Community, sharehousing and the counterculture in 1970s Melbourne

For those who didn’t live through them, the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s are often imagined as a blur of clichés – partying, protests, pot, and bowls of lentils. The intellectualism, hope, and genuine desire for societal change have been lost in the way in which the era is remembered. Phillip Frazer, founder and editor of the countercultural magazines, High Times and Digger and editor of the first Australian edition of Rolling Stone, said of the era:

Its a terrible thing that people trivialise it. There’s a notion that it was all fun and games, sex drugs and rock n roll. But it was more than that. We actually confronted a culture. The culture that I was born into in 1946 was dying – it desperately needed being countered and replaced. We set about reinventing virtually everything.

Inner-urban counterculturalists incorporated their hopes for progressive change into a way of life and community that bound together politics, experiential living, and friendship. These experiments with lifestyle and interpersonal relationships were, as Frazer argued, genuine struggles for a new, progressive Australia. Counterculturalists produced a lifestyle that not only furthered political change but resulted in new ways of relating to each other as men, women, friends, artists and activists.

In 2017, as part of my PhD studies on these countercultures, I interviewed Lara, now in her 1960s and living in a brand new apartment complex in Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner west. I made contact with Lara when I discovered her writing in a 1974 edition of the Melbourne University student newspaper Farrago, deep in the basement of the university library. As a twenty-one-year-old social work student, she wrote several articles: one on an inner-city youth centre, one on the failures of the women’s liberation movement and another on the benefits of communal living. 

From her late teens and throughout her young adulthood, Lara lived in communal sharehouses in Sydney and Melbourne. She identified as a Marxist and feminist and her life was dedicated to politics. The household would spend hours each week holding house meetings, taking part in marches and attending or hosting activist meetings and feminist consciousness-raising groups. Politics took precedence over even ‘simple pleasures’. 

Although Lara’s involvement in communal living was largely motivated by politics, it was clear that it fulfilled other, social and psychological needs. In her early teens, after her mother died, Lara had moved in with her grandmother, helping take care of her little brother. The countercultural community she found as an adult gave her a sense of broader purpose and belonging. ‘As a sort of lost child looking for a home in a community,’ she said. ‘I really appreciated it, and I still appreciate it.’ A narrative that is often left out of histories of the counterculture is the way in which it produced a progressive community of friendship, connection and creativity, one that has occupied the inner-urban space since.

Melbourne’s counterculture emerged from the mid-1960s in hubs such as Carlton and Prahran, and later Fitzroy, which became popular with counterculturalists throughout the 1970s. It incorporated a smorgasbord of progressive activities and interests: sharehousing, intellectualism, activism, the arts, and hedonism. In these urban spaces, counterculturalists enjoyed coffee houses, European cuisine at restaurants like Tamani’s (now Toto’s), pubs and music venues (Carlton’s new Johnny’s Greenroom is named after the old Johnny’s Greenroom, where patrons could drink and play pool into the night), bookshops (Readings in Carlton opened in 1969), record stores and second-hand boutiques. They founded cooperatives, activist organisations, eateries and urban communes. Doing things ‘differently’ to the conservative past was imperative. As described by Kim, who worked at the long-standing vegetarian restaurant Shakahari in 1978, ‘living in an alternative way was considered an achievement.’ 

This emerging lifestyle was tied up with broader domestic and international shifts. Waves of progressive social justice policies and the gains of women’s liberation widened imaginations to new ways of living. In the 1970s, as historian Michelle Arrow argued in her recent book The Seventies, what was previously personal and hidden became subject to public debate. Policies around sex and marriage were thrown into question and the domestic and intimate ways in which Australians lived became politicised.

In my interviews, counterculturalists spoke about the joy and solace they felt at finding a progressive community. Many, even those – or particularly those – who came from loving and stable families, expressed their distaste for the seemingly dreary lives of their parents. The generation gap at the time loomed large, fuelled by the left-wing activism and anti-Vietnam war protest that was occuring in universities around the Western world. Counterculturalists found the lives of their parents, who had started families in the conservative decades following the Second World War, boring, bland, and isolating. Creating distance from family was common. As Lara recalled, ‘we all pretended we didn’t have families. We were just sort of formed from nowhere’. In her memoir, singer and actress Jane Clifton describes the ‘orphan’s Christmas’ that was held at her East Brunswick sharehouse: ‘it would become a custom in our group for years to come. Most of us had rejected the traditional notion of Christmas along with the so-called bourgeois trappings of family life.’ 

