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Iron Houses- The Original Flat Pack

A recent visit to the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne showed the ingenuity of British Engineering in the mid-19thCentury.

In the mid 1850’s when the gold rush was in full swing, people would arrive at Port Melbourne before setting off (often walking) to the central Victorian goldfields.

Accommodation was limited so these Iron Houses offered an alternative to living in a canvas tent. They were transported in their thousands from England to the Colony and even the packaging that contained them were used as internal lining. They came with everything that you would need to erect them down to the exact number of nuts and bolts to hold it all together. It is unclear if the instructions came with an allen key or whether it was usually the wife who finished the assembly.

The suppliers of these homes had catalogues that included all different configurations and also included outhouses, shops and stables.

Today, three of these houses are held by the National Trust at 399 Coventry St, South Melbourne. The main house (Patterson House) has been renovated and restored to be as close to original as possible. It consists of four rooms with a passageway and two further rooms were made to house children up in the pine-lined roof space. Imagine the heat in summer! It is the only house that has ever been erected on this site.

Detail showing original stair treads made of Baltic Pine, worn over time and covered with new treads.

When these homes were constructed the kitchen and laundry were separated from the house due to the risk of fire and unfortunately this structure no longer remains.

399 Coventry Street was one of a row of five similar houses. There is another still occupied a couple of doors down but it has had brick cladding added to it so you wouldn’t know it’s origins from the street. There would have been hundreds of these houses in South Melbourne and Port Melbourne

399 Coventry St facade with extremely helpful National Trust Volunteers.

There are two other houses that have been moved to the site. One was located at 59 Arden St, North Melbourne and is known as Abercrombie House, named after the first occupant of the house. This home is in poor condition and in bad need of renovation. The National Trust need funds in order to save this home from further deterioration.

Rear view of Abercrombie House in need of renovation. Note the changed colour in the brickwork in the foreground that shows the original location of the kitchen.

The other home was moved from 42 Moor St, Fitzroy and was not much larger than a single car garage, divided into three rooms.

There is also an example of restored iron homes at 181-189 Brunswick Road, Brunswick, surely one of Melbourne’s earliest examples of duplex construction.

The area around Coventry St in South Melbourne contains many original homes, some of them are in need of renovation but it is a streetscape that has a lot of charm. The O’Connell Hotel on the corner of Montague St was a former Painters and Dockers establishment, reflecting the suburbs working class origins.

These homes lend themselves well to renovation and extension, the sites are usually on tight sites and may be subject to a Heritage Overlay imposed by the City of Port Phillip.

One of Melbourne’s early homes that has been beautifully renovated and complimented with a fabulous modern extension is located around the corner from the Iron Houses in Coventry Place.