Zillmere Housing Project 1950-1953

Steep Learning Curve for State and Federal Governments

The Australian Dream - A 'good' job and a house on a block of land owned by the occupant.

Australian governments have striven in various ways to implement this dream but by the end of World War II the dream had become a nightmere for many.

Shortages of building materials and skilled labour were endemic and then there was the cost, it just kept on going up chased by wages; or was it the other way round? The word inflation was working its way into the language.

Something had to be done, but what? People needed houses desperately. The Government was expected to act but the old government schemes and private enterprise did not seem to be capable of solving the problem. A new approach was needed and one appeared; if we couldn't build enough houses why not get European builders to help out?

So the great experiment got under way and it was big! 'They' were talking about three thousand houses, just in Brisbane. And it would only take a few years.

Yes, it looked good but, there is always a but, while it was a good idea it wasn't managed as well as it might have been.

So, to begin, we need to look at the previous home building schemes operated by the Queensland Government.

Queensland Government House Building Schemes

As early as 1909 the Queensland Government introduced a scheme to provide low cost housing for ordinary working people. This was partly financed by loans from the Government Savings Bank.

The homes were basic, four or six rooms, and cost between $400 and $600 with a block of land costing up to $120. The Basic Wage of the time for an unskilled labourer was $4.40 per week. Tradesmen would have earned more and would have had better access to a house of their own.

In 1919 following WWI the scheme was extended and the repayment made easier for workers. (Rent book example) By June 1940 some 19,000 homes had been built under these Government schemes in Queensland.

By 1944 it was estimated that there was a housing shortage of some 300,000 houses in Australia. A major cause was the Great Depression which saw so many workers unemployed, sometimes for years, and consequently unable to borrow money to build houses.

In 1945 following WWII the Commonwealth and States drew up an agreement to tackle the housing shortage on a much bigger scale. Each state had a Housing Commission and the Commonwealth provided much finance.

In 1949 governments began to explore the possibility of employing European building contractors. The European builders were to bring the supplies including prefabricated houses, skilled building workers, managers and machinery. It was a bold move and, on the surface, looked like an ideal way to help solve the housing shortage.

The New House 1951 Style

La Premier, Duffy Street, Zillmere was possibly the first house built. It was used as a display house and the manager of the French firm lived in it for a time. (136581.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 136581)

The house model chosen for the Zillmere Housing Project was a very modern one for the early post-World War II period. Many of them are still around today, sometimes remodelled or extended.

The low chain wire fence was quite new and was widely used in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a change from the more traditional picket fence or the pailing fence dividing the side of the blocks.

The small front gate was referred to as wrought iron gate but was made from mild steel and was subject to rust so it had to be painted.

Lawns were becoming more common as long as the 'man of the house' could push the lawn mower. The Victa rotary mower which made lawns very common was just making its appearance.

Garages were appearing as people acquired their first cars. But one thing did not change, the outdoor, pan lavatory, the indoor flush toilets had to wait for the sewerage system to be built. Many houses retained their old 'dunny' using it to store garden tools.

This display photo shows how the lounge or living room in the new house could be furnished. The age of built in furniture had not arrived. Probably the buyer could install whatever they wanted. (136993.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 136993)

With full employment, incomes of working people were rising and so were their ideas of what constituted good furnishings.

One longtime resident highlighted an unforeseen problem with the comment "The pre-fabricated frames (of the houses) arrived from France to be simply 'nailed together' only to find the Metric measurements were incompatible with the Australian Imperial measurements designed for the interior linings of the home. A lot of swearing and cursing was heard as tempers rose during construction and sorting out the oversight."

Floor coverings would have been one problem as they were designed for 12 foot wide rooms which is 3.657 m in the Metric system and the French would hardly use that size. The nearest length for the French would probably be 3.5 m which was 11 feet 6.5 inches in Australia. I have not heard how they solved the problem, probably cut the floor covering to fit. Anybody know?

This was another setting for the new houses. The buyer would furnish the rooms in the customery way for the time. (136984.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 136984)

Variety was the coming style, people were beginning to get used to many choices of furniture, drapes, floor coverings, light fittings and, in the kitchen the ice box was giving way to the Silent Knight refrigerator. Wireless (Radio) sets were becoming common as was a power point or two in some rooms.

The Optimistic Beginning

Zillmere in the 1950s was an outer suburb of Brisbane and had plenty of land available. Much of it was small farms such as this Pineapple farm. The land was flat, well drained and ideal for house building. (Source Unknown)

The first contract with the French firm LeCorche Frères and Schroth was signed in April 1950 for 750 prefabs costing £1,934 272 ($3,868,542)-(Vernooy p. 16.)
Vernooy p.20 notes that several contracts were signed to build 3,000 houses in several localities by French, Swedish, Italian and Dutch firms but only about 2,000 were actually built. Of the 1000 homes for the Zillmere area only 886 were built.
The homes were to be mostly clad with chamferboard or weatherboard and some with asbestos cement sheets. The roof was to be sheeted with Super Six asbestos cement. This was before we knew just how toxic asbestos was, much to the distress of many innocent victims.

There was talk of 'no family was to pay more than a fifth of their weekly income for rent', consequently the amount varied according to income. (Source unknown)

The Zillmere Housing Project Begins

A vertical aerial map of the French home building site bounded by Beams Rd. (Top), Handfored Rd. (Left) Muller Rd. (Right) Church St. (Middle Verticle) Zillmere Rd. (Bottom). The area was still a mixture of farms and housing. (135874.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 135874)

The Courier Mail (CM) Saturday 6 January 1951 p.3 reported - Pre-fabs' puzzle unravels

A GIANT jig-saw puzzle is being unravelled by several nationalities on the French pre-fabricated homes site at Zillmere. Thirty houses for the first part of the scheme arrived in 5500 separate packages.

The report noted that land had been cleared and stumps (concrete piers) for 200 houses were in the ground, the roofing material was to be of fibrous (asbestos) cement in various colours and the European pine was to be used instead of local timber. There was some scepticism about the durability of the imported pine but the builders thought it would be all right as long as it had "the usual three good coats of paint."

It was expected that 750 houses would "be completed by March or April next year" but there was always the problem of "the international situation". However the City Council assured readers that the houses would be serviced with water and electricity and the state Government would help as well.

Working Conditions

A section of the accommodation barracks being built for the workers on the project. The workers, probably carpenters are building a weather board building with an asbestos roof. (Abstract from 135861.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 135861)

It must be remembered that the workers were men of the 1950s and were not blessed with the knowledge that we have in 2013 in relation to cancer and Workplace Health and Safety. (The author worked as a carpenter at the time.)

They had no protective clothing to protect them from skin cancer.

They freely worked with asbestos wall sheets and corrugated roof sheeting. It was the wonder product of building, cheap, clean, termite proof and, unbeknown to everybody, deadly.

While safety was always a concern for any tradesman working at any height it sometimes left a lot to be desired.
The men on the temporary scaffold weatherboarding the wall have erected it and it won't fall down, but they might if they take a false step. There is no waist high rail, the planks look to be loose, oddly placed and inadequate.

Some of the timber stacks tend to lean over dangerously while the timber dumps look like haystacks after a cyclone.

The current site of the Victor Grenning Park was the location of the workmens' living quarters. This accommocation would have been for the single men. When their families arrived they would have to have rented or bought houses elsewhere. (Abstract from 135874.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 135874)

The photo shows some of the detail in the aerial view above. Some of the long buildings may have been accommodation, while the Mill would have had some if not all of the machinery on the site.

The work on the buildings would have been practically all manual, with the tradesmen owning their own tools. There were no power tools except for a power circular saw and perhaps a planer or thicknesser in the mill.

On the job all cutting was done with hand saws, all drilling with a brace and bit, all smoothing of timber with a hand plane, all nails were driven with a hand held hammer.

The current site of the Joseph Walsh Lee Park was where the packaged building materials were stored. Here the 'giant jig-saw puzzle' must have been unravelled. (Abstract from 135874.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 135874)

The packaged materials would have been brought from the docks on the Brisbane River by large lorries. Judging by the size of some of the packages they would have to have been unloaded by a crane of some sort on the building site. I am sure there were no mobile cranes available in the early 1950s so they might have used a block and tackle or a winch with some sort of frame for lifting. They may have used early fork lifts, there were some around in the late 1940s. (Anybody have any information?)

The land was already cleared of bush by the farming community but the builders had to clean up the area removing fences, old houses, sheds and farming debris. Then the concrete stumps, no wooden stumps, were put in the ground, the packaged timber dumped on site and the carpenters went to work. ( 137659.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 137659)

The First Problems Appear

About seven weeks later some problems with concrete piers and the appearance of dry rot led to the Courier Mail (CM) on the 22-2-1951 p.5 announcing "MORE CHECKS ON PRE-CUTS- Inspection of State houses at Zillmere".