The inner-urban space, in contrast to the suburbs, was exciting. Many referred to a buzz or spark in the air. Here, intellectual stimulation, experiential living, artistic pursuit, activism and self-expression were – even if only ostensibly or temporarily – more important than traditional career trajectories. Social, busy and open homes were attractive. The pursuit of material wealth seemed unimportant. and a modest existence was a marker of progressive politics. In a 2012 Meanjin essay, Lyndal Walker recalled her late-1970s sharehouse in North Fitzroy, where ‘living in squalor seemed like a revolutionary strategy.’ 

Experiments with communal living put physical form to the progressive ideals of the counterculture, a way for counterculturalists to live their politics on a day-to-day basis. The collectives that emerged in this era in Carlton, Prahran and Fitzroy (among other, further-flung locations) were urban iterations of rural communes: they were often motivated by Marxist politics, run by consensus, shared resources, and were supposed to challenge the Western conditioning that led to a problematic individualism and sexism. They also provided some tangible benefits: sharing household money and labour freed up time for inhabitants to pursue other interests, particularly meaningful for women who were (ideally) freed from the shackles of full-time childcare and domestic duties. 

It was hoped by counterculturalists that radical day-to-day living would create broader political change. Jon, a member of a collective household discussed in Digger, a Melbourne-based countercultural magazine (among its contributors were Helen Garner, Michael Leunig and Anne Summers), said his main motivation in living communally was to counteract individualism. ‘We have to transcend the need to be concerned with individual survival’ he said. ‘There’s no hope if we remain individuals, we will all die separately.’ 

Interlinked communities of sharehouses and individual houses also acted as hubs for independent arts and political activism. In the TRIBE sharehouse in Toorak, which was inhabited by an actors’ collective, ‘it is hard to tell where rehearsals end and life begins,’ a 1971 edition of the countercultural High Times magazine reported. ‘It’s not unusual to arrive at the TRIBE house to find a room full of people half-tranced, involved in a humility exercise.’ Another well-known sharehouse was ‘the Bakery’ in Greville Street Prahran, home to members of the Monash Labor club (the house was a former bakery that later became a health food shop). The household published a weekly newsletter using a Gestetner duplicating machine and hosted parties each Friday night, attracting a Monash University crowd as well as counterculturalists all the way from Carlton. 

Not all sharehouses were intentional political experiments, but there was an awareness of the radical implications of sharehouse living and progressive lifestyles. One interviewee, Dawn, said of her experiences sharehousing throughout the 1970s:

The people that we knew … almost all of them shared houses with this conscious idea that we were living in a new way … it was very important that we saw ourselves as creating a new way of living.

Sharehouse communities had become a cornerstone of an urban culture where common politics, values and interests formed the basis of social sustenance. In subtle ways, this undermined traditional support structures such as biological family and marriage. Fiona Wright’s piece in The Sydney Review of Books reflects on her experiences sharehousing in Sydney in the late 1970s:

I learned here a kind of living, a kind of community, that is different from a family – more independent, more loosely bound, but no less connected or intimate or kind.

In Melbourne and Sydney, these communities were particularly significant for those experiencing a lack of belonging or discrimination in wider conservative society, for example gay, lesbian or trans people. In an essay on his experiences moving to Sydney as a young gay man in the 1970s, Mark Gillespie wrote:

As a young émigré in my twenties, from the Queensland bush, like many gay men and lesbians from the country in those days, I was, in effect, an internally displaced person. We were refugees in our own country.

In a 2016 documentary about Melbourne’s 1970s gay liberation movements, Out of the Closets, into the Streets, feminist scholar Barbara Creed expressed a similar sentiment:

Most of us had never felt at home in our own families, and so what gay liberation did was create another family. 

This is not to say that the counterculture was unproblematically progressive. The relationship between the largely privileged, middle-class counterculture and the migrant and Indigenous communities they were joining and/or displacing in the inner-urban space was fraught, and stories of racism, sexism and homophobia within countercultural circles abound. This is despite the fact that counterculturalists were, it seemed, intellectually committed to developing a diverse and open-minded community. 

Alongside a desire for broader social change, counterculturalists longed for community and connection with like-minded people in ways that challenged traditional forms of social sustenance and conventional lifestyles. This history is still alive in how we imagine and experience the urban space today. Despite the ongoing threat of gentrification and the ways in which the countercultural lifestyle has been commodified, the urban space has provided an environment for experimentation and social sustenance to generations since. The legacy of the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s lives on in the inner-urban community of friendship, experiment and politics they helped to produce.


Image: a detail from the 25 August 1973 issue of The Digger with photos by Ponch Hawkes

Molly McKew

Molly Mckew is a writer and musician from Melbourne who submitted her PhD in history in 2019. Her research explored the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s in Melbourne.

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  1. Thanks for the article Molly! Do you have a sense of how many people were living in households like this at any one time?

    1. Hi Wendy, I did a search through my records and I havent recorded the name anywhere – ill keep an ear out though! Who is she?

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