THE population of the Wollongong region exploded after Charles Hoskins entered into an agreement with the NSW Government to build a steelworks at Port Kembla in 1927.
In 1936, BHP acquired Australian Iron and Steel Limited and production at Port Kembla increased rapidly with thousands of men and their families flocking to the region in search of work.
By the mid 1930s the hotels of Wollongong and surrounding towns and suburbs were bursting at the seams.
The accommodation shortage in Wollongong became so taxed that workers were forced into “double-banking” in beds, and – in some cases – three men slept in one bed in shifts over the 24 hours!
The sharing of beds was described as a “Box and Cox”, a definition, the Oxford Dictionary describes as an “arrangement in which two persons take turns in sustaining a part, occupying a position, or the like”. The phrase was taken from a Victorian play by the same name, which had a humorous and improbable plot.
The Smith’s Weekly sent a reporter to Wollongong to describe the “rejuvenated city of steel and coal”. The Sydney newspaper reported this colourful account of the shortage of hotel accommodation in the region on Saturday 11 September 1937:
ALL the situations conceived by Gilbert and Sullivan in their libretto, “Box and Cox,” have been brought on to the stage of real life at Wollongong, rejuvenated city of steel and coal on the South Coast of New South Wales.
Flooded with a new population of workers employed in their thousands by the rapidly expanding steel works and subsidiary industries of the adjoining Port Kembla, Wollongong is suffering from such an acute shortage of beds that it has produced not one Box and Cox, but hundreds.
IT was revealed to “Smith’s Weekly” that not only are some of the workers “double-banking” in beds, but, in cases, three men are using the beds in shifts over the 24 hours. A representative of “Smith’s,” on an assignment to the South Coast last week, dropped into Wollongong, unaware of the accommodation shortage, and this was his experience.
About 10pm he decided to take a room at an hotel, but a round of the leading hotels resulted in nothing but an apology from proprietors, apparently astonished at the existence of such an optimist. From the last hotel, “Smith’s” was directed to a boarding-house, where the landlady offered a bed on condition that it should not be used be used before 11.30pm – as one of the “steelies” was sleeping out his shift. It was a further condition that the bed should be vacated by 7am, so that another home-coming worker should be accommodated.
Offered undoubtedly in the friendliest spirit, “Smith’s” representative was impelled to decline it. Out on the foot-path he met one of the “Boxes” or “Coxes” of the show. He said that the place contained 15 rooms, and that there were 53 men living there. In another place, he said, five men were sleeping in a garage with no light. For their board the men were paying up to 30/- a week, and the landladies offered them a special inducement of 5/- a week reduction to go home to mother at the weekend, where that was possible. It was only through a thousand-to-one chance of meeting a personal friend that “Smith’s” man finally got a real bed with no proviso.
Miners and steelworkers have been forced to solve their accommodation problem by going far out of Wollongong, and now some of them are living as far as 25 miles from their work at Port Kembla. To catch the shifts for these men, the Railway Department is running special trains from as far north as Scarborough. Houses for private families are a practical impossibility except for those able to pay big rents, and many, well-placed people on the Coast are sharing their homes.
The hotels of Wollongong are very modern, and when accommodation can be obtained it is of a very high order, but the situation must be eased both for the travelling public and residents. It is understood that the State Government has been stirred into activity, and the Licensing Board will investigate the situation as the first move. But even at the rate that building is progressing, it will be a long time before the Boxes and Coxes cease their 24-hour testing of Wollongong’s boarding house beds.
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