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Hostel life in Canberra post WWII ?

By funkylovebunny - 18 October 2009 19

Hi there everyone

I’m a research fellow at one of the local universities who is researching about the migrant history of workers in the ACT, particularly post WWII. Because of the high influx of workers to rapidly build Canberra and the lack of space to put everyone, numerous hostels were built around town to house these workers. One hostel in particular that was perched atop Capital Hill was known as Hillside.

Hillside was single men only and quite notorious by reputation. I’ve heard of numerous stories about Hillside, about how poor the living conditions were, about how fights between the ‘inmates’ were common, but first-hand accounts of life there have been harder to source. Most of the books discussing the history of Canberra only give fleeting mention to hostel life, and even then fail to go into the nitty gritty.

I thought perhaps the riotacters could help me out here by way of leads, or potentially even stories, either first-hand or perhaps your husband or relative lived at Hillside a while. It need not even have been Hillside: other hostels were Eastlake, Westlake, Acton cottages, the Causeway, and the Capital Hill Hostel.

Most of the original inhabitants at Hillside would be on a bit in their years now as it operated from 1952-1968, and I have considered visiting nursing homes to see if people would be forthcoming in telling their stories in interviews.

If anyone perhaps knew of where/how I could begin this course of enquiry, or even better be willing to impart some stories about hostel life, it would be greatly appreciated.

What’s Your opinion?

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19 Responses to
Hostel life in Canberra post WWII ?
Ann Gugler 9:09 am 21 Oct 09

One last point – the Prince of Wales laid the stone that marked the centre of the city on Capital Hill 21 June 1920. The stone had a surveyer’s ‘stick’ (sorry don’t know the proper name) in the centre and from a recent article I read there was a small dot somewhere to mark this centre. The stone had photographs placed under it and a few years later the whole lot was removed and articles in the papers suggest that it was ‘lost’. Obviously refound. However another comment that I read mentioned that the orginal site was the area that was used as a quarry in the 1920s and the stone had been removed for safe keeping. The stone was near the one Kurrajong tree on the hill that gave the earlier name to the hill – Kurrajong. Nearby was another old gum which I always called ‘fireplace’ trees – there are still some in the vicinity of Stirling Park. HM Rolland took a photograph of his family and visitors to the site that shows the stone and surrounds clearly.

Another bit of trivia – one of the early strike meetings was held in the quarry on Capital Hill in 1925. The first strike was in 1922 – again another story. Ann

Ann Gugler 8:59 am 21 Oct 09

Couple of points – the Hostel opposite the Ainslie Rex which was the former Hotel Ainslie – now Olems – was – still there I think – Ainslie Hostel – for married couples.

Some may be interested in some of our early buildings that still survive – The Ainslie Hall in Corroboree Crescent Ainslie began its ‘life’ as the Masonic Hall at Acton built by Contractor John Howie’s men who also built the Hotel Canberra – Can’t recall the exact year, but around 1925 – It was moved to Russell Hill Settlement (near the Campbell Shops) in 1926 where with a few modifications it became the Russell Hill School. This school closed in 1929 and the building was then moved to its present site. Many of Howie’s timber buildings have the timber on the exteriors placed vertically. Another survivor is a building from the Engineers’ Mess which was opposite the Power House and obviously – for the engineers – this building was moved to a site down near the Railway Station around 1926 where it served as a Friendly Society Hall – in the 70s (I think) it moved to its present site in Hovea St (O’Connor? – can’t think of the suburb)where it now a Scouts Hall.

Also, in Stirling Park are a few reminders of pre and early Canberra History – On Stirling Ridge on the end near the Canberra Mosque – marked by three bright yellow posts is a survey marker marked on the early maps as GAP – another is on Attunga Point marked QUARRY. There are others on the ridge and throughout the park but the two mentioned I think were placed there in 1909 when the original survey work for the 36 square miles was carried out. The surveyors camp was in Surveyors’ Gully where Scrivener’s Plan Room (concrete) is – on Capital Hill.

The site of this camp which continued in use for a number of years was near a major track that comes up from the Uriarra Road that continued on to cross the river etc. Joining this major pathway was another track that came from the Quarry and curved across the hill opposite Lotus Bay (now Block 3, Section 128 Stirling Park, Yarralumla.) The Quarry supplied stone for St John the Baptist Tower – mid 1860s – the other source was Black Mountain quarry. The old track still exists on the hill opposite Lotus Bay and this is the area of Howie’s cottages – on the upper side of the old road a number of the house sites are still clearly seen – along with concrete slabs and on an old track that goes up the hill there is another survey mark without the surrounding concrete posts.

