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COLONIAL SLAB HUTS OF AUSTRALIA

 

by Justin Gare

 Introduction  Investigation of Other Timbers  Conclusion
 The First Fleet  Tools  References
 The First Biuldings  Construction Techniques  Useful Sources of Information
 "... the timber being so very bad"  Development and Variation  Further Reading

 


Introduction

The first Europeans who came to settle Australia found huge tracts of land blanketed in trees. It is therefore not surprising that the first houses were built out of timber. Slabs of timber were split from the logs of straight trees that were cut down to clear the land for pastures. The huts were of heavy and rustic construction, manifest with no artifice of pretension, and provided the barest comfort and protection from the elements. They are most often associated with the early colonies and areas of rural expansion.

The common circumstance that produced this most distinctive architectural form was the bare necessity caused by the isolation and lack of conventional building resources. Most often they were built by the intended occupant using a few essential tools. Their method of construction was adopted widely across Australia and was still employed up until the late 19th C.

Blacksmith's shop, Balhannah, South Australia.
Built in 1860 by Jack Warland


The First Fleet

England was addressing many agendas by the colonisation of Australia. None the least was "the pressing need for timber of British ship building in general and the Royal Navy in particular" (Cox & Freeland 1969, 9), of which represented the mainstay of both British power and commerce. Captain James Cook had reported that the trees were inferior to those familiar in England, being "... too hard and ponderous for most uses." (Beaglehole 1968), whereas the timber appeared to Joseph Banks as "... to be fit for all purposes of House Building and Ship Building.". (Cox & Freeland 1969). With not much more than these speculative observations the first fleet set out to start a new colony bringing with them virtually "no supplies of glass, paint, hardware, nails or lead" (Cox & Freeland 1969). They had apparently assumed that the new continent would provide the necessary materials for building.

The First Buildings

The prime task upon settling at Port Jackson was the construction of more permanent buildings, both for stores and for the habitation of the soldiers and convicts. There was also an urgent need for hospital accommodation. Several factors adversely affected the building of the first huts. Firstly the tradesmen being native to England were unfamiliar with the types of timber and their working properties. Secondly, winter was imminent thereby allowing little time for investigating the different timbers. Thirdly neither the soldiers nor convicts constituted a willing work force. The soldiers thinking that manual labour was beneath them and the convicts, who had already shown a preference for more dishonest pursuits, had an even greater aversion to hard work. Lastly the provision of tools was inadequate. They were in short supply and of inferior quality, the result being that they were "worn out by the hardness of the timber" (White 1962). All these factors compromised the first efforts to construct adequate shelter.

"...the timber being so very bad"

Upon the arrival of the first fleet in Australia the colonists were confronted with the enormous bulk and size of the strange hardwood trees. Some trees were twenty-three or more metres high with no lateral branches until fifteen metres. Their girth could measure in excess of eight metres in diameter. But upon felling these monstrous trees, they quickly became disillusioned, for the greater proportions of the trunks were hollow and decay ridden. Less than one in twelve trees afforded any useable timber (Cox & Freeland 1969).

Their attempts to utilise the wood also proved disheartening. Captain Arthur Phillip wrote in his first correspondence back to England "... it (the timber) has one very bad quality, which puts us to great inconvenience; I mean the large gum tree that splits and warps..."(H.R.N.S.W. 1978). It was also observed, by White, that when the gum bled out of the timber it became brittle and fell to pieces and "how any sort of house... can be raised up, the timber being so very bad, it is impossible to determine" (White 1962), "I do not know any one purpose for which it will answer except for firewood; and for that it is excellent; but in other respects it is the worst wood in any country or climate ever produced." (Ibid).

The one tree that was the cause of their consternation was, as it is now known, the Sydney red gum, Angophora costata. Cox and Freeland describe it as having the peculiarity that "almost without exception, they rot out at the heart before they are any useful size leaving a mere shell of living sound wood."(1969). As a final statement of confidence White continued, that no matter what way it is sawn or how well it is dried, that when it is placed in water "it sinks to the bottom like a stone."(ibid). Other members of the first fleet reinforce the sense of despondency by reiteration and adding, "despite their amazing size the trees were scarcely worth cutting down." Several years later, George Thompson sums up Australian timber as "of little use - not fit for building either houses or boats."(H.R.N.S.W. 1978).

