My Story

Author: Sonia Skipper
Tales from a pioneer of Montsalvat
Black Jack Press 2005

Working for Knox

Sonia Skipper Sonia Skipper working at Montsalvat

One Sunday, Alistair Knox and his wife Mernda rode up on their bikes from Heidelberg to Eltham, to find Matcham and ask him if he would work for Alistair and show a couple of chaps how to make mud bricks. One of his clients, who had been a soldier in the Middle East, had been impressed by the earth buildings he had seen there and wanted a small cottage built. Matcham was very busy with his jewellery at the time and said he'd rather not as it would destroy the sensitivity in his hands; but what about Sonia? I was quite elated, it had never occurred to me that anyone would want to know about mud brick making, and actually pay to find out-after all, we had been passing on information free for years. So I took on the job of mud brick maker once again, and this time got paid for it.

Conventional materials were short so it ended up that many people wanted mud brick houses. Later they became the trendy type of house to live in. Knox got a team together and started the mud brick building boom. He did a great deal to promote mud brick building in the area and put a great deal of energy and inventiveness into it. The "environmental building boom" was born. I worked for him for about three years from 1947, though for the last year I mostly did the inside finishing, plastering and colouring the walls, and whitewashing the outside.

The job was a rather strange experience. At the beginning I was the overseer. The fellows were often difficult-I would sometimes come back to the site and find the walls all out of square or bricks piled up in the opposite place to where I had requested. All this was rather confusing. Alistair, who was still working at his bank job, would come up late in the day to see how things were progressing and shout at me for not having got things done in the way we had planned at the weekend, as though it was my fault. I would tell him that those boys he had working for him were either perverse or plain stupid. Of course I realize now it was the gender problem. They just didn't like taking orders from a female, no matter how reasonable those orders might be. At the time I didn't know how to handle the problem, in fact I didn't know what the problem was. I had never encountered it before as Jorgy always treated men and women as intellectual equals; and as for physical work-if you were capable of doing something, go for it. When Horrie Judd came on the job he set the rules and if they didn't get on with it, then .... So I turned to the inside where I worked alone.

The whole experience had been quite unusual for me, as these houses were to please the people and suit their lifestyles. At Montsalvat, Jorgy's interest had been purely aesthetic-he didn't care what went on inside a building as long as the proportions were right and it fitted into his overall scheme. Alistair would take me along when interviewing a prospective client, walk over the land with them, discuss their lifestyle and how they might like their home to be arranged. This approach I found most intriguing.

As time went on Alistair developed his idea of environmental building, and helped to make Eltham the interesting place it is today. People were getting away from the conformity of suburbia and wanted something different and more earthy; so the subtle rough finish which I had learnt to do on the farm buildings at Montsalvat, using natural materials, fitted the new mode. I had also done a lot of research and experimenting to find what kind of mixture's worked best on the clays of Eltham.

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