Old Men’s Shelter
We usually think of public buildings as large and imposing structures such as town halls or railway stations, but at Powlett Reserve in East Melbourne, there is situated possibly one of the smallest public buildings in Melbourne.
The building is known as the Old Men’s Shelter and is on the register of Heritage Victoria. It is Heritage Victoria’s report that has provided most of the information for this article.
During the 19th century the elderly were largely looked after by family or friends, or failing this, by charity. It was not until 1909 that the federal government introduced an old age pension. This gave the elderly poor some independence and the ability to provide themselves with permanent, if cheap, accommodation.
This coincided with a time when wealthy homeowners were moving out of the inner suburbs to broader acres further afield. Many family homes in East Melbourne became cheap, and increasingly run-down, rooming houses providing the new pensioners with a bed for the night. Cramped rooms and lack of communal facilities meant that residents were usually discouraged, even banned, from staying inside during the daylight hours, forcing them to spend their days in local parks and other public places.
As a result, a group of elderly men, living in West Melbourne, asked the council for permission to use a disused children’s shelter in the Flagstaff Gardens as a club house. This proved to be such a success that the idea of purpose-built old men’s shelters was born. From the late 1930s the council proceeded to build a number of such shelters around the inner city. Only two of these now survive: one in Curtain Square in Carlton and the other in Powlett Reserve.
The latter was built at the request of local residents and is an indication of the extent of the social problems in the local area at the time. These problems had been increased by the preceding years of economic depression, but so also had public awareness of the problems increased, and a desire for reform.
The buildings were utilitarian in nature but solidly built and nicely designed and detailed. There was no shame in entering one of these structures.
They provided welcoming meeting places, giving shelter, but more importantly, companionship and moral support. They were open from 9am to 10pm each day but there were rules: no animals, bicycles, alcohol, intoxicated persons, gambling, offensive language or the delivery of public addresses. The shelters are now regarded as the forerunners of elderly citizens’ clubs.
The shelter in Powlett Reserve is typical of them all. It was built in 1939 by W.J. Newman for £610. The architect was Eric N Beilby, the City Architect at the time. Heritage Victoria recognises him as a “significant architect within the public building realm”. It is a small, single-storey brick building with a steep, hipped roof of terracotta shingle tiles. For such a small building its front facade exhibits particularly decorative and attractive brickwork and is regarded as a notable example of the period.
Inside there is a small entrance foyer. On the left is a bench with a lift up lid, used for storing firewood; and on the right a store room. Beyond is one big single room about five square metres in size. A bench runs around three sides, once providing seating for at least 20 men. Once there was a pot belly stove in the middle of the room. Its chimney remains intact and is a dominant feature of the little building. Wood was supplied by the council. The interior has painted brick walls and a timber ceiling.
When the Old Men’s Shelter ceased operations the building became a depot for council workers. Now it has a new life as the headquarters of the East Melbourne Group, our local residents’ action group, and so continues its place in the social history of East Melbourne.
Sylvia Black, secretary, East Melbourne Historical Society
Image: Old Men’s Shelter, 2012. Photo: Sylvia Black.