The oldest new idea

In the pulp fiction of imagined history, the picture of chinless English younger sons, reclining in easy chairs and casually remarking, “The natives are restless tonight” has become the stuff of Hollywood parody. Comfort, safety and security, not necessarily in that particular order, were important considerations to the pioneer settler in his home and in the face of a sometimes strange and rebellious aboriginal world, the answer to this combined problem would turn out to be a novel one. In the absence of home and hearth the solution the settlers chose was to bring these things along with them, packed into boxes and transported under sail and ox drawn cart to destinations beyond the seas.

The prefabricated house as a concept has been called “the oldest new idea in architecture” with the Romans using it to build demountable elements of their fortresses and the Vikings fashioning strong holds from the dismantled timbers of their long ships. In Australia the idea had its origins in the form of the home brought to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet by the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Contemporary reports described Phillip’s house as having “framed and sides etc of painted canvas”, measuring about 50’X20’ and taking about a week to erect. It leaked like a sieve and was “not impervious to either wind or weather” but for Phillip, a naval man, dripping canvas maybe felt just like home.

Prefabrication was further augmented in those early years with the arrival of the infamous Second Fleet on Australian shores in 1790. That Fleet, along with its maltreated human cargo, brought with it rudimentary prefabricated cottages, a store house and a hospital. The hospital buildings had been fashioned in England, “not to require artificers of any kind to fix them up or take them down”, which was fortunate as the hospital was needed almost immediately to house the mistreated Second Fleet convicts.

By the time of the founding of Melbourne at Port Phillip 45 years later, the process of prefabricated construction had been rendered into something of an art form with suppliers reducing building forms into their component parts, numbered into a logical sequence to be erected at their destination rather like a wooden Meccano set. The innovative carpenter John Manning was probably the most famous of these early prefab suppliers, but there were others. Peter Thompson of Commercial Rd, Limehouse, whose houses were generally larger and more ambitious than Manning, was one but Joseph Harvey, L.R. Peacock and James Matthews were others.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

When John and Robert Bakewell arrived at Port Phillip on the SS Lord Goderich on 7th April, 1840 in the company of their sister Phoebe and brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt and affinal brother Richard, they brought with them or had access to at least three prefabricated houses. Godfrey’s house was put up on the block of land he purchased at the top of Collins Street East while Richard’s went onto land he and Godfrey purchased on the Yarra at Alphington, after first arranging for the building to be “prepared by my nephew in Melbourne, ready for putting up at the farm, when we could get it conveyed there”, (Impressions of Australia Felix, R Howitt). The Bakewells meanwhile took their prefabricated house to a farm they were consolidating on the Plenty River, known from the first days of settlement as the Station Plenty, but soon after renamed by them, “Yallambee”.

The Bakewell’s first purchase of land at Yallambee occurred in July 1840 and their prefabricated cottage was probably put up soon afterward. Two years later Richard Howitt described the Bakewell’s house during a visit, writing that:

Their weather-boarded house is situated beautifully on an eminence in the wild region, overlooking the river and its meadow… How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. (Impressions of Australia Felix – Richard Howitt)

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Almost contemporaneous with this visit, a pastel drawing by A E Gilbert shows an early version of Yallambee from the west when only the prefabricated cottage and associated residential and kitchen wings had been erected. In this pastel, there is a sort of feeling of impermanence to the Bakewell buildings. They seem to float ghost-like in the landscape, as ethereal as the adjacent haystacks. E L Bateman’s Plenty Station drawings, drawn a decade later, show a much more extensive and presumably more permanent complex by comparison. A third Howitt brother, William, visited Yallambee around about the same time as Bateman and added another written description to the record:

“…the house is one of those wooden ones brought out of England, and which seem as good now as on the day they were set up. They certainly have answered well. To this are added extensive out-buildings, generally of wood, and some of them roofed with sheets of stringy bark.” (Land, Labour, and Gold – William Howitt)

According to Avril Payne (Salter) who interviewed Nancy Bush at the start of the 1970s for a La Trobe University thesis, the Wragge family’s anecdotal understanding was that the Bakewell house “stood where the tennis court now stands”.

Detail of Bakewell survey map superimposed onto modern Google satellite image. Map shows the relative positions of the Bakewell features with present day Yallambie subdivision. Wragge’s Yallambie Homestead was built virtually astride the Bakewell residential structures.

By carefully comparing the Bakewell survey map with a modern satellite image of the landscape it is now possible to confirm this assertion and furthermore show that the footprint of the secondary residential and kitchen wings of the Bakewell complex are now largely buried under the floorboards of the “newer” Wragge Homestead.

