A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 32: The first mud brick house

Chapter 32: The first mud brick house

Author: Alistair Knox

The Great Hall at Montsalvat The Great Hall at Montsalvat

I was never a Jorgensenite in the real sense. Jorgie described what such a commitment would mean with great clarity. 'There's a great big world out there', he would say, 'but if you come into my little world, you come in on my terms'. Those terms included unwavering loyalty and unpaid labour, and, from those who had the means, some degree of financial assistance was expected. Jorgie enjoyed absolute control, and he handled his power with considerable skill over the years in a mixture of encouragement and criticism that retained his despotic command in a permanent love-hate relationship. I learned much from his building skill, which enabled him to create an ever-increasing number of pise and mud-brick constructions in addition to the great stone hall, which rose to forty feet in height with superimposed spire and bell tower in a nostalgic French Provencal spirit and character. His architecture was primarily a series of French paintings that majored on traditional proportions executed with consummate skill. To look down on the complex from the top entry to the property on a damp, misty winter morning was to behold a Cezanne landscape complete in every detail. The wet slate roof, the second-hand iron of subtly varying tones, the white earth walls, and the dark-green tree growth from the cemetery next door transported the imagination from an Eltham backwater into the centre of France, all in one magical moment. I was more concerned with modern building design, which was cruder than these exquisite pieces, but I very quickly learned to understand more about placement of the parts of the design in relation to the whole - something at which Jorgie excelled so dramatically. He had the skill to contrive, which is the stock-in-trade of any imaginative designer, which enabled him to turn perplexing elements into original answers. He built on a scale quite beyond the capacity of his own resources. He inspired his wealthier students and businessmen to contribute to his great dream of Montsalvat. He spent their contributions on further buildings which were almost always more beautiful than useful.

One notable example of this approach occurred when the wealthy mother of one rich female student offered to provide for the construction and installation of proper lavatories so that the night soil need no longer be buried by the girls of the colony. Jorgie accepted the money with alacrity, but spent it on some part of the main design he was involved in at the time. It was not until years later that a modern septic system found its way into the grounds.

I was approached by a returned serviceman named Frank English who had accumulated £600 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 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. 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, and I therefore persuaded my building partners that as our Heidelberg land was rising rapidly in price, we should continue to build. Their interest was only a mild financial one, so they graciously agreed to let me go on. I drew up a plan for Frank English that was agreeable to all, and lodged it at the local Shire Office for approval. 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. The central valley, encircled by its oval-shaped amphitheatre of hills, had seen almost no development for many years. It was a truly undisturbed rustic scene that had also remained socially inert since the coming of Walter Withers in 1902. There were the Fabbro and the Bola vegetable farms on the river flats near the bridge on the south and the Higher Elementary School and Withers's house further north, but the centre of the valley was mostly open farmland. The odd handmade brick building that had been constructed in the previous century by Eltham's first real builder, George Stebbings, looked out across the floor of the valley as though neither it nor the valley itself would ever see any substantial change.

Interior English houseInterior English house showing fireplace and kitchen

The Shire Office had been relocated to the central valley after the great fires had destroyed the original office, situated in Kangaroo Ground, in the Depression years. The Shire staff was still small, but not as minuscule as the one that Alan Marshall - the famous author and then-current secretary - had, which comprised the entire local-government staff for the whole Shire, at that time an area covering some one hundred fifty square miles.

My only building permits up until this time had been obtained from the Heidelberg City Council, which had been punctilious in its duties and vigorously opposed to granting approval on any but the most salubrious of residential solid-brick houses. Eltham, by contrast, was wonderfully carefree and hillbilly - a point made patently obvious by the fact that the only charge for any building permit was five shillings. In terms of local-government administration, they were still in the nineteenth century. All other metropolitan cities and shires had banned the construction of mud-brick dwellings because they were an anachronism from the pioneering past and not to be countenanced in the postwar millennium that would last a thousand years. The first plank of the new age was cleanliness. The sin of looking physically grubby was far more heinous than that of being a whited sepulchre full of dead-men's bones. However, by the time I made my application for a permit, this new spirit was abroad - even in the secluded bushland among the choirs of magpies, currawongs, and bellbirds. Sonia lodged the plan and was told to return some days later because the Shire was in the throes of appointing a full-time engineer. There was a faceless temporary employee acting in this capacity who attended every Thursday, and who kept promising action which never eventuated.

