Stannumville: Sydney’s forgotten tin city

Facing World War One and a rental crisis, the government built a makeshift shantytown in the Bayside area to house homeless public servants.

It’s August 1914. Fierce fighting has broken out in Europe at the onset of the First World War, and the Labor state government, led by Premier Holman, is getting nervous.

Facing a grim economic outlook, the government’s hand is forced – they must cut the working hours of public servants or lay off much of the workforce.

“The idea was to have more people on some money rather than some people on more money’” said amateur historian Leonie Bell, talking to a room of a few dozen at Rockdale Library in mid-April.

But now the government has a new problem. With employees' incomes cut by up to half, they could no longer afford the exorbitant rents of Sydney.

And so, in an effort to keep public servants off the streets, the government started work on what would become Stannumville ­– a crude settlement on sand dunes where Eastgardens stands today.

The government planned to build 500 dwellings on the site, but only 169 were ever constructed. Photo: Museums of History New South Wales, State Archives Collection

“[Around that time] you find that the rents are increasing far more than people's rates of pay. It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it?” said Bell.

Soon floorless (yes, there was no escaping the sand), flimsy canvas huts began to pop up on dunes just off Bunnerong Road. They was no electricity, streetlights, running water or bathrooms.

As the settlement ­– first known as Canvas Town – expanded, infrastructure slowly followed. By the end of 1915; the settlement boasted one shower for every 24 residents, a recreation hall, and a school that had over 80 pupils. A nearby swamp was used to teach the children to swim.

The shanty town lay just off Bunnerong Road, north-east of Port Botany. Photo: Museums of History New South Wales, State Archives Collection

The Sydney Morning Herald likened the settlement to a “poultry farm” while the Daily Telegraph used kinder words, expressing “pleasure in the assurance that Canvas Town is only for a time” and “regret that such expedience necessary in a land so bountifully blessed.”

Facing criticism, Premier Holman defended the initiative as the best of a bad situation, saying, “Tents are not palaces, and no one pretends that they are, but the people who are occupying them have not come from palaces. They have come out of the wretched hovels which the landlordism of Sydney provided them in our back streets”.

All the while local council seemed peculiarly preoccupied with concerns of the “demoralising effects” of “herding all classes of the community in such a manner”, as well as lacking sanitation and the spread of disease.

An official inspection of the settlement. Photo: Museums of History New South Wales, State Archives Collection

The government eventually replaced the canvas structures with corrugated iron, prompting the settlement to be renamed Stannumville, meaning Tin Town in an amalgam of Latin and French.

“It has so much resonance with today with the issues of housing and rent. It was a Band-Aid solution rather than addressing the actual problem of landlordism and terrible housing in the city,” Bell said.

“It’s about looking at housing for all Australians, not just for the rich. We really must get to grips with this whole issue of affordable housing”.

Yet as quickly as the town appeared, it vanished. By 1916, the government re-employed its workforce at 100%, easing cost of living pressures. The following year, the remaining 20 tenants were given notice to move and the area was subdivided and sold off. Nothing remains of it today.

Stumbling into Stannumville

Looking for a new research project to sink her teeth into, Bell came across a photo of the sand-swept shantytown, dated 1914.

“I saw the date and thought, well, this isn’t the great depression,” she said.

After months of digging through archives, the peculiar story of the tin city began to come into focus, forever memorialising the otherwise unknown story in history.

At the end of last year Bell was awarded the Ron Rathbone Prize for her work. It was the 4th time she has won the award.

Leonie Bell giving a talk on Stannumville at Rockdale Library. Photo: Aston Brown

Ron Rathbone, a passionate history enthusiast, spent four terms as Mayor of Rockdale City Council and was a founding member of the St George Historical Society – who hosted Bell’s talk on Stannumville. Among other activities, the society organises monthly talks and manages a repository of historical artefacts from the local area.

“It’s very, very important and significant that Ron Rathbone has been memorialised in an annual award,” said the society's president, Wesley Fairhall.

The Ron Rathbone Prize motivated Leonie Bell to start her research. Photo: Aston Brown

Bell’s research on Stannumville is available online, and hard copies can be found in Mascot, Eastgardens and Rockdale Library.

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