The Wragge family on the verandah at Yallambie, c1900. The building in the background on the north east side of the house appears to be the Bakewell prefab moved to that location from a position just behind where the photographer stood to take this picture. The inscription on the original photograph suggests that by this time it was being used as a school room. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

The survey map, which was drawn near the time of E L Bateman’s drawings and William Howitt’s recorded visit, portray a somewhat enlarged establishment from the one shown in the pastel, but all of these resources, together with the misattributed State Library of Victoria Daguerreotype and Wragge era photographs, which show the cottage after it had been repositioned behind the “new” Homestead, make it possible to form a reasonably accurate idea of the Bakewell prefab.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Yallambee was a weatherboarded, shingle roofed structure with French doors and lattice covered verandahs. William Howitt had written that the Bakewell house was, “one of those wooden ones brought out of England” and this would seem to preclude any possibility of a colonial origin. In a couple of the Bateman drawings it is quite possible to see an indication of the joined sides on the east end of the cottage near the apex of the roof and from this it would appear that the Bakewell prefab was not a Manning cottage. The Manning design relied on a unique system of bolted frames and tell-tale infill panels – an example of which can be seen today in the form of “La Trobe’s Cottage” in the Melbourne Domain.

“Jolimont. Front.” Lieutenant Governor La Trobe’s Manning style house as sketched by his cousin, E L Bateman. (Source: State Library of Victoria). The property has been meticulously reconstructed by the National Trust and can be seen today in the Melbourne Domain.

It may possibly have been a Thompson house whose designs Gilbert Herbert in “Pioneers of Prefabrication “ described as having “full-length shuttered windows and lean-to verandas – which seemed to be not only more practical but patently more suited to the Australian climate in form and character.” This description, while seeming to fit the Bakewell house, overlooks that Thompson’s advertised houses were generally conceived on a large scale. The Bakewell cottage was small by comparison. All the same, Thompson is believed to have greatly exaggerated his Colonial building triumphs with the result that modest size buildings may have been a deliberately unacknowledged part of his catalogue.

A British Treasury grant had allowed Peter Thompson to manufacture timber framed buildings free of duty for export to the colonies. His houses were more traditional in design than Manning’s and used standard studwork framing which were sheathed internally and externally with boarding, and internally they enjoyed boarded ceilings. As a result the thermal insulation properties of Thompson’s houses gained on Manning’s designs although in practice this double lining proved to be “complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes” of vermin, (The Builder, p110, 1846, quoted by Herbert).

“…complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes of vermin.”

In spite of the potential for Tom and Jerry style mouse holes, the two Howitt descriptions of Yallambee portray an apparently very comfortable house. On the west wall of the Bakewell cottage was located a chimney serving a fireplace, the cosy nature of which was described by William Howitt as featuring, “the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful.” (ibid) The bricks used in this component were presumably the same slop-sided bricks brought as ballast in shipping from the UK which are known to have been a component part of the Bakewell stables.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
From the Port Phillip Herald, March, 1844.

The Bakewell prefab would in time be enlarged with the addition of trellis covered walkways and extra wings. In 1844 a surplus Thompson house was offered for sale at the Melbourne wharf and it would be interesting to know now whether the Bakewell’s were the purchasers and whether they used it to add to their existing cottage. It is known that over time John Bakewell would ultimately import numerous prefab houses into Victoria. Alexander Henderson in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and the Riverina,” under an entry for John Bakewell’s business partner William Lyall states that:

“Lyall lived for a time at Kew in a wooden house called ‘Clifton’, on the cliff above Victoria Bridge, next door to the premises occupied by Henry Creswick. This house was one of the many imported in sections by his partner, John Bakewell…”

John Bakewell’s Clifton property south of the Kew Junction bordered by Studley Park Rd, High St, Barkers Rd and a bend in the Yarra River. Bakewell’s Clifton House was a prefab fronting Studley Park Rd. It was significantly enlarged and rebuilt in the 1860s before being demolished to make way for the boom style mansion, Tara Hall. Source: detail from “

John Bakewell purchased 160 acres of land in Kew in 1851 and his house, “Clifton” was located on a high point south of the Studley Park Rd. Lyall’s occupation was in 1856 and by the time of a subsequent sale in the 1860s, Clifton like Yallambee had been greatly enlarged from its simple prefab origins. Apart from his extensive pastoral runs, John Bakewell is known to have held several properties in and around Melbourne with land owned by him at Caulfield, St Kilda and Elsternwick during that early era. It is not inconceivable then that prefabricated houses or parts of prefabricated houses may have been introduced at each.

