Saturday, December 31, 2016

How old is a scar tree?

Aboriginal Scar trees are a diminishing archaeological resource. Those still in existence are generally more than 150 years old in Victoria. Continuing Aboriginal traditions of course, mean that culturally scarred or carved trees may still be created in traditional ways, but the record of the past, the trees that existed prior to the impact or invaders on the indigenous population, is rapidly being lost.  There are a few mechanism's for this - both natural and human-induced. Land clearing, timber cutting,  and increased burning were all brought about by the invaders, and probably accounts for the vast majority of scarred trees being removed. These impacts are continuing, either because of lack of knowledge about where the trees are or why they are worth keeping, or intentional damage by vandalism, illicit clearing, or racism-inspired acts.

But there are also natural forces at work reducing the stock of surviving scarred trees. Scars are lost both because trees die, or because the continue to live. Despite some Eucalypts being very long lived,  many are senescent in a couple of hundred years. In 400-500 years, it might be assumed that natures elements - of disease, decay, storm damage, natural fire, insect and animal damage, and just old age, will result in trees dying. Even dead a scar tree can stay in the landscape for another hundred years of more, but it will not last forever. Even the cases where tree surgery and preservation techniques are used to extend its life, the scar will still be lost. The stump in the Fitzroy Gardens is a case in point - gradually loosing height and volume and sinking into the ground, despite various treatments.

In instances where the tree continues to live and is healthy, in most cases, the bark around the scar will continue to grow, gradually thickening and growing out and into the void where the earlier bark had been removed. Eventually, the two sides of the overgrowth bark will meet together and combine, leaving only a faint vertical line and some additional creasing in the bark around it to signify where the scar had been.

Here is a scar tree supposedly saved when it was relocated from Stanwell to Rockhampton Cultural Centre in Queensland.

How long does this process take? Probably not that long. A good measure is the scar tree cut on 17 November 1824, not by an aborigine, but by William Hovell, now 192 years old. In that time the scar has almost entirely sealed over, and the heartwood of the tree in which the inscription was cut, has rotted away completely. Another few decades and if the tree stays healthy, there will be only the faintest trace of where the scar once was.
So why does this matter? In another 100 years it is likely that the only scar trees left will be those in museum's or heavily restored and conserved. Natural forces will ultimately take all the rest. It is therefore imperative that some consideