This column piece is based on a book produced by Tim Reeves and Alan Roberts titled 100 Canberra Houses (a Century of Capital Architecture)
TT: The House seems an excessively plain little cottage. What is significant about it?
AR: The early Canberra Administration provided very basic accommodation for single construction workers but did nothing to help those who came with family. Robertson House is the sole surviving example of the makeshift dwellings that construction workers built as family homes, improvising from whatever materials could be scrounged. The Canberra administration stigmatised them as ‘humpies’. It turned a blind eye to those built on leasehold land, which it controlled, but those built on freehold land like the Robertson House were not subject to its jurisdiction. Humpies were usually temporary homes of two or three rooms but the Robertson House, built on Oaks Estate, continued to grow as a more permanent home.
TT: What was significant about Oaks Estate?
AR: Oaks Estate was originally part of Queanbeyan though it lay within the border of the Federal Capital Territory. It had a long association with the railway and river crossings that converged on Queanbeyan and attracted industries including flour milling and market gardening.
TT: Who were the Robertson family? AR: They had been living on the estate from the 1880s. Dick Robertson, the second generation there, worked at the flour mill. But once construction of Canberra began, he (like many Oaks Estate families) looked to it for work. He worked first at the Royal Military College, Duntroon and then on government construction projects. Dick may have been a labourer, but he had ability, patenting inventions including a sprinkler and a beehive smoker.
TT: When was the house built?
AR: Dick’s house was first recorded in 1913 though he did not acquire title to the land until 1919. It was a four-room house built by the family in stages without local government approval. It was constructed with a frame of stringy-bark poles. The walls and ceiling were lined in part with tar, oil and kerosene tins that had been opened out and flattened, as well as tin off-cuts, packing-case boards, weatherboards and fibro. Galvanised iron off-cuts came from the construction jobs that Dick worked on and were riveted together well enough to last a century. Packing boards used in the flooring came from boxes of medicine delivered to Dr Blackall in Queanbeyan. In the 1920s, the family added a new kitchen at the back of the house, together with another bedroom and a front verandah. Dick and Mary Robertson raised eight children there.
TT: What did the ACT Administration do about the house?
AR: The Robertsons regarded their family home with great fondness, but the Canberra administration took a different view. Charles Daley, appointed Civic Administrator of Canberra in 1930, viewed the entire Oaks Estate as an eyesore and tried to cede it back to NSW. When that failed, he ignored it in the hope that buildings there would fall down from lack of government maintenance and infrastructure support. The Robertsons did not allow that to happen to their home and, living on freehold land, they were fiercely independent of the ACT Administration.
TT: How is the Robertson House cared for today?
AR: Two of the Robertson sons, Les and Tom, lived at Oaks Estate all their lives. The house was left to deteriorate after Les died around 2000. The National Trust of the ACT classified it and then, in 2010, the ACT Government allocated money to stabilise the building and commissioned a conservation plan. It is often open in Heritage Week.
Tony Trobe is director of TT Architecture who specialise in the design of residential Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you would like to discuss? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.