Waterloo: A man of the people

Waterloo: A man of the people
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Sir William McKell was a boilermaker who rose to become premier of NSW from 1941 to 1947. While premier, he started the Housing Commission that built the landmark accommodation towers in Waterloo. McKell resigned as premier in 1947 after 29 years in the NSW parliament, and shortly afterwards was appointed governor-general of Australia. Summary by Damien Parer.

The documentary is one of Tom Zubrycki’s earliest. His skill as a documentary filmmaker is evident in his ability to clearly outline the story. Zubrycki’s credits include Molly and MobarakThe DiplomatExile in Sarajevo and Billal.


Waterloo synopsis

The film outlines the history of the redevelopment of the Sydney suburb of Waterloo. Residents are interviewed and archival footage is used to outline the history of change in the area. The documentary emphasises the need for consultation and shows the results of more recent residents’ action groups.

Notes by Damien Parer


Education Notes

This clip shows former premier of New South Wales Sir William McKell on a visit to Waterloo, an inner-Sydney suburb. McKell describes how he set up the NSW Housing Commission, which built high-rise accommodation towers for public housing tenants in Waterloo. A Waterloo resident recalls that McKell was a local boy who rose to become NSW premier and later governor-general of Australia, and refers to McKell’s support in the 1930s for the NSW Labor Party’s push for 'slum’ clearance and redevelopment. The clip includes shots of the high-rise towers and black-and-white archival photographs of McKell during his political career.

Educational value points

  • William McKell, premier of New South Wales from 1941 to 1947, set up the Housing Commission with the support of Commonwealth funds, introduced health reforms, and established the Kosciuszko National Park. McKell (1891–1985) grew up in the Sydney suburb of Waterloo and trained as a boilermaker, becoming assistant secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union. A member of the Australian Labor Party, he was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the Member for Redfern in 1917. He was a moderate social reformer who remained with the Labor Party after the 1940 split and led Labor back into office in 1941. McKell was appointed to the position of governor-general of Australia in 1947 (when he was awarded a knighthood) and held this position until 1953.
  • The NSW Housing Commission was an initiative of the McKell government and was established in 1941 to address a housing shortage. Of particular concern were slum housing in inner-city suburbs and the housing needs of low-income earners. In 1941 the Commission (which became the NSW Department of Housing in 1986) estimated that 80,000 families needed housing, and during the 1940s it built about 12,000 homes. This housing shortage had resulted from existing pre-Second World War demand being exacerbated by the cessation of building during the War. Returning soldiers and an increase in the number of marriages after the war added to these pressures.
  • In the mid-1930s state Labor politicians such as McKell took up the cause of slum reform, following a campaign spearheaded by the Protestant Churches’ Debating Federation and the left-wing press. In 1935 McKell identified slum reform as 'one of the state’s most important problems’ and said that substandard privately owned housing and overcrowding in inner-city suburbs (and the attendant social and health problems) created a gulf between the working and middle classes.
  • The inner-city slums were the result of a housing shortage that helped push up rents and forced many working-class families to share accommodation. While slum clearance and redevelopment were seen as the solution, opponents argued that it would be less costly to renovate existing dwellings. They also argued that clearance and redevelopment would destroy historic buildings and community character. In the 1970s the nearby suburb of Paddington was 'gentrified’ and others followed in the mid-1980s. A consequence of this transformation is that there are fewer rental properties and increased house prices.
  • In the 1950s high-rise flats were promoted by politicians and by the media as a solution to the slum housing problem. In 1955 the Picture Post ran an article entitled 'Build high to clear the slums’. The high-rise flats built in the following decades were, however, frequently criticised for their poor design and box-like appearance (architectural historian Max Freeland dubbed them 'human filing cabinets’). Some residents also missed the community of the street, and found that supervising children in the streets below from many floors up was difficult.
  • William McKell Place in Redfern, which opened in 1964, was one of the first high-rise towers built by the NSW Housing Commission and, with John Northcott Place, was one of the first two high-rise towers built in Sydney. William McKell Place was named after McKell partly in recognition of his contribution to public housing and to the Housing Commission. The Housing Commission constructed almost one-fifth of all new flats and houses in NSW in the immediate post-Second World War period when Australia was experiencing a severe housing shortage.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s a large number of terrace houses in the suburb of Waterloo that were deemed slums were demolished to make way for high-rise public housing towers. In 2004 the NSW Government unveiled plans to redevelop the Redfern-Waterloo Public Housing Estate, which included the demolition of about eight of these towers. Under the proposal, private developers would be given land on which to build complexes providing a mix of public and private housing, in part to break up the concentration of public housing tenants.
  • McKell campaigned on the issue of slum reform when he led the NSW Australian Labor Party to victory in 1941. The demolition and rebuilding of slum areas was also supported by the Master Builders’ Association and the Bricklayers’ and Carpenters’ Unions (whose members stood to gain from working on such a project). However some Waterloo public housing tenants felt that the NSW Government failed to adequately consult them about development in the suburb, a criticism that was made again when the Government unveiled its 2004 development proposal.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Tom Zubrycki
Jim Stevens
Tom Zubrycki
Ralph Schneider
Produced with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission's Creative Development Fund

Images of Waterloo: police horses, the locals and the Housing Commission, intercut with McKell in voice-over or interview. 
Sir William McKell This area today is a very, very different area to what it was when I first went into Parliament in 1917. In 1941 I set up the Housing Commission and the Housing Commission was responsible for all these magnificent blocks of units. If there hadn’t been any Housing commission, there wouldn’t have been this great development. So that basically, I suppose I am entitled to take credit for making some contribution, at any rate, you know, to the development of the area. And I suppose, when it’s all said and done, these people are probably living under better housing and finer housing conditions today than they’d known in the past.

Music and then footage and photos of McKell with the following voice- over.
Waterloo resident McKell was a major figure in our area. He worked as a boiler-maker and was an active trade unionist, moving quickly through the ranks and up through the party ranks at the same time. In 1941 he became the Premier. McKell didn’t stop there either. Ten years later he became Governor-General of this country. McKell always liked to feel he was a man of the people but he was a servant of the party machine. And it was the party machine, with the unions and the other socialist organisations, that responded to the ’30s calls for better planning.