly adopted, rather than Europe’s urban housing types. ‘Dunmoochin’, set close to the corner of Maud and Alfred streets in central Adelaide is typical. This small cottage was built by Irish immigrants in the 1850s using a traditional plan and local materials. It still stands, with Mount Lofty Ranges bluestone rubble walls, brick quoins and a slate roof. A central passage divides two front rooms with a third room under a rear lean-to. In the 1890s, in typical Australian fashion, a back verandah was added and enclosed with corrugated iron. By then corrugated galvanised iron was everyone’s preferred roofing material and widely used in other construction, especially in remote areas where it became the predominant building material. In Adelaide and prosperous towns such as Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, cheap, machine-cut sandstone and limestone, called ‘freestone’, became so popular for use in front walls that it remained the façade of private housing until as late as the 1950s. Many corrugated-iron cottages displayed façades imitating dressed stone.

Social and Political Aspects of Housing

Housing was not simply a matter of architecture or economics; it was also socially constructed and included a wide range of institutional homes – both government and private or religious. From the 1840s South Australian governments funded, built and managed housing for destitute women and aged men, the sick poor, children, prisoners and state employees, including many hundreds of railway workers housed in cottages the length and breadth of the state. More than 50 government homes and hostels for children were established after 1849 and through the twentieth century, ranging from large institutions such as Magill Industrial School to ‘cottage homes’, and including a former gaol (Redruth), the Boys Reformatory Hulk Fitzjames, and colonial mansions such as Vaughan House (now restored to private ownership).

Housing was also shaped by government and financial institutions. State housing policy can be divided into three phases, the first (to 1910) concentrating on physical aspects, then (until 1936) promoting reform in housing and town planning and broader home ownership, and after 1936 integrating housing investment with urbanising and industrial capital. Colonial and local government regulations were initially concerned with public health and safety. Fearful of fire, an 1858 regulation prohibited the use of external walls of wood in Adelaide, reinforcing construction in masonry. Close-packed cottages were considered ‘hotbeds of disease’ and public health acts enabled them to be inspected and even demolished, while preventing construction of similar housing in new suburbs. While early urban worker housing of this kind was condemned as ‘slums’ in every Australian capital city, such slums were fewer in Adelaide than in Sydney and Melbourne because they had larger populations and greater prosperity, which promoted more extensive ‘jerry building’ of row and cottage housing. For similar reasons Adelaide did not share in the inter-war boom in apartment building, while stricter government controls in the period after 1945 limited the construction of high-rise flats.

Beyond the ambit of local government South Australia’s rural dwellers – including many Aboriginal families – continued to erect bag humpies or timber and iron huts well into the twentieth century. Destitute and homeless people also built shanties in their hundreds on vacant urban blocks and along rivers and beaches during the Great Depression and the 1950s housing shortage, but the proportion of such owner-built homes was generally lower in South Australia because of significantly more generous provision of public housing.

By then, housing had become an instrument of public policy with regard not only to health, but to town planning and economic development. From the early 1900s the town planning movement had confirmed the existing preference for single-family detached houses; planners designed ‘garden suburbs’ and oversaw the spread of low-density suburban housing, assisted by rapidly expanding use of the motor car. Australia’s first public housing authority, the South Australian Housing Trust, was established in 1936. The government aimed to promote secondary industry by keeping wages lower than elsewhere in Australia through the provision of low-cost rental housing for workers. The pioneering mass-production of cottages helped contain costs. Semi-detached double units were the first produced; between 1937 and 1965 more than 25,000 were built, mainly in metropolitan Adelaide.

Partly for the traditional cost reasons and partly for environmental reasons, from the late 1970s the design of ‘social’ housing was greatly changed with the Housing Trust leading the way. New rental homes were similar in design to houses for sale and were dispersed rather than concentrated in estates. To provide affordable and adaptable housing  the Housing Trust and joint venture partners built flexible homes that were low-cost and energy efficient, and embarked on urban renewal to diversify housing type and tenure. Tracts of Trust rental housing became places of the past and many of the large rental housing estates, including at Elizabeth and ‘The Parks’ (renamed Westwood) were intensively redeveloped with a mix of housing types and tenures.

During those years, from the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, housing was affected by profound changes in the economy and government administration. As urban consolidation policies encouraged intensive reuse of existing sites, single-storey houses in garden settings were replaced with duplexes or townhouses, a development opposed by many residents. At the same time, the National Trust and new heritage legislation encouraged the adaptive reuse of much older housing. Heritage consciousness also influenced new building design. Housing in revival styles was common throughout the twentieth century, but a new self-referencing was evident in the popularity of ‘Australian’ historical styles. South Australia’s colonial housing shaped a regional variation, as builders faithfully reproduced bluestone-and-brick villas with iron lacework verandahs. But the interiors displayed late twentieth-century amenities: multiple power points, well-equipped kitchens and spacious family rooms.

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