Mud, mud, glorious mud

At first glance, leafy Eltham with its artist colonies in Melbourne’s north east, far flung and fabled, Timbuktu in Saharan West Africa and Yallambie might not appear to have much in common, but look further. Surprisingly there is one thing seemingly attached to all three, and it’s not the peculiar place that each occupies in our collective imagination.

Mud Brick.

The Great Mosque of Djenné near Timbuktu. (Picture: Joe Benke)

It’s a building construction method that has been used by humans ever since we first realized there was an alternative to sharing our homes with the angry cave bear. At Timbuktu, Mudbrick building has been practiced since Iron Age times where sun-baked earth bricks are called “Ferey”. In other places, Mudbrick is known by a variety of provincial names (Adobe, Banco, Earth Structure, and Clay Lump) and is practiced in a variety of related technical forms (Rammed Earth, Cob, Pisé de terre and Sod).

The Taos Pueblo Native American adobe complex in New Mexico. (Photographed by the writer)
Mudbrick building in Eltham, 1947 with Alastair Knox pictured centre. (Source: alistairknox.org)

In Eltham, Mudbrick building was a construction practice that was adopted widely after 1947 in what was then a still largely rural community. This was partly as a result of post war building shortages, but also in response to a building programme that had been going on at the artist community at Montsalvat since 1934 and a general desire to return to a more primitive building aesthetic. As a material it had indefinable human and emotional qualities and a succession of local builders, starting first with the self-taught Mudbrick pioneer Alistair Knox, quickly made it their own.

Today it is estimated that there are over 1300 mud brick homes in the Shire of Nillumbik alone. Every year our son’s soon to be alma mater, runs a tour of a small selection of some of these houses as a fund raising event to support the very excellent Eltham HS music programme, continuing a tradition that dates back more than 50 years. The 2018 tour takes place this coming Sunday but the ticketed event is already a sell-out, which perhaps proves the enduring community interest in Mudbrick and by extension, the Sustainable House Movement.

Bakewell era stables corner of Tarcoola Drive and Lambruk Court, removed to make way for the Temby Mudbricks. (Source: John Botwood Collection)

In Yallambie, Mudbrick homes on the A V Jennings estate are in reality a rarity, but there are two Mudbricks located in Tarcoola Drive of comment. These houses were built at the start of the 1980s on land that was formerly occupied by the Bakewell era “Yallambee” stables. They were built by the sons of Ethel Temby after their mother had ended her 20 year association with the Wragge era Homestead. Although the Bakewell stables were sadly sacrificed to make way for these buildings, the two homes did incorporate a few selected materials salvaged from the original structure and are in a way a continuation of that spirit of place.

Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
At Bear’s Castle in 1997.

Earth building in the Plenty Valley is a story that can be traced back to the earliest days of settlement. The building of Bear’s Castle at Yan Yean used Cob, a sort of trimmed earth construction method not dissimilar to Mudbrick, and is a rare pre goldrush example of that style of earth building. It is unique in Victoria today and was built in about 1847 although at that time it appears there were other buildings of a similar type in the area. As noted by the architectural historian Miles Lewis in his book “Victorian Primitive”, a Victorian Government Prize essay of 1859 stated that at Yan Yean could be found at that time, “common pise houses about twelve years old, and the conspicuous pise tower known as Bear’s Castle.”

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria, Accession Number 645E-5)

It is unknown whether the Bakewells used earth construction methods in any of their buildings at Yallambee. E L Bateman’s View V of The Station Plenty series seems to hint at bark roofing and vertical slab style construction methods used in the station outbuildings with just a tantalizing hint of a “Three Little Pigs” thatched roof on the horizon, so that is not to say that other styles of primitive building were not followed in the landscape beyond the picture. Lewis states in the opening of the introduction to his book that:

“A colony is a sort of cultural laboratory. Customs and crafts which have developed in their homeland over hundreds of years are translated abruptly into totally new conditions.”
(Lewis: Victorian Primitive, Greenhouse Publications, 1977)

He goes on to on to say that slab construction in Victoria was “related to traditional English precedents” but that bark roofing was “an unequivocally local response to the presence of suitable barking trees” at Port Phillip while in regard to earth building, “in Australia mud brick quickly became acclimatised.”

In its simplest form then, all primitive building techniques make use of local resources and require only the labour of preparing and erecting the building material, whether that be mud brick, split timber or otherwise, a consideration that must have been of considerable appeal to the early settlers of the Port Phillip District.

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (Source: City of Melbourne Collection )

The very first European building in what was to eventually become the Colony of Victoria was a blockhouse built on Churchill Island in Westernport Bay by Lieutenant James Grant during a visit in 1801 which used an early form of common horizontal slab construction. Thirty years on, the very first shelters built by the party left behind by John Batman at Indented Head after his initial contact with the Kulin Nation were of Sod.