A Staff Reporter spent "several hours on site" watching Housing Commission inspectors supervising tests being carried out on concrete stumps, a number of which had to be replaced. Also the timber quality was checked as were the construction methods of the French builders. The journalist was shown over the site by the chief technical officer of the Housing Commission. It appears that a clerk of works was dismissed and an inspector suspended while the French builders dismissed two of their employees.

The report also said some 12,000 concrete stumps had been tested and only a small percentage was found to be defective while no sign of rot was found.

The Night the Barracks Burned

This photo was taken when the barracks were still under construction but the general appearance can be seen clearly. They were probably separate rooms housing several men with only one door that opened on to the ground via four wooden steps. There does not appear to be any roof overhang to give shelter from the rain. The black stumps in the 'courtyard' might have been the stumps of a demolished house judging by the mess of debris surrounding them. (135861.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 135861)

On the 11th August 1951 the front page of the CM announced "Four hundred lost possessions in desperate fight - 120 MIGRANTS HOMELESS- Zillmere barracks destroyed by fire"

At 4am on the 10th August three fire engines rushed to the Housing Project where a strong westerly wind fanned a huge fire which swept through three wooden barracks housing the migrant workers. Other workers rushed to help the firemen and try to save what they could but most of their possessions were consumed by the flames. Many finished sleeping on bare wooded floors in partially completed houses.
The fire brigades managed to prevent the spread of fire to nearby new houses but many windows were smashed and weather boards were singed. The damage to buildings and loss of personal belongings was estimated to be about £10,000.

Many of the migrants were looking forward to their families coming to join them from Europe but now they were glad their families had not yet arrived; the men were living eight to a room in partly completed houses.

The Community Response was Heartening

The CM reported that a major effort was undertaken by the community to assist the European workmen:
• The Queensland Housing Commission allowed them to occupy some houses
• Local people donated articles of clothing and furniture
• The Courier Mail donated money from competitions it was running
• The Mayor of Gympie opened a fund for donations
• The New Settlers League appealed for clothes
• The White Star Soccer Club arranged a benefit match to raise funds
• Old Australians working on the project donated their overtime earnings
• The Sunday Mail raised almost £1,000

The Migrant Workers Were Settling In

Former Post Office and Shop on Church Road. This shop was a central focus in the 1950s and 60s. The shop provided postal, banking and convenience goods to the community. Val Pailthorpe mentioned that Mr. Cunningham's "litte shop was open all the time. He was a marvellous man. He carried a lot of people letting them keep accounts until they could pay. what he did for others nobody knows, he was a generous man." The shop closed after Mrs. Cunningham took ill and looks as though it may not have been opened since.

Much better news was reported by the CM on 26th March 1952 when it declared "LITTLE United Nations AT ZILLMERE NOW"

The CM noted that men from 18 countries were working on the French project and listed their nationalities: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, Hungarian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Yugoslav, Czechoslovak, Belgian, Dutch, Latvian, Greek, Rumanian, British and Australian. Then it announced "The men are not having language trouble."

When words fail signs are used. A German foreman, Ted Haegel said "Most speak either German or English, those who don't speak either language fluently can be made to understand with a few common words and some sign language."

An Australian foreman, Ted Gelling, supervised 40 migrant workers and spoke to them in English; he commented "A lot of them have learnt English since they have been here. We Australians have picked up a few words of their languages which help us make ourselves understood."

Zillmere shopkeepers were broadening their vocabulary with practical lessons in foreign languages from the men. Mr. E. Lewry, a local shopkeeper said "We don't have any trouble at all now, we know an apple is a pomme and a potato a pomme de terre in French. Fromage means cheese, sucre is sugar, and eggs are called oeufs." "When they want a small packet of anything Frenchmen say petit and the Italians piccolo. A large packet is gros and grand. To the Italians all jam is marmalita."

Migrant Talents Were Becoming Apparent.

This pulpit was built and carved from local Silky Oak by the Belgian migrant, Marcel Rouaen

Hidden talents of the migrant workers were becoming apparent as the CM on 15th April 1952 announced "ZILLMERE HAS ITS OWN ART COLONY"

Some of the artists were noted:
Jean Day, a French storeman, has exhibited paintings in Paris and Perth (W.A.) and was working on an impressionist painting, 'Holy Inquisition,' at Zillmere last night, for a local exhibition.

