Our house: histories of Australian homes
29 - A modest miner's cottage
9 Reef Street, Maldon, Victoria
The Maldon cottage in 1997.
Our house is a modest miner's cottage. There are scores like it in Maldon and thousands more scattered through the Victorian goldfields. It was a favoured design for living in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. Miners needed accommodation which was cheap to build, easily and quickly constructed without specialist skills, warm and secure and preferably portable, for the miner often led a mobile existence. The canvas tent was the first response to this design brief, but it was neither warm in a Victorian winter nor secure. Cladding its walls with weatherboards and its roof with shingles overcame these disadvantages.
The simple one or two roomed, tent shaped, oblong cottage, 3 metres by 7, could easily be expanded by the addition of another unit placed alongside. External brick chimneys would be constructed at each gable end. In this way the distinctive zig zag roofline of the miner's cottage was created with its one major design flaw, the valley gutters between each component. This gutter has a distressing tendency to get blocked during storms, depositing water into the rooms below.
We bought our rundown cottage in 1996 and have since been exploring its history and making it more comfortable. The removal of rotting weatherboards from its side walls revealed that it consisted of three originally separate units which had subsequently been placed parallel to each other to make a larger residence. There is a 30 centimetre gap between each of the units along which one can dimly see the old, unpainted weatherboards and cavities which were once windows.
We have not been able to establish precisely the age of the cottage, or its component parts. According to Council Ratebooks it was on this site and had probably reached its present size by 1869. Family legend has it that one member of the family was born and died in the house. She was born in 1862.
The central unit has a few shreds of canvas attached to the outside of its frame, indicating that it had probably been a wood-framed tent to begin with and was subsequently clad with weatherboards. It also has what looks to have been a front door step originally and which is now a battered, much-trodden step in the hallway. This was probably the original hut on the site with the others being brought by wagon and bullock team from elsewhere and manoeuvred into position during the 1860s.
The double lines indicate the original outside walls of what were once three separate units.
The structure is a marvel of lightness and simplicity. Its frame of local hardwood is like the framing of a contemporary brick veneer house except that the frames are morticed into the top and bottom plates. The original weatherboarding, some of which survives, was also of local hardwood, steam sawn into thin parallel-sided planks, each nailed onto the frame to overlap the plank below. Some floorboards are of baltic pine, others of local hardwood. Beneath them there are joists, bearers and stumps in some places but elsewhere only joists laid straight onto the ground.
The roof of modest pitch and small spans was clad with hardwood shingles split to 10 mm or less by skilled timber splitters. These were still in place beneath the corrugated iron roof when we bought the house. The two chimneys are of hand-made bricks and lime mortar. The windows with their slender glazing bars and bubble-flawed and uneven panes of glass had been bought ready-made in the 1860s. They open by sliding up into the wall cavity above them.
The rooms were lined with hessian or canvas, scraps of which are still attached to the frame beneath the masonite cladding, together with layers of wallpaper. All this could have been put together in a fortnight by two men able to use a hammer and a saw and lay a few bricks. They would not have needed to wrestle with the complexities of plumbing and electric wiring.
The first occupant of the cottage on its present site was Thomas Smith. He may also have built some of it. He was a miner who worked down the Beehive Mine which was literally on the opposite side of the road. Thomas was born in Melbourn, near Cambridge, and migrated with his brother as a 16 year old in 1848. The search for gold brought him to Maldon in 1855. Here he married Rebecca who was also English and had been a domestic servant in Melbourne. They had 10 children in the cottage, which must have seemed cramped. Seven of them had grown to adulthood when Thomas died in 1898.
Rebecca lived in the cottage by herself for another quarter of a century. One of her daughters, Mary Anne, moved in when her miner husband died in 1921. Two years later Rebecca died aged 89 and was buried in the Maldon cemetery. There is a curious symmetry about the relationship between the house and the women of the family for Mary Anne lived alone for almost three decades before her daughter Edith moved in just before she died in 1952, also at the age of 89.
Edith stayed there for a similar period until she died in 1979. During her occupation the house was brought into the twentieth century with the construction of a garage, a toilet connected to a septic tank, a wood-fired hot water system, and a bathroom, created by partitioning off part of the kitchen. Around 1960 the wallpaper-clad hessian was replaced by masonite cladding on walls and ceilings.
The link with the Smith family was finally broken in 1979 - improperly, according to a family member, who introduced herself to us on one of her pilgrimages to the cottage where she had spent many happy childhood holidays. The house changed hands twice in rapid succession before being bought by John Bowe. Retired and widowed, John remained for a decade but eventually moved to the Retirement Village. We bought the house as a weekender with peace in mind. We were unaware that after its first hectic decades crammed with children the house had functioned as a quiet corner for old folk to retire to.
Much needed doing. The roof leaked and had to be replaced. Some floors had rotted away and are also being replaced. Weatherboards were replaced or reconditioned and insulation inserted into walls and ceiling. Winter revealed that the heating was inadequate for people accustomed to modern conveniences. We installed two wood- fired slow combustion heaters. Once we improved our fire lighting ability these transformed the living environment.
The outline of the old garden remains intact, with formal footpaths in front and an orchard to the side. We wish to emphasise and build upon this framework. The fruit trees, vines and ornamental trees planted by John Bowe thrive and in spring bulbs of unknown vintage shoot up to surprise us. More work is required to stabilise and preserve the house and the garden for another half century, but we find it a pleasing and rewarding way to use our time.
Cuffley, Peter, Traditional gardens in Australia, Five Mile Press, Balwyn, 1991.
Cuffley, Peter, Cottage style in Australia, Five Mile Press, Noble Park, 1996.
Lewis, Miles, and GH Morton, The essential Maldon, Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, 1983.
Tony Dingle teaches economic history at Monash University and has researched extensively in Australian and British economic and social history and urban history. His five books include: Settling, Vol 2 of the three volume 150th anniversary history of Victoria, 1984; Vital connections: Melbourne and its Board of Works, 1891-1991, 1991 (with Carolyn Rasmussen); as well as The cream brick frontier: histories of Australian suburbia, 1995 (with Graeme Davison and Seamus O'Hanlon).
He is presently involved in the Encyclopedia of Melbourne Project as an associate editor. His current projects include studies of house and home in postwar suburbia, owner building in Australia, the growth of consumerism and a history of the relationship between Melbourne and the River Yarra.