…and in between are the doors

You’ll find it lurking unregarded at the bottom of any tool box.

Sharp to the touch, pointy at one end and marked by a cruciform top at the other.

The Phillips headed screw was an innovation when it was first marketed by its namesake, the American businessman Henry F Phillips more than 80 years ago. Its self-centring cruciform face was designed to align a driver with a screw aperture in ways that a traditional slot headed screw did not and it soon became a commonplace in any home handyman’s kit. Along the way though, the ubiquitous screw also became the source of one of the smallest but most often repeated mistakes seen in period style. Call me a fanatic in such things if you like, but while this old house might join only where it touches, you will never see a modern Phillips headed packing screw holding it together when an old fashioned, slot headed wood screw will do.

“…when an old fashioned, slot headed wood screw will do”. Amber, cut crystal door pulls on a shop in Yass, (McLachlan)

This obsession with detail, for that is what it is, translates into all sorts of other ways and this is never more so than in my ongoing fascination with old door furniture. It’s usually the first thing I look at when entering an old house or Victorian era shop for the first time. I’ve been collecting the stuff from second hand yards for years and I sometimes joke that one day I’ll start my own museum of door handles. Then I realize that I’m probably living in one.

Doors are as old as the history of civilization itself and for as long as there have been doors we have needed to find ways to get in and get out of them. Originally doors were made with primitive locking devices such as wooden or iron sliding bolts or a latch string – a small strap of leather threaded through a hole in a door and used to raise and lower a bar inside. Door handles as we know them today arrived surprisingly late on the scene but when they did the idea soon caught on. Handles were produced in spun brass, cast iron, pressed tin or copper, cut crystal, pressed glass, china and wood and came in a seemingly endless variety of shapes, sizes and designs.

H & T Vaughan “draw back” style rim lock and ceramic wood grained door pull on the kitchen door at Yallambie.

The typical Victorian era door generally contained four flush finished or mould trimmed panels, the shorter pair of panels located lower on the door, the longer above. In later Edwardian doors, this configuration was reversed. Most door furniture used in Australia in the Colonial period was supplied in sets and imported, but as the Century progressed, a few Australian manufacturers started to get in on the act. In 1892, W C Faulk and Sons of Sydney marketed a range of door plates which included “a series on which are painted specimens of Australian flora, such as the waratah, the flannel-flower etc beautifully executed for the firm by Messrs Lyon, Wells and Cottier”, a Sydney firm known as “art decorators and glass-stainers”.

Page from an 1897 trade catalogue by the English firm, Bullers Ltd. (Source: Ian Evans)

It is unclear what style of door furniture was used at Yallambie in the early 1870s but Calder suggests a possibility that some was sourced from the Royal Derby China Factory in England. A photograph of Annie Wragge from the 1890s in the Bush collection shows her painting a door with china finger plates, handles and key escutcheons but little of this would survive at Yallambie after alterations made to the house in the 1920s. New bronzed steel door furniture was introduced and the positions of the handles moved higher on the door stiles in a style more typical of the Edwardian era.

A young Annie Wragge decorating a door at Yallambie. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

China finger plate and door handle.

Ethel Temby believed that a dodgy caretaker from the time the property stood vacant after the AV Jennings sale later sold remaining china door plates at the Plenty Bridge Hotel for pin money. If true, it’s an example of how the story of a property in a physical sense can vanish over time. It is the detective task of the restoration renovator to try to make sense of that story.

A glass maker I knew was once commissioned to recreate some of the missing historic glass features of Parks Victoria’s Werribee Park Mansion. The property built in the 1870s is well known for its remarkable collection of 19th Century architectural etched glass and the windows above the main entrance and across the stairs are particular delights. I remember remarking about some of the sand blasted glass I had seen on reinstated windows at that building and asking him if he had been responsible. His professional pride was offended at the suggestion that I would think him guilty of using sand blasting techniques where by rights only traditional, acid etching should ever have been considered. In actual fact he was given the task of reproducing the light shades used in the grand hallways at Werribee Park Mansion where legend had it the original shades had been broken by priests playing football up and down the halls during the long period when the property was used as a Catholic Seminary. I guess the Americans would call this the “Hail Mary Pass”.

“…the story of a property in a physical sense can vanish over time.” Damaged finger plate photographed at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003. (McLachlan)
One of a pair of doors photographed at Werribee Park in 2001. (McLachlan)

If you have ever visited grand historic properties of the 1870s like the Mansion or the National Trust’s Barwon Park at Winchelsea, or indeed more humble homes like Reedy Creek Homestead, you may have seen rooms where surviving examples of cut glass or “crystal door” furniture can be found. A pair of these handles in the Victorian era would have cost upwards of 20 shillings, five times the price of a standard set, and a property like Barwon Park, there are many, many doors.

