History of the Ascot Vale public housing estate

If you have ever visited the Royal Melbourne Show, you may have noticed the Housing Commission estate located opposite the showgrounds. Located in the inner north-western suburb of Ascot Vale, the estate is less distinctive than the massive 1960s apartment towers down the road in Flemington, but the higglety pigglety arrangement of the blocks of flats amongst green lawns is something not often seen in Melbourne housing developments.

Open gardens between the Housing Commission flats

Located on 77 acres of land between Union Road and Ascot Vale Road, the estate is bounded by Dunlop Avenue to the north, Ascot Street to the south, and consists of a mix of multi-storey walkup apartment blocks and semi-detached cottages, all constructed in brick. Originally the site of a racecourse, I detailed the history of the site in a post about Melbourne’s former Ascot Racecourse some time ago.

Racing ended at the course in 1942 when it was taken over to assist in the military effort during World War II, with the fate of the course sealed in August 18, 1945 when State Premier Mr. Dunstan announced that the Government had decided to turn the site over for housing development. A notice of compulsory acquisition was issued in March 1946 under the Slum Reclamation and Housing Act, being finalised in October 15, 1946 when the State Cabinet agreed to acquire the site from owner John Wren for £142,618.

The Housing Commission was the developer of the site, believing the value of the land was reasonable if it was used for flats, but would not be economical if individual houses were built instead. Altogether homes for 2,600 people were built on the 77 acre site, made up of 400 flats, 100 villa pairs and 50 single villas, along with 5 acres of parkland. The first residents moved in to the estate by Christmas 1947, with the below photo from the Moonee Valley Library Service collection showing the estate soon after completion, looking west towards the Melbourne Showgrounds.

Housing Commission estate at Ascot Vale in the 1950s

The network of streets that divide the estate were named after decorated World War II personnel, which can be seen in the following Google Map:


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For the people behind the street names, these short biographies extracted from Wikipedia give us an idea why they were recognised:

  • Wingate Avenue
    Major-General Orde Charles Wingate, DSO and two bars (26 February 1903 – 24 March 1944), was a British Army officer in Palestine in the 1930s and in World War II.
  • Dunlop Avenue
    Lieutenant Colonel Sir Ernest Edward “Weary” Dunlop, AC, CMG, OBE (12 July 1907 – 2 July 1993) was an Australian surgeon who was renowned for his leadership while being held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II.
  • Vasey Street
    Major General George Alan Vasey CB, CBE, DSO and Bar (29 March 1895 – 5 March 1945) was an Australian soldier. He rose to the rank of Major General during World War II, before being killed in a plane crash near Cairns in 1945.
  • Churchill Avenue
    Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS, Hon. RA (30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965) was a British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War.
  • Morshead Street
    Lieutenant General Sir Leslie James Morshead KCB, KBE, CMG, DSO, ED (18 September 1889 – 26 September 1959) was an Australian soldier with a distinguished military career that spanned both world wars. During World War II he commanded the Australian troops at the Siege of Tobruk and at the Second Battle of El Alamein, achieving decisive victories over the German Afrika Korps, and went on to lead the Australian forces against Japan during the New Guinea and Borneo campaigns.
  • Blamey Street
    Field Marshal Sir Thomas Albert Blamey GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, ED (24 January 1884 – 27 May 1951) was an Australian general during World War I and World War II, and the first, and to date only, Australian to attain the rank of field marshal. During World War II he commanded the Second Australian Imperial Force and the I Corps in the Middle East.
  • Savige Street
    Lieutenant General Sir Stanley George Savige, KBE, CB, DSO, MC, ED (26 June 1890 – 15 May 1954), was an Australian Army soldier and officer who served in World War I and World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant general and commanding a brigade in the North African campaign, the Battle of Greece and Syria-Lebanon campaign.
  • Cunningham Court
    Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope KT, GCB, OM, DSO and two Bars (7 January 1883 – 12 June 1963), was a British admiral of the Second World War, being Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet.
  • Farncomb Street
    Rear Admiral Harold Bruce Farncomb, CB, DSO, MVO (28 February 1899 – 12 February 1971) was a Australian Rear Admiral who served in both World War I and World War II and the first Australian-born RAN officer to reach a flag rank in the RAN.
  • Waller Court
    Hector Macdonald Laws Waller, DSO & Bar (4 April 1900 – 1 March 1942) was the captain of the light cruiser HMAS Perth (D29) in World War II. He went down with his ship when it encountered a Japanese invasion fleet consisting of two cruisers and twelve destroyers in the Battle of Sunda Strait at the beginning of March 1942.
  • Sturdee Street
    Lieutenant General Sir Vernon Ashton Hobart Sturdee KBE, CB, DSO (16 April 1890 – 25 May 1966) was an Australian Army commander who served two terms as Chief of the General Staff. He proceeded to conduct a doomed defence of the islands to the north of Australia against the advancing Japanese forces.

