After the War

Graffiti and bullet damage on the Gordon Don Hotel, Darwin, 1942

Old timers of Darwin would nostalgically recall the Darwin of the pre-World War II as something lost forever. The town was much smaller and everyone knew each other.

Residents who were in government or railway employment had housing provided. Many others lived in ground level makeshift dwellings of corrugated iron. Those in employment or business enjoyed a tropical relaxed lifestyle reminiscent of colonial life elsewhere in India and Asia.

Des Nudl recalled:

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We moved into the other house in 1938. And that was on high piers, with two water tanks on either side at the back, an outhouse, and a well down the back. And it was made of slatted timber outside walls with fibro louvers and slatted timber shutters. The central walls, I think, were made of a fibrous-type sheeting. But the walls never went to the ceiling or the floor, so that there was full air-flow right through the house. And we lived there till we left – we were evacuated – on Boxing Day 1941.

We had electricity in those days. The only water we had was rain water and well water. And we always had an Aborigine working in, you know, at home. Everyone in those days had an Aborigine family which done the laundry, and a bit of gardening and scrubbed the floors. And at that time we had a lovely old fellow called Paddy, and he used to carry me around on his back while he was scrubbing floors…

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226, TS 620 and NTRS 219, TP 745, Des Nudl]

Bombed houses, Darwin, n.d. c.1940s

The Second World War brought civilian evacuation and a wide scale military presence to Darwin.  These events along with improvements in water supply, roads and infrastructure, changed the ‘Old Darwin’ forever.

Long term residents returning to Darwin were shocked by the damage and as the federal government stalled over a plan to reconstruct the town, the economy was in stagnation:

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We were all very disappointed, very disillusioned about the looting. Not very pleased about the condition we found our houses in. When you consider Mike, that the area is not occupied by foreign forces, but by our own Australian servicemen. But I think there were other problems that overtook these. There wasn’t a lot of work around. There was a little bit of work around. Things had not really begun to fire. They were rolling along very, very slowly with just enough work to keep a few tradesmen going in minor repairs. And when my brothers did go into building, the jobs they were getting were really small work. The government hadn’t had a chance to put in their estimates and start all their major works. And it was a few years before things started to move there…

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226, TS 81 and NTRS 219 Item 206, Les Liveris]

There was a general feeling of desolation and decay. Frank Wise, appointed Administrator of the Northern Territory described his first impressions:

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It was a hot tiring day of August 1st, 1951 – we arrived at a bad time of year, Darwin at that time always very drab and brown; we were met by the Heads of the Services and the Government Secretary, the senior administrative officer.

My wife had not previously been in tropical Australia and did not know what to expect. She had read much of the writings of authors and journalists of North Australia but the drab appearance of Darwin on a hot afternoon in August was a physical and mental shock to her I am sure. She was very composed and brave with the young family to care for and noted all the unpleasant matters without complaint.

The drive from Darwin Airport gave a vista of untidy roadsides; brown dusty clumps of grass roots and trees; skeletons of bombed buildings at the Air Force section near the airport; a wrecked plane or two at the roadside near the entrance to the town; badly bombed buildings including broken walls which were former banks and offices and hundreds of empty petrol drums and galvanized iron tanks in prominent places…

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226, TS 141 and NTRS 219, TP 363, Frank Wise]

Building a ‘government grey’ at Fannie Bay, Darwin, n.d. c.1950sThe rebuilding of Darwin after the devastation of the Japanese bombing raids and military occupation during World War II was an enormous task for the Commonwealth. The government had to subdivide and plan the suburbs for the ‘new’ Darwin.

In the 1950s Ken Frey was appointed the Government Architect:


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But you’ve got to remember of course, that some of the early development areas in Darwin had had bulldozers over them several times. I think I mentioned before that Fannie Bay had been bulldozed during the war, to push down all the trees so they could have machine-gun traverses, in case the Japanese landed on Fannie Bay beach. Therefore, by the time we put houses on the sites – and they’d been cleared again just beforehand by the engineers – there was very little topsoil left; you were down to the laterite. And this made gardening harder.

One of the other features, of course, which is in the same area, is a lot of people used to complain about how boring the place – Fannie Bay particularly – looked, because all the buildings were facing the same direction, and they all had just grey asbestos cement on them. The point is, if you look at Fannie Bay now – people would’ve been doing the same sort of garden works as they did in those days, but the gardens hadn’t grown up, and you could see all these asbestos cement-clad houses.

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226, TS 630 and NTRS 219, TP 738, Ken Frey]

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