• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Commune

No Dope No Dole No Dogs

Images by Alison Batten & Carolyn Thornber
Words by Lee Stickells
Images by Alison Batten & Carolyn Thornber

Lee Stickells is a lecturer in architecture and urban design at the University of Sydney. In an article for Commune*, he applies his enquiring lens to Belvidere, an experiment in communal living that grew from the bush south of Perth in the seventies.

In the early 1970s, perhaps 1972 he tells me, Devissaro (then David Mott) rode his childhood horse 150 kilometres south from Perth to Leschenault. There, he struck out onto the thin peninsula, bounded on one side by the Indian Ocean and by the Leschenault Estuary on the other. He found peppermint and tuart woodland behind the foreshore dunes, and within this Brushtail possums, kangaroos, and two fibreglass radar domes.

He also found a new home and a form of escape. Dev’s arrival signalled the beginning of a shared living experiment that lasted over a decade. It emerged on the former site of a short-lived colonial estate—Belvidere—established to raise horses for the British Army in India. The 1970s Belvidere commune was home only to one horse. But it did involve many dozens of people during its lifespan: some for weeks, some for years, all searching for an exit from mainstream Australia. That search perhaps has consequence when considered alongside the intense unsettlement of our present moment. Sea, tree and lifestyle changes are prominent in questioning of the way we currently live together. Does Belvidere have lessons for us?


Belvidere operated through a period in which the personal became political. Historian Michelle Arrow has described how 1970s Australia saw a new politics of personal intimacy, where public claims to rights and protections were made in the language of personal experience. In various social movements—feminist, gay, environmental and others—personal transformation and change was connected to new modes of solidarity and larger political ambitions. Belvidere’s communards hardly saw themselves as remaking Australian society so overtly. Still, it’s possible to understand their placemaking venture as more than just a dropout hippie commune. Living off-grid and trying to be self-sufficient, the Belvidere experiment produced intimate counter-forms to the dominant patterns and accepted wisdoms of Australian life. Hand-built homes, collective organic gardens, kilns, and other structures became tools for creating a space within which to work, teach, share, and play in a way that was not commodified, based on private property, or hierarchically organised.  Along the way, participants’ ideas of domesticity, ownership, productivity, and spirituality were transformed. 

Devissaro made the move to Belvidere with a small group of friends who’d shared a communal house on the outskirts of Perth. University dropouts, Vietnam draft-evaders, devout readers of the counterculture bible the Whole Earth Catalog; they were escaping expectations and figured themselves as part of a global back-to-the-land movement. Dev remembers the optimism:

So there’s a romance about creating something, building our own places, creating a new community. And I guess we really had the feeling that we could create an alternative lifestyle. And I think the fact that we as a movement, the anti-war movement, had actually managed to change a government and get Australians out of the war, we felt empowered. We felt that, you know, this was our time, and that we were going to make a difference.


There was nothing that could be described as a plan amongst the group. There was, though, “a sense of oneness” and 500 acres of land they had been given. The Belvidere property at Leschenault was owned by the architect Wallace “Wally” Greenham (who they had encountered at a “hippie” gathering in the Darling Scarp, east of Perth). Greenham was busy conducting his own unconventional life, which included forays into communal living and the development of a “nuts and berries” architectural modernism ahead of the Sydney School. He offered the land to the young people at no charge, provided there was “no dope, no dole, and no dogs.”

 

The group settled into life on the property, along with an American couple discovered living in the modified radar domes. The newcomers initially camped together in an open-ended Nissen hut, another of Wally’s gifts. After the chilly 1972 winter, though, there was a strong desire to spread out and build individual shelters. The results ranged from a simple tent to more elaborate hand-built homes, even a treehouse. There was no collective planning, just an intuitive siting of dwellings—not too close to each other, but not too far; private but connected. Any collectivism was more organic than structured—former residents remember regular evening gatherings hosted by Franco, Carol and their young daughter Gita. Homemade wine would be shared by the open fire of the couple’s A-frame house (one of the few Belvidere dwellings that may have passed a building inspection). Discussion might turn to chores needed to maintain the collective gardens or a shared shopping list for the next trip to town. Devissaro remembers no individual money in the earliest days— “one person would pay and the other would pocket the change.” A shared bathing facility was eventually constructed in a clearing by the water’s edge and a wooden shed became a food cooperative. However, Belvidere never really became a commune, in the typical sense of a group sharing living spaces, income and tightly held values. It’s perhaps better to view Belvidere as a venture in commoning: the piecing together of collective forms of creativity and exchange to meet concrete needs and build lives outside the enclosure of the city.

The community expanded and transformed in waves. New members would arrive and might reside for a week or for years. Homes were shared, extended, or passed on to others.

