State Housing and suburbia in Hamilton Hill, 1950s

As early as 1951 the State Housing Commission (SHC) had earmarked land in Hamilton Hill for development. In the years following the Second World War, Perth experienced an enormous population boom and housing shortages were endemic. 

Families lived in decommissioned military camps like the one at Naval Base, or in shanty towns in places like South Beach and Robb Jetty, where there were at least some amenities available to them. Their names were on waiting lists for new houses, but it could take years before it was their turn.

The government’s attempt to catch up on six years of house building - most residential building had been halted during the war - had them constantly on the back foot. The SHC had to take drastic measures, and in 1954 they did just that.

Land resumptions in Hamilton Hill

Commercial Bank of Australia, Hamilton Hill branch

In a surprise announcement in October 1954, the SHC released maps of 3260 acres of land they were resuming for the purposes of building 11,750 affordable residential houses. The parcels of land were in Hamilton Hill, Fremantle, Bull Creek, Bentley, Manning, Welshpool, Belmont, Bayswater, and Bassendean.

According to many of the affected councils and landowners, they had not been consulted prior to the announcement in newspapers of the fait accompli of the resumptions, and there were many complaints about the way the matter was handled.

Location of resumed land

The acres resumed in Hamilton Hill were north of Forrest Road between Carrington Street and North Lake Road, and at the time it was mainly what the SHC called ‘unimproved’. Aerial photographs from 1950 show the area as bushland with some large gardening properties and very few buildings.

Public reaction to resumptions

At 1210 acres (just under 5 square kilometres), the Hamilton Hill land resumption was by a large margin the biggest in the Perth area, almost half the total land resumed and more than double the next biggest of 530 acres in Belmont. Residents in Hamilton Hill and Bibra Lake were incensed, and immediately gathered into an organised body determined to fight the land resumptions and have them reversed.

Questions were asked in parliament and the newspapers about the deeper moral questions of resuming land for public housing: could it really be said that urgently-needed houses were a good enough reason for taking away land that legally belonged to someone else, even if they were compensated? After all, public housing ‘does not contribute directly to the public good; once provision is made for communal areas such as sports fields, it amounts very much to taking land from Smith to divide it between Jones and Brown’.

The fear of ‘Jones and Brown’ was evident in public meetings. A woman at one of the early gatherings of protestors brought up an issue that no doubt many were thinking privately: ‘it was quite likely that the commission would use the land which she and others had saved to buy, to house people who spent their leisure hours in hotels and betting on the races'.

The rights of those applying for houses with the SHC were always questioned in such a way. Those asking for charity, went the unspoken attitude, can’t be choosy about their handouts. Even when the need for housing was acknowledged its human benefactors were considered a lowly priority: 
The houses must be provided, but they need not all be situated precisely where all prospective tenants may want them. There are other requirements of a city's population to consider. There is, for instance, what the planners call a green belt. The built-up parts of the metropolitan area could sprawl continuously south to Kwinana and north to Wanneroo, or development could be arrested at the fringe of an inviolate area of parks and open spaces.

Council reaction to resumptions

The Fremantle Roads Board (precursor to the Cockburn council) also made an announcement in October 1954 of its policy on the SHC resumptions: they would assist ratepayers to get fair prices on the land resumed, ask the government not to resume land that was in use for private homes, agriculture or industry, and to voice their official displeasure at the way the matter had been handled. As the government had already resolved to do the first two wherever possible, and the third was inevitable, the Roads Board seems to have taken the resumptions as a given. 

Building the homes

By 1956 construction had gotten well underway. In Hamilton Hill 178 houses had been built, small compared to the 427 already constructed in neighbouring Hilton, but significant for a district that had been largely rural-agricultural land until two years previously. These were apparently concentrated on the western side of the resumed land, between Carrington Street and today’s Stock Road. The eastern section would become Coolbellup, but construction wouldn't start there until a few years later.

East Hamilton Hill

A district known as East Hamilton Hill sprang up, slotting fairly comfortably into the established Hamilton Hill locality which, as it bordered South Fremantle, was already used to suburban development. A new school, hotel, shops, bank, post office and sporting clubs all developed in the early 1960s, and it was still possible to imagine the Cockburn district growing into a larger but still unified community. 

Naming the area

The SHC was responsible for naming East Hamilton Hill, which was never officially a suburb but more of a locality within a larger district. It was not without some chagrin on the part of Cockburn residents, who lamented its clunky utilitarian nature and protested that it was too easy to confuse Hamilton Hill with its younger neighbour. 

‘Winterfold’ was the name preferred by residents and the council alike, who wrote a letter in December 1959 requesting an official naming, but the SHC and the Nomenclature Board (modern-day Landgate) refused on the grounds that the area was not large enough to have its own suburb name. 

Public and private housing

Though many of the houses were SHC-built and owned, there was less in the way of social experimentation in Hamilton Hill than in neighbouring Coolbellup a few years later. This may have been partly because the zoning for the area called Southwell (south of Forrest Road) was tied up in Council red tape for nearly a decade, while plans and demographics changed around it.

It was also true that suburban development in Hamilton Hill was also happening privately alongside the SHC development, and the public and private sections saw each other as separate localities. Even then, it was estimated by a staff member at the Shire of Cockburn in 1964 that the SHC were building 40 houses a month in Hamilton Hill.

By the mid-1960s, when Coolbellup was just getting off the ground, Hamilton Hill was already well established as the new suburban future of the Cockburn district.

References

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