If the kitchen is the heart of any home then I reckon the typical Australian homestead of the 19th Century was in need of some serious cardiac rehabilitation. Before the 1880s, the usual arrangement in an Australian farmstead was for the kitchen, together with the associated wash house and other domestic requirements, to stand separately away from the main building. Imagine creating your culinary masterpiece then needing to hike over open ground to eat it. Not exactly a practical arrangement and small wonder then that these houses generally featured a retinue of domestic staff hurrying from the kitchen at every hour of the day, from the crack of dawn until the dark of night.
It was a common enough setup in the early days and was found right up until the latter years of the Victorian era in any but the humblest of homes. Initially it was seen simply as a way of reducing fire risks but in practice it limited the heat from cooking fires entering into the living environment in the heat of the Australian summer and became a means of separating the kitchen realm from the normal social boundaries of home life.
The stand-alone kitchen might have been common but by 1850 it is estimated that half of all dwelling places in Australia were without even that since men living in rough huts in the bush tended to cook outdoors over open fires or in roughly constructed fireplaces. As noted previously, the Bakewell brothers’ home at Yallambee used open fire places, “the old English dog,” (W Howitt), however their prefabricated building must have been conceived with some sort of a separated kitchen in mind as evidenced by G A Gilbert’s early drawing of the property in which the little prefab house is clearly supported by the presence of other built structures. That much is apparent, but in the case of Thomas Wragge’s later homestead, the story is not so straightforward.
The common assumption has always been that Yallambie Homestead was built in 1872, the year the title was formally conveyed to Thomas by John Bakewell and the prelude to a significant jump in rate valuations on the property. At Yallambie today though, the kitchen forms a part of the main building, a fact seemingly at odds with a mid-Victoria build date. The answer may lie in the position of two kitchen fireplace chimneys which are attached to, yet are not a part of the north wall of the house, an indication maybe that the property underwent a secondary building phase even before Annie Murdoch’s 1923 renovation. A surviving letter sent from Tulla in 1898 and cited by Calder in Classing the Wool (p86), mentions structural work being done at Yallambie requiring removal of part of the slate roof of the house in that year and may be an indication of a secondary building date. Calder’s own interpretation of the dining arrangements at Yallambie, which was based on written sources, appears to describe the domestic setup after this change:
“A second wooden door (from the dining room) opened onto the verandah, and a third led to the kitchen via a small passage. Dinner was brought from the kitchen on a wheeled trolley and was kept warm in large silver servers.” Calder: p82, Classing the Wool
The only certainty is that the kitchen wing at Yallambie has undergone several significant alterations even into contemporary times. With this in mind, it might be interesting to discuss in general terms the typical kitchen of a 19th Century farm house since, in the absence of a clear record, this may give the only idea of what life was like on the domestic front at Yallambie in the early years.
The central focus in any 19th Century kitchen, big or small, was first and foremost the fireplace. By the 1870s cast iron stoves of many shapes and sizes were available in Australia, imported into the country from abroad and produced locally by Australian blacksmiths. In essence the stove was nothing more than an oblong iron box painted black and stuffed with burning wood but from it came the warmth, strength and appetizing smells that gave the kitchen its heart and soul. Geoffrey Blainey called it:
“…a workplace, a tiny factory. It was the nerve centre of the home and, at times, the scene of high theatre when everything went wrong.” Blainey, Black Kettle and Full Moon
And things could go wrong. Blainey called the domestic fire a fine servant but a harsh mistress, a situation Albert Facey might have been thinking of when writing his famous autobiography, “A Fortunate Life”, in which he described coming in from the paddocks one day to see smoke pouring from his house in Western Australia and watched it burn to the ground before his eyes.
The job of lighting the fire box was the first task of the day requiring patience as strips of bark, twigs and splinters of wood were coaxed into flame in the cold, pre-dawn darkness with flint and steel or, for the better provided household, a Lucifer match. A weekly supply of chopped firewood was needed to feed the stove and in those homes without domestic help the sight of a housewife with axe in hand at the back of a kitchen was said to be a sure sign of the presence of a wastrel husband inside.
The kitchen stove when working, and in most homes it was working every day of the year, gave off an intense heat although in all but the earliest models, there was no indication from the outside of the fires raging within. The handles of the ovens could become dangerously hot and children might be burned if they innocently reached out to touch but generally this only ever happened once. Such lessons were quickly learned but seldom forgotten.
An all-purpose apparatus the kitchen range was used for roasting, frying, steaming and boiling food and for making jams, candles, sauces and soaps. Typically a large iron kettle, blackened by flames, would be left on the flat top of the stove where it remained close to boiling, providing water for tea, washing dishes and numerous other household tasks. I remember my father describing the kitchen of an elderly relative in Ballarat between the wars, a maiden aunt who lived with her widowed sister. She bought tea by the seven pound Griffiths tin and kept a kettle left continuously close to the boil on the fire. When one day my father remarked on the rattling noise the kettle made Aunt looked up over the rim of the teacup that seemed never out of her hand and said with her gentle Scots brogue, “Never you mind that young Tom, that’s the alley.” No, Aunt didn’t boil cats in her pot. The alley was a marble made from pressed glass which commonly filled the end of the old lemonade bottles of that era. Small children would collect them to play at ‘marbles’ but old Aunt kept one in her kettle to rattle around in the boiling water to remove the lime scale. “Young Tom” of course wasn’t satisfied and insisted on seeing the kettle drained where the marble was found misshapen and indeed, half boiled away by the years of constant rattling.