They continued to be unauthorised, off-grid, hand-built affairs, using salvaged and recycled materials, even flotsam, driftwood and zinc alloy printing plates, along with shared and bartered labour. An environmental care ethic precluded felling trees for building stock. There is almost no evidence on-site now, but memories of the buildings are strong amongst former residents. Sue’s tiny cottage (also known as “little house on the prairie”) was built just south of the shared windmill. The nearby “Glass House” was so named because it’s estuary-facing façade was built entirely from salvaged timber windows. Steve, a potter, built his own kiln. Morris, described as “mad about music”, installed a solar photovoltaic panel in a tree to power his cassette deck. An Iranian refugee carefully constructed his octagonal shelter under a tree Belvidere folk called “the Matriarch.”

Devissaro’s own building activities emphasise how critical material practices were to shaping Belvidere. In 1973 he sheltered himself in a rudimentary wooden hut built in a Peppermint tree grove. By the time he left Belvidere in 1977 (bound for a Buddhist monastery in Thailand) he was running an Ashram that included a sunken hexagon-shaped retreat, sauna and three cabins (“kutirs”). It was far from planned. As he sees it, he responded to the opportunities presented by material conditions: “you just see what’s available … and then the creative exercise is simply how best to use that … in a way, it’s an extension of play.” The only material he paid for was nails and he sometimes gathered items for years before finding a use for them. One element he remains most proud of is a set of windows, built from panes of glass taken from car doors found at the Bunbury tip

Oh, the windows, I love my windows … it turns out it [the car glass] fits perfectly into the groove in tongue-and-groove flooring. So, you simply put one at the bottom and you have another one with a groove at the top and you can slide [the glass]. If you put them side by side, you can have sliding windows … It was lovely.

 


While Devissaro was hosting Buddhist monks, Belvidere grew to selling fruit, vegetables and sandwiches at a shop in nearby Bunbury, producing pottery and staging a music festival. A school was built for resident children, who had great freedom—building cubby houses, go-karts, roaming the inlet and crabbing. Together, the community collectively found ways to open up space in order to do what it wanted. Building provided a vital sense of ownership and agency, whether it was as simple as making somewhere to sleep, work, to produce food or art.

However, the surrounding community’s tacit acceptance of Belvidere waned. By the late-1970s, Wally Greenham’s “no dope, no dole, no dogs” rules were being circumvented. Meanwhile, the local government found it could no longer ignore the settlement in the face of a public health complaint. All the buildings were bulldozed in 1985. Greenham reluctantly undertook the demolition himself and sold the land to the state government, to be incorporated into an industrial effluent disposal system.

What to make of the Belvidere experiment? An obscure, colourful historical episode, it offers easy romantic images of countercultural free spirits exploring the estuary waters. These images also have a darker resonance, though, recalling the 19th century colonisers who pushed the Elaap—a Wardandi Noongar people—from the country that nourished and sustained them, or uncomfortably mirroring the Indian “coolies” who had to row supplies from Bunbury to the first Belvidere farm.  The communards gave little thought to this history. Devissaro concedes: “one of the things we did not really consider was that this land, we actually had no right on, no one had any right on it.”


Refracted in this way, the Belvidere commune connects waves of settler colonial dispossession and transformation of the land.  These waves stretch back to 1836, when the keen eye of Lieutenant Henry William Bunbury was attuned to the extractive possibilities of the metallic sands he saw along nearby beaches. They flow through the initial 1838 Belvidere estate and its failed ventures in raising horse and water-buffalo, as well as its subsequent use by nearby farmers for grazing stock. They keep flowing through the 1960s into the 1990s as the peninsula was used as a disposal site for acid affluent—a result of the mineral sands that caught Bunbury’s attention coming to underpin Western Australia’s role as a key global supplier of titanium minerals for paints and colouring agents. And in the 2000s, even as the state sought to rehabilitate the peninsula environment, its reconfiguration as a recreational site for camping and boating keyed it into post-industrial tourism and experience economies.

In terms of a useable history, then, we might feel we’re faced with a meagre harvest. However, the value of revisiting the Belvidere commune in our present moment is the window it opens onto a different way of imagining everyday life. As one resident put it: “It wasn’t all rosy but it broadened my awareness of what is possible.” To be interested in the 1970s, to be interested in experiments such as Belvidere, is to be interested in alternatives to our neoliberal, consumerist present. Belvidere’s short history points to the way social relations of trust, care and mutuality can emerge when people collectively build forms of life outside commercial prerogatives, domestic norms, and conventional institutions. The potential of this commoning arises not as a form of protest but as a way of materializing an alternative—producing an actually existing crack in reality.

Acknowledgements

Research for this essay drew on various published histories of the site and surrounding region as well as social media material, interviews, and personal archives. I’d like to particularly thank contributors to the Lost Belvidere Facebook Group for all the posted memories, Wally Greenham’s family for access to his papers (and their own stories), the Harvey Historical Society, and those former Belvidere residents who answered my questions and supplied images, especially Devissaro, Alison Batten and Valli Waugh.

* Copies of Commune can be purchased through TheFulcrum.Press and all proceeds are directed to The Fulcrum Fund, a charitable fund that we established to support projects in First Nations communities.

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