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(A more detailed article on this topic is contained in the Autumn 2020 issue of the History Monash Inc journal “On Broadway”, available to members.)

What is a “bank house”?  If you had lived in Oakleigh one hundred years ago, you would probably have known quite a few people who lived in bank houses.  Some of us still do.

Bank houses were houses which were financed by the State Savings Bank of Victoria around one hundred years ago .  (Other Australian States had similar schemes.)  This scheme evolved from a strategy to address the desperate plight of farmers in the 1890s depression.  The Victorian Government tasked the State Savings Bank of Victoria with finding a way of assisting farmers through more affordable credit, resulting in the commencement of Credit Foncier loans (meaning “credit based on the land”) to primary producers in 1894[1].  Such was the popularity of the scheme that in 1910[2] it was extended to domestic housing.

Under the Victorian Housing and Reclamation Act 1920, people on an annual income of less than £400, who did not already own a home, could borrow to buy land and a house to the total value of up to £800, paying a deposit of 10 per cent of the total. Repayments were to include principal and interest and were initially set at 8.5 per cent per annum.[3]   The scheme was immensely popular as it provided people of modest means, including returned servicemen, widows, immigrants and labourers,  the chance to own their own home.

The State Savings Bank was keen to ensure that best value would be obtained from these loans, and so inspectors working in its Building Department monitored the construction of the house.  The design of the house had to be selected from a range commissioned by the Bank.  These were simple houses, usually of two bedrooms, and in the early days of the scheme, predominantly Californian Bungalows.  (Towards the end of the 1920s and in the early 1930s, other designs were included, such as Spanish Mission style homes.)  Timber was usually used for external walls as it was cheaper than brick.  The Bank specified most of the building materials (even to the type of washbasin) and there was little choice of these.  In 1936 specified materials included flooring of Baltic pine or hardwood, with jarrah to the verandah flooring; roof of terracotta tiles or galvanised corrugated iron; and gables of shingles and/or asbestos cement sheeting. [4] (Current owners may find such specifications useful if they are trying to match up or faithfully replace parts of their house, such as flooring. )

Another means by which the State Savings Bank tried to get best value out of its housing loans was through economies of scale – it invited builders to tender to construct multiple dwellings.  Thus it is still possible to see streets with numerous  similar, smallish houses from the 1920s.  Helen Gobbi, in Taking Its Place:  A History of Oakleigh  has noted that many bank houses were built  around Oakleigh including in Westgate Street, and in the streets off Carlisle Crescent and Willesden Road.[5]

The Credit Foncier scheme enabled many people, for whom it  may otherwise have been impossible,  to own their own houses.  The scheme ceased in the 1930s, but it has left an architectural legacy of some charming streetscapes in Oakleigh and other suburbs.


A typical bank house.

[1] Alex Cooch:  The State Savings Bank of Victoria:  Its Place in the History of Victoria” Melbourne 1934

[2] Act 2280

[3] Cooch op cit p.184 notes that Returned Soldiers were granted loans at a slightly lower rate of repayments.

[4] State Savings Bank of Victoria Design Book for Timber Dwellings 1936

[5] Helen Gobbi:  Taking Its Place:  A History of Oakleigh 2004