The Not-So-Humble Fibro Cottage

Fibro Cottages Elderslie
Fibro Cottages Elderslie (I Willis)

The humble fibro cottage of the 1950s and 1960s in Camden is an important part of the town’s progress and development. The fibro house is representative of the baby-boomer era, when drive-ins, Holdens, Chiko rolls, black & white TV, rock & roll, vinyl LPs were the norm. Fibro is also evocative of long summer holidays by the beach, with adolescent love, boogie boards, zinc cream and paddle pops. Camden has a number of different types of fibro buildings dating from the 1940s and 1960s.

Fibro was invented in Austria by Ludwig Hatschek in 1900, and within three years was imported to Australia.Australia was making fibro by 1916 and was only one of the few countries to use it for housing. Fibro was made and distributed in Australian primarily by Wunderlich and James Hardie. Fibro was cheap and easy to use, and it was modern.

In the 1950s as the Camden coal industry expanded the town suffered a housing shortage and fibro cottages provided one solution. A number of fibro cottages were built by the NSW Housing Commission. These type of houses were recognized for features including hot-water systems, running water to the kitchen and bathroom and power-points throughout the house.

Camden’s simple fibro cottages provided affordable accommodation for the working man and his family. There are also many fibro houses on local farms as they were a cheap and fibro was an effective building material, that in some cases replaced iron cladding.

Many Camden families have memories of their summer holidays spent in a fibro beach shack on the South Coast as their getaway. They were loved for their low maintenance and easy repairs.

Charles Pickett’s The Fibro Frontier (1997) describes the 1950s fibro home style as austerity modernism. Pickett states that fibro houses combined economy, ease of construction and buyer engagement. Fibro was a mass-produced manufactured building material that made housing construction cheaper.  Fibro offered the working family the chance to become a home owner through a cost-effective form of modern domestic architecture. Camden’s fibro houses had proud owners who kept well maintained front gardens and mowed the grass with the Victa mowers around the Hills hoist.

The Powerhouse Museum has a collection of Wunderlich fibro catalogues that provides a valuable record of this style of architecture. Home owners and builders were offered lots of advice on the advantages of fibro in magazines like Australian Homemaker, Australian Home Beautiful and Australian House and Garden. Barry Humphries, the son of a builder, has stated that fibro houses were a little ‘declasse’ and sometimes they were not ‘nice’ homes, although some in the 1950s described them ‘as modern as tomorrow’. One characteristics of some Camden fibro cottages is the rounded corners and walls, with its streamlined and modern lines, which were first manufactured in 1937.

Fibro was also used in commercial architecture in Camden and has been used in a number of retail and commercial properties in central Camden. Pickett maintains that the peak of fibro’s acceptance was the 1960s, and from there its popularity declined and it was replaced by other building materials, like brick-veneer construction. Unfortunately fibro has poor insulation qualities and these cottages were cold in winter and hot in summer, and today there are the health risks of asbestos.

Fibro clad houses represent an important period in Camden’s historical development, and there are examples listed in Camden’s local heritage list. Interestingly filmmakers and artists have adopted the fibro house to signify as a form of ‘retro-dagginess’ and a re-evaluation of suburbia, according to Pickett. Compressed fibre board has been making a comeback in recent years as a successful building material.

Renovating a fibro cottage needs care with the dangerous asbetos fibres. For more information click here


CWA Camouflage Netting Volunteers


Stories of netting volunteers

A Camden netting volunteer, Elaine, remembered volunteering for duty at the Camden netting centre when she was 15 years old. She recalled that the netting effort was organised and supervised by Rita Tucker. She stated that she had left school and attended the centre on a weekly basis with a group of friends. Elaine maintained that Camden men ‘were away and we were doing our bit’ for the war effort. She stated that Camden women ‘all had to do something to help our boys’ and they took up netting as part of their civic and patriotic duty. Elaine reported that, for her, netting was not hard work and she enjoyed going with her friends. She maintained that they worked ‘long hours’ and ‘didn’t really worry about it’.