Mr. Marcel Rouaen, a Belgian, makes doors for project homes. He had many paintings by Continental artists as well as many engravings and etchings. (Photo of the altar, pulpit and baptismal at St. Flannan's)

Mr. John Guemann, a builder's labourer is a fine wood carver, and makes elaborately carved candelabra which he sells. Mr. Guemann, who is also a sculptor, is doing preparation work for the organisers of the Queensland Industries Fair which will open this month.

The Local Building Industry was not happy.

Not everybody was happy about the use of foreign firms:

The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) Friday 14-9-1951 p.1 reported that BUILDERS SEEK CHANCE TO TENDER FOR STATE HOUSES

A meeting of the Master Builders' Association at Mackay resolved to approach the Queensland Government to "ensure that builders are given a chance of tendering for the construction of houses in country areas, before imported prefabricated houses are bought for Government projects."

The importing of prefabs by foreign companies was felt to be a threat to Queensland Builders. One delegate instanced the rejection of local tenders for five Government houses at Rockhampton recently because the Government said the prices were too high. He blamed the subsidy on the prefabs saying "At the same time we can build at prices within reason, but still are £300 behind the mark before we start because of the subsidised foreign pre-fabs' he said.

More Complaints at Zillmere

The aim was to build one thousand homes in a couple of years. To achieve this aim the builders had to employ hundreds of worker, deal with a multitude of suppliers, establish banking facilities for a steady supply of money, overcome endless unforseen difficulties all in a foreign country. No wonder that mistakes were made by all parties. (134480.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 134480)

However all was not well at Zillmere and complaints were being made about the standard of workmanship, the quality of materials, building methods and the standard of management.

Sunday Mail 13-8-1951 p.3 ran a series of photographs showing what a member of the Queensland Opposition claimed were examples of "skimping and faulty building" at Zillmere.

While the member admitted that "although we are not builders" he claimed that the house roofs were so bad that "there is not one house, of the 750, that does not leak.

He then went on to criticise the timber being used, the method of wall construction and stumps having to have "fibro packing" on top of them to keep the floor level.

Accusations of skulduggery were bandied about, bad management was blamed and a Royal Commission was called for, but it never eventuated. The debate became heated in State and Federal Parliaments, a long and involved court case was conducted and a 'good time' was had by the readers of the newspapers. There was no TV then and the newspaper was, as well as a major source of information, was also a major source of entertainment.

The argument centred on how well the Queensland Government was supervising the work and spending public money on the project.

A great deal of newspaper reports chronicle this debate which, at times, seems to have been rather political with the Queensland opposition led by Mr. Nicklin attacking the Government's incompetence in supervising the standard of the houses. And the Government, led by Vince Gair (ALP), defending its record.

The Commonwealth Government, which provided the bulk of the finance, led by Robert Menzies (Liberal), criticising the Queensland Government and demanding it supervise the work more closely.

The Commonwealth Government Conducts an Inspection

This view of a mere half dozen houses gives a glimpse of the task. Then multiply by a factor of one hundred and fifty. (137636.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 137636)

The CM Friday 26-9-1952 p.1 reported

The PM made a long statement in which he castigated the Queensland Government for its 'failures' and possible waste of taxpayers' money. This was a reference to the fact that the Federal Government was paying a subsidy of £300 on each house.

He announced that a second inquiry would be held into the Zillmere Housing Project and this was done but he did not mention a Royal Commission which the Queensland Opposition wanted.

The Queensland Government replied that all the faults had been remedied at the contractor's expense.

However the inspection went ahead and Vernooy records on 10-12-1952 (p.29)

The Commonwealth Experimental Building Station reported that it had examined twelve houses and found:
1. That the ceiling construction in each case was not done according to the CEBS plans of 1950;
2. Truss joints were insufficiently and inconsistently nailed;
3. Some rafters in hipped roofs did not bear on the trusses.

The Department of National Development reported:
1. Many of the allegations of Bruce Wight (Lib. MLA Qld) were substantiated wholly or in the part. His request for investigation was justified
2. The Zillmere project contained many instances of inferior workmanship:
3. In the early stages of the project the QHC failed to maintain effective control;
4. Even when the Commission's supervision was tightened up, defects that should have been detected escaped notice.
It was suggested that 25 per cent of the houses should be tested.
See Vernooy p.29-33 for a summary of the whole saga.

The faults had to be repaired by the contractors at their own expense. This was done but then the contractors were having difficulty in covering their costs.

