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Tent House (Mount Isa)

  • 600742
  • Camooweal Street, Mount Isa


State Heritage
Register status
Date entered
21 October 1992
Residential: Tent house
6.4 Building settlements, towns, cities and dwellings: Dwellings
Construction period
1930, Tent House (Mount Isa) (1930c -)
Historical period
1919–1930s Interwar period


Camooweal Street, Mount Isa
Mount Isa City Council
-20.73113695, 139.49511194


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Criterion AThe place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

The Tent House in Mount Isa (built by 1937) is important in demonstrating the development of Mount Isa, an early mining town in Queensland. It is a rare and representative example of early, temporary company housing provided to miners and contributes significantly to our understanding of this way of life.

Criterion BThe place demonstrates rare, uncommon or endangered aspects of Queensland’s cultural heritage.

The Tent House is the last surviving example of the substantial number of tent houses built in Mount Isa from the 1930s to the 1950s and is one of few surviving examples in Queensland.

Criterion DThe place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of cultural places.

The Tent House is important in providing a rare demonstration of the principal characteristics of the type. This includes: a timber-framed canvas tent sheltered by a separate timber-framed roof structure; low-set, narrow, gable-roofed form; and rudimentary detailing and fittings.


The Tent House in Mount Isa (built by 1937) is the last surviving tent house constructed in the town to accommodate mining workers.[1]

Traditionally the land of the Kalkadoon people, the remote area of Mount Isa attracted prospectors from the 1870s and sparse settlement by graziers in the 1880s. In 1923, prospector John Campbell Miles discovered rich lead, copper, silver, and zinc ore deposits and, along with four farmers, he staked out the first mining claims in the area. By the end of 1923, 118 leases had been pegged on the Mount Isa field. By 1925, mining company Mount Isa Mines had purchased the leases of virtually the entire area and intense mining progressed rapidly.[2]

As well as more permanent and substantial accommodation, temporary structures were constructed in Mount Isa to house workers from the 1920s to the 1950s. In 1924 the population of Mount Isa was estimated at 300 people, most living in temporary dwellings of iron, canvas, and timber.[3] The population grew rapidly from 1926 to 1930, causing an acute housing shortage. In 1929, there were hundreds of tents, housing railway and construction workers, sprawled between the town and the mine. Other huts had walls made from beaten-out chemical drums from the mill, antbed floors, and corrugated iron roofs.[4]

In June 1927 the Russo-Asiatic Consolidated Company, chaired by Leslie Urquhart, took control of Mount Isa Mines and the development of the town. The scale of mining was increased and the town grew, built by the company on its leases for its own employees. It was a planned and self-contained town which was approached through a valley guarded by a gatekeeper. The development of a company town in this way sprang from Urquhart's experience in Russia, realising that in a region with a harsh climate and a reputation for industrial unrest, employee welfare was an essential investment.[5]

Mount Isa was an early mining company town that provided extensive accommodation for employees. This was regarded as an 'interesting experiment' in 1929.[6] By mid-1929, 50 cottages for workmen and seven staff houses had been constructed, along with reticulated water supply and septic tank installation. A self-contained staff house with 21 bedrooms, a reading room, and dining room, had also been constructed. Five dormitories for single men, each accommodating 40 employees, and a mess hall to serve them were in the course of erection, but owing to the rapid increase of work at the mines, temporary accommodation capable of housing 400 men was erected. This included tent houses.

Tent structures have been used as a building form since the earliest European settlement of Australia. The application of this form of construction extended to houses, police stations, hospitals and asylums. Tent houses were commonly used as rudimentary, portable or temporary accommodation throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially on mining and construction sites. Canvas was a common building material, its popularity largely derived from its portability and low cost. The term 'tent house' was applied to the housing form comprising a canvas tent structure with increased stability and permanence due to improvements to the frame and additional materials used to shelter the tent.[7] Tent houses could be newly-built or created by making improvements to an existing tent.

During the Great Depression when there was difficulty financing housing developments, the 1934 Mount Isa Mines Directors' Report commented:

'A portion of the community consists of 60 tents erected in 1930. These were in a bad state of repair, and after representations by the employees in this section, the company agreed to furnish the material for converting these temporary dwellings into tent houses. The employees, co-operating among themselves, furnished the labour.'[8]

Photographs of Mount Isa taken in 1935 show an ordered grid of at least 50 standardised tent houses, emphasising Mount Isa Mines' organised approach to the town's development.[9] These tent houses comprised a long narrow building with canvas walls and roof sheltered by a separate light-weight, timber-framed structure with a corrugated iron-clad roof. The air space between the canvas roof and the iron roof assisted in keeping the tent's interior cool, as well as providing additional weather protection. Board or ripple iron cladding at the bottom of the walls provided further protection and dust control.[10]

The construction date and builder of the Mount Isa Tent House is unknown, but it was located at 16 Fourth Avenue by 1937. At this time the house was registered by its owner, Alfred Mills, who was a miner and employee of Mount Isa Mines from 1930 to 1953. In a statutory declaration in 1937 it was described as a 'three-roomed house, walls of galvanised iron and drum roof; roof of galvanised iron, partitions of iron and wood; floor of boards and earth'. There was also a lavatory and a shed.[11] Sold by Mills in 1940, the Tent House was then occupied by a succession of owners.