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. She and I had become attracted to one another because of our common interests and by the fact that my marriage to Mernda was completely finished by mutual consent; the interest developed into a love affair. Nearly forty years later, I still retain the same appreciation of her natural beauty and her many talents. She had been trained in Jorgie's 'little world' and willingly submitted to his autocratic authority because he could offer her the inspiration that no one else had been able to. He had taught her to paint, to sculpt, to carve in stone, to lay and finish mud-brick walls, to labour untiringly, and even to share in the removal of the Colony's night soil without open rebellion. My visits became thrice-weekly: once during the working week, and twice over weekends. I did not have a car, so my weekend visits were generally terminated in conjunction with Lin Howell, an analytical chemist, who was a follower of unswerving loyalty. We would tear ourselves away from the master's diatribe, cut through the adjacent cemetery, and run over a mile to the Eltham Station to catch the last train to the city. Lin was a generous man who revelled in unresolvable arguments around the board. He was always ready to encourage the debaters with extra bottles of Brown Brothers' Millawa Red - which was bottled by the Colony for half a crown a bottle - so that by the time we made our departure we were generally in a state of some inebriation. Lin Howell and I would set straight out of the dining room, through the wire fence, and diagonally across the cemetery. It was important to keep a wary eye open because on at least one occasion a departing guest had found himself in a recently opened grave, covered in clay. Lin would sometimes stop for a second to light a match, in an earnest but futile attempt to lead the way. We never left with more than a minute to spare, so the two hills between us and the station had to be tackled with all our best endeavours. Though Lin was nearly sixty years of age, his resolve was admirable. He looked and ran like an old grey cab horse. His legs had a stiff, piston-like action that propelled him along with a surprising vigour, and his silver locks would glint in the starlight as they went up and down in a determined rhythm that would make certain of the goal. As we collapsed into the 11.37 breathing heavily and determined to leave ten minutes earlier the next time, the whistle would blow and we would be on our way back to the drab reality of Melbourne and the suburbs. Lin would lie down and take a tablet which he declared he was experimenting with for its anti-histamine qualities. I would sit back and watch him, wondering at his durability. On some occasions we would be driven home by a wealthy businessman whom Jorgie had been able to inveigle, in one way or another, into sharing his lifestyle. The gentleman - Maurie Bardos, the creator of Sportsgirl fashions - frequently asked me what I thought about the philosophy of the Colony and whether I felt he should take his wife up there. He may have been a little nervous about Jorgie possibly practising his adventurous living principles on her. He died not very long after this period, and the only sign of Mrs Bardos's appearance at Eltham that I ever saw was a very conservative portrait done of her - by the master.

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. One could hardly blame them. The going rates of pay were about £1 a day. Larry Stevens prided himself on his resemblance to a poor-man's Humphrey Bogart, an attribute he highlighted by imitating Bogart's speaking voice and frequently asking anyone in his presence, 'Why do they always call me "Humph"?' There was also a hint of the Bogart acting image in his lifestyle. He often talked about scientific 'geezers' from America who were developing new ways of earning a living, from which he intended to profit. One of these schemes was to become a beachcomber in Queensland and seek for 'farsils', which these geezers would buy at a high price. Tony Jackson was of English extraction, and he had some sort of sailing experience. He had also been Pauline Ralston's boyfriend before she married Gordon Ford, the third labourer at around his period. Tony was equally unpredictable in his nature, and his humour and association with the beautiful Pauline had been marked by turbulence and passion to a degree rarely before reported in Eltham's gentle history. The third member of the building team was Gordon Ford, who had served in New Britain during the war; like many other island servicemen, he had suffered some sense of the social disturbance those tropical jungles can so easily produce. He was highly intelligent, brilliantly funny, and a wonderful foil to Tony's vitriolic barbs and Larry's dreams of easy financial security. Their knowledge of building construction was very limited, but the house was simple in design and Sonia was able to keep some sense of order and development.

The first mud brick building, 1947. <b>Left to Right</b>: L.Mayfield, carpenter; Sonia Skipper; Alistair Knox; Tony Jackson; Gordon Ford with the English house in the background The first mud brick building, 1947. Left to Right: L.Mayfield, carpenter; Sonia Skipper; Alistair Knox; Tony Jackson; Gordon Ford"

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. Earth-building had been part of early Australian country life, but there existed almost no written information about it; it was only Eltham's remoteness that had allowed it to continue unquestioned. 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.

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 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.

Our next job was a studio for Professor Macmahon Ball at the top of York Street; this was followed by the Periwinkle, a small, free-shaped building of only one bedroom, on the north end of the valley. I was now using slab construction, a method I believed I had invented until I discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright had been employing it on his Usonian houses for well over a decade. The curved walls of the house and the three-levelled flat roof were a good example of contemporary design that received a great deal of notoriety , thereby elevating humble mud brick to the architectural peerage overnight.

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