As expected for a public housing project, the buildings that occupy the estate at Ascot Vale are all of similar design. First off are the apartment blocks: the majority of these are three storeys tall, with dual stairwells providing access to four apartments on each level, giving a total of 12 flats per block.

More walkup flats in the Housing Commission estate in Ascot Vale: front view

Some blocks have balconies, as well in the photo below, with this variation in design resulting in only 10 flats per block, due to the rooftop terrace between the two staircases.

Same as the last in the Housing Commission block, but cream instead of red

The same type of commonality can be seen in the semi-detached cottages at the estate, where three basic types of floorplan used: small cottage with porch, small cottage with an extra room protruding from the front, and double storey cottage. These designs could also be mirrored, allowing them to be mixed and matched in combinations such as those seen below.

Semi-detached housing commission houses in Ascot Vale

Another style of semi-detached housing commission house

As of 2010 a total of 1,500 residents called the public housing estate home, down from the original design capacity of 2,600. One possible cause is smaller family sizes combined with an increase in elderly people living alone, resulting in each residence housing fewer people. Whatever the reason, going into the demographics of who lives in the estate is a story for another day.

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20 Responses to “History of the Ascot Vale public housing estate”

  1. Andrew S says:

    As someone in a family who race harness horses the I am very familiar with the former John Wren proprietary tracks with Ascot being by far the largest which allowed for the construction of the more elaborate Housing Commission estate that you describe. Our former farrier also came from a racing family naturally and has some photos of horses racing at Ascot in 1940, shortly before it was taken over along with Caulfield and Williamstown for the war effort.

    The main trotting venue at up until 1933 was the other John Wren establishment Richmond Racecourse on Bridge Road, which was next to the Wertheim piano factory, Later the Heinz cannery then GTV9, which can be seen in the background here

    • Marcus says:

      Thanks for the additional info Andrew – it is interesting to see the similarities between the former Richmond racecourse, and the one at Ascot Vale.

      I touched upon ‘proprietary’ racecourses such as Richmond in my previous post on the topic:
      http://wongm.com/2011/10/ascot-racecourse-ascot-vale-melbourne/

      • Andrew S says:

        I see you mention the proprietary tracks in the article. The third track, the so-called ‘Fitzroy’ track was actually on St Georges Road and was actually near Croxton station and not anything on the Inner Circle line. The name Fitzroy was used to make it seem closer to the city and market it a little more attractive to attend!

        On the western side of St Georges Road the aerial photos show the house blocks being packed a little closer together in Bird Avenue, Bradley Avenue and Woolton Avenue (southern side only)

  2. Andrew says:

    I am not really aware of this place but I think it where a great aunt lived. We visited her in maybe the seventies.

  3. Matt says:

    Ahh, I lived on Savige St between 1987 and 1990.

    Such a crime-infested hole back then… 🙂

  4. David says:

    Hi Marcus,

    The rooftop ‘terraces’ are resident’s shared laundries with rotary clotheslines.
    It used to be 3 washing machines per 10/12 units, but some laundries have had one washer room taken over by hot water systems.
    When units are renovated, washing machine taps and tubs are installed in bathrooms, allowing for residents to purchase their own washing machine.

    The semi-detached ‘cottages’ were different to the flats/units in that they could be acquired. Many of the ‘cottages’ are now in the private market.
    Some have been purchased by charitable organisations such as ‘The Salvation Army’, and are rented to ‘troubled’ citizens.
    I did hear a sad story of a man living in the ‘family’ home (of 30+ years) but still paying rent to the Housing Dept. as the family never acquired the home.
    Similar to my family: 39 years renting the same flat, but no option to acquire.

    The ‘cottages’ often had ‘sleep outs’ in the backyard: small out buildings to be used for extra family members of large families.

    I am currently reading: New Houses For Old – Fifty Years of Public Housing in Victoria 1938-1988 (borrowed from MVCC Libraries).
    It says the Ascot Vale estate’s flats were designed by Best Overend (sounds made up!), and it says:

    ‘his original plan for Ascot Vale was for a thirteen storey building containing 130 single-bedroom flats. This was rejected by the Commission, who finally approved seven blocks of two-storey flats, most with two bedrooms, in lieu of a multi-storey building.’

    It refers specifically to cream brick buildings for the above.
    Although, I cannot think of many two-storey blocks on the estate, so that may not have been the final approval.

    Regarding rent at the new Ascot Vale estate, which was fairly high:
    1 bedroom flats = 1 pound 19 shillings ($3.90)
    2 bedroom flats = 2 pound 4 shillings ($4.40)
    compared to:
    7 shillings 6 pence ($0.75) to 12 shillings 6 pence ($1.25) for single-fronted weather board cottages in North Melbourne.

