Helping Hand

From his earliest days Alistair was very keen to inspire others to build in mud brick. His son Hamish suggested that Alistair was far more interested in helping aspiring do-it-yourself mud brick home builders than talking to paying clients. Amongst his unpublished papers is a book he was preparing called 'The Home Builders Manual of Mud Brick Design and Construction'. It is dedicated to 'that creative group of people who built the first mud brick houses in the Eltham bushland in the 1940s and to their sons and daughters who are carry on the Movement today'

In environmental building 'the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong'. My first evidence of this was when Alma Shanahan spoke to me about building in mud brick back in 1951. 'Alma', I pleaded, 'please don't try. I know several competent strong men who are simply never going to complete their houses'. I thought that Alma was about the last person in Eltham to take on such a building. She had been a girl-friend of artist Clifton Pugh until a little earlier, and had taken up land on her own near his at Cottles Bridge after they separated. She didn't seem a strong Amazonian type that I felt should be the sort of person that would succeed. I had been through more than a few agonies at the time because of the duration and effort of earth building. Alma laughed a lot and gave the impression that it was all too easy. But I was to be completely disillusioned by her light-hearted approach. 'I'll do it' was about all she said to me at the time and she proceeded to do just that.

She telephoned a few months after our original conversation to tell me she had practically finished the building. Her only real difficulty arose when she tried to make mud-brick cupboards! Whatever she may have appeared to lack in building skill, she more than made up for in enthusiasm and tenacity. Since that time she has settled into being one of the really good potters of the district. She has always maintained an independent mind and an unceasing flow of work that is fresh and positive. It was one of those unusual cases where she made the mud brick rather than it making her.

Another such case was that of Brian and Carolyn Brophy twenty-five years later.

Five years earlier Brian had called into our office to discuss the possibility of mud-brick building. I took him to one or two jobs and showed him how to go about it in the simplest and most practical manner I could think of and promptly forgot him. I did not hear from him again for three years. Then his wife Carolyn phoned one day to ask if I had any call for stained glass for earth buildings because she had started fabricating them. I suggested they come over and talk about it. It was not until we had been together for half an hour that Brian asked if I remembered our earlier meeting. I told him I did not, so he described our conversation and said he had gone off and built the house.

Many years how, many years earlier, the earth building movement took hold in Eltham.

The sound of the hammer and the song of the mud brick maker filled the Eltham valley with an alternative approach to living that it has never lost. It is becoming a major way of life twenty-five years later. There is every evidence that we are watching the beginning of a plague of mud brick building throughout the State of Victoria. The whole district took on a mud brick psychology. A unique community emerged. Mud bricks were the main topic of conversation amongst a large number of its people during those golden years 1947-1950.

Saturday at midday, it was traditional to call into the Eltham Hotel and sit in the garden outside to swap the news of the week. Here again the mud brick united us into one. Sometimes as many as forty people gathered into a circle around the old trees. This was also the beginning of the 'juice freak' era. Not a few of those who gathered there subsequently became alcoholics.' Intense competition built up to ensnare the odd labourer who could assist the home builders. Such precious commodities tended to become unreliable and skittish. Each week more enquirers arrived from Melbourne full of hope. Their one aim was to build a house of their own. The standard question was, 'How much would it cost me to build a mud brick studio about thirty feet by twenty feet, if I did all the work myself?' I wrote articles for the daily papers to explain to an incredulous public that an answer to the building shortages lay under their very feet.

The mud brick movement developed such proportions that on one Saturday afternoon I arranged a meeting which about fifty hopeful home builders attended. I had found some rural land on the western slope of the Eltham valley central township area, for $80-$100 per block of sixty feet frontage. We all set out to view it, and plan how a community could eventuate. They were a heterogeneous collection of people for those times; and not unlike any modern group of younger generation people today. Maybe their hair was not quite as long, either above or below the eyebrows, but the language and the aims were clear indications of what has since occurred.

There was an aspiring trumpet player who sat in the back of an open Alvis aluminium tourer blasting away in defiance of the existing status quo. Everyone was pretty excited with the gracious Eltham landscape on that sunny afternoon. Mention was made that there were a couple of blocks in a central position that would be good for a community building and a creche. At the sound of the word 'creche', the ranks wavered perceptibly. The man with the trumpet started down the hill in his back seat position blasting as defiantly against the ideas of community as against private ownership. Like many others before and since he wanted it both ways.

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