Another net making volunteer, Ida, recalls that netting was ‘hard work’, but ‘she went with her friends, and it was her bit for the war effort’. She helped at a netting circle located above a shop in Campsie, attending on a Wednesday nights after work, but could not recall who organised it. She maintains that at around eighteen years of age, ‘there was not much else to do’ and all the boys ‘were either too old or too young’. Another netter, Kerry worked during the day as a clerk and attended the Nowra netting centre after work at the age of eighteen. The Nowra centre was located above a shop in the main street and she considered that netting was her ‘patriotic duty’.

Another Nowra netter, Grace, lived at home on a dairy farm. In 1942, when she was seventeen years old, she went with a friend to the Nowra netting centre for ‘a couple of hours’ a week on a Tuesday afternoon. She would catch the train from Berry to Nowra, attend classes at Nowra Technical College, then attend netting where there would be between ’10-15 other women’. She recalls that as the netters had ‘to be careful making [the] knots’, she found them ‘hard and difficult to make… as they had to be stable and couldn’t move’. In hindsight, she ‘didn’t think [that she] ever got very proficient at it’, but she still went along ‘to help the war effort, for company and a chat’. Rita, a volunteer at the Armidale Teacher’s College netting centre in 1941, maintained that ‘we were expected to do our bit for the war effort – it all helped’.

Netting Centres at Campbelltown and Narellan

The Camden CWA camouflage netting centre was assisted by sub-branches at Campbelltown and Narellan, which were established after the joint CWA-WVS meeting in December 1941. These sub-branches provided a small but steady stream of nets to add to the Camden effort. By February 1942 the Campbelltown News reported that the ‘sub-centres’ were providing ’24 nets a month’ to the ‘urgent’ appeals from the military authorities for nets.

In June 1942 Mrs Una Swan reported that thirty-four nets had been sent from Campbelltown, and Narellan was working well. By late 1942 ‘Campbelltown was [still] keeping our end up’ according to Mrs Swan, and in March 1943 supplied sixteen nets. The Narellan netting effort was under the leadership of Eliza Byrne, who was the wife of the local publican at Narellan, and president of the Narellan Red Cross.

Camden was the largest netting centre in the area, and the only CWA branch, and following directives from the CWA Handicrafts Committee, distributed netting twine to the smaller netting centres at Campbelltown, Narellan and Buxton.

Net making finishes

The enthusiasm in Camden for netting waned and in 1943 the output was ‘negligible’ according to Tucker, but Swan made ‘herself responsible to complete all unfinished nets by the end of the year’. The winding down of netting activity started in September 1943 and Dorothy Inglis of the State Handicrafts Committee advised branches ‘to complete all on hand as quickly as possible’. Mrs Swan reported at the October CWA meeting that ‘no official word had been received to cease making nets’. In October, Francis Forde, the Minister for the Army announced the end of net making, which sent ‘shock waves’ throughout the CWA. The Camden netting centre eventually closed in February 1944, after operating for over two and half years, with Una Swan finishing the last of the nets.

With the cessation of netting the New South Wales CWA Handicrafts Committee looked for alternative ways to hold the netting groups together. The Army requested that the New South Wales CWA branches assist in the re-conditioning of Army clothing. In November 1943 the Camden CWA received a request from the Army at Liverpool and the women considered the request at their December meeting. By the end of the year no arrangements for sewing had been made with the Liverpool Army Camp authorities, although the women expected to make a start early in 1944. Camden CWA president Rita Tucker felt that the ‘matter… must be discussed thoroughly at a branch meeting, when it will be seen if it is possible to rise to the occasion’.

In the end the Camden CWA did not proceed with the project. According to the New South Wales Women’s Voluntary Services reconditioning military clothing ‘did not attract the same enthusiasm’ as making camouflage nets.

By 1944 women who undertook wartime volunteering started looking ahead to the time after the war when their communities would need their time and effort.

Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research

Image Australian women making camouflage nets (AWM007671) cc


Shortage of Wartime CWA Volunteers at Camden


The Camden CWA netting centre always relied on a small but dedicated band of volunteers, and Mrs Swan, the netting co-ordinator, always maintained that there was a constant need for volunteers. She often appealed for volunteers at the CWA meetings and in the Camden press. This shortage was made worse in August 1941 when some members of the Camden CWA felt that they were unable to attend the centre due to petrol rationing.

