English House

Client: English
Address: 47 Phillip St, Lower Plenty. 3093 VIC
Year Built: 1947
Description: The plan of the house was simple. Its floor plan was only about seven hundred square feet (65 square metres) with a large living area and one bedroom, but it was environmental and a new type of building for Melbourne in 1947. It had a skillion roof with five yellow box tree trunks for main beams. These were set on 3' x 2' (900ml by 600 ml) mud brick piers. Secondary beams of 6" x 2" (150ml by 50ml) hardwood had 6" x 1" (150ml by 25ml) rough sawn hardwood nailed to them for ceilings. The roof covering was bitumen and creek gravel.

Drawing Location: Unknown

Alistair describes the trails and tribulation involved in building his first mud brick house in Chapter 32 of his autobiography, 'A Middle Class Man'.

Interior of the English house showing the fireplace and kitchen

I was approached by a returned serviceman named Frank English who had accumulated 600 pounds in deferred pay, in addition to a building allotment in Phillip Street, Lower Plenty, that commanded a superb view of the Eltham Valley and the Dandenongs. He had seen service in the Middle East and North Africa and wanted to build in mud brick because of its anticipated economy and because he appreciated its inherent beauty. Frank was a gentle type of person for a frontline soldier; he became a male nurse when he was discharged, and appeared to have a group of male friends who would share the house with him. The 600 pounds was to cover the cost of the building, though it was only half as big as the Brynings' and the Moores' houses in Heidelberg, which had each cost about three times as much.

Interior of the English house in 2013 with its curent owners showing the fireplace and kitchen extension. Note the false ceiling added beneath the original. photo: Tony Knox

The building was simple, and I felt that if we were to exceed the estimate by less than twenty percent Frank would be able to find the extra money required. It was a cost-plus contract, so I could not see how we could lose, even if we did not make much. It took me a long time to realise that building contracts were almost impossible to enforce by law. My first two clients had paid the price we asked, which included the cost of labour and materials, but there was no profit margin because of the soaring postwar costs. I was convinced that earth-building must be much cheaper ... Mud-brick building was still permitted in the Eltham Shire - because of Jorgensen's creative exploits, and because of the two or three other partly constructed buildings, quietly mouldering away in silent bushland, whose existence had scarcely been realised by anyone. The building scene was still very low-key in Eltham until the end of 1946.

I had by this time asked Sonia Skipper whether she would supervise the building of Frank English's house on the hill at Lower Plenty, an offer which could well have made her the first female foreman the trade had ever known in Australia - the land of the dominant male.

I was anxious to get the Frank English house underway, but each week when we returned to pick up the Council plans we were put off for some reason or other. We decided not to wait on officialdom, but rather to get on with the making of bricks, the pouring of the footings, and the erecting of the walls. We felt that the passive Council and the sleepy valley would finally come good. Sonia's workforce consisted of Larry Stevens, Gordon Ford, and Tony Jackson - three returned servicemen who had not yet got down to the task of deciding on a permanent postwar occupation. They regarded the building of the English house as a halfway stage between a holiday and a part-time health cure.

	the English house, designed and built by Alistair KnoxFront of the English house in 2013 note the extensions at both ends of the building. photo: Tony Knox

Sonia used to ride her horse Sherry to the site every day, in the manner of a squatter's wife overseeing the station hands at work on the new homestead; but she was, through her Montsalvat experience, nobody's fool when it came to practical building. Gordon and Tony lived locally on Gordon's land in the Eltham village, but Larry was an outsider and decided to pitch a tent and live on the building site because it was cheap and saved travelling. He would have thought it too un-Bogartish to display too much interest in labouring work, so he retained casual starting and finishing times, particularly if he had had a 'skinfull' the night before. Eltham was a place of much silence in those immediate postwar years, which enabled Larry to slumber on well into the morning if he so wished. But as soon as the footfalls of a horse cantering up the hill were heard, Larry was outside wielding his pick or shovel within ten seconds to persuade Sonia that he had been at it since eight o'clock.