Cut crystal, amber glass door set at Barwon Park, Winchelsea. (McLachlan)

The definition of Crystal when applied to glassmaking is something of a misunderstood word. Glass is a generic term while crystal is a subcategory of glass which is made by adding lead oxide during production. Therefore, all crystal is glass but conversely not all glass is crystal. The best way to tell clear crystal is to hold it up to sunlight and if it reflects a prism, then it is crystal. In 19th Century door furniture, the crystal was subsequently cut by hand on a wheel to create a variety of facets and silver leaf added to the back of the glass in order to add extra brilliance. With amber glass, the crystal is made in much the same way but with sulphur and iron oxide added in the glass making process and gold leaf substituted for silver.

Glass door furniture and lead light.
One of Annie’s painted doors carrying amber glass door furniture.
A bedroom door at Yallambie.

The intrinsic beauty of these items and the skill exhibited by the 19th Century Bohemian glass makers who created them I find astonishing in objects so apparently utilitarian in nature. Why anybody should therefore ever see the need to remove these works of art from a house I don’t know, but many have. Over the years we have managed to pick up a little of this style of door furniture from demolition yards and junk shops, both clear crystal and amber glass. One set of amber glass finger plates we were reliably informed came from Billilla in Brighton, the 1870s home of Winty Calder’s paternal great grandfather, (Thomas Wragge was a maternal).

Long crystal finger plate on the back door at Yallambie.

Another set, a rare, long, clear glass style of plates now found in our hallway came from a seller in the “tell him he’s dreaming” days of the old Trading Post newspaper. He had managed to collect a lot of this sort of stuff at the height of the spate of demolition work that destroyed Melbourne as a Victorian era metropolis in the 1950s and 60s when such things went unregarded. When we met him he had become “Born Again” and told us he was getting rid of the worldly things of another lifetime. He felt sure the world would be at an end sometime soon and material things were therefore of little importance.

That was 20 years ago and more and we are still here but I must say, put like that, he probably had a point. I have another thing, an old fashioned French style rim lock the story of which continues on with this thought. It was bought in Melbourne from a Lebanese emigre who told me that the lock was all that was left of his house in Beirut when it was flattened during the civil war. It just goes to show how stories can be locked up in material objects but, all the same, I bet you never knew old door furniture could put your life into some sort of perspective.

James Carpenter No. 60 rim lock on a shed door at Yallambie.

A rim lock is a sort of steel box that sits on the surface of a door at the edge, the so called rim as opposed to the mortice lock that sits inside the door stile. Nowadays, most door locks are mortice locks that are designed to sit within the door. Throughout the 19th Century the appearance of rim locks changed only marginally. The architectural historian, Ian Evans wrote of rim locks that, “like Henry Ford’s first cars, they were available in any colour, so long as it was black”. English manufacturers like James Carpenter and H &T Vaughan must have shipped tons of these locks to Australia in the days of sail and their locks with keepers where the chute lifts rather than withdraws can be found in situ in many old houses today, usually though with a backup contemporary lock added for security.

Privacy lock on the new bathroom.

Installing an interior rim lock was probably the last thing I did in the bathroom project I recently finished and which I wrote about in March. This lock was a specially sourced, Victorian original bathroom lock, complete with privacy latch which on a room with a clear glass lead light door might seem pointless exercise but for me was a detail as necessary as choosing slot headed screws over Phillips to attach it. Finding the lock was one thing. Finding a keeper to match it was another. It is frustrating fact that when an old lock gets removed during the demolition of an old house, so often it is the innocuous lock keeper that gets left behind.

The pandemic and the risks of touching shared surfaces has given pause for thought for these architectural necessities which go so often unregarded at our finger tips, but as that long dead and dearly departed, counter culture poet Jim Morrison once said “there are things known and things unknown, and in between are the doors.” Jim was thinking of a certain notorious rock and roll band, but we all know what happens when a child turns a door handle to enter a secret garden or pushes beyond the overcoats inside the depths of a wardrobe. Opening a door into another place can reveal strange things, or it can reveal nothing more than old coats. For mine, what we use to get through those doors can say a lot about what we expect to find inside.

Knock if you want to see Harry Potter. A cupboard under the stairs at Yallambie.

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