The frustration they experienced with Australian hardwoods was exacerbated by the fact that their tools did not stand up to the unforgiving hardwood. Their axes, saws and chisels broke or became blunt with the unfamiliar tmber (Archer 1987).

 

London Bridge Homestead.
Built approx. 1870 by McNamara

Investigation of Other Timbers

The deficiencies of the timber and the structures were soon realised. The timber from the cabbage tree palm, Livistonia australis, was easily split and was consequently consumed in large quantities for building timber. However, it started to decay in the first season whilst the redgum began to split and warp almost as soon as it was cut. As a consequence, it was not long before other trees, further afield, were discovered to have very useful properties. The iron bark (Eucalyptus paniculata), stringy bark (Eucalyptus obliqua), box (Eucalyptus bosistoana)and the blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) became highly esteemed for their hardness, heaviness and durability. Their trunks were tall and straight and, particularly the stringy bark, split cleanly. These trees were the prime choice for the construction of slab huts. (Cox & Freeland 1969).

Sleeper cutters with tools of the trade.
Courtesy of Pioneer Crafts of Early Australia. The Macmillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd. Melbourne.

Tools

There were two methods of processing the trunks into timber, splitting or sawing. Sawn timber was very labour intensive. The log was first manoeuvred over the sawpit and chocked into place. A two metre long saw was then used to rip the timber. One man stood on top of the log dragging the saw upwards, whilst another was below in the pit alternately pulling the saw downwards. Most sawn timber that was used in slab hut construction was mainly used as posts and plates. Alternatively the timber was split using mauls and froes. The slabs were quite often left in this rough split state whereas the posts and other structural timber were most usually cleaned up using side axes or adzes. Grooves and mortises were bored out using augers and cleaned out with a hammer and chisel (Australian Heritage Commission 1986).

Construction Techniques

The first permanent buildings were constructed using posts and slabs. There were two basic types of construction utilising either the horizontal slab or the vertical slab as cladding.

The horizontal slab construction required a groove or channel to be cut along the length of the posts. The posts were then set in the ground, about three feet apart, according to the desired layout. The slabs of timber were then dropped into the slots. A top plate was then run across the top of the posts to tie the posts together and support the roof. The vertical slab method allowed for more variations of technique. The vertical slabs could be either propped straight into the ground or into a grooved bottom plate, then held by a groove in the top, or simply nailed to the top plate. (Cox & Freeland 1969), (Walker 1978).

Clay was often pugged in between the joins and splits of the cladding to impede draughts. The internal walls were sometimes plastered with clay and straw, hessian lined, white washed or simply left as split timber.

Roofs were pitched using saplings straight from the bush and clad with a variety of materials in the conventional manner. The gum rush or blackboy, Xanthorrhoea arborea, provided the early settlers with a source of durable thatch. Shingles were split from several trees, but the sheoak, Casuarina fraseriana, was preferred as it split cleanly and accurately (White 1962) and proved most durable. Another roofing material, peculiar to Australia, was adopted from the Aborigines, that being bark. The settlers had learnt that large sheets of bark could be cut and peeled of a variety of trees and used as sheets to clad the roof. Eventually the advent of corrugated iron replaced them all.

 

Settler's hut, Piccadilly Valley, South Australia.

Development and Variation

As the colonies grew and the boundaries of settlement expanded, some settlers became increasingly isolated as new tracts of land were opened up. In addition to the isolation, there was a lack of refined building materials and skilled labour (Cox & Lucas 1978). These constraints essentially dictated the necessity to rely on materials most readily available and, as the land was being cleared, timber was inevitably chosen. If the building was contracted to be built by someone other than the intended occupant, its construction was generally wholly completed by the one trade, usually a bush carpenter. "This reliance on one artisan to construct the whole building without recourse to separate trades is an important strand in the tradition of the Australian vernacular building."(Walker 1978). It is, therefore, not surprising that in many parts of the country, the same basic huts were constructed with a few variations.

