Canberra Camps, Settlements & Early Housing

Oaks Estate - article by Karen Williams

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The Builders of Canberra-Oaks Estate by Karen Williams & Ann Gugler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Copyright Karen Williams & Ann Gugler © 2012


The Builders Heritage

On Thursday 27 October 2011 the ACT Heritage Unit conducted a tour of ‘The Robertsons’ House’ (9 Hazel Street, Oaks Estate) for the local community. The Robertsons’ House was the home of Les Robertson and, before him, his parents Richard (Dick) and Mary Robertson. Following Les’s death, some years back now, the house was left to deteriorate until 2010, when the ACT Government allocated money to stabilize the building and write a conservation plan.

Having lived around the corner from the house for many years and gotten to know its occupant, I know the house better as ‘Les’s place’. With hindsight, I cannot help delighting in the irony of the heritage status that The Robertsons’ House has finally achieved (although, like most of surrounding Oaks Estate, it is not yet on the ACT Heritage Register).

I think that much of the irony is encapsulated in the response that people have had to the use of the term ‘humpy’ on the interpretive signage that is now attached to the new paling fence delineating part of the property. The discomfort in the use of the word ‘humpy’ during the tour was obvious. The heritage consultant in his address very strongly qualified his own usage of the term. One of the Robertson descendants present, who had lived for a period in the house, very passionately defended the fond memory of her time there.

After the tour, and because I am regarded as something of an authority on the history of Oaks Estate (my book ‘Oaks Estate – No Man’s Land’ was published in 1997), I was approached to explain the use of the term. The use of the word ‘humpy’, in this instance, was not meant in any way to detract from the status of the Robertsons’ house as a much-loved family home.

The heritage sign uses information from many sources. I referred the composer of the sign to my book (see pages 33 and 39), so I assume that the term 'humpy' was used on the sign because I used it in reference to the style of construction. It was a term used on official documents to describe a house built by the owner without reference to building regulations. My use of the term was not derogatory. I remember when writing my book I discussed the term at length with Ann Gugler, who at the time was writing her series on the builders of Canberra. Ann showed me instances of its usage, examples of which can most likely be found on this website.

The term 'humpy' is indeed a loaded term and is usually associated with very rudimentary dwellings. However, during the period in which the Robertsons’ house was being constructed, and following, the bureaucrats using the term had very strong opinions of appropriate housing for the national capital, and anything 'make-shift/make-do' was lumped into a general category intended to imply temporary and unsuitable. Certainly, Charles Daley, one of Canberra’s senior public servants, viewed the entire of Oaks Estate as an eyesore and (after finding that he couldn't give it back to NSW) did his best to ignore it, in the hope that it would fall down from lack of government maintenance and support infrastructure. An edited version of my article on that topic was published in the Canberra Times, 10 July 1997, in Robert Macklin's column. The following is the full text of my article, which sums up the situation nicely and illustrates my point.

‘Damnosa hereditas’

‘Damnosa hereditas’, loosely translated, means damaging inheritance. Charles Daley, Canberra’s then-Civic Administrator, used the term in 1937 in a letter to the Director-General of Works. He was using the expression to describe Oaks Estate, a place he believed to be an embarrassment to the Territory and one that should never have been partitioned from Queanbeyan. Daley was a well-educated man with very strong aesthetic principles and a firm idea of the Federal Capital plan. As far as he was concerned, Oaks Estate did not fit into either of them.

He had, in fact, tried to have it given back to New South Wales in 1927. When constitutional difficulties prevented this, Daley then looked for alternative methods of ‘elimination of the settlement’. These involved the Commonwealth either leasing the settlement back to New South Wales or acquiring the relevant freehold titles and simply demolishing the buildings. In the mean time, he strongly resisted any development of the area at all, despite continual requests for improvements from the Oaks Estate community. Debate about whether the settlement should be ‘liquidated’ or provision made for its continued, albeit staggered, development was still going on in 1950.

The economic climate of the 1920s to the 1950s placed Daley in a frustrating situation. He saw the growth of industry in Oaks Estate, so near to Queanbeyan railway station, as detrimental to planned development in Canberra. He also saw Oaks Estate housing as below the standard of that being prescribed for the inner city areas and to be treated as temporary. But on the other hand, Canberra was facing an acute housing shortage partly due to insufficient Commonwealth funding.

For many, Oaks Estate was an easy way into the Territory, a way around the long waiting lists for government housing. The land was freehold and therefore free from many of the regulations of leased land in the Territory. Land values having been artificially held at 1908 values also meant that rates were lower. This was at a time when, to be eligible for a government job, a worker had to have an address in the Territory. Almost from the moment the first sod was turned on the provisional Parliament House site, there was a dramatic increase in the turnover of land titles in Oaks Estate. By the early 1930s, and probably the late 1920s, the Federal Capital administration viewed the area as a temporary workers' settlement with most residents being dependent on work in Canberra.

Before the influence of the Territory for the Seat of Government was ever felt, Oaks Estate had been part of Queanbeyan. The area was sliced off, in January 1911, after the boundaries for the Territory were finally agreed upon. In these earlier times the Queanbeyan to Cooma railway line, and the station complex itself, were a major focus for investment and employment. Industry on the Estate had consisted of the Hazelbrook wool works, the Queanbeyan Roller Flour Mill, John Bull's tannery and slaughter yards and the Chinese market gardens.

