The Old Bark Hut.
The first boat people to arrive in Australia landed at Botany Bay in January 1788. There were almost a thousand of them and 32 had died on the voyage.
There was a prefabricated canvas house for Governor Phillip and tents to house the rest. Soon there would also have been improvised shelters made from what was called 'wattle and daub' construction with thatch for roofing. These construction techniques were common in most parts of rural England and would have come with the new arrivals and been employed on the earliest shelters. They found that theacacia tree was most suitable for the woven mat of thin branches called wattles that were plastered with mud to form walls that were white-washed when dry. So much so that acacias are still known in Australia as wattle trees and have become part of our national identity. Early steps were also taken to find suitable clay and make bricks for the more permanent buildings to come but that's another story.
Unfortunately there were no housing lessons to be learnt from the indigenous inhabitants living around Port Jackson of how to cope in this strange land and climate. They had no permanent dwellings and in inclement weather sheltered in natural open sand stone caves or under sheets of bark.
Our first boat people had come relatively unprepared to house themselves. It had been confidently assumed in London that the necessary materials could be obtained locally because of Captain Cook's glowing advice that there were large numbers of big trees that would be readily available as a building material. Clearly Cook hadn't cut down a large eucalypt and was unaware of the density of Australian hardwood and how difficult it is to work.
And by chance the new arrivals had also landed in an area of Sydney red gum (Angophera costata), an attractive tree of great character but probably the most useless gum tree in Australia. They found that the timber split and warped, it blunted their axes and saws and only ten percent of the trees were usable because of flaws and shakes. In the short term the new immigrants found alternatives with cabbage tree palms and Casuarina or she-oak that were easier to use. Alas they found that the cabbage tree rotted easily and the casuarinas were restricted in size.
In time trees like stringybark, kurrajong and ironbark were found to be ideal for building, along with red cedar, an excellent timber for joinery and furniture. The settlers soon learnt from the indigenous people how to remove the strong and waterproof bark of the stringybark trees in large pieces and how to soften them over a slow fire, which allowed the bark to be flattened into sheets for roofing.
Opportunistic bark shelters like that above were often built. This one was clustered around a large tree, which isn't considered desirable considering the way gum trees shed branches suddenly.
The more common type of regular dwellings were very basic timber framed huts clad in bark like the one below. This typical hut was accurately reconstructed in the 1960's at Advancetown on the Gold Coast.
But isn't all that out of time as one might imagine as drawings show that huts like this one were still common in rural areas until the early 20th century. This hut has a wooden floor but many huts simply had a beaten dirt floor sometimes surfaced with impervious clay The fireplace has been positioned outside the bulk of the hut and lined internally with corrugated iron to reduce the risk of fire.
A Building Act (based on the City of London Building Act) was adopted in Sydney in 1832 and this did away with timber buildings in towns for fire reasons.
Corrugated iron was first developed in the 1820's in London and galvanizing the sheets was patented in 1837. In time it became common to fix corrugated iron sheeting directly over the original bark or wooden shingle roofing when it had deteriorated and stopped keeping out the rain.
Still called gal iron by most people, its more accurate technical name is galvanized corrugated mild steel sheeting. It became a common building material in other colonies such as India and South Africa but is so associated with Australia that it's regarded our quintessential building material. Its rigidity (because of the corrugations), light-ness for ease of transportation, ease of fixing with little waste, and its long lasting qualities and imperviousness to rain made it almost universal for roofing in town and country. Eventually it was soon manufactured here and a modern version known as Colorbond, with a factory applied paint finish to improve its durability, is still widely used.
The photograph above of a house at Wollombi in the Hunter Valley NSW is a robust version of the more primitive hut at Advancetown. Larger and with vertical timber slab walls, it's the Australian version of the American log cabin. The roof spans were not big as nailed roof trusses had not yet been developed, and it was therefore quite common to join two room spans with a box gutter between. What makes most people think of this house as distinctively Australian is its hipped roof and the gal iron roofing. Once the shine of the galvanising weathers, it becomes a beautiful soft grey that complements the grey-green of our landscape and tugs at my Henry Lawson vision of an older Australia, an Australia that was coming to an end when I was a boy.
Don Gazzard LFAIA
Building a Nation: A history of the Australian house.
John Archer (Collins 1987)
Rude Timber Buildings in
Freeland/Cox/Stacey (Thames and Hudson 1969)
Timber and Iron; Peter Bell (University of Queensland Press 1984)