Repatriation Homes: Matraville Garden Village for Disabled Soldiers and War Widows

Article excerpt

Constructed between January 1918 and the end of 1921, Matraville Garden Village was one of two major projects undertaken by the New South Wales Voluntary Workers' Association (VWA).(1) Founded at a public meeting at the Sydney Town Hall in April 1916, the VWA saw itself as part of the `army of men and women who, not being able to get to the battle-front, did their best to make things comfortable' for maimed servicemen and their families and the widows and children of fallen soldiers.(2) Supporters of the VWA included various conservative politicians, a mixture of professionals and some senior public servants. By the close of the war, the VWA had established almost fifty independent branches, most of which were located in Sydney suburbs;(3) erected 250 homes (with an additional fifty under construction); commenced an annual `Home Day', the first of which raised 45,000 [pounds sterling] in September 1918; and set up, through its women's committee, three cafes in Sydney, the proceeds from which were channelled into home building.(4)

Richard Arthur was the driving force behind the VWA. Medical practitioner, eugenicist, euthenicist, `prince of wowsers' (as he dubbed himself)(5) and MLA, Arthur had navigated through parliament the 1917 Voluntary Workers (Soldiers' Holding) Act which enabled the VWA to carry out its Matraville project on crown land.(6) He also provided the association's ideological impulse. Throughout his political career, Arthur's principal preoccupation, with the exception perhaps of moral purity, was land settlement. Founding president from 1905 of the Immigration League of Australia and an early advocate of landed settlement for British immigrants and returned soldiers as a solution to social problems, he remained deeply concerned about the relationship between settlement on the land and national, racial progress until his death in 1932.(7) Matraville Garden Village materially inscribed these concerns on the ground.

Shunning the inner city slum, modern party politics, socialism, marxism, modernism, over-reliance on the state and charity, Arthur looked in part to North American progressivism to rebuild Australian society after the ravages of war.(8) More importantly, he saw both the `national spirit' which had been rekindled in war via the Anzac legend and Australia's native soil as the two primary founts of a new national order.(9) Sons of capitalists and workers had `mixed blood in Gallipoli and France': how more clearly had the tree classless, egalitarian nature of the Australian psyche to be demonstrated?(10) Class-based politics was equated with treason and industrial unrest was ascribed to the machinations of the foreign agitator.(11) Getting back to a traditional way of life was, for Arthur and others such as C E W Bean, as critical to postwar reconstruction as the need to embrace new technologies in the race for national economic supremacy.(12) This meant reclaiming the values of the pioneer and the cooperative and recreating a familial arcadia. New, outer suburbs, untainted by the bolshevism or near-bolshevism that plagued Sydney's teeming inner suburbs, would be one of the sources of the new social order. With sun, grass, a vegetable patch, a solid fence and sturdy children, the suburbanite was cast up as a latter-day yeoman. The quarter-acre block was the new selection. Other expressions of the agrarian myth can be found in the creation of `Wattle Day' (1910) and `Bush Week' (1919);(13) in the huge successes of literary works such as C J Dennis's The Sentimental Bloke (1915), Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding (1918), and May Gibbs's Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie (1918); and in the 1919 urban-based back-to-the-land movement.(14)

None of this, of course, was new. It would appear that the VWA derived part of its ideology and agenda from British liberal imperialists such as Charles Masterman, F W Lawrence and G P Gooch. In The Heart of Empire, published in 1901, Masterman and others addressed what they saw as the greatest threat to the empire in the post-Victorian age:

   Foremost among the changes which have taken place has been the stupendous
   growth of cities. …