Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

'A hovel of a place': Documenting inner-city Melbourne

In 1941, Wilfred Prest, an English-born academic from the University of Melbourne's Economics Department, began an ambitious project to survey one of every 30 Melbourne households. Visiting addresses selected from the Sands & McDougall Directory, 35 mostly female postgraduate interviewers recorded data on housing conditions, wages, employment and more. The condition of the inner city housing which they visited often shocked them — 'a hovel of a place' wrote interviewer Pat Counihan, communist sympathiser and wife of the artist Noel Counihan — an emotion still evoked when reading their reports today.

Of a bootmaker's shop and dwelling at 64 Hanover Street, Fitzroy, Counihan recorded that the 'hovel' had no floor except chipped cement, a curtain separating the shop from the home, broken and boarded up windows through which rain poured and very basic furnishing belonging to the returned World War I serviceman, now bootmaker. Three unemployed men had lived there during the 1930s depression.

Although designed to assist post-war planning, the major results of Prest's social survey were not published until 1952, yet many of the inner city dwellings surveyed by Prest's team were still standing, albeit earmarked for demolition by the Housing Commission.

In the late 1950s, John Lockyer O'Brien, classics scholar and senior lecturer in the University of Melbourne's History Department, developed a keen interest in documenting Australian architecture and urban history. In the process he created over 2,000 photographs of many of the inner suburbs which Prest had surveyed.

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