The Queensland Government Had to Complete the Project

Finally the State Government had to take on the task of completing the job. And it was finished but in the experience taught governments no to repeat the experiment. (134483.jpg - Department of Housing and Public Works, Library, ID 134483)

CM Saturday 18-7-1953 p.3


'THE State Government expects to erect 314 prefabricated homes at Zillmere within nine months.' It was announced by the government that the French firm had ceased work the previous Friday and the Queensland Housing Commission would complete the building of the French houses at Zillmere and Chermside.

The Housing Minister, Mr. Hilton said that work was expected to begin on Monday and, as far as possible, former employees of the French firm would be engaged.

He went on to say that 572 houses had been built but only 179 had been finally approved. When the French firm ceased operations 253 houses were under construction and 61 had still to be started. There would be no difficulty in completing the houses.

The Queensland Government claimed that it had helped the French firm as much as possible but there was no comment from the French. It appears that they could not finish the contract due to lack of finance.

Then There Were the Workers

Big Losses Claimed by Migrants reported the CM 21-7-1953 p.3

A GROUP of New Australians, formerly sub-contractors at the Zillmere housing project claimed that large sums of money were owed to them. They were employed until recently on contract with the French firm of LeCorche Frères and Schroth as carpenters, bricklayers, painters, and trench diggers.

Some had began working for wages with the Queensland Housing Commission.

One, Max Klusek of Donovan Street Zillmere produced a letter bearing LeCorche Frères and Schroth letterhead and signed by a director. It read:

"We regret that owing to the Queensland Housing Commission failing to pay certain moneys to us we are not in a position to pay the following amounts which are owing to you.
Sub-contract work. Total amount owing including retention £74-2-0."

"You may take this letter as an authority and present it to the Queensland Housing Commission to pay to you the above amount out of any monies owing by the Queensland Housing Commission to us"'

Mr. Klusek claimed that about 50 sub-contractors were in a similar position. He alleged that one German painter was owed about £600 by the firm.

David Berry, Journalist, Sums Up at the Time

DAVID BERRY writing in the Sunday Mail 26-7-1953 p.3:

Claimed that some £250,000 was owing to sub-contractors on the Zillmere Housing Project. A group of 40 creditors made up of Brisbane electrical firms, plumbing and painting firms, and timber merchants, together with bankers claimed £150,164. However they did not know what could be done to recoup their losses as the firm was based in France and had gone back.

Berry believed that the other Housing Projects at Serviceton (Swedish contractor), Carina (Italian contractor) and Coopers Plains (Dutch contractor) were in a similar position.

However, Vernooy p.33 claims that the Dutch-Australian Concrete Developments "may still be exemplary if not unique in the Australian experience" of those years; it was a success.

Berry sums up:

All my inquiries lead me to believe that the Housing Commission's supervision in the first days of pre-fab building was lax and that it allowed too much to go by. Then it stiffened up and got too tough, forcing contractors to rip down partly built houses for faults that should have been corrected previously. Meanwhile, it so tightened up on money payments that it practically is driving contractors out of business.

CM Friday 31-7-1953 p.5 reported:

That the Queensland Housing Commission denied that contractors were owed £100,000 as they had submitted a claim for only £20,000 a fortnight previously.

A Long Term Summing Up - 2004

I have been unable to find out what the final financial position of the State Housing Commission was and how the sub-contractors fared except to say that there were some very angry and disappointed building workers around.

Vernooy p.33 sums up the long term lessons for the Q'ld Housing Commission:

"QHC had already learned its lesson. Although no minutes remain, there is circumstantial evidence that the Zillmere experience contributed considerably to the internal decision of the QHC to minimise all ongoing foreign building as much as possible."

The bold experiment was over but the houses remained and people bought or rented them. And Zillmere grew.


Extensive reports in the Brisbane Courier Mail (CM) and other Newspapers of the time 1951-3 accessed through the Trove website.
The Dutch Houses of Cooper's Plains - Alfons Vernooy (A Post-war Housing Debacle at Brisbane).Alfons is the son of Alfons Vernooy Sr. who was the assistant general manager on the site of the Dutch firm building at Cooper's Plains.
A Chermside Police Report of 1949(Commissioner of Police)
Department of Housing and Public Works-Housing Services
Early 1900s: The Workers' Dwelling Branch
The 1920s to 1945: The soul of a nation
The French contractor for the Zillmere Housing Project, LeCorche Frères and Schroth is sometimes misspelt in Newspaper reports and I have used Alfons Vernooy's spelling.