Canberra word: guvvie (and ex-guvvie)

by Amanda Laugesen

Canberra word: guvvie (and ex-guvvie)

Guvvies in the Canberra suburb of Downer, 1961

The terms guvvie (also govie) for government housing—’a house originally built or bought by the government for low-cost or subsidised rental’, and ex-guvvie (also ex-govie) for ‘a house that was formerly built or owned by government but has been sold into the private market’, are two term ‘invented’ by Canberrans.

The term guvvie first appears in real estate advertising in the 1980s when government stocks of these houses began to be sold into the private market:

 House: Brick veneer guvvie, South Gowrie. (Canberra Times, 8 April, 1984)

Initially, these houses were generally cheap to buy and weren’t particularly desirable. One of the first pieces of evidence for ex-guvvie suggests this:

Our street is a line of ex-guvvie houses. Little brown boxes, each added to or painted a different colour to distinguish it from the rest. (Canberra Times, 7 August, 1988)

However, as housing prices increased in Canberra, and as many people began to renovate and extend ex-guvvies, they became much more desirable and valuable. A June 10, 2006 Canberra Times article was headlined: ‘“Guvvie” suburbs are hot property.’ And ex-guvvies have become opportunities for creative architectural re-design:

The award-winning Slater White house by Philip Leeson Architects

When a young Canberra couple briefed architect Philip Leeson that they wanted something ‘edgy’ in a two-storey addition to their 1960s ‘ex guvvie’ house (in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the federal government knocked up huge numbers of conservative brick butter boxes), he took them at their word. From the streetfront, his award-winning design with multi-coloured pastel corrugated iron panels is either a kooky take on 1960s architecture or brilliant exercise in postmodernism.


The original house had two small bedrooms facing the street, a small living area that shivered during Canberra’s icy winters and a modest kitchen and dining room. What the extension wound up giving them is four bedrooms, two generous, sun-drenched living areas and views over the green parkland opposite to picturesque Mount Ainslie beyond. (Canberra Times, September 24, 2011)

The term continues to be used, although as these houses become transformed through renovations and extensions and change hands several times after their original guvvie status, the fact that they ever were government-owned houses will eventually be forgotten.

4 thoughts on “Canberra word: guvvie (and ex-guvvie)

  1. This term is also used as a shortened form of governess in the outback. For example, “She has a guvvie for her kids paid for by the station.” OR “I have a new guvvie and she is fantastic.”

  2. Thanks Rosemary – we haven’t come across that sense of ‘guvvie’ before. Looks like one we should be collecting.

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  4. The term ‘guvvie’ is also used to describe modest privately built house types in Canberra that was more or less identical to the no-frills government housing built in the period before ACT self-government in 1989. Some of these privately built ‘guvvie-style’ houses can also be seen across the border in Queanbeyan.

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