Portable Iron Houses

Get an insight into life during the Gold Rush era when you visit one of the few remaining pre-fabricated iron buildings in the world.

The three houses in South Melbourne are among the last nineteenth-century prefabricated iron buildings. With gold discovered in Victoria in 1851 accommodation was needed for the many migrants flocking to the colony. Iron houses met that need.

Ordered from a catalogue, the buildings offered ranged from modest cottages to theatres and even churches that could hold over 700 people. Constructed in Britain, the houses were dismantled, every component labelled then packed into crates and shipped abroad to be reassembled in their new location.

Specialist labour was not required and anyone could assemble them by following the instructions. As people had been living in Canvas Town – a small village of tents, paying five shillings per tent per week – being able to move into a two or even six roomed house was a luxury at the time.

By 1855 South Melbourne comprised nearly 100 portable buildings, of which Patterson House is on its original site. Abercrombie House and Bellhouse were relocated to the current sites from North Melbourne and Fitzroy.


2021 Open Days

Visit on Sunday 25 April & Sunday 2 May from 1pm to 4pm as part of the Australian Heritage Festival program.


Visitors will be able to step back in time to when the gold rush was exerting enormous strains on the limited accommodation of the pastoral township of early Melbourne. Imported portable iron houses were seen as a novel way to meet the high housing demand.  Number 399 Coventry St is a rare survivor and along with two other Houses on the site provides glimpses of what it was like to live in the late 1800s in these very rustic and simple Portable Iron Houses. A short guide led local walking tour also offers an opportunity to explore part of the surrounding historic area.

Planning your visit

Portable Iron Houses


399 Coventry Street
South Melbourne 3205 VIC


Visit on Sunday 25 April & Sunday 2 May from 1pm to 4pm as part of the Australian Heritage Festival program.


Closed on Christmas Day and other public holidays.

Bookings Office on (03) 9656 9889 Mon-Fri
Entry Fees:

House tour & garden entry
National Trust members: free,
Adult: $6,
Concession/Child: $4,
Family: $14 (2 Adults + 2 Children).

What we offer:

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Originally assembled in Fitzroy in 1854, Bellhouse was moved to the present site. It was built in Manchester, England at the Eagle Foundry owned by Edward Taylor Bellhouse.

During the Californian Gold Rush in 1849 and then the Australian Gold Rush he suppled warehouses, houses and cottages. Bellhouse's design used horizontal sheets, which fitted into cast iron columns shaped to fit the curve of the corrugation, as were the ridging and spouting.

Bellhouse at Balmoral

At London's Great Exhibition of 1851 Bellhouse displayed a cottage which was seen by Prince Albert – Consort to Queen Victoria. “It appears that Prince Albert's attention was directed to the model of an iron house deposited by Mr. Bellhouse in the Great Exhibition,” wrote a trade paper “The Builder” in September 1851, “and the result was, after some investigations, an order in July last to provide a building for Balmoral, to be used as a ballroom, studio for artists, or room for private theatrical, as the case may be.”
That ballroom still stands on the castle estate and Queen Elizabeth, current owner of Balmoral, and the National Trust are now the only custodians of examples of Bellhouse’s work.

Abercrombie Cottage

This cottage possibly came from a London Manufacturer, Morewood & Rogers and dates to around 1853 with a brick kitchen added by 1860. Abercrombie was home to Andrew Abercrombie, a Scottish migrant, his wife Mary and her sister Ann. Ann married and by 1860 the two families were living there with five children.
The cottage was threatened with demolition, so the brick kitchen, timber bathroom and water closet were removed and the house was moved from Arden Street, North Melbourne to its present site. To do this it was it was cut into two and transported by truck.

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