As one walks along this old road from the side of the creek opposite the Southern Cross Yacht Club (site of Briar Farm) one also crosses the old quagmire area – still wet – would be fed from a spring. On the other side of the quagmire on the upper side of the hill is the area where the Tradesmen’s Camp ablution buildings were erected. The trenches used as part of the removal of water are still in situ.

I finally worked out the Camp Hill and Capital Hill ‘problem of understanding’ – the 1913 naming etc was on Camp Hill not Capital Hill – but the two hills – or rather the sections of both enclosed by State Circle became Capital Hill – the big cutting on the lake side of the circle cuts through the former Camp Hill – and I believe the earth removed filled in part of the gully in the area that is now Block 2, Section 128 Stirling Park.

Incidentally a small section of the old Uriarra Road survives near the Brickyards in Yarralumla – that’s another story. Ann

Skidbladnir 12:48 pm 20 Oct 09

While I have never met this Ann Gulger, I salute her input to RiotACT and the subject of Canberra history.

Purely out of interest, and in order to prevent a Canberran variety of Dog and Forest history, what are other potentially interesting subjects that get suprisingly little coverage?

Is there some kind of CanberraHistory wiki\lookup service for who is studying what to prevent unnecessary overlap or otherwise encourage productive collaboration?

PS: Here’s a resonable historic local newspaper archive, of the Canberra Times from 1926 – 1954, part of the NLA’s Newspaper Digitisation Project. I look forward to the 1954 – Today set, to chart the variable fortunes of the paper, while still catching having a reference for historical media coverage.

mddawson 11:05 am 20 Oct 09

Here are a few places to look for information related to the Hostels:

1) ArchivesACT can provide access to ACT Government files older than 20 years. As the hostels were government operated they should have some information on them.

2) The National Archives of Australia has a lot of information on Canberra Hostels.

2) The ACT Heritage Library has a large collection of local history material. In particular they have copies of books by Ann Gugler and Alan Foskett who have both written histories of the various hostels.

Ann Gugler 9:16 am 20 Oct 09

Alan Foskett has written several books on the Hostels and is at present updating that information. Alan lives in Campbell and I am sure he would like to hear from people who are interested in the hostels. Alan prepared the first 1958 NCDC report with great maps – unfortunately I loaned mine or put it somewhere very safe – it will surface eventually – but this one plus others that I have are great source of information. In (from memory) the 1967 roll – I have put a copy of the accommodation available and costs.

I have also written about the hostels with emphasis on the early ones. Incidentally Gorman House was built in 1925 for the single lady typistes (with ‘e’ – femine form typist – male) and was named Hotel Ainslie. When the Hotel Ainslie was opened in 1927 it was named Hotel Ainslie and the first one became Gorman House – named after the 2nd Commissioner Gorman who died that year. There were some married people at Gorman House, but mainly for the single women. The young men – white collar workers – lived at the Bachelors Quarters (opened October 1912) – later named Acton Guest House and now Lennox House – part of the ANU.

I have put on my web page a number of the electoral rolls – 1928, 1935, 1943, 1949, 1955, 1967 (and still have to add 1959) – 1916 is in another file – the rolls are organised according to suburbs, hostels etc – alphabetically – I also have a second web page early canberra – collections of articles etc from the 1909 to 1930s which can be of use to people searching because they tell what was here at those time. To go to the second web click on the web title –

I remember when the Narrabundah pre-fabs went up – known as Rainbow Valley because of the colours – and recall that the next thing to happen, as well as a hall being provided – was that trees were planted to hide them.

I particularly remember Capital Hill Hostels and the earlier Capitol Hill Camp. I, like many Westlake children, rode my bike to Telopea Park School and the track went across Capital Hill passed the hostels. My hubsand Florian, lived at Capital Hill Hostel.

I do remember well the arrival of the New Australians after the war. They brought with them a wealth of new cultures including food and many languages were heard. The men who lived in the single men’s construction workers’ hostels that included the Capital and Hillside Hostels (on Capital Hill), Riverside, Turner, Fairbairn, Brickyards, Eastlake (near Causeway) and the surviving ones from the pre-war years, Causeway and Capitol Hill Camp were in many ways isolated in the sense that they were not really able to invite women to visit – and before I forget – a number of cubicles were provided at Capitol Hill Camp for married couples – New Australians.

The segregation of single men in these hostels was reinforced when I read the documents in Archives re the decision of where to place Hillside Hostel – one of the possible sites was closer to Westlake cottages, but this was turned down in favour of the site on Capital Hill because it would have been too close to women and children.

I’ve updated some information in A Story of Capital Hill – available in libraries.

Ann Gugler

Beserk Keyboard Warr 6:57 pm 19 Oct 09

NoAddedMSG said :

old canberran said :

There was another similar hostel in Ainslie somewhere opposite the Ainslie Rex Hotel.

