Portable houses like these ones in South Melbourne, now under National Trust of Australia care, were introduced in the 1850s by developer Robert Patterson.The notion of the portable house, contrary to popular opinion, is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, it was in the 1850s that little-known developer Robert Patterson who brought the first portable houses to Melbourne. The houses composed of iron, flat packed for shipping and designed to be easily assembled.
Three of the houses remain in South Melbourne and will be open for this year’s Open House Melbourne weekend at the end of the month.
The biggest of them – a two-storey house, known as Patterson House, at 399 Coventry Street – is on its original site. It has four well-proportioned rooms downstairs with tall, multi-pane, cast-iron windows, high ceilings, a central passage and two attic rooms upstairs, accessed by an almost vertical staircase.
Insulation was not their strong point – the house was bitterly cold on a frosty June day. ”And they’re boiling hot in summer,” says Pauline Reid, a National Trust guide.
Like any developer, Mr Patterson recognised an opportunity with the influx of migrants around 1851 during the Victorian gold rush. About 5000 people lived in tents on a camp site between St Kilda Road and Moray Street, South Melbourne, or Emerald Hill as it was known then. A year later the government released land for sale.
Mr Patterson bought up land in South Melbourne and started importing his prefabricated houses from Britain. He brought in around 21 houses from Coventry, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides Patterson House, two smaller houses, facing Patterson Place behind Coventry Street, were moved from other suburbs.
Abercrombie House, named after its first occupant, Andrew Abercrombie, came from North Melbourne; and, at one stage, two families with five children lived in its modest four rooms. Kitchens were located outside because of the risk of fire.
Bellhouse, named after its English manufacturer, Edward T. Bellhouse, was moved from Fitzroy.
”The houses were erected in the factories where they were built,” says Ms Reid. ”All the components were labelled as they were dismantled and packed in shipping crates. So, if you were handy you could erect your house yourself.”
“If you wanted to move from Melbourne to the goldfields, you could take your house with you. But there’s no record of owners moving them. Most built them and stayed put. There was even a catalogue so you could order what you wanted.”
External walls and the roofs were a wider-gauge corrugated iron than is generally used today. Internal walls were lined with timber, usually from the packing cases, with hessian, newspaper or wallpaper to block draughts.
The Coventry Street house still bears Robert Patterson’s initials in one room and the crate number A 420 on the wall. Typical inhabitants were builders, clerks and civil servants. Up to the late 1960s, Patterson House was still inhabited.
”A visitor to the house told me that, when it was hot, the kids would move downstairs and sleep in the corridor with the front and back doors open to the breeze,” Ms Reid says.
The National Trust acquired the properties in the 1970s. Sixteen volunteers maintain the houses and the garden around them. The iron houses will be open on July 28 and 29, 11am-4pm.
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