Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Ballarat : The Forgotten Village


It is probably a surprise to most, but there were actually TWO Olympic Villages for the 1956 Melbourne Games- the main centre in Heidelberg and another at Ballarat to house those athletes and support staff engaged in the rowing and kayaking sports  at Lake Wendouree.

At around 70 miles from Melbourne, Ballarat was too far for daily commuting, but as most of the athletes only required accommodation for one or possibly two nights during their event - heat, possibly repechage and final - it was considered only temporary housing was necessary, eventually provided by Ballarat City Council in the form of a site previously used as a migrant camp.

The athletes were housed in ex-Army Nissen huts of 6 or 12 rooms, two beds to a room. Blocks containing laundries, ironing rooms, bathrooms, showers, showers and toilets were situated between the rows of huts with continuous hot and cold water.

The complex also included a post office, bank, canteen, medical centre (three rooms), a storeroom, work shop and boiler room)

There was a dining and recreation room of approximately 2,400 square feet, which given the much smaller number of athletes, compared most favourably with Heidelberg's, 2,600.

The  total number at any one time at Ballarat was around 500 athletes and team officials - the accommodation was temporary during the time that the various events were conducted; following their participation, the athletes and staff moved back to Heidelberg.  

The post-Games Official Report suggests a peak accommodation of 476 at Ballarat mid-November with 208 staff.  In all, 25 nations were accommodated at Ballarat - at the time the site was finalized (after much to-and-fro) - there were three existing rowing clubhouses lake-side, but one was destroyed by fire and re-construction was not completed until just two or three days prior to the opening event, restricting training slightly.  Some 75 boats were used during the events.

The Nissen Hut

The concept originated in 1916 with Major Peter Nissen of the British Army Royal Engineers as a semi-cylindrical metal hut, designed to be inexpensive, portable and expandable while the semicircular shape deflected shrapnel and bomb blasts.

The concept was quickly adopted by the United States Army when it entered the war in 1917.

It was estimated some 100,000 were produced in the latter two years of the Great War; Nissen as an enlisted officer received no payment for his design (although he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order), but post-war, he was able to take out the patents for the design in several countries.

The concept was revived during the Second World War and hundreds if not thousands of surplus huts in Australia were converted to cheap housing, especially for the influx of migrants in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when they provided “temporary” housing.

They were also used at remote sites including storage at country railway stations and for accommodation at construction camps – there were attempts to adapt them for permanent housing (including one design in the U.S. which added a second storey), but as many reports suggested, they gave the inhabitants "average" climatic conditions - "average" meaning freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer!

The other advantage was that they were prefabricated - it was suggested that a Nissen hut (although size not nominated) could be packed into a wagon and re-erected by six men in four hours; a British team of sappers at one point claimed a world record of one minute 27 seconds, but again, size unknown.

The “Olympic Village” at Ballarat; below, a German crew outside their hut.

Left : A typical Nissen hut (believed U.S. Army) and right, an interior view, Second World War at an R.A.A.F. base