We Are What We Stand On, The Pise-de-Terre Connection

The Pise-de-Terre Connection

Author: Alistair Knox

Earth building was cheap in those days when it was self-built. The innumerable services and standards of today were simply not there. It was a matter of making the bricks, pouring footings, getting some second-hand scantling to make up window and door frames. Roof iron, window sashes and doors were purchased second-hand from building wreckers for minimal prices. Chimneys could also be built from mud bricks. The principal pise de terre builders were the Henschall brothers, experienced pise workers who had constructed large homesteads on Riverina sheep stations.

Gordon Ford and Peter Glass worked in Eltham. During 1946, and both of them survived on part-time jobs with John Harcourt, who was building in pise-de-terre on his own land at the corner of Diamond Street and the Diamond Creek, adjacent to the narrow wooden bridge that is still standing and in good repair. They were employed by Harcourt to form and ram the earth walls, assisted by a Henshall son and another boy. Peter would work two and one-half days a week and Gordon the other two and a half days, so they were never on that job together. Ramming pise by hand is a dreary activity and they can still recollect these strange workers climbing out of the form-work at the end of the day looking like grey troglodites.

John Harcourt was a person who felt he was born to rule. He believed in a classified society of workers and bosses. He derived his building ideas from Jorgensen, whom he admired but he did not have the same capacity to design-his dormer windows and other detailings missed out on the subtle variations which Jorgensen did instinctively. Harcourt's houses also lacked that brotherly spontaneity which was a hallmark of the other earth buildings of the period.

It caused odd men to work for him at times. None was odder than the labourer who used to ride to work on a horse. One day he turned up with a nine gallon keg of beer and proceeded to get drunk. He then poured out buckets of beer for his trusty four-legged friend who also became drunk. It is not known how they staggered home or who supported whom, because neither were ever seen on a Harcourt job again.

Pise-de-terre building fell from favour about this time because of a lack of suitable soil for ramming and also because it was essentially a material for 'look-and-put' cottage design buildings. It did not have the flexibility of mud bricks, which is essentially a modern building method. The Harcourt House which Peter and Gordon worked on became known as the 'Pittendrigh House' because they bought it. It is now twice its original size because of the addition of a mud brick extension that my partner John Pizzey designed some SIX years ago.

The soil Harcourt used for ramming was satisfactory at first because it was silt taken from the nearby creek flood plain. Pise-de-terre requires a sandy loam to give a proper result. He laid the soil in three-inch layers between form work and wet it to about a nine percent water/soil relationship before ramming it with hand rammers. The formwork was of heavy timber sections about two feet high. When the wall reached the top of the formwork it had to be raised manually and replumbed so that the process could be repeated. Doors and windows would be set in place as planned, but the basic character of the building was to keep it as monolithic as possible and to fit the roof over it like a snugly fitting cap. When he ran out of river silt, he started using material that had much more clay in it. This was to cause trouble, because it developed cracks, fretted between the layers of ramming and became rather unstable.

John Harcourt's pise-de-terre experiences were for this reason quite eventful. He disputed using concrete footings on an extension to the Macmahon Ball house because he thought that the vibrating of his pneumatic rammer would exert such pressure on them that they would fail. This structure was some 1,000 square feet of floor space and the walls were rammed in unsupported sections. Katrine Macmahon Ball relates how, while it was being built, she was one day sitting with Lily, Justus Jorgensen's wife, when they thought there was an earthquake. Going to the back door they found that the whole wall had fallen down. She phoned John Harcourt to ask him to do something about it. He refused to believe her and wouldn't come over until the next day. Even when presented with the mute evidence, he appeared to remain very doubtful.

A later building he erected in Research continued to crumble year by year until it was finally bulldozed into the ground and replaced by a more traditional structure. By a fortunate coincidence, the owner of this building was a person of means who finally decided not to sue Harcourt. In so doing, she did a great deal for the future of earth building in Eltham. The earth wall phenomenon was in the middle-game stage at that period. If this failure had been generally known at that time, it would have been like losing your Queen in Chess. The movement would never have recovered.

Harcourt house Above top: The Harcourt house from the north showing Tower Room/Study. Above bottom: The Harcourt house looking towards the Diamond Creek

Harcourt continued to build in pise up to about 1950 and mostly around the hill of the west side of the creek on an acreage of land he had purchased and subdivided some years earlier. Two notable buildings were those he did for the well-known Eltham Councillor, John McConnell, and for Stephen Dattner who has been a basic member of the original Eltham community since the middle 40's. In the latter stages of his pise building, he employed a system of automatic ramming of panel walls which were only connected by lintels that spanned openings in which full-length windows were placed. If they were half-height, the remaining areas were filled in with wooden planking. This was a much more satisfactory approach because the automatic nising of the form work was an economy which soon offset the original cost of the equipment. It also produced better compacting and the walls caused no structural troubles.