After being moved to a new position behind the “new” Homestead c1870, the Bakewells’ Yallambee cottage was still being used by the Wragge family as a school house for their growing children in the latter years of the 19th century. Winty Calder mentions a possible fate for the building in a note in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” suggesting that it may eventually have been destroyed in a fire, although the actual evidence for this would seem to be slight. Elements of the building may actually have been used to construct the Murdoch’s later garden hot house in the same position, or even to build Harry Ferne’s cottage on the river flat. No one now can know for sure.

The Homestead with the garden hothouse pictured at right. Screen still from the Bush era Yallambie film, c1955.

The building of Wragge’s “new” Yallambie, a rendered brick Italianate style house constructed in about 1872 from bricks fired on the property was a visible representation of the success of a wealthy pastoralist, but prefabrication did not die with the end of the initial stages of the Colonial era. It has been used on and off ever since whenever the availability of skilled labour resources has been outstripped by housing needs. It was used extensively as an answer for shortages immediately after the end of the Second War and in more recent times, as the real estate sector has shown every sign of overheating, there has been a strong resurgence in interest for prefabricated building principles.

This interest may be seen in the occasional use of transportable, factory made modules in the construction of new buildings but it might be argued that every one of the new towers we have literally seen thrown up across Melbourne in recent times has carried with it an element of the same processes. Like Big Ears’ mushroom house springing out of the ground overnight, these buildings are erected with slabs of concrete formed off site, trucked to chosen locations before being tilted vertically and then quickly bolted into position. It’s the same idea that Thompson used and is done to speed up the building process, but what does the practice really achieve? Figures from the 2016 census show that there are now more than one million homes standing empty in Australia, despite a shortfall in available housing that has pushed the cost of home ownership beyond the reach of many. It’s a way of squirreling away investment by a “propertocracy” safe in the knowledge that with current Australian negative gearing laws, bricks and mortar really are as safe as houses. Successive governments have responded to the situation not by changing negative gearing itself but by egging it on with unsustainable deficits and historically high rates of immigration. In the face of this the Federal Member of Parliament tasked with tackling Australia’s housing affordability problem said earlier this year that the “first step” towards owning a home is to get a “highly paid job”. Well there has never been a shortage in the unemployed to thank the minister for the advice but it really isn’t solving the problem.

The “Tiny House” movement which advocates simple living in small homes is a reaction to the situation, but finding land that hasn’t been subject to land banking or where Council regulations might allow you to park a Tiny House is not as easy as you might think. The consequence seems to be a proliferation in apartment tower living challenging the concept of Melbourne as the “world’s most livable city”. Look out across the skyline of this town and you would think from the sight of the cranes on the horizon that there would be housing enough for all. The reality is however that if you take a trip into parts of the City of Melbourne on any night of any given week, in spite of the cold evenings, homelessness for many is not so much a matter of choice.

Even in the suburbs it is a sometime social plight. Last Saturday I went for a walk along the Plenty River bicycle path at Greensborough near where Main Road crosses the Plenty River and close to where the Council’s shiny new tower stands alongside the ugly expanse of the Greensborough Plaza. Under the Main Road Bridge, like an echo from an old Chili Peppers’ song, a homeless camp had taken up refuge. It wasn’t the City of Angeles, but the rapid sound of water flowing quickly past in the bed of nearby Plenty River made it a nice place for camping, although aesthetically the combined effects of graffiti and pigeon poo left a little to be desired. Meanwhile on that same Saturday there were probably hundreds of house auctions being conducted across the north and north east with no limit seemingly applied to the upward spiral of the prices achieved.

In 1945 on the eve of a post war housing boom and a roll out of new Federal and State Government social housing programmes, the Commonwealth Housing Commission stated that:

A dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen. Whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.

Today, faced with the social implications of a great ponzi housing scheme at odds with that 1945 statement, it’s no wonder that the natives are getting restless. It’s time to take stock because when it comes down to it, have we really come such a long way from those First Fleet convicts who arrived here without a roof over their heads?

9 thoughts on “The oldest new idea”

    1. Hi, the Thompson mentioned in this post was Peter Thompson of Commercial Rd, Limehouse, England, an early manufacturer of pre-fabricated houses. There was an early Port Phillip settler by that name, William Campbell Thompson, a squatter and member of the Melbourne Club who was a friend of James Graham of Banyule Homestead, Heidelberg. Try contacting the Heidelberg Historical Society through their website or through the website of their Secretary, Janine Rizzetti, “The Resident Judge of Port Phillip”. If there is anything known about a William Thompson of Heidelberg, they are bound to have it on record.


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