For the first 18 years of my life I lived in Lalor, an outer northern suburb of Melbourne. Lalor Tech used the Eureka flag as its emblem and while at school we knew the suburb was named after Peter Lalor, a leader of the 1854 Eureka rebellion, it was never explained exactly how this came about.
It wasn’t until some years later I learnt that Lalor was actually founded by a group of radicals influenced by socialist ideas. They set up the suburb as a housing co-operative in the aftermath of World War Two. In that period there was a chronic shortage of housing and the aim of the co-op was to provide affordable homes to a community of 800 people.
It was named the ‘Peter Lalor Home Building Co-operative Society’. The founders of the co-op saw Peter Lalor as someone who was striving to build a better society and they themselves were driven by these ideals.
Set up in February 1947, the scheme was worked out and implemented by a group of ex-military servicemen. Many of the people involved were members of the Labor Party and the founding meetings were held at the Victorian Trades Hall. After the experience of the war they wanted to create a community that, in contrast to capitalism, was based on solidarity and co-operation.
They pooled their resources and secured 250 acres of land, just to the east of where the Lalor railway station stands. They planned to build 1500 low cost homes and develop a thriving new suburb. Members of the co-op were required to pay £50 upfront and make weekly repayments of about £1 a week. In return they were able to purchase homes for around a third of the normal cost.
Alongside new homes the co-op built its own timber mill, cement plant and brick factory. They also built a community hall and a kindergarten. The open space now known as Stockade Park was the site of the co-op’s tool shed.
The founders of Lalor were influenced by Rochdale principles, a set of ideals for running co-ops. They named Rochdale Square after these ideals and this shopping centre was to be an area where they hoped to create jobs and opportunities for co-op members.
This part of Lalor has a communal garden city design that features several courts, cul-de-sacs and curved streets. The co-op members hoped to eventually develop a self sufficient suburb where people could live, work and relax. Adjacent to Rochdale Square is the football, cricket and bowling clubs which were intentionally placed at the centre of the community.
Their plan was to invest any profits the co-op made back into the community and use them to build a picture theatre, a pub, a community centre, a library and a health centre. Unfortunately though, most of their plans for expansion went unrealised.
By the early 1950s the co-op lacked capital and struggled to deal with material shortages and increased costs. The co-op was forced to wind down and it was taken over by the War Service Homes Commission in 1954. Despite its relatively short existence the co-op did manage to build 200 homes, create some jobs, and lay the basis for a suburb that is now home to almost 20,000 working class people.
Australia has actually seen numerous attempts to set up utopian or co-operative communities. Unfortunately all have come up against the core problem of still being subject to the laws of capitalist operation. A new type of society will only be able to take hold in the long term by breaking with capitalism and using the major sectors of the economy to plan production and distribution in a rational way.
While the ambitions of those that founded Lalor ultimately went unfulfilled, they should be recognised for their bold approach and their determination to improve the lives of working class people. Future generations will take inspiration from their efforts, and build upon their experiences to eventually create a long lasting alternative to the capitalist system.
By Anthony Main