A history of housing and tenancy advocacy: Aboriginal housing in town reserves and East Perth (circa 1966)

When Perth was declared a prohibited zone for Aboriginal people in the 1920s, the area along the river in East Perth became a refuge. Aboriginal people needed a pass to go in to work in the City and if they had not departed again by 6 pm, they could be gaoled. At this time, it was also an offence for European people to associate with Aboriginal people.  These restrictions on the movement of Aboriginal people was lifted after 1948. Aboriginal people were attracted by the cheaper rents in East Perth: but the majority congregated on the southern side of the district where unskilled work was available. There was an empty paddock near the East Perth Railway Station which was known as the “bull paddock” and Millar’s Cave, part of the old Millar’s timber yard. These had long been camping sites.

There were between 175 and 200 Aboriginal people living in East Perth during the 1960’s[i].  It had a strong sense of community and the restrictions on Aboriginal people made East Perth like a reserve.  ‘It was just like a reserve in the city’[ii] said Helena Pell Pritchard.  


By the 1960’s the greater South West of WA had been extensively taken up as rural farmland.  The ‘reserves’ were in or adjacent to towns throughout Noongar country.  In the 1960’s the Anglican Church established a unique endeavour; where they sent people to live and work on the government gazetted reserves.  A large part of the role was in helping people to build houses.  Mary Elliott and May Street were both trained Social Workers, having trained at Josephine Butler Memorial College in Liverpool, England. They both had extensive experience in England.  Mary Elliott was in correspondence with the Reverend E.C. King who wrote back about the work in which he was engaged.  The two women were eventually sponsored as immigrants by the S.W. Mission expecting to live in a caravan near one of the reserves. 

However, on arrival King informed them that the Archbishop wanted them to work in the Metropolitan area, as there was nothing being done for the increasing numbers of Aboriginal people moving into Perth and living in squalid conditions adjacent to the city.

The Public Works Dept. offered the Mission the use of 2 Norbert Street, East Perth and the Family Centre commenced its work.  They were given no instructions but told to find out what the need was.  The first problem seemed to be the lack of bathrooms and showers, so the Family Centre started providing baths for the children.  Between twenty and thirty children arrived each day after school. The mothers then began to enjoy a bath and eventually the men came for a shower and a shave. 

The women became immersed in the community and knew most of the families and their children.  A report from the period notes: “The threatened eviction of several families from houses in East Perth, and the fact that one whole family is living in the backyard of another house rented by a large family has made obvious the need for a concerted effort for housing for the coloured people. Nor is the problem confined to the Metropolitan area, for all our teams are constantly beset by it.  What is needed is a short term action to meet the present situation and long term planning to meet the problems of the future.  The Mission can little more than a pressure group; the responsibility must rest with the governments and departments concerned.”[iii]

This led to Miss Elliott undertaking some systemic advocacy with the government officials of the day and in the media.  The media responded with an editorial; which in some ways is not dis-similar to issues being raised about housing and tenancy fifty years later.

“We would like to think there is no poverty, and there are no underprivileged or disadvantaged people in this wonderful State, but this is not so.  The ordinary family on the minimum wage, and with three or four or more children and renting a house, is the group in great need.  Landlords who charge $50 bond and $20 - $25 a week rent, make it impossible for the family to live – they just exist.  Such families find it impossible to pay the $100 it costs to move into a decent house, even if they could find one where the landlord permitted children.  Therefore they take an old house miles from a main road, but where the landlord will waive the bond money, and requires only one weeks rent in advance.  In no time at all the problems begin.  No bus runs to these remote spots, so Dad finds it difficult to get to work and begins to have the odd day off, thus reducing the income even more.  The teenagers find it difficult to get a job, and impossible to get to any night club or entertainment of any kind because there is no means of getting home.  A taxi has to be used to take the children to hospital – as the standard of living is low the children always suffer from many more illnesses probably brought on by malnutrition – or if Mum has to go to town and has to take children with a taxi is used again, thus eating into what little money they may have.  As the house is very old the pipes leak, the toilet does not work, cockroaches abound, and it is difficult to keep the place clean.  Mum then starts to get frustrated and ‘takes it out’ on the family, they then become difficult and rows and fights are the order of the day.  This can all be put down as one big problem…. Housing.  Until the State Housing Commission build four-bedroomed houses and cut down the waiting list, there will continue to be disadvantaged people of this type.[iv]


Older Aboriginals who have always lived with relatives, now find it difficult to get accommodation.  Their relatives have been re-housed in good State houses and are not allowed to have other than their immediate family living there.  These old people have always shared all they had with relatives, and now they have to fend for themselves they are unable to cope.[v]


One of the main reasons for disadvantaged people in this State is the high cost of renting accommodation, and until some restrictive legislation on rents is brought in we shall have a group of people called underprivileged or disadvantaged.[vi]

In 1965 there was no Aboriginal Medical Service, or Aboriginal Legal Service in Perth.  There were also no community legal centres, or specialist tenancy advocacy services.  This was pioneering work in the area of tenant advocacy, both individual and systemic.  It gives a privilege to be able to honour this work, fifty years since.

Since 1965 there has been some progress, but not nearly enough.  There are still a large number of Aboriginal people on waitlists for long periods of time. There are still too many evictions; while other sectors are developing wrap around services to support tenants with complex needs.  There is still significant overcrowding and major issues with maintenance in regional and remote Aboriginal communities. Community legal centres, financial counsellors and tenant advocacy service do operate now, but due to funding cuts do not have the capacity to meet the need of all who access their services. There is relative funding uncertainty for many homelessness services under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH), which is not good for clients, service providers, or those working in the sector. Shelter WA is committed to advocating for more homelessness funding certainty, and appropriate safe, secure and affordable housing for Aboriginal people in WA.  There must be a whole of government approach to people, with housing at the centre of a comprehensive and integrated approach to provision of support services. 

[i] South West Mission Director’s Report (September 1965)

[ii] Aboriginal Oral Histories of East Perth around the Power Station, Mary Anne Jebb

[iii] South West Mission – Director’s Report – April 1967

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid


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