The Impact of the Environment on the Eltham Inhabitants

There was strong unity of thought in the inner Eltham community around 1950. More than half would be numbered amongst those who fraternised at the Eltham Hotel garden on Saturday at mid-day to exchange the topics of the week.

There was also another somewhat more professional section of the general building and social activists who generally did not. They included people like Ron and Yvonne J elbart, Professor Dick Downing and Dorian Le Gallienne, George Chalmers and many others who were outstanding practitioners and believers in the Eltham lifestyle and the mud brick and stone building vernacular.

There is no question that a typical cross-section of the Eltham community would reveal a more distinguished group of individuals than has occurred in any other part of Australia. I was talking to author Alan Marshall recently and he emphasized this point most forcibly. 'No matter where I go through the world on account of my writing, when people ask me where I come from and I say Eltham they know what I mean,' he said. 'Eltham is known everywhere as a place of writers, painters and people with special individual talents.' It is interesting that, although Alan has not lived in his Eltham house in Park Road for some years because of his physical disabilities, he has never regarded himself as anything other than an Eltham person. 'I was brought up in the Western District, which was much too tailored a landscape for me,' he said. 'It is like a man who has just had a haircut and shave and is walking out of the Barber shop with his moustaches waxed and pointed. The Western District always smelled of crops in the summertime. It was clipped and tamed. There was no real tree growth and few interesting birds. For many years I felt that wherever man touched the land he damaged it. It was not until I finally came in contact with conservationists that I learned to change my mind. I saw it was possible to conserve and make it all the more beautiful.

Alan Marshall's thoughts on how environments can be improved are borne out when one compares photographs of the Eltham valley in 1945 with those of today. Its privacy and village intimacy have greatly declined, but there is an ever-increasing veil of foliage and environmental continuity which has developed it in a way that makes it truly exciting and self-perpetuating. The Eltham way of life has not happened by\chance and only partly through

the special geographical conditions or the environment redevelopment. It has been the bush and the mud brick building that have provided the basic impetus. These generalities have been discussed in an earlier chapter. Alan Marshall put his finger on it when he said: 'My father used to say it was the only real bush close to Melbourne and the understanding of the bush is the distinguishing feature of the true Australian.'

Alan had lived at Kangaroo Ground in the 1920s at the Kangaroo Ground Hotel, a place of dubious reputation that was just outside the Victorian Liquor Laws for six o'clock closing for bona fide travellers. This permitted late night imbibing and carousing with its attendant brawling, prostitution, pick-pocketing and related forms of rapacity and violence.

Alan would come down to Eltham on the coach each week. He felt when he entered into the straight run to the town from Coleman's Corner that there was an unearthly sense of soft, frondy foliage. Peppermints, stringy barks, yellow box, candle barks grew on each side of the road and often met overhead. 'It was a place of hills and hollows,' he summed up, 'a place of wattle and beautiful birds.' It set his heart alight in the way it set many others in those golden times. He concluded by saying: 'One may have been more successful in other places, but nowhere else was there that mysterious hidden sense of indefinable magic that made the district the best place I ever lived in. '

I was not closely associated with Ron and Yvonne J elbart when they were building their two great structures that are now entered from the top of Arthur Street hill. They were by far the biggest land owners in central Eltham and their buildings were the largest earth structures of the period. They had some two hundred acres of land bounded by Pitt Street, Stokes, Orchard and Luck Streets. To stand beside the house, which was built in the 1950's and is located on the highest point, permits a marvellous vista to every quarter. The barn was an early structure started in 1945 before the war finished.

Jelbart's land was one of the reasons for the slow development of Eltham. It was held as one piece for more than 20 years and ran east and west and divided the north of the township from the south in a complete and total way. I t prevented all cross traffic between the area bounded by Main Road and Reynolds Road. It was not until they sold all except 6 acres on which their buildings are located that the mysterious landscape of hill, valley and secret place became known to the general community.

A view of the linear park fro Eucalyptus Rd A view of the linear park fro Eucalyptus Rd

I recollect Ivan Stranger, the landscape designer, calling to see me in 1970, two years before I became a member of the local council. He was very excited about the great stands of candle bark trees (eucalyptus rubida) that crowded along some of the valleys in the Jelbart Estate. He wondered what would be their fate now that they were in the possession of Development Underwriters Ltd. Would they disappear when the land was subdivided into 9000 to 10,000 square foot allotments? Ivan and Barry Smales, representing the Natural Development Association, Eltham Shire, our local conservation society, consulted with Development Underwriters about the matter. Between them, they planned that the open space the sub-dividers were required to contribute to the community be formed into a series of walkways along the gulleys between the backs of allotments facing approximately parallel streets.