Sod or “Turve” construction was a popular method of housing in the “Bearbrass” settlement of 1830s Melbourne. The first two buildings in Melbourne were a hut and a storehouse of this style and in 1836 the “Sydney Gazette” reported that two of Melbourne’s three public houses were formed of turf sods. Early writers make numerous references to the resulting ramshackle appearance this material gave to the new town.

“…Melbourne which at present consists entirely of turf and weather-boarded huts, a very primitive looking place.”
(James Willis, Plenty River squatter, Diary, 2 May, 1837)

Sod buildings were constructed by cutting patches of turf into rectangles with a hatchet or plough and then piling the material up into walls. The resulting structures, although easy to create, required continual maintenance and were therefore not surprisingly easily vulnerable to rain damage.

Mudbrick or “Clay Lump” was the alternative and became more popular in Victoria as the century progressed. In Mudbrick building, bricks are made by mixing earth with water to make the mud, adding straw or other fibres as a binding agent, then placing the mixture into moulds and allowing the resulting blocks to dry in the sun. It all sounds terribly easy, which is probably the reason for the enduring popularity of the process.

Although questioning his sources, Miles Lewis quotes from a description of this method of construction as applied locally during the first years of settlement at Melbourne:

“It will not always occur that the young beginner will have either the time or the money at his disposal for burning bricks – if he has, he is well off. Sun-dried bricks, if mixed with chopped straw, and carefully made, are an excellent substitute for the burned brick, and as they may be made very large, say, nine inches wide and eighteen-and-a-half inches long, they are very quickly laid. In Victoria there is, in general, a scarcity of lime; it can always be had in Melbourne though but seldom in the country a mortar made of sandy clay or loam must, therefore, be substituted for it.”

At Yallambee the Bakewells had the cash resources to pick and choose from available building resources. Their prefabs were neat weather boarded buildings but these structures also incorporated soft fired bricks in various ways. The bricks used by the Bakewells were reportedly slop sided, narrow profile handmade bricks that had been brought out as ballast on the early clipper ships to Port Phillip. By contrast, when Thomas Wragge came to build the present homestead around 1872, the bricks used for that stucco style Italianate construction were fired on site from locally sourced clay.

Thomas Wragge’s stucco style Italianate Yallambie Homestead was constructed with hand made bricks fired on the property. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)

It took until the second half of the 20th century before the Temby boys made their attempts to return Yallambie to a more archaic style of building. The resulting houses they built today stand as a curiosity among the A V Jennings brick veneers of the Yallambie estate.

The stone built, oold Bakewell era stables, c1900, (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

The Age reported this week that one result of the continuing property boom is that the quarries that have supplied the clay and shale used in creating Melbourne’s distinctive red bricks, are fast being exhausted. Clay and clay shale demand in Victoria is expected to grow by 33 per cent to 1.6 million tonnes in 2050. The construction house market is not only depleting clay and clay shale supplies, but also the amount of land from which it can be extracted. Mudbrick houses as a building type however are  by definition, naturally sustainable. They make use of the earth from the ground on which they stand and incorporate low energy, natural materials with a preference for recycled timbers and natural stones. The Temby houses in Tarcoola Drive are no exception and use assorted stone sourced from the Bakewell stables with joinery and additional slop sided burnt bricks derived from the same source. These Yallambie houses were designed to sit into the natural contours of the land at the top of the Plenty River escarpment and are surrounded by the native gardens that were planted by Ethel during her tenure at the Homestead. Both Mudbricks passed from Temby ownership two decades ago but the larger of the two is now up for sale with an auction scheduled later this month, a consolation for those bound to miss this weekend’s 2018 Eltham Mudbrick Tour.

Mudbrick house at entrance to Yallambie Park, a long way from Glenauburn, October, 2018.
The renowned psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares whose house, Aldermaston Manor, is a Yallambie landmark.

In the best Ainslee Meares’ tradition, a well-respected psychiatrist whose Buddhist beliefs are much evident in the garden, lived at this house until recently. I’d have to agree with the spiel on the agent’s website which uses phrases including, “rustic charm”, “country style” and “warm earthy feel” but the same listing also manages to confuse the location of the property as being next to Glenauburn Park in Lower Plenty instead of Yallambie Park, in Yallambie, so make of that what you will. Perhaps they were confused by finding a Mudbrick house up for sale in Yallambie at all and thought it better to place it on the road to Eltham. It says something when even the real estate agents can’t separate Yallambie from Timbuktu.