Our house: histories of Australian homes

John M Petersen
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

31 - Horatio Jones' house

Tecoma, Dandenong Ranges, Victoria

Horatio Jones' house in 1997.

Horatio Jones' house in 1997.

Horatio Jones' house of bush timber and flattened kerosene tins was constructed in Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges soon after World War One. The war devastated Australia's home front, and more than 17,000 servicemen were killed and 44,000 wounded from Victoria alone. Returning from action in ill health, and following a series of family crises, Jones constructed this house as a sanctuary for himself and his two half sisters.

As a building material, kerosene tins were associated with unemployment and poverty, and the makeshift shanties of the 1930s Depression. Other materials were scarce or prohibitively expensive. Desperately needing a place to live, people constructed their own huts. Although once common, kerosene tin buildings are now rare, most having corroded or been demolished. Unlike the miserable Depression shanties, Jones' house was constructed on a large scale and illustrates Horatio's proficiency in working metal.

Horatio Jones was born in South Australia in 1871. In 1881, the family moved to South Yarra, in Melbourne. Horatio's father was a self-employed engineer, and the family's circumstances have been described as 'comfortable'. At the age of 17, Horatio showed technical ability when his model windmill won a silver medal at the 1888 Juvenile Industrial Exhibition. He secured a metal trade apprenticeship and became an engineer like his father.

In 1914 he was engaged to Caroline Hearst but joined the Australian forces during the war and in 1915 fought at Gallipoli. His heirs recall a heroic tale where Horatio carried a signal cable across a flooded gully under Turkish fire, by swimming under water. The fiances of Horatio's half sisters, Christina and Annie, were killed in battle. Action at Gallipoli left Horatio with rheumatism and later, cardiac problems. He was discharged in 1916.

While Horatio fought abroad, his father died and on his return, Horatio was further overwhelmed by grief when his mother died and his father's business associate embezzled finances from their engineering business. Ill and impoverished, Horatio persuaded Caroline to end their engagement. Caroline's Aunt Sophie had promised her South Yarra home as a wedding present. Caroline, who had eagerly furnished the house in anticipation of Horatio's return, was devastated and fled to America, leaving Annie her possessions.

Horatio sold the family's South Yarra property, perhaps to clear debt, and bought three hectares of land in a 'hidden valley' at Tecoma in the Dandenongs. He felt a strong attachment to Tecoma having visited it as a child. In about 1920, he constructed his house using four gallon kerosene tins. Home-made tools, which survive, flattened the tins, neatly folded the edges and interlocked the tin sheets which clad the dwelling.

The top level has window openings with tin awning hatches. The house is framed with local timber poles and logs and the upper level is of sawn timber and logs. Fencing wire crisscrosses the building for bracing. There are no dividing walls. The internal walls and ceilings feature exposed timber beams and some internal walls are finished with timber panelling. The roof is low-pitched and gabled.

The house is situated on the banks of Little Ferny Creek, surrounded by tree ferns and eucalypts. Each level measures approximately 7.5 metres by 6.5 metres. The upper level was the quarters for Christina and Annie. The lower level was a communal area, and Horatio's sleeping place. There is an open fireplace made of stone with an adjacent bath tub screened from the living area. Outside, there is a two seater toilet. Horatio's house was serviced with hot water. A water wheel at the creek generated electricity. Light globes were strung into the house and surrounding trees.

House walls made of flattened kerosene tins, 1997.

House walls made of flattened kerosene tins, 1997.

Here, Horatio and his sisters recreated something of their former lifestyle. Using Caroline's furniture they held musical soirees, dinners and afternoon teas. The Jones made liqueurs, wines and cider. They kept bees, geese and chickens, and planted fruit trees, vegetables and an exotic garden. A banana passionfruit creeper with shocking pink flowers formed a canopy and creepers formed garlands from tree to tree. Rhododendrons, still flourishing along the driveway, were planted by Horatio. He also painted, composed poetry and played music.

Guests were entertained around a large table in an outdoor pole structure which Jones called his 'study'. Writer CJ Dennis was a frequent visitor. A plaque inscribed 'Bliss' is placed above the dunny, apparently a witticism by Dennis. The artist Sir Arthur Streeton was also a visitor and Tom Roberts rode his gig from his house at Kallista.

Allan Rodrigues recalls

... they would call in to see Horatio on their way to the pub at Ferntree Gully ...They called Horatio's property the 'Halfway Stopover', and sometimes they would stay for dinner and stay overnight ... The boys' visits were becoming quite regular and things were a little cramped. Horatio told the boys to choose a spot on his property ... and they all proceeded to build a small cottage.