This would have the advantage of providing linear parks of mystery and adventure for the young and relaxation and poetry for the old. It would also make short-cuts for foot traffic to schools and act as a means of communication between members of the community generally.

It was a form of Radburn development which has been fairly rare in Australia, although it is common overseas. It is the only anti-suburban gesture in the large and otherwise repetitive subdivision.

The Council missed a wonderful opportunity to develop an indigenous scheme for the future of Eltham by working closely with the developers. I entered council at the tail end of negotiations and only managed to get the electric power underground in the latter stages, reduce some of residential road widths, delete some footpaths and all front fences.

One of the things I tried to do on joining Eltham council was to take out paling fencing, but only succeeded in modifying it. The spectacular replanting of the native treescape makes it certain that there is a hunger for Australian bush planting that is more than status or fashion. Even in the curb and channel syndrome, the mystery of the bush, with its light and colour, birds and atmosphere, is weaving its eternal spell. The air pilot, the plumber, the electrical contractor and the mortgage professionals have purchased this prestige land to return it to some semblance of its original character.

As the estate approached its half-way stage, the sewerage lines had all been laid in the walkway valleys and the levels were starting to be restored. There is still a lot of clay everywhere, but much of it has now been aerated with the digging and dozing that has occurred. Considerable replanting has been undertaken by the Shire.

If the site is left to itself for a year or two it will be fascinating to see the landscape regenerate. Greenhood orchids will reappear alongside our local Grevillia rose marinifolia and Grevillia hurstbridgii. The rubidas will seed up and raise tall silver-grey stems like a pale silent army to form an emotive backdrop to the depredations of housing development. As Alan Marshall indicated, an environmental attitude to the land, no matter what has happened, can, in Australia, cause a true landscape rebirth.

Redevelopment can in many ways be as exciting as it was originally if it occurs naturally without the intervention of gardening-type do-gooders. The Australian native flora is of an entirely different character to that of Europe, Asia and the Americas. Oaks, elms, pines, chestnuts, planes, sequoias and all the major species of other lands develop evenly in character. An oak is always an oak, an elm always an elm, a cedar a cedar. In Australia, eucalypts have not even been properly classified. They are hard to define, not so much as types but as individuals. Their shapes and characters all vary in an amazing manner with their place of growth. It may be argued that in stands of mountain ash or in an iron bark forest the trees are all closely related, but that is largely because they spring from a specific locality.

In the past twenty years, the rediscovery of the Australian flora in general is having the effect of transporting a large number of Western Australian trees to the east of the continent and from the north to the south and vice versa, which may bring about a greater sense of the typifying of native trees. At the same time, it is still out in the great plains that the most continuous struggle occurs between growth and sunlight, water-hunger and survival that will continue forever to make each tree of each species truly individual in this mysterious ancient landscape.

The Jelbart barn Above top: Bottom left: The Jelbart barn: started in 1945, enhanced in the 1970s. Bottom right: Rob Jelbart working on the barn.

Yvonne and Mary making some of their 60,000 mud bricks

Ron and Yvonne Jelbart worked very industriously on their earth buildings for many years. Their efforts were guided by Len Jarrold, a craftsman carpenter of the district, who lived with his family on the northwest corner of the Main Road and Dalton Street, beside the track that leads to the High School.

The Jarrolds were among the very early inhabitants of Eltham and owned several houses around that corner. The weatherboard cottage in which Len lived was called 'Whiteclouds' when I first knew it about 1948. It was then occupied by Vida Turner, the beautiful and well-known fashion designer, who died some years later at a tragically young age.

There was a small building in the front yard on the extreme corner within a couple of feet of the fence which became known as the 'ticket box.' It was used by a Mr Clark, a boot repairer who would hold up his customers for long periods warning them about the dangers of airy planes, his theory being that if man was meant to fly he would have been born with wings.

Matcham Skipper built his extraordinary studio at the rear of 'Whiteclouds.' The reason for placing the brick building ten feet up on great timber posts was because the floods sometimes rise to a four foot depth underneath the building.

