We Are What We Stand On, Historic Landmarks

Historic Landmarks

Author: Alistair Knox

The first mud brick house ever built in Eltham was constructed around 1860. It was known to us as Souter's Cottage. It is situated in Falkiner Street, South Eltham, behind what is now the Eltham South Take-Away Food Shop. That building has also had a chequered career. It was once the Eltham South Post Office and the occasional bus that plied between Eltham and Heidelberg used to start by encircling the big tree standing outside the building.

The Souter Cottage was purchased by John and Pat Brocksopp around 1950. It had belonged to the Skippers immediately before that time. They and one or two others who lived at the Jorgensen Artists' Colony had bought an occasional property in Eltham to keep the feeling of the district the way it was when they first came. It had a bluestone cellar underneath that had been used for the making and keeping of wine; which was reported to be the first grown in the district-a kind of fourth industry in the valley to go with the flour mill, the tannery and the brewery. The cellar had good headroom and some years after the Brocksopp's took possession, Pat turned it into the original Eltham Art Gallery.

When they first bought the house, the front of the stone cellar was totally obscured by a great mound of earth that was placed there barrow by barrow by Horrie Judd, the legendary mud brick builder and strong man in general who had himself lived there at another time. Several inches of water that always lay in the cellar made it a murky sight, especially as it could clearly be seen glinting in the gloom through a six inch width of floor boards which were missing in the middle of the floor upstairs.

Joan Turner, a previous tenant who was originally a dress designer and later the well-remembered sewing teacher at Eltham High School, was always apprehensive that some strange animal or apparition would crawl up into the room, or that she or one of her beautiful daughters might fall through. The building had not been occupied for a period because the south wall had been destroyed during the great 1934 flood and needed to be rebuilt. It was sheathed in corrugated iron. Sonia Skipper was in charge of this rebuilding project and Gordon Ford, Peter Glass and Tim Burstall (who was to become one of Australia's best known film directors) were employed.

The wall was much higher than the buildings I designed: It was quite a problem for the earth builders, because the use of scaffolding was almost imaginary and the whole operation was not without some physical danger in those non-technical years. The first attempt got under way but it had to be recommenced because the wall became so out of line and verticality that it would have fallen if they had continued. Tim Burstall was at that time an undergraduate who was building his own house a little further into the Eltham valley. His association with the job was terminated one Friday when Sonia made the error of paying the men early before she went into Melbourne. She came down to catch the next bus which left at about 4 p.m. to find Tim also sitting in it on his way into town to spend the pay he was still supposed to be earning on the job.

John Yule, also had some part in this rebuilding work. At one stage he was to build a temporary lavatory. His eye for structure was not as good as it was for painting. It continually leaned over as he continued to build and finished up so far out of vertical that it finally fell down and just lay there. There is an old stone quarry on the land below the extension the Brocksopp's made to the original house that was used in the lower ground floor construction. The beautiful lockup that was 0!lce behind the Police Station when it was located at the corner of Main Road and Brougham Street, also came from the same source. It was a sad and unnecessary loss to Eltham when the Lands Department took over the property from the Police Department and wantonly destroyed the lockup which would have received a National Trust rating if it were standing today. Some of the squared stone blocks were used for road markers and some are still on the high bank on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road below ex-Councillor Williams' property. They were placed there to assist the plantings that Gordon Ford and Peter Glass persuaded the Council to use instead of expensive and unnecessary rock walling, at the time when that part of Mount Pleasant Road was sealed. It is interesting to look at the narrowness of the road before this 'improvement'. It still remains as it was at the corner of Rockliffe Street winding on its leafy way for a few hundred yards as if nothing had ever happened.

Despite the actions of Eltham's famous land subdivider Josiah Morris Holloway, who in 1851 pushed the township development a mile further north, some of the early buildings such as the Police Station, the lockup and the Court of Petty Sessions, remained in their original locations. The Main Road was originally called Maria Street and it was three chains wide up as far as Dalton Street. It is an interesting sidelight that Dalton Street, which was probably the main cross road in the original township plan is not a road at all betweeen the main road and the creek. It is still only a walkway with a footbridge that leads across to the High School on the other side. The street itself however stretches from Bolton Street to Sweeneys Lane where it still continues on under the name of Mays Road. A walk along that school path gives a clear understanding of the early character of the district. There is a fine row of cherry plums forming the adjacent boundary of White Clouds, the timber cottage on the Main Road and the beautiful brick, timber and slate studio and forge, standing on great tree trunks that belongs to Matcham Skipper immediately behind it.

Eltham has a great heritage of creative buildings. Could there ever be such another building as this particular one in the whole of Australia? Weare all waiting for Matcham and his son Marcus to get on with the tower and the extension they are planning nearby. Buildings are the life blood of the geography and history of towns, and it is of the utmost importance that today's residents realize what a marvellous district they belong to.

The rapid increase in the population of the Central Riding of Eltham from about 1970 would indicate that a great percentage of the present residents do not know many of the places that are being referred to in this Chapter. They have heard of the reputation of the district and looked in vain up and down the major roads for signs of it. The spirit is much more intimate than most people realize. It is not basically commercial in its aims although a considerable number of people earn their living within and around their own homes. The geometric progression in the number of mud brick houses throughout the Shire has alone ensured an ongoing indigenous community.

It will have to guard itself against the perpetrators of some earth buildings that have departed so far from the original concepts of what they should be that they are little more than the equivalents of brick veneers. The mere use of natural materials does not mean the results will be good. It is time we had a few illustrated lectures and a studied look at the buildings that artists are doing for themselves to be reminded that the emotional content of a mud brick building is an essential part of it.

The greatest hope for the future of environmental building design in the district is emerging in the third generation who are now young men and women of around eighteen to twenty-four. They have learned their designing with a chain saw in their hand. This fact has caused them to think in sculptural terms rather than straight lines. They are opening unprecedented possibilities for the future which will depend on new structural skills and really creative designing. The clouds of depression that are once again hanging over many Australians will challenge us as people to think again about our aims and objectives for living. It is clear that we will not be the great manufacturing nation we once thought we would be. The multinationals have seen to that by placing their modern factories in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong where they can get good and efficient labour at a fraction of the cost of obtaining the equivalent in Australia. They are forcing us back to be improvising and original in our work styles. Eltham could lead the way towards a new sort of Australia, based on the self-supporting Australian community. It was like that between 1945 and 1950 and anyone who had the privilege of living in the district at that time'and was building in mud bricks or any other creative activity such as painting, writing or the equivalent will remember it as the golden age of Australia.

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