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Aboriginal housing in Coolbellup, 1960s

As Coolbellup grew out of the 1950s State Housing Commission (SHC) development in Hamilton Hill, it became the location for many Aboriginal families who were moving into Perth as governmental controls on their lives and movements were slowly relaxed.

Early Coolbellup landscape

Fremantle Aboriginal man Patrick Hume remembered the bushland of the Coolbellup area before the SHC moved in, noting that it was ‘full of beautiful tuart trees’ when he used to ride his horse through it. As an anthropologist, Hume became expert in recognising Aboriginal sites like scarred tuart trees and quartz deposits, and his memories of Coolbellup suggest an area with cultural significance.

The North Lake and Bibra Lake area has long been known to be a culturally important site for the Beeliar Nyungar people who traditionally inhabited the Cockburn district. But alongside that, the area became significant as a place where migrating Aboriginal groups camped throughout the twentieth century, living for several months of the year between the two lakes and finding seasonal work on market gardens and local industry, while also practicing their culture and living semi-traditional lifestyles.

Harry Nannup, a Nyungar elder, grew up camping in the Bibra Lake district, and remembered hearing and telling the stories of the Waakal’s presence in the lakes. Many other Aboriginal elders recall similar experiences, and the presence of the Waakal at Bibra Lake is undisputed.

Aboriginal political landscape, 1960s

It was during the early- to mid-1960s that Aboriginal people began to move into the Coolbellup area in significant numbers. This was an era of transition for government policy regarding Aboriginal treatment, as it was widely regarded that the ‘assimilation’ style of governing had failed on all counts.

Assimilation policies

Assimilation policies had attempted to deny Aboriginal peoples’ cultural heritage and the history of discrimination, and to bring them up to a level that white society deemed acceptable. Only by forcing Aboriginal people to give up their Aboriginality, went the narrative, would they become worthy of living in white society, and more importantly, in white houses.

Fringe-dwellers and housing policy

As public awareness of the Aboriginal plight grew and the ground was laid for the 1967 referendum, the government’s attitude towards housing for Aboriginal people began to shift. Before the 1960s, most Aboriginal people had been fringe-dwellers, living in camps at the outer edges of towns and taking work wherever they could find it.

Aboriginal people were rarely allowed to rent or purchase houses for themselves, either because of specific legislation or ingrained prejudice at a local level. As their lives were heavily controlled - travel, marriage, work, education, and family life were all mandated by various Native Affairs officials - they were forced to live near towns, but not allowed to live within them.

Native reserves and ‘staged’ housing

For some decades there had been Native Reserves set aside in rural areas such as Geraldton and Narrogin, followed by attempts to provide temporary Aboriginal housing in segregated areas. This temporary housing was known as ‘staged’ or intermediate housing, and was intended to bridge a gap that some government officials considered too wide: it was foolish, they said, to expect a ‘primitive’ people to go straight from native shacks in the bush to a fully-equipped house, as they had no experience of housekeeping and no pride in their assets.

It was with the official closure of these reserves and intermediate projects that Aboriginal people began to be allowed to live in integrated housing with white people.

State Housing and the Native Welfare Department

With the large SHC development taking shape at newly-named Coolbellup, the Native Welfare Department saw an opportunity to capitalise on the new mode of Aboriginal housing. In the mid- to late-1960s the Department began buying up SHC houses to provide homes for Aboriginal families.

Aboriginal people moved into Coolbellup in various ways. Some had lived in the Fremantle area their whole lives and naturally drifted towards the Aboriginal housing area, while others applied for SHC housing as State tenants, rather than Aboriginal tenants. They came from all over the state, seeking out new lives and better work in the suburbs of Perth than were on offer in fringe-dwelling camps in the country.

Coolbellup became an area with a large and active Aboriginal community. Many social welfare and political advocacy groups were developed in homes and public halls, and lifelong friendships were formed.

Stories from the Oral History collection

Beth Woods, a Wongutha woman from the Central Desert, moved to Coolbellup in December 1966, after applying for housing through the SHC. She and her husband eventually purchased their house from the government after being tenants for several years. At the time they moved in there were already a number of other Aboriginal families living in Coolbellup, and many of them were involved in local Aboriginal social enterprises like the community health clinics in Hilton, Aboriginal day care centres and womens’ groups, and the Southern Suburbs Progress Association.

Dr Joan Winch also moved into Coolbellup in 1966. She and her husband were both Aboriginal, but due to the complicated method of qualifying people by the amount of Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal parents and grandparents, he was not classified ‘Native’ by the government. When he married Joan, she was also ‘out of the hands of the Native Welfare Department’, and they lived much less regulated lives than those considered officially Aboriginal by the government. So Winch was not eligible for Aboriginal housing, but instead got her house through the main SHC application and lived and worked with the many Aboriginal families already in Coolbellup and Fremantle.

More stories of life in Coolbellup can be found in the Aboriginal Oral History Project archive.

Further reading

City of Geraldton, Aboriginal Housing in Geraldton: The historical and policy contexts. Sarah Prout, Charmaine Green, and Julia Anwar McHenry, February 2012.
Find and Connect, Hamilton Hill Hostel (1971 - 1994?). Information about a government-run hostel for Aboriginal students in Hamilton Hill.




City of Cockburn
Whadjuk Boodja
9 Coleville Crescent,
Spearwood 6163

Po Box 1215, Bibra Lake DC,
Western Australia, 6965

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Cockburn Nyungar moort Beeliar boodja-k kaadadjiny. Koora, yeyi, benang baalap nidja boodja-k kaaradjiny.
Ngalak kaadatj dayin boodja, kep wer malayin. Ngalak kaadatj koora koora wer yeyi ngalang birdiya.

City of Cockburn acknowledges the Nyungar people of Beeliar boodja. Long ago, now and in the future they care for country.
We acknowledge a continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay our respects to the Elders, past, present and emerging.