Living in the Patch: the village at Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station

The Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station operated for 66 years, from 1939 to 2005.  Back in 1939 the suburb of Belconnen did not exist, and the naval base was set in an open landscape remote from the centre of Canberra. The naval base had its own village of 26 cottages, known fondly by those who lived there as ‘the Patch.’

Photo showing remoteness of Belconnen in the 1940s.
The Patch at Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station in the 1940s, showing just how remote it was from Canberra itself. Photo courtesy of John Saywell.

The cottages were weatherboard, with tiled roofs.  Eileen Hogg, wife of a Radio Electrical Mechanic, recalled in an oral history interview the two-bedroom cottage in which they lived from 1958 to 1959:

You walked in the front door which was a little bit sheltered and into the hallway—all lino—and left was our lounge with a fire in it and then right was our bedroom and then behind that was the second bedroom…. Straight ahead was the bathroom with a big bath —no shower—and a hand basin. And then you walked along to the kitchen… We had to go outside the back door to go into the toilet.”

Mick Wellings and his wife lived at Belconnen in the mid-1970s.  He recalled his wife’s reaction on seeing the cottage that was to be their home:

There was some 26-odd cottages of pretty old style, weatherboardish… My wife was, shall we say, shocked when she first saw the house. Gaps underneath the external doors where you could easily put your hand underneath, inch to an inch-and-a-half gap underneath the external doors to the house, the front and back door, and most of the internal doors would open and close willy-nilly at their own pace throughout the day if you happened to be home.”

The front of one of the cottages in the Patch, 1960s. Photo courtesy of Mike Witcher.

Single men’s quarters

The arrangements were slightly different for the single men.  Bill Williams lived in the single men’s quarters in 1949-50. 

They were just a normal three-bedroom cottage and we sailors, we slept in three of the bedrooms and I think two sailors slept in the lounge room as well – we slept two to a bedroom and two in the lounge room – and it was a bit of a change from what we’d been used to, particularly during our training period when we’d slept in hammocks all the time; at least we were sleeping in beds in the cottages. And of course we had our domestic chores to do and clean the place up and wash our clothes and all that sort of thing. In those days we didn’t have washing machines but we had washtubs and the copper in which you could boil your clothes to get them ‘Persil white’, so we managed to keep ourselves busy.”

Lounge room inside a cottage, 1960s.
Lounge room of one of the cottages in the Patch, 1960s. Photo courtesy of Mike Witcher.

Keeping out the cold of a Canberra winter

Winter in Canberra is notoriously cold.  Given the poor insulation in the cottages and gaps under the doors, it was a challenge to keep them warm.  In the early days, there were log fires.  Mike and Irene Witcher recalled:

There was a disease called Belconnen Disease, which meant one couldn’t drive past any stick of wood on the roadside, without stopping to collect it. The heating in the lounge room was by an open wood fire, water for the laundry was heated in a copper water heater with wood fire under the copper bowl.”

Mike was told that in the early days of Belconnen, residents collected firewood by removing every second paling of the wood fences, then removing every second paling of those remaining, and so on. 

Woodshed in a backyard, 1960s.
Woodshed in a backyard in the Patch, 1960s. Photo courtesy of Mike Witcher.

Later, the cottages were equipped with oil heating.  Gabby Hayes remembered that in 1979-81 it was:

Very, very cold in winter. They did have oil heating but oil was quite expensive so we used to go knocking off pine cones from all the pine trees and put them in the open fires and that sort of thing.”

Car covered in snow.
Snow covering a car in the Patch, 1960s. Photo courtesy of Marjorie Town.

Even with the oil heating operating, it was insufficient to heat the cottage, as Mick Wellings remembered:

We had an oil-fuelled fireplace, which was magnificent as long as you stayed in the lounge room and didn’t move more than about a metre away from the fire. If you wanted to be warm and you had that going, you went into the bedroom, you’d put two or three blankets on – just didn’t penetrate throughout the house at all.

Apart from that, the house was old, it was neat and tidy. Because I was there as a Petty Officer, naval regulations for housing meant we weren’t allowed to have carpet to cover the whole floor of the house. Our carpet square went to within two foot of each wall in the lounge room and lounge room only. Bedrooms we weren’t entitled to carpet. Kitchen we had bare floors. Canberra being windy for a fair percentage of the time, it was not uncommon to find this piece of carpet lifting up off the floor. You’d be sitting down watching TV and the carpet would lift up around your feet.”

Getting hot water in winter

Getting hot water in winter was another challenge in the Patch.  Gordon McDermott explained:

In winter we often used to have to go and wash ourselves using the tap in the backyard because all the taps in the house were frozen. Each house had a two-gallon gas water extinguisher, situated on the front step and oftentimes we would go out and if we had to use them we’d be out of luck because they also were frozen. That’s how cold it used to be. And then we had the introduction of chip heaters where we would have to chop kindling, make a little fire in the chip heater to get hot water. For most of us, no hot water in the kitchen, and there certainly wasn’t in my place, and we used to have to go and boil the jug to get hot water for shaving, for example. The stove that we had wasn’t electric, it was the old wood stove… Even the mirror on our bedroom, I remember, quite frequently in winter would frost over, and that was inside the house, so it’ll give you some idea as to how cold those places used to be.”

Baby in a backyard at Belconnen.
The 18-month-old son of one of the sailors used to crawl up to the tap in the background in winter and eat the icicles. Photo courtesy of Eileen Hogg.

To be continued in the next post…

You can read more about the history of the Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station here.

Acknowledgements

Extract from oral history interviews with Colin ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Eileen Hogg, Gordon McDermott, Doug Timmins, Mick Wellings, and Bill Williams used with the permission of the Australian Government Department of Defence.

Recollections of Mike and Irene Witcher used with their permission.

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