This cottage, on the other side of the creek, became Dennis' 'secret place of privacy' and still exists. Christina and Annie struggled to climb the stairs to the upper level of the main house when they grew old. During the 1920s or 1930s, Horatio built them a one-storey kerosene tin house and began to construct a more comfortable weatherboard house. This third house was completed to lockup stage but Horatio ceased work when his sisters died. To his bewilderment, this structure was completely removed from the site, never to be seen again, while he convalesced in a repatriation hospital. Horatio was resigned to living in his kerosene tin house until shortly before his death in 1949, at the age of 78.

The Rodrigues and Raymond families were good friends of the Jones and frequent visitors. As none of the Jones had children, Horatio's house was willed to the Raymond family and later passed on to Fleur Raymond. Allan Rodrigues and Fleur Raymond first met playing in the grounds as children and later married. They have maintained the house since the 1950s 'in memory of Horatio and the happy times the we had there', and because the house embodies 'the real spirit of Australia'.

Allan and Fleur first lived in Melbourne and used the second kerosene tin house as a weekender. Horatio's house remained unoccupied, its new owners staunchly refusing to sell the land when Tecoma was cleared for suburban housing in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s, the shire wanted to acquire the three hectares for recreation. Allan and Fleur alerted the shire to the presence of Horatio's house, hoping to discourage the proposal. The shire described it as only a bush shanty, 'in those days the house just did not rate as heritage'. The couple built their own house on the site in 1975 and moved in. This ended the shire's bid for the land.

Horatio's house has been altered over the years. The roof, once rusty flattened tin, was reclad with durable galvanised steel in the 1940s and again in the 1970s. The creek pebble floor was replaced with a concrete slab. Pebbles were working loose and it was difficult to find replacement ones of the right size. The staircase became loose and was replaced. The owners have resisted any temptation to connect modern services to the house. The pole outdoor study, the outdoor toilet and CJ Dennis' hut have been restored and reconstructed by friends.

Inside Horatio's house, left as it was.

Inside Horatio's house, left as it was.

The house is lovingly maintained, with original furnishings including piano, port table, dining setting, cast iron, brass and blackwood post beds. A rare 1896 American flag is draped above the bed and an Australian flag and World War One welcome home flags, once waved by Christina and Annie, are also on display. There are Persian rugs, fine glassware, jewellery, pictures, Italian brocade furnishing fabric and an oriental patterned screen. A rabbit exterminator for pumping gas down burrows is an invention patented in Horatio Jones' name.

The house has been vandalised on several occasions and so the address is kept secret. The existence of the second tin house, on the same land, was kept secret until recently because it is in fragile condition. Visits are by prior arrangement only. Having a backyard historical house is a mixed blessing because the owners cannot leave it unattended and maintenance is expensive but they enjoy the pleasure of visitors.

The tale of Horatio Jones, the Gallipoli veteran who built a house of kerosene tins, is metaphorically the tale of the Aussie battler. It illustrates the impact of World War One on a Melbourne family and their efforts to rebuild their lives in a secluded bush sanctuary. While battling suburban threats and the difficulties of maintaining a backyard house museum, Allan and Fleur have written their own chapter in this romantic Dandenongs tale.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

I gratefully acknowledge recollections and information from Allan Rodriques and Fleur Raymond, Heritage Victoria and the Shire of Yarra Ranges. Photographs and sketch plans: John Petersen and the Australian Heritage Commission.

Cannon, M, The human face of the Great Depression, Mornington, 1996.

'CJ Dennis' Halfway Hide' leaflet, Restoration Committee, Horatio's Preservation Society Inc.

Conservation of sites and structures of historical and architectural significance, Report no. 17, 1988, Upper Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges Authority.

Dingle, T, The Victorians: settling, McMahon's Point, NSW 1984.

'Horatio Jones house', Heritage Victoria place report 6053889.

Raymond, F, 'Horatio's home' leaflet, Horatio's Preservation Society Inc.

Rodriques, A, 'A place of wonder' leaflet, Horatio's Preservation Society Inc.

Military Service Papers, Australian Imperial Force, No 1736.

National Trust News, April 1989.

'The bridal suite that has been under wraps since 1914' leaflet, Horatio's Preservation Society.

The Age 12 September 1985 and 18 April 1990.

Tucker, G, 'A study of guest houses, tourism and recreation in Victoria's Central Highlands', Victorian Historic Places Section, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Victorian Juvenile Industrial Exhibition Catalogue, Melbourne 1888.

The Author

John Petersen began his career as an historian in 1990 working on the Australian Customs Service National History Project. In 1994, he joined the Australian Heritage Commission's Historic Environment Section in Canberra. Since 1998 he has been living in Sydney managing the Movable Heritage Project of the NSW Heritage Office and Ministry for the Arts