Slumdog turned millionaire: how Paddington's terraces were almost razed

Slumdog turned millionaire: how Paddington's terraces were almost razed

Terrace houses in Liverpool St, Paddington, c1970, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Terrace houses in Liverpool St, Paddington, c1970, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Paddington’s terraces were almost obliterated in the era of postwar change, writes Sheridan Burke

As wartime austerity eased and there were jobs for all in a booming economy, a garden and a house in the suburbs came within an average family’s reach, with a car in the garage, a job in the city and a new public school being built nearby for the kids. The parents of the generation who would become known as the Baby Boomers embraced all that suburbia had to offer and Sydney expanded pell-mell, with the pent-up demand for housing being realised on its fringes. 

The stellate railway system funnelled workers to the city centre — as did designated county roads – but in the inner city, the main arterial roads were the old bullock tracks running along ridgelines, taking easy gradients and inconvenient turns around the idiosyncrasies of early land grants. Sydney’s ad hoc settlement patterns were not readily compatible with the needs of mass car ownership.

In the bright-eyed postwar cities of Australia, the old was under attack. In Sydney, the inner-city areas of largely Victorian suburbs and terrace houses such as those of Paddington, Redfern and Surry Hills, were characterised as slums simply by virtue of their age and condition. The County of Cumberland Planning Scheme (1948) identified them as “almost totally substandard areas requiring replacement either immediately or within 25 years”. In the spirit of the times, the engineers responsible for town planning considered that such inner areas and old building stock should make way for higher-density redevelopment and for road-building schemes to improve access from the suburbs to the central business district.

The County of Cumberland Council planners noted that “Overcrowding is particularly prevalent at present, while space for light and air is obviously inadequate … in addition to the hazards created by bad living conditions, there are those caused by fast traffic. This danger is enormously increased when the streets are virtually the only form of open space”.

Paddington was described as a “completely substandard area of old terraces on narrow allotments. Narrow street patterns [with] considerable industrial intrusion.”

A survey of the Paddington Municipal Council area in 1947 described one street of 19 houses with lots measuring 11 feet by 31 feet: “48 per cent of houses had no separate bathroom, the lavatory being in the laundry; and 46 per cent had no running water in the kitchen”. Similar reports by the Housing Improvement Board (HIB) from the 1930s and following them, by the Housing Commission, demanded that the government take action.

In 1951 Sydney Council’s City Planning and Improvement Committee approved a local re-planning scheme to demolish virtually all the existing housing of Paddington and replace it with two to three-storey flats.

The Housing Commission wasted no time in commencing construction and in 1954, the Rehousing Scheme for Paddington was opened. Designed by architects Davey & Brindley, these three blocks of three- to four-storey walk-ups in Lawson Street provided the type of flats set in open grassy gardens into which Paddington residents from “substandard dwellings” might be rehoused.

As ad hoc development proliferated in the city through the ’50s, however, very little redevelopment was financially feasible in Paddington due to postwar austerity and the effect on land ownership of the Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Act, 1948 which continued to keep rents at wartime levels until the late 1950s.

Sitting tenants were hard to move, so there was little incentive for landlords to improve their properties and less still to amalgamate allotments for redevelopment. Low rents attracted migrants, students, artists and writers — for whom more communal living spaces held appeal and the quarter-acre block in the ’burbs was neither attractive nor affordable. As Garry Wotherspoon has observed in his History of Oxford Street, “since landlords could not extract any rise in rents nor evict certain tenants, there was no incentive to upgrade or even maintain the houses. Thus, much of the old housing stock fell even further into disrepair and decay”.

Image: Rob Hillier, A Place Called Paddington.

Image: Rob Hillier, A Place Called Paddington.

Seminal research undertaken by planner Dr John Roseth into the urban revival of Paddington points also to a public dislike of the terrace-house form, and the building life cycle as determining factors. Terrace houses built in the 1860s needed significant repairs to bathrooms and kitchens by the 1920s, yet many landlords had failed to invest, as the Depression deepened in the 1930s, and wartime austerity redirected property investment.

While the cottage-in-garden concept for suburban development was locally popular, Australia’s massive postwar influx of migrants had found the inner suburbs of Sydney more affordable and attractive, with the proximity of friends and family, access to specific foods and the common experience of shared street life. Portuguese migrants found the cheap rents and boarding houses of Paddington appealing, so did Greek and Italian families. In 1947 in Paddington the proportion of European-born population was four per cent, but by 1966 it was 32 per cent. Owner occupancy was also increasing in Paddington; from just 10 per cent in 1905, the proportion of owner-occupants was 62 per cent by 1966.

By the late 1960s, the initial influx of migrants was moving west, to the middle ring of Sydney’s suburbs — the Italians to Leichhardt and Haberfield, the Greeks to Kensington, and the Portuguese to Petersham.

Through the 1950s students, writers and artists had also found Paddington a cheap place to live: among them Margaret Olley, Donald Friend and Colin Lanceley. As few could afford additional studio space many painted from home. By the end of the 1950s however, artists were being priced out of the suburb, although the art galleries that exhibited their works remained.

By the early 1960s, many of the older protected tenants were passing away, and with local light industries reducing their activity, a new demographic began arriving in Paddington. John Roseth described them as “new urbanites”. It was an influx of middle class professionals — some fresh from the experience of living in swinging London — who had returned home with positive experiences of terrace-house living. They found Paddington to be a version of Chelsea Down Under, appreciating its proximity to the city as much as the bohemian atmosphere and streetscapes of wrought-iron lace.

The gentrification process eventually comprehensively displaced the remaining migrant families and the working-class residents and boarders. The rehabilitation movement which began in the early 1960s — when Paddington houses were relatively cheap and ripe for rehabilitation — grew rapidly, and between 1953 and 1966, about 2000 of the 4800 terraces in Paddington were sold to the new urbanites as owner-occupants. 

With the new urbanites came a gradual change in expectations about neighbourhood development and heritage values. In 1953 one of the first local actions aiming to retain the residential scale and character of Paddington streetscapes was initiated by a relatively new resident, John Thompson, who challenged a long-term Paddington family who wanted to significantly expand their local family garage. Pursuing the case to court, Thompson prevented that proposal.

This is an edited extract from Paddington: A History (NewSouth, $69.95)) edited by Greg Young. The book can be purchased directly from the Paddington Society: paddingtonhistory.com; heritage@paddingtonsociety.org.au; 9363 957

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