In January 1942 she asked for a roster, so that there could be someone working on netting each day. After requests for extra nets by the CWA State Handicrafts Committee, Mrs Swan maintained that more workers were needed to enable five nets per week to be sent in to Sydney. Subsequently, the Camden CWA placed an article in the Camden and Campbelltown press outlining the need for additional help.

By February 1942 Mrs Swan reported that at the Camden CWA netting centre there ‘quite a lot of helpers were coming along to the circle’ each week. Mrs Swan was given authority to acquire a board for roping the net, another stand and more hooks to increase the netting output. Mrs Tucker ensured that adequate netting twine was sent from Sydney, and a gauge for accurately setting the size of squares in the nets was donated to the Camden netting centre.

Problems posed by an inadequate number of volunteers persisted. In June 1942 the Camden press reported that there had been a decline in output in ‘the past few weeks’. In February 1942 Mrs Swan appealed for the effort to continue ‘because the demand for these nets is increasing’. Mrs Tucker stressed the ‘value of these nets to our troops’ and appealed for more volunteers to replace those who had left the district. She maintained in December 1942 in the Camden press:

May we, by our daily lives, so far preserves for us [sic], show ourselves worthy of their great sacrifice, and those who mourn will feel they have not died in vain.

Despite a statewide shortage of volunteers in 1943, the Camden press reported that ‘several workers’ were still making nets at the CWA rooms on Tuesday afternoons and Friday nights. Mrs Swan maintained that she ‘would like to have more netters’ as the New South Wales CWA constantly reported that the Army had shortages of nets.

Support from the diggers for netting
The CWA’s monthly journal, the Countrywoman gave examples of support for camouflage net making by others. For example Driver Graham White, 2nd Battery, Australian Medium Regiment, RAA AIF, Abroad, sent a letter in July 1942 which said:

I believe you people in Aussie are doing a good job, especially the netting job you are on, and mother, you can tell the people that they are worth more than their weight in gold, they are absolutely a God-send, but we really should have more of them. If the women of Australia only knew what they mean to us they would give up their pleasure and housework and go on making nets and more nets.

(The Countrywoman in New South Wales, 31 December 1941).

Another examples was a poem from L/Sgt R.A. Wickens, who was abroad, called ‘Just Camouflaging Nets’, which stated in part:

Now, my Mum looked at it this way
She’d tons of time for thought
And with us all so far away,
What price the memories brought
Though I’m Mum’s son, a Digger, too,
Now she’s no time to fret,
Just plays her role, God bless her soul,
a’Camouflaging nets.

It took hours to make a camouflage net
Una Swan never reported the time taken to complete a net by the volunteers at the Camden netting centre. Historian Bruce Pennay in his study of Albury reports that Mrs Burrows of the Albury CWA, who supervised netting, maintained that it took about fifty-two hours of work to complete one net.

Historian Michael McKernan quotes an estimate of eight hours needed to complete a net, a figure supplied by the women from the National Defence League (Women’s Auxiliary), who made around 265,000 nets in their 119 centres. Barbara Cullen, the NSW CWA president in 1953, remembered her family averaging one net a day, which took between twelve and fifteen hours. The Camden netting centre made both ‘large’ and ‘small’ nets, These would have been the 24ft x 24ft, and 14ft x 14ft nets respectively. and using a conservative estimate of fifteen hours to complete a net, this effort amounted to 8670 hours of effort. According the CWA’s The Countrywoman this effort was worth around £1127 to the Army.

The New South Wales executive of the CWA always made a point of regularly highlighting the value of CWA work by detailing netting activity to the military effort through the pages of the Countrywoman. In 1943 The Countrywoman estimated that the CWA netting effort had saved the Army £289,000 for the 148,000 nets (£1/19/- per net) that had been supplied by voluntary labour.

Wartime volunteering on the homefront was a form of voluntary taxation and was never fully acknowledged by Australian Governments in the First or Second World Wars.


Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden  @  UOW research

Image: CWA Women making camouflage nets in Melbourne during the Second World War (AWM 051634)