Most farming properties baked their own bread in the 19th Century and there is anecdotal evidence that at Yallambie the kitchen once featured a “Scotch” or masonry style oven used for baking. Something similar is documented at the up country Wragge property Tulla, but most bread at Yallambie by the advent of the 20th century must have been baked more simply in a kitchen stove.
The Bush family installed a huge enamelled Standard E – AGA cooker at Yallambie after the Second War, in its day the most modern of kitchen appliances and a vast improvement on the earlier styles of kitchen range. The classic AGA stove was invented by a Swedish physicist in 1922 and was a technological wonder when introduced using heat from slow burning fuels to power its multiple ovens and cook tops but sadly, the Yallambie Standard E had already been removed when we got here, so a less elaborate if antique, Geelong made, IXL cast iron stove has been introduced in its stead. Sourced from the “Tell him he’s dreamin'” Trading Post when it was still a printed newspaper, the IXL had supposedly been removed from the Melbourne Grammar School.
Beyond the kitchen range, a big, roughly made deal table was a feature of the typical farm kitchen with a sideboard, wall clock, the inevitable chipped Staffordshires and perhaps a rocking chair completing the scene. Meat might be stored in a perforated zinc metal box or that unique Australian invention, a Coolgardie safe which was simply a wooden frame covered in hessian over which water could be continuously dripped to keep the contents cool. At Yallambie four massive iron hooks were also strategically arranged on the ceiling from which a beam was suspended and cuts of meat were hung until required for use.
“The wood-fire stove in the kitchen was always hot. Cured pigs, sausages, dried fruit and vegetables hung from a central beam beneath the ceiling.” Calder: Classing the Wool
All this required a domestic staff. Ethel Temby believed there had been up to 14 staff at one time but I’m guessing that was for the whole farm and that only a few of these would have been used as house servants. At Yallambie an electric servants’ bell was positioned on the wall outside the pantry to call attention to the needs of the family but if that bell was to ring now, I guess we’d be waiting a while for someone to come along in answer.
The Heidelberg Gasworks in Banksia St was producing coal gas from 1887 but at Yallambie lighting was limited to kerosene lamp and candle right up until the Second War.
The subdued lighting that resulted must have made reading kitchen books like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management difficult but would have been a decided help when deciding against the need to sweep the floors again.
Slate and sandstone were favoured floor surfaces in kitchens although sometimes pine boards or linoleum covered pine boards were used. In some houses though, even grand boom time houses like Ravenswood in East Ivanhoe, the only floor in the kitchen area remained the bare earth. A properly formed earthen floor was a surprisingly durable surface and consisted of a special mix of ingredients that might include lime, sand, anvil dust, ox blood, furnace ash, ochre, oil or even stale milk. The resulting floor was deemed good enough for the paid help.
At Yallambie the kitchen floor was pine boards covered in later days with linoleum but this floor was completely rotted away by the end of the 20th Century and has been replaced by slate sourced from Mintaro in South Australia. Curiously, a blue stone step under a door at the back of the house once featured a deep depression which at first glance I mistook as evidence of a hundred years plus of hob nailed boots wearing a path across the threshold but which I now realize represented a hundred years of domestic staff having an axe to grind, literally. That’s where the cook got down on her knees and sharpened her carving knife.
Most houses planned today require a purpose built, state of the art kitchen constructed along clean lines and sporting shining surfaces and polished stainless steel at every turn. That sort of thing certainly has its uses in a sensible household but for mine, the quixotic impracticalities of an old kitchen still has a subtle charm, the primitive contours and earthy textures lending an attraction to the house beyond the synthetic materials so much in use today. Earthen ware plates stacked overhead on a dowelled plate rack, canisters lined up in a row on a sideboard, copper saucepans hanging from a hook, iron pots balanced on a tall stand, the smell of wood smoke and burnt toast on a damp morning – all these things lend a degree of ornamentation and rustic domesticity usually absent from the clinical world of a modern kitchen.
On a cold Melbourne afternoon in July there’s nothing like freshly baked scones from the oven. With another Stage 3 lock down looming, a couple of friends dropped by on Saturday and “Devonshire Tea” was the order of the day. I’m guessing thousands of scones must have been baked over the last 150 year in this kitchen, in solid fuel burning stoves and our modern gas/electric, but the recipe I used is the simplest thing and comes from 92 year old CWA member Muriel Halsted. Her lemonade scones became a viral sensation in April and can be prepared in minutes while your attention is elsewhere. On Saturday I halved the mixture, baking half plain and the other half with chopped prunes and tried lemon mineral water in place of lemonade. With lashings of jam and cream and freshly brewed tea these scones simply slide down like oysters as the conversation inevitably turns in another direction and that age old question.
Are they scones?
Or are they scones?
- Set the oven at 220°
- Measure five cups of self-raising flour and sift
- Add a couple of pinches of salt
- Fold in 300ml of cold cream
- Add 300ml of lemon mineral water
- Fold the mixture together until the flour is all mixed in and the texture is consistent
- Add some chopped prunes or other dried fruit if preferred
- Spread out onto a floured board and cut into rounds with an upended, thin edged drinking glass and brush with milk
- Bake for 10 minutes or so or until golden brown, turning the tray once during cooking
- Serve with butter, cream, jam and freshly brewed tea