It eventually became apparent that the delay in obtaining our building permit was more sinister than it had at first appeared. This fear was reinforced when John Harcourt, a local designer-builder, told me that the officials were going to knock back our application and that we were mad to have started... There was a man named Middleton who worked for the Experimental Building Station, a federal body situated in Ryde near Sydney. He had been conducting tests and gaining facts for some years, and had actually written about mud brick. He had visited the Artists' Colony, John Harcourt, and me a little earlier, and I realised how important it was to obtain copies of these official pamphlets in order to stimulate the six local councillors to agree to grant a permit. Once again, that sense of inevitability that had surrounded so many aspects of my life's directions occurred again. The Council was to hold its monthly meeting on the very day these pamphlets were to become available in Melbourne. It was before the era of the ubiquitous motor car. If one wanted to go to the city, there were only three possible trains: there was one at 8 a.m., one at 9.10, and another at 10.20 and thence only after mid-day.

I reached Tomb's Technical Bookshop around 11 a.m. and had to wait while the needed books were being unpacked. I bought a handful of copies and set off for Eltham once more, half hoping to be able to distribute them to the councilors in time. My train arrived back at 2 p.m., and as I walked across the road I beheld some of the worthy city fathers standing at the entrance to the Shire Office. As I came within earshot of them I heard one say, 'My daughter lives in one of them pise houses and it's quite all right, but I wouldn't have anything to do with them mud-brick ones'. Seizing opportunity by the forelock, I stepped forward and said, 'I overheard what you were saying about mud-brick building. I have applied for a building permit which I understand you will be considering today, and I thought these government documents might assist your deliberations'. I handed one to each councillor on the steps, and those who had already returned to the Chamber also rushed out to get their copies. I heard the next day, to my great relief, that the plan had been passed and that our four-feet-high walls would remain upright and not be knocked down as we had feared. Eltham's retarded growth had opened a door for earth-building that the combined forces of progress, civic pride, and the new age could never again close.

Miss Hardress and Miss Groves, the eclarte weavers, second owners of the English houseMiss Hardress and Miss Groves, the eclarte weavers, second owners of the English house Photo: Cliff Bottomley, National Archives of Australia

The construction had a chequered career because the workers proceeded in a somewhat cavalier spirit. Frank English and his boyfriends would come up on a Saturday afternoon when officially the boys were supposed to be working, but which they tended to regard as a paid half-holiday. On one such occasion, their voices could be heard as they approached through the bush. Larry and the others were hanging around doing precisely nothing of a building nature. John Yule, who had also joined the workforce for the day, jumped up and ran to the bottom of the land armed with Larry's frying pan and squatted down and started digging furiously as though he had just discovered some alluvial gold. It was a ridiculous scene, with the whole building team caught with its pants down. Two months later, Frank's deferred pay was exhausted with the building only four-fifths finished. I built on, expecting Frank to find the 200 pounds necessary to complete the work. On my second request for funds, the gentle Frank became much stronger. 'It's no good, Alistair', he said, 'the boys didn't work. I'm not going to pay'. And that was that! He didn't. Our little building company sold another piece of our Heidelberg land at a good profit that once more bridged the gap standing between us and bankruptcy.

Keywords: mud brick

English house 50 Phillip St Lower Plenty VIC 3140. Alistair Knox's first mud brick house. Later extended by Knox The original house with a section added at far end Photo: Tony Knox
English house 50 Phillip St Lower Plenty VIC 3140. Alistair Knox's first mud brick house. Later extended by Knox Current owners Photo: Tony Knox
English house 50 Phillip St Lower Plenty VIC 3140. Alistair Knox's first mud brick house. Later extended by Knox From the kitchen looking towards extension Photo: Tony Knox
English house 50 Phillip St Lower Plenty VIC 3140. Alistair Knox's first mud brick house. Later extended by Knox Original house, extension on right Photo: Tony Knox
English house 50 Phillip St Lower Plenty VIC 3140. Alistair Knox's first mud brick house. Later extended by Knox Photo: Tony Knox
English house 50 Phillip St Lower Plenty VIC 3140. Alistair Knox's first mud brick house. Later extended by Knox Sit in fireplace as in Busst house Photo: Tony Knox

< Previous Building  :  Next Building >

©Mietta's 2024