There were times when the waters encircled three sides of the J arrold house. Some floods would cut the road a little further downstream. This was always a sign for work to be abandoned for the day and the pub would become the centre of the social life. As each new person entered, he would report on the ever-rising waters. Occasionally we would go to the door and look out at the slanting rain as it moved in fluctuating waves along the valley from south to north.

The dark clouds turned the day into twilight. Very rarely small bursts of snow could be recognised during winter rain squalls that came from the south-west. On one glorious occasion in 1954, the sky became almost black.

Large flakes of snow then started falling in absolute stillness.

The property we lived in at the top of York Street had once been an interesting guest house called 'Karingarama.' There were several mature Deodar Cedars in the front drive. Within ten minutes they had turned into Christmas trees and all Eltham was miraculously transformed as about four inches of snow fell and remained on the grounds for some hours. In the intense silence I could hear Katrine Ball speaking from their property at the top of the hill more than a quarter of a mile away, as though she were next door. Today, such a natural silence would only intensify the increased traffic hum that conflicts so seriously with the bush planting of the divided median of the Main Road. Fire and flood, which we found simultaneously stimulating and dangerous, were our constant companions in those years. They impressed on our minds the power and violence of which the surrounding natural environment was capable.

On one occasion there was a flood in Eltham which had hilarious results.

One of the beautiful and rather gay matrons of our community had a lover. At that time the Jarrold house, which now belongs to the Skipper family, was vacant and she and her man drove down to the cottage in her Volkswagen and hid it in the gulley behind the house. A flash flood rose while they were inside and when they came to retrive their car they were horrified to discover it had disappeared.

At first they thought it must have been stolen, but it had actually been carried away by the flood. Being a Volkswagen, it would continue to stay afloat for a long time, but it was not found while the waters remained high. Two days later, as they receded, they discovered it hanging upside down from a tree and inside there was also a bag of apples hanging up in biblical symbolism. Such a colourful event caused much good humour among the inner community and in this instance the husband himself enjoyed the denouement most of all, he was about to seek grounds for a divorce.

There were no shenanigans about Ron Jelbart and his wife Yvonne.

They actually lived in a modified fowl shed until their first building was habitable. The accompanying photographs show their remarkable dedication to work under the supervision of Len Jarrold. The barn first and then the house were built on a post and beam system and they worked together with a devotion and zeal that has rarely if ever been exceeded.

I recollect standing on the third shift of scaffold some ten feet above the ground talking to Ron one Saturday afternoon in 1947. It was a cool day and an exposed position, but Ron, stripped to the waist, showed no evidence of feeling the temperature. He was laying bricks which had been accurately squared and dimensioned and related to the vertical posts in such a manner that only a minimum amount of brick cutting would be required to place them. They were much more scientific than our early efforts. There was an excellent sense of order about the whole of the work.

Looking back on it after many years causes one to admire the capacity and diligence that had been employed and perhaps to regret that there had not been a fraction more whimsy and the odd existentialist joke employed occasionally to make it a little less serious. But in earth building, above all others, the choice of the builder is his own, and I am sure that the district is better for the wide variations of design and structural approach that we see about us on every hand.

Ron had to work each day, and, while he was out of Eltham, Yvonne and her friend Mollie made mud bricks and toiled at all sorts of other tasks to complete parts of the building. Between them they made 60,000 mud blocks over their working years.

It was the two women, as usual, who seemed to make most of them. Len J arrold had a tradesman's approach to the work. He did not concede much to the mud bricks, treating them with an accuracy generally reserved for baked bricks. The window sills were all concrete and the whole of the external walls of the building were almost one flush face. It was more like public works architecture than an adobe dwelling house and it has withstood the attacks of time with remarkable endurance and will continue to do so for lifetimes to come.

Ron Jelbart was a tall, handsome man with an excellent physique. He was an outstanding oarsman and physical specimen in every respect and was almost fanatical about physical fitness. He has been emulated by his two sons, one of whom was an oarsman of international standing.

Yvonne, his wife is a perfect example of what mud brick building can do for the female of the species. She is now a grandmother of several years standing, but she looks and acts like a comparatively young woman. Her grace and good looks show no sign of waning. She has a remarkable sense of direction and courage which she manifests in looking after Ron, who tragically had a massive coronary three years ago which has rendered him immobile.

They are no longer able to live at Eltham. Their house is now being occupied by Ian, their architect son. No-one viewing these buildings, this landscape and its history can remain unmoved by the saga of life that has been developed by the Jelbart family.

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