The limitation of the system was again the design possibilities. These houses were pleasant enough if you didn't look too hard, but from an architectural point of view, they were of a somewhat pedestrian character. Since Jorgensen's early buildings, there have, to my knowledge, been no worthwhile pise structures in Eltham, except for Harcourt's, and his were neither particularly cheap nor interesting. There is a group of three situated on the corner of Silver Street and Swan Street, which have been developed and altered in various ways over the years. They have had several changes of ownership and are all in a good state of repair. Whatever limitations may be felt about their appearance, they were generally warm and friendly inside and attracted interesting owners to them.

The Dattner house was one of the great hospitable houses of the district.

Kaye and Steve Dattner were generous people who specialised in New Year's Eve Parties, to which anyone who was someone in Eltham was invited. Eltham's social life was young and explosive in those post-war years. There were some exciting scenes on different occasions. One involved John Harcourt himself, who went off to. a nearby house with the lady of that establishment to obtain some needed appliance. They were absent for over an hour and on their return Faye, John's diminutive wife, started hitting him over the head with an electric torch at least two feet long. John was tall and elegant and the blows which were intended to be lethal tended to slide off his pointed cranium, because she was so much shorter than he. In the midst of this fracas, a large bespectacled guest lifted Faye off her feet pretending to restrain her, but in actual fact really hoisting her up higher and closer to John so that she could get a better go at him. Most of those parties had some interesting action of this sort in them.

One of the most traumatic parties that ever occurred in Eltham was on New Year's Eve 1950. The Dattners announced that they would not be having a pary that year and John Harcourt stepped in to take over the role of entrepreneur. It was not to be the usual fancy-dress as in previous years-but full evening dress, an ambition hitherto untried in Eltham except for the Annual Shire President's Ball. It was to be held on the spacious lawns outside Clay Nuneham, the very large adobe house on which John and Faye had laboured for several years. It was not completely finished but then few mud brick, home-built houses ever really are. It was set in alien pine plantation beside the Diamond Creek, situated on the opposite side to the Rail Station and the increasing shopping centre nearby. It was two-storied and complete with a small tower room that was used as a study. It looked very manorial in character, without possessing the genuine Jorgensen authenticity.

The slate roof gave a sense of opulence that was not an everyday occurrence in earth buildings. Its very name was geared to remind those who entered the stone pillars at the gateway that John hailed from an ancient English family who lived in Nuneham Place in Oxfordshire. The material of the walls may have differed but the spirit was the same. It was certainly the grandest mud brick house in the district at that time, and much of the work in making the mud bricks and preparing and building the more laborious tasks-had been the work of Faye Harcourt, his small, tenacious lady wife.

John had married Faye, his second wife, some years earlier. Faye's younger sister became the friend of a Diana Whitehead. They had both been enchanted by the elegant and dignified John when they were younger and in time Diana, Faye and John had all become very friendly. John had acted with great capacity in the matter of Diana's father's will and doubled the estimated value of the Great Western District estate she had inherited when it was being taken over by the Australian Government after the War for Closer Soldier Settlement.

She would be attending this New Year's Eve occasion and nothing but the best would do; but John was to be disappointed by the response he received from those who attended. Few came in proper dress. It was closer to a fancy dress than evening dress. Nevertheless, it was a brave attempt at a glittering occasion for Eltham with eating, dancing and drinking on the lawns until the solitary figure of John Perceval, the artist, appeared. John was an outstanding painter and 'enfant terrible' of that world. He approached over a wide stretch of lawn wearing a deer stalking cap, limping from his childhood polio affliction, looking forlorn and lonely. John Harcourt walked briskly over to him and stated, 'There are some impertinences I will not permit' and directed him to leave.

I was a close friend of Perceval's. We had supported each other in various escapades and were bound by many loyalties. I asked him what had happened, then announced that I would leave also. The Dattners and an assorted group joined the entourage and we marched out of the stone-pillared gateway in a body and headed off to continue our defiant partying at the Dattners, who lived nearby. I took no further part in the events which continued overnight and all through the next day and evening at Harcourt's, but there were some violent activities and fighting throughout it all. The end result was that John Harcourt went off with Diana and a complete break ensued between him and Faye. In time, Diana and John married and lived in another State.

It should also be recorded that one sharp-witted guest was seen returning to the party on the lawn in the grey of the dawn riding a bicycle. He approached the food-laden tables which were but partly eaten because of the retreat of a considerable number of guests and the tensions of the party. He selected a large ham and placed it in a hessian bag he was carrying and rode off with it. It was a sensible move by any standards. In a few minutes the early blowflies would awake and surge on to all that was there and render it useless. The whole ill-fated operation to elevate the varied selection of guests into a kind of Eltham peerage was too much for the district in those days. It has all grown much older and more respectable as the years have passed. Many people wonder whether the Eltham eccentrics still exist. It will never be quite like it was, but there is no doubt at all that a new generation of Eltham builders has risen up to take the place of their fathers and uncles. Their story will be related later in this social account of the district to which we belong.

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