As World War One ended, more than 150,000 Australians serving overseas – on the Western Front and in the Middle East – needed to be brought home.

But where would they live when they returned? Few houses had been built during the war years to cope with the country’s growing population. Labour shortages caused by the massive enlistment of men in the armed forces, rising house prices and rents, and increased costs and limited supply of building materials combined to create an accommodation crisis.

The many thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and ancillary staff either didn’t have a physical place to live or resided in sub-standard dwellings. This clashed with the rallying cry of the time to provide “homes fit for heroes”: those who had served and the widows of those men who would never return.

The fledging federal government and state administrations were increasingly aware of the significant challenges this issue presented. The passing of the Commonwealth Government’s War Services Homes Act in December 1918, and the creation of the War Services Homes Commission the following March, brought a whole-of-Australia approach to the problem.

And central to these initiatives – as it had been to funding the war and a host of associated economic measures – was the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Partnering with the government to provide homes for veterans

Denison Miller, CBA’s first governor (a role equivalent to the modern-day CEO and managing director), had helped change the course of the war, at home and on the battlefield. He was determined the Bank would do so again as peacetime dawned.

Miller had been in discussions with the Government from January 1918, offering the Bank’s support to help returning service people to secure homes — either by buying land and building houses on the plots, or purchasing existing properties which could be modernised if required.

This led to the appointment of the Bank in June 1919 as the War Service Commission’s partner to deal with individual applicants to the property scheme. CBA took responsibility for building single homes or buying them, arranging mortgages and discharging existing loans on properties already owned by returned servicemen.

Financial support under the Act was limited to £700 per applicant (later increased to £800 — equal to about $75,000 today), financed principally through a loan. Purchasers could also build or buy a home for more than that amount by using their own money or by taking out an additional mortgage with the bank.

The home loans were offered at attractive terms for the time, with maximum repayment periods of 37 years with monthly repayments of £3, 9 shillings and 5 pence (about $325). A £500 loan over 20 years could be repaid at £3, 6 shillings and 3 pence per month (about $310).

All of the scheme’s details — including a standard schematic design for a two-bedroom house — were contained in a 1919 pamphlet produced by the Bank.

Pamphlet showing designs for a War Service Home Pamphlet showing designs for a War Service Home
Pamphlet showing designs for a War Service Home Pamphlet showing designs for a War Service Home

Another CBA-led innovation was the launch of a self-funded insurance scheme for the war service homes, which not only covered against the risk of fire but also lightning, flood and “tempest”. It was the only insurance of its type in the country covering all such risks, and its costs were considerably lower than those offered by private companies – in some cases 50 per cent cheaper.

Meticulous records of the insurance were kept in local “Day Books”. The one for Western Australia, for example, showed that for the year ending 30 April 1925, the number of insurance certificates in force across the state totalled 2,095, with the sum insured of £1.39 million ($13 billion) and annual premiums of £1,288 and 6d ($121,000).

It is testament to the success of the insurance scheme that it still operates today under the aegis of the Department of Veteran Affairs, providing cover to 52,000 current and ex-Australian Defence Force personnel, veterans and their widows/widowers. It remains self-funded, never receiving a dollar in government support – as it has been for more than 100 years.

Inside the homes built by Commonwealth Bank

Under the national construction scheme, CBA took charge of building and acquiring properties on separate sites while the Commission was responsible for constructing bigger greenfield estates of homes. The policy was later scaled back due to opposition of grouping ex-soldiers at one location in large numbers.

In keeping with his “can do” attitude, Governor Miller – who had become the public face of the CBA’s increasing role in national affairs so soon after the bank’s creation in 1912 – launched the war service house building program by laying the foundation stone of the first house to be constructed on 21 July 1919.

Denison Miller lays the foundation of the first War Service Home for Mr and Mrs Baxter (Reserve Bank of Australia, PN-002064) Denison Miller lays the foundation of the first War Service Home for Mr and Mrs Baxter (Reserve Bank of Australia, PN-002064)

It took just 35 days to build 32 Kennedy Street in the Sydney suburb of Canterbury, and the proud owners Mr and Mrs Baxter were able to take possession of a two-bedroom brick home replete with dining room, kitchen, laundry, bathroom, pantry, front verandah and tiled roof, connected to sewerage and electric power. Included in the £500 contract price was a porcelain enamel bath, concrete tubs, copper and stove, a path to the front door and garden fencing!

Different house designs and set-ups were offered across the different states, tailored to local weather conditions and planning and living requirements but the emphasis was on speed of construction, minimal follow-on maintenance and low construction costs.

The end of the scheme

The combination, size and difference of the two building approaches – the CBA’s individual house scheme, and the Commission’s estate program – led to a huge shortage of materials, particularly bricks, but also furniture, door and window fastenings and other fittings.

Consequently, there were construction delays and complaints about the direction, scope and operation of the national scheme at Commission level, all of which led to increasing tensions between the Commission and the Bank. It was agreed to end their partnership earlier than planned.

But that came after CBA had helped put a roof over the heads of several thousands of ex-service people and widows.

In all, the Bank:

  • built 1,777 homes across six states – NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania – at a cost of £1.15 million;
  • purchased a further 5,179 homes nationwide for £2.87 million;
  • acquired 987 building plots;
  • let 1,877 building contracts to the value of £1.17 million;
  • approved 8,017 applications for homes worth £4.67 million;
  • discharged an additional 1,011 mortgages totalling £575,669.

The housing support first offered by the Commission and CBA more than 100 years ago continues today through the provision of subsidised home loans administered by Defence Service Homes, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Research and original source material provided by: Julianne Liddicoat, CBA Archives. Banner image: War Services home in Five Dock, Sydney, circa 1920s (Reserve Bank of Australia, PN-003098)

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