Do you mean the place that is now Fenner Hall? It used to be called Gowrie I think (although I could have the name wrong) and prior to its life as a student hall it used to be a hostel of some description.

Yep Gowrie Hostel was it’s name prior to Fenner Hall. It has a tragic past. On October 4, 1977 a 9-year old girl on a school excursion from Melbourne was molested & thrown off the 6th floor of the South “tower” by a young pedofile cadet from Duntroon. She survived the fall, but the cadet made his way down and finished her off with a knife. A fellow pupil had raised the alarm bell earlier in the night when the same bloke tried it on her but was sent back to bed by her disbelieving teacher.

amarooresident2 4:09 pm 19 Oct 09

To follow from Rawhide Kid, I would have thought that the archives of Unions ACT would be a good place to look as well, if that news article is any guide.

old canberran 2:23 pm 19 Oct 09

NoAddedMSG said :

Do you mean the place that is now Fenner Hall? It used to be called Gowrie I think (although I could have the name wrong) and prior to its life as a student hall it used to be a hostel of some description.

I don’t think that’s the same place, in fact I’d be surprised if the Ainslie Hostel still stands. It used to be at the end of Hayley Street.
Fenner Hall if memory serves me right, is or was part of the ANU named after Professor Fenner

aussielyn 1:05 pm 19 Oct 09

I am compiling a history of the Narrabundah Prefabs. These cottages were built and reserved for the families of builders who would build Canberra post WW2. There are very few adults around now who originally let them, they are now in their eighties and memories fade. I have been talking to their children.
The camps were being demolished as there were falling apart; there was a shortage of manpower and building resources. Buildings like halls were put on the back of lorries to be relocated.
Ann Gugler’s Hidden Canberra website is a magical resource about the camps. The Russell camp was particularly bad as it was unsewered. Electoral rolls are great.
Allan Foscatt is writing a book about the camps. He has written about the Molonglo Internment Camp.
ACT Archives is a great resource as is the NLA Canberra Times 1926-54
Email me, and I will send you a 1950 map of the ACT

NoAddedMSG 10:20 am 19 Oct 09

old canberran said :

There was another similar hostel in Ainslie somewhere opposite the Ainslie Rex Hotel.

Do you mean the place that is now Fenner Hall? It used to be called Gowrie I think (although I could have the name wrong) and prior to its life as a student hall it used to be a hostel of some description.

I-filed 6:05 pm 18 Oct 09

Local historian Anne Gugler is definitely someone to contact. She focused on Eastlake but would probably have loads of other info picked up over the years.

old canberran 5:51 pm 18 Oct 09

Just adding to TS’s comments, Hillside and Capital hill were for blue collar workers employed on engineering works etc and comprised a fair proportion of immigrants. There was another similar hostel in Ainslie somewhere opposite the Ainslie Rex Hotel. I used to drive taxis at night part time back in the early 60’s and I can assure you life was never dull at these hostels. Other hostels such as Reid House, Mulwala House, Gorman House, Brassey House and the Kurrajong were mainly for single Public Servants.

A good source of information about Canberra’s history is the National Capital Development Commission Annual Reports and also their publication titled Tomorrows Canberra. These should be available from the National Library.

Trunking symbols 11:45 am 18 Oct 09

There were actually two hostels on Capital Hill – the Capital Hill Hostel and the Hillside Hostel. They were on a road which bisected the hill which began opposite the Flynn Drive turnoff and ending near St Andrew’s church. Both hostels were on the western side of the hill, now the Senate side of Parliament House. On the north-eastern side was the Commemoration Stone with another short road leading to it which met State Circle almost opposite the Kings Ave turnoff. When construction of New Parliament House bagan the stone was sawn into segments, kept in storage and relocated to its present position just before construction of NPH finished in 1988. In the centre of Capital Hill was a large flagpole, and surrounding it was a large raised dirt platform called the Capital Hill uncomformity. A few years before construction of NPH began a wooden cubby-house-type structure was built around the flagpole and this served as a lookout. When both the Capital Hill hostel and Hillside Hostel were demolished in 1968 the access road was also demolished, but part of it opposite Flynn Drive remained as access to a new picnic area with coin BBQs and picnic tables which could be clearly seen by bus passengers passing by on Capital Circle on the 333 bus to Civic.

Rawhide Kid No 2 11:05 am 18 Oct 09

Here is an extract from the Canberra Times Thursday 4 November 1948

about the Capital Hill (Camp ) Hostel ?

GB 10:51 am 18 Oct 09

You might be able to find some sources by tracing the author, or informants, from this history of Gorman House — which was also built as a hostel. As it was for single women, there may well have been some visitors from Hillside; though class divisions may have worked against it.

I was a resident at Acton Hostel as child — but that was the 60s, so probably outside your frame.

Good luck!

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