With time and better tools, bush craft developed into a kind of trade itself. Across the developing rural landscape, bushman became skilled at selecting the best trees with straight grain and a solid trunk. The logistics of felling trees and moving the trunks to a more convenient location to process were refined as was the technique of squaring and splitting of the timber (Australian Heritage Commission 1986). As a result many farm buildings and homesteads stand as a testament to the pioneer's craft.

The late 1830s saw an influx of German settlers seeking refuge from religious persecution. They settled in the Barossa valley and Adelaide hills and likewise used timber to construct slab huts. Their carpenters and joiners bought with them their own regional skills resulting in a unique regional style, reminiscent of northern Europe. The early German built slab huts often had, as part of their original construction, corner post bracing as distinct from the sole reliance of the post set into the ground to provide lateral bracing. Other features that distinguish early German huts were a steeper roof of about 45 degrees, attic space utilised as dormer area and generallybetter workmanship and construction (Brasse 1999).

Conclusion

Australia's first architectural statement was a rude utilitarian slab hut, absent of facade, and as rough as without pretence as those who built them. The huts contrasted rather comically with the refined and elegant facades of Georgian England from whence they came.

In many ways the slab hut represents the beginning of a modern nation. It is distinctively Australian, born of our recalcitrant hardwoods. It embodies the "rough and ready" attitude, the determination to struggle or battle on and "to make do", characteristic of honest egalitarian ideals. However, as an adolescent nation seeking an identity, there is often temptation to romanticise our pioneering past. But history that becomes sentimentalised compromises our own view of who we are. Fortunately, the relics of our past retain the true and meaningful evidence of the formation of colonial Australia. And, although Australian society has since changed, some of the once ubiquitous slab huts still remain abandoned in their various states of disrepair, like mausoleums of a more stoic spirit.

Reference

Archer, J. 1987. Building a Nation; A History of the Australian House. Collins. Sydney. 6-16, 25 pp.

Australian Heritage Commission. Timber Craft: Restoration of Coolamine Homestead 1883. 1986. Video Recording.

Brasse, L. 1999. Heritage Architect. Personal communication.

Beaglehole, J. (Ed). 1968. Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol.1. University Press. Cambridge. 393 pp.

Cox, P. & Freeland, J. 1969. Rude Timber Buildings in Australia. Thames and Hudson. London. 9-27 pp.

Cox, P. & Lucas, C. 1978. Australian Colonial Architecture. Lansdowne Editions. Melbourne. 8 pp.

H.R.N.S.W. (Historical Records of New South Wales). [1893] (1978). Lansdown Slattery & Company. Sydney. Volume 1, 128 pp & voume 2, 799 pp..

Walker, M. 1978. Pioneer Crafts of Early Australia. The Macmillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd. Melbourne. 16 pp.

White, J. [1790] (1962). Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. Angus and Robertson. Sydney.119, 133, 145 pp.

 

Useful Sources of Information

David Young.
Heritage Consultant, University of Canberra.

Lothar Brasse.
Heritage Architect, Adelaide

 

Recommended reading

Australian Heritage Commission. Timber Craft: Restoration of Coolamine Homestead 1883. 1986. Video Recording.

Cox, P. & Freeland, J. 1969. Rude Timber Buildings in Australia. Thames and Hudson. London. (Definitive background of the use of timber in early Australian buildings)

Archer, J. 1987. Building a Nation; A History of the Australian House. Collins. Sydney.

Tucker, J. Ralph Rashleigh. (Anecdotal source from a convict writer, including a variety of first hand accounts of living conditions inside slab huts)

Walker, M. 1978. Pioneer Crafts of Early Australia. The Macmillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd. Melbourne.

 


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Copyright 1999 The Australian National University
Author: Mr Justin Gare
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Date Last Modified: 18 October 1999