    Amounts according to the above book. Decimal conversion based on 1966 conversion rate (my calculations).
    So it’s obvious that the estate was not intended for the poor, but workers, and returned service men and their families.

    David.

    • Marcus says:

      Thanks for that additional information David – but I’m having trouble imagining what a thirteen storey apartment block from the late 1940s would look like! I wonder if they would have clad it in brick, or some other material.

      The intended tenants of workers and returned servicemen seems to be a common theme for a number of Housing Commission of Victoria estates in the outer suburbs. A few examples that come to mind are those at Norlane near the Ford factory at Geelong, those at Broadmeadows near that Ford factory, and the various estates around the south-east established during the post-War industrial boom at Dandenong.

  5. […] has been a while since I last wrote public housing – a history of the Ascot Vale estate was the most recent one. This time I ask the question – does the presence of public housing […]

  6. John Umina says:

    Thanks for compiling this. I live one street over from the commission houses and find them fascinating. I found this additional information that has been put together by the council.
    http://www.mvcc.vic.gov.au/~/media/Files/Strategic%20Planning/Planning%20Scheme%20Amendments/C143/Moonee%20Valley%20C143%20%20Citation%20Ascot%20Housing%20Commission%20Estate%20Exhibition.pdf

  7. John Umina says:

    The MVCC also contends, “The HCV Ascot Estate is of local historic, architectural and aesthetic significance to the City of Moonee Valley (and potentially to the State of Victoria)”. The reasons listed are quite interesting and Mr Overend’s efforts and designs are lauded. So it seems that the whole estate was recommended to get heritage overlay status. I kind of hope it does too – rather than see ‘zero-character’ apartment buildings take their place.

  8. Judy Brett says:

    I have been told my parents Claude and Maureen Blight were the first family to move into one of the homes..can you clarify this..thanks

  9. Darren says:

    hi marcus

    interesting article!
    i grew up in churchill avenue between 1965-1974,i remember the neighbourhood very well ,still have lots of fun memories of things we used to do and the people we associated with .

  10. Damien Hynes says:

    Marcus, I never lived in the flats but across Union Rd @ 8 Burrowes St, where the 4’20 pie factory opened when I was in 3rd grade. Factory was firstly on the Union Rd corner, later taking the housing where we had lived to extend. My mum took a job there that year.Our next door neighbors moved into the block of flats nearest Burrowes St as my mate’s grandparents still lived next door. I have pics taken with our dog & my sister as dad regularly sunday mornings took us for walks while construction was happening. I had other school mates who lived in the flats and remember the bonfires we built. Mum told me the story of Wren, that after selling the land came and took down the corrugated iron fence around the race track and removed it. Apparently it was very much 2nd hand but still worth a quid.

  11. Diane Duncan says:

    Hello Marcus,
    I lived in a flat at 80 Union road Ascot Vale. We moved in, in about 1952.
    We had previously lived in an army hut at Campbell Royal Park, after my father had been discharged from the army.
    I vividly remember the Four and Twenty pie factory opening in 1953.
    It was so exciting because as we came passed on the way home from Ascot Vale West primary school they were handing out free pies. Sadly we were disappointed the next day when most of the school turned up for free pies shouting “we want pies ” and they told us all to go away or they would call the police. It was a fun day.I have fond memories of flat 8 , 80 Union road. I lived there until 1965.
    Cheers Diane.

  12. Patrick says:

    Marcus, this was great and very nostalgic for me, as my family moved into 24 Churchill Ave in the mid fifties. I came along in 1959 and we lived there until 1969. The wash house on ground level had 4 big coppers to heat water (operated by coin), big concrete troughs and a few wringers. I recall many “blue bags” drying out on the window ledges. With only three clotheslines for 12 households, everyone had their own allocated ‘washing day’.
    Most of the fencing in the estate was made of tea-tree, although some had cyclone fencing as well. Vegetation was mostly gum trees, conifers or cotoneasters.
    Being solid brick with concrete floors (covered by timber), there was incredibly good sound proofing.
    The large park in the middle of the BW photo would be the site of massive bonfires at Guy Fawkes, providing a great opportunity for residents to get rid of broken furnishings. On other occasions carnivals would spring up overnight with rides every bit as exciting as those at the Royal Melbourne Show.
    David’s comparison of rates with lodgings in North Melbourne makes sense. My parents had told me that they had to wait years before being able to move in to the estate as it was in high demand and considered quite prestigious! I recall there were mostly returned service, elderly retirees, immigrants and young families when I was growing up. However, by the mid sixties the occupancy began to change. Whereas initially all did a great job of getting along, blocks would become territorial and youth would form gangs; bitumen drives would be covered in broken glass. Without any amenities for youth, there was little for them to do than roam the estate. I heard things got quite bad there for a while, but a trip back there a few years ago revealed a very manicured and sedate place.
    Cheers

    Patrick

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