Summer Reading: Boarding history

• Tower House in Northbridge is a rare Perth example of a purpose-built boarding house. Photo by Heritage Perth

HISTORY buff RICHARD OFFEN is the author of Lost Perth, and the former executive director of Heritage Perth. In this week’s HERITAGE CORNER he tells us about the birth of boarding and lodging houses in Perth, including how widows took in lodgers during the Great Depression to make ends meet.

BOARDING and lodging house accommodation was an important feature of the early development of the colonies.

Single men or those intending to bring their families out to the new areas often used boarding houses in preference to other forms of accommodation such as inns and public houses as they were viewed as a respectable form of accommodation, which included the provision of meals and cleaning.

In the early days of the Swan River Colony, there seemed to be a distinct lack of such accommodation, as a letter to the editor of The Perth Gazette in 1837 shows:

“Sir, The want of a respectable boarding-house in Perth for gentlemen occasionally visiting headquarters is so much felt by settlers residing at a distance, that I am surprised it has never occurred to anyone to try an experiment, which I have no doubt would be attended with complete success. The company at an inn is often unsuitable for those that prefer quietness and regularity. Your obedient Servant, A Traveller.”

A large number of boarding and lodging houses seem to have been established in Perth during the 1890s, particularly along the length of Hay Street, St Georges Terrace, and Murray and Newcastle Streets as a result of the WA gold rush.

Not unsurprisingly the gold boom economy at this time attracted single men from other parts of Australia and overseas.

Many of them tended to use the boarding houses in Perth as a stopover on their way to or from the goldfields.

Tower House, on the corner of Russell Square and Francis Street in Northbridge, is a rare Perth example of a purpose-built boarding house.

Built in Victorian Italianate style in 1898, it was run for many years by a female proprietor – an occupation which was considered acceptable for single or widowed women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The building operated as a boarding house until it was acquired by the Hellenic community in the 1950s, and since then it has been used as a rectory, Greek school, restaurant and, after renovation in 2006, offices.   

A lodging house, in contrast to boarding houses, was considered to be a cheap form of accommodation for the working class, transients and the poor. They were also seen as a shorter-term accommodation option.

One report described lodging houses as, ”…poor quality, over-crowded and posing substantial health risks.”

Lodging houses were particularly popular during periods of economic hardship, such as during a world war or the Great Depression. During such periods, widows would take in lodgers to provide income for their family.

The Depression years of the 1920s and 1930s saw demand increase for cheap accommodation in the inner city areas as people tried to find work.

Perth’s boarding and lodging houses started to go out of fashion after World War II, when reasonable hotel accommodation became more affordable and other types of subsidised housing became available for those in need.

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