Another labour boom at the end of the 1940s led to further tent accommodation being constructed by Mount Isa Mines. After World War II the population of Mount Isa grew steadily. By the 1960s, tent houses were no longer constructed as worker accommodation. By the early 1960s they were progressively demolished or removed to make way for expanding mine operations.[12]

The Tent House in Mount Isa was purchased in 1978 by the National Trust of Queensland, which retained it in situ. It opened to the public in 1983 as a tourist attraction museum piece. In 1991 the only other surviving tent house in Mount Isa was demolished.[13]

The Tent House closed to tourists in 2011 and in March 2013 the National Trust gifted it to the Mount Isa Underground Hospital and Museum Inc. The house was moved approximately 750m east to Joan Street, adjacent to the former Underground Hospital [QHR 601102]. In its new location, the Tent House was repaired and its contents (furniture and other household items) were reinstated. In 2014 the Tent House resumed operation as a museum tourist attraction.


[1] Ivan McDonald Architects, Tent House Mount Isa: Conservation Management Plan, 2009, p.9.

[2] Queensland Heritage Register Entry QHR 601182 Mount Isa Mine Early Infrastructure and Mount Isa Mines History, accessed 26 May 2014.

[3] Ivan McDonald Architects, Tent House Mount Isa: Conservation Management Plan, p.6.

[4] Mimag, 1973, p.14.

[5] Blainey, Geoffrey, Mines in the Spinifex, 1970, p.158.

[6] Queensland Government Mining Journal, 15 August 1929, p.332.

[7] Ivan McDonald Architects, Tent House Mount Isa: Conservation Management Plan, p.8.

[8] Mimag, March 1973, p.20.

[9] Tents used as accommodation seen from an elevated position at Mount Isa Mines, 1935, JOL SLQ, image no. APE-085-0001-0012 and Married Quarters at Mount Isa Mines in 1935, JOL SLQ, image no. APE-085-0001-0013.

[10] Ivan McDonald Architects, Tent House Mount Isa: Conservation Management Plan, p.9.

[11] Ivan McDonald Architects, Tent House Mount Isa: Conservation Management Plan, p.12.

[12] Blainey, Mines in the Spinifex, p.197, 225.

[13] Ivan McDonald Architects, Tent House Mount Isa: Conservation Management Plan, p.20.


The Tent House is a small house standing on a flattened site adjacent to the Underground Hospital in Mount Isa. Accessed via Joan Street, it is a timber-framed structure low-set on short steel posts and comprises a narrow, gable-roofed core with rear, lean-to additions. The core of the house is sheltered by a free-standing, timber-framed fly.

The walls of the core are clad below sill height with ripple iron and above this with asbestos cement sheet. The core's roof is a fitted canvas cover held down by tie ropes at the top plate to the floor bearers. Loose flaps of the canvas cover extend down to the sill line on the front and side walls and the core's windows are unglazed, shielded by drop down canvas rolls. A door in the front (western) wall provides access to the interior.

The walls and skillion roof of the rear additions are clad with corrugated metal sheets. The additions have glass louvre windows and a door and short flight of steps provides access to the interior.

The fly is an open-sided structure standing clear of the core underneath. The timber posts are prominently braced. The southern gable end and the roof are clad with corrugated metal sheets. The fly stands clear of the core by approximately 600mm.

The core interior comprises three rooms: a central living room, with a bedroom either side. The floor throughout the core is timber boards and the walls are unlined. The coved ceiling is lined with hardboard with wide timber cover strips. The partitions are light-weight and timber-framed and do not reach the ceiling. They are clad with ripple iron up to sill height and hardboard sheeting with timber cover strips above. Early linoleum squares clad the bedroom floors. Doors open from the living room into the rear additions.

The rear additions comprise four rooms: a kitchen, sleepout, bathroom, and toilet. The floor throughout the rear additions is timber boards and the walls and ceilings are unlined. Early linoleum squares clad the sleepout floor.

The house contains early domestic furniture and other items for museum interpretation.

The timber entrance ramp and the understorey perimeter boards are later additions and are not of cultural heritage significance.

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Location of Tent House (Mount Isa) within Queensland
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last reviewed
1 July 2022
Last updated
20 February 2022
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