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The Not-So-Humble Fibro Cottage

Modern fibro cottages in Burrawong Crescent Elderslie built around the 1960s. (I Willis, 2005)

The Camden Fibro Cottage

The humble fibro cottage of the 1950s and 1960s in Camden is an important part of the town’s 20th century history. 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 evocative of long summer holidays by the beach, with adolescent love, boogie boards, zinc cream and paddle pops.  

Fibro was invented in Austria by Ludwig Hatschek in 1900, and within three years was imported to Australia. Fibro was made in Australia by 1916 and was only one of a 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 Burragorang coal fields expanded the town suffered a housing shortage and fibro cottages provided one solution. A number of fibro cottages were built by the New South Wales Housing Commission. These housing types 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. Local farms have a host of fibro houses as they were a cheap to build, and fibro was an effective building material that in some cases replaced iron cladding.

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

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 their Victa mowers around the Hills hoist in the backyard.

The Powerhouse Museum and Sydney Living Museum have Wunderlich fibro catalogues that provide 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 characteristic of 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, for example 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 asbestos fibres. For more information click here

Updated 18 March 2021. Originally posted 29 June 2014.


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)