Many Oaks Estate landholders were Queanbeyan people, involved in the local industry, buying investment property around the station. But there were a good proportion of people from pioneer families of the Canberra, Ginninderra and Yass districts settling on the Estate. A number of these people were teamsters and came to the area in the mid 1890s to be close to the flourmill and the railway yards. George and Mary Gillespie came to Oaks Estate and built their house on land opposite the railway stockyards. George had originally come from the Ginninderra district and was a teamster. His brother-in-law Thomas Bambridge, from the Canberra area, was a carrier on the Nelligen Road and he also lived in the area of the railway yards.

John and Rebecca Robertson [Les Robertson’s grandparents], people long associated with the early Canberra, Queanbeyan and Yass districts, had been living in Oaks Estate since about 1888/89, having moved from Dodsworth, Queanbeyan. Members of the family found work locally at the flourmill and the wool works. By the late 1890s, however, most industry in Oaks Estate had ceased, leaving only the mill and the Chinese market garden in operation.

Once construction of the Federal Capital began, the Robertsons like most families, looked to Canberra for work with Dick Robertson finding employment at the Royal Military College, Duntroon and, later, on government construction projects such as Westlake and Government House. Dick's brother Ned found work constructing the Cotter Road and continued patrolling the Territory's roads with horse and dray.

The arrival of the Federal Territory brought employment opportunities but for tenant farmers living in the proposed inner city areas, it meant that the time they had left on their farms was limited. When it became likely that Canberra would be selected as the site for the Federal Capital, the owners of Duntroon, one of the first properties to be acquired by the Commonwealth, stopped granting leases to their tenant farmers, who became tenants at will. Many had occupied their leases for many years. Until their lands were needed for some purpose the Government did not see a need to disturb these farmers. Arthur William Moriarty, who had lived in Oaks Estate since about 1898, was responsible for many of the valuation surveys of these properties.

By 1913 a large number of the Duntroon tenants were employed by the Commonwealth, many engaged in construction work or in some other capacity. Thomas and Elizabeth Kinlyside had been tenant farmers of Briar Farm, on the Duntroon estate, since the 1880s but had had their lease changed to a month by month basis. They moved to Oaks Estate from Briar Farm, at what is now the site of the Canberra Yacht Club, in late 1913. Thomas Kinlyside, a long-time agitator for the labour movement, wrote under the name ‘Jingler’ and made many contributions to the local press on issues including the location of the Federal Capital.

As the construction of the inner areas of Canberra progressed, most signs of any pre-existing settlement eventually disappeared except for those buildings that could be adapted to fit into the plan for the Federal capital. As the suburbs of Canberra spread, more and more properties were absorbed. In some instances, a suburb or street name is the only indication that there was ever any previous occupation.

The impeded development of Oaks Estate has resulted in an environment that has allowed early layers of occupation to co-exist with modern. Even where properties have been cleared and bare paddocks are all that remain, measurements and further archaeological investigation is still possible.

Contained within Oaks Estate and the area that immediately surrounds it is evidence of Aboriginal camping activity and the remnants of some of the Canberra/Queanbeyan district's earliest European history, dating back to the 1820s. Examples include the site of Timothy Beard's Queenbeeann, the first European settlement of the Queanbeyan district [now the site of the new industrial suburb of Beard]; The Oaks house, believed to have been built around 1837 by Robert Campbell; and The Oaks burial ground, which was Queanbeyan's first cemetery, used during the 1830s and 40s. More recent layers of occupation include the Chinese market gardens, the River Street ford, the Hazelbrook property, on which activity dates back to the 1870s; the Queanbeyan railway bridge and station complex of 1886/87 and houses of various styles dating from the 1880s to the present day.

Charles Daley's damnosa hereditas?

It has been one of life's ironies that Daley's resistance to the development of Oaks Estate should ultimately have contributed to the preservation of much of what he had initially sought to rid himself of. 

The Robertsons’ House, one of those ironies, was less substantial than today. The original house had four rooms and was constructed using bush poles and lined (at least in part) with opened out kerosene tins. I don’t know what the original exterior cladding, was. A shed constructed of bush poles and kerosene tins (to the right of the house, as seen from Hazel Street) was used as a cookhouse, and, I think, laundry). The back part of the house, which became the kitchen, was built over time and lined with tin off-cuts from the construction jobs that Dick Robertson was working on at the time (Old Parliament House, Westlake cottages and such). The weatherboards came from the Duntroon Cottages when they were demolished in the 1930s.

Walking through the house during the heritage tour I remembered the pride I perceived in Les’s face, all of those years ago, as he told me the story of his parents building their home and raising their children in Oaks Estate. I reflected that pride as I answered questions and pointed out the lost know-how of adzing bush poles to build a house frame and the craftsmanship that had gone into folding the edges of kerosene tins and off-cuts of flat iron together, and the old-fashioned riveting techniques used in the construction of the sheets to line the walls and ceilings of the house; all of which has held those pieces together and in place for nearly 100 years. What happens next as the community struggles to find ways to maintain The Robertsons’ House and the character of the surrounding area of Oaks Estate in the face of a growing and changing Canberra will determine how long the house will continue to hold and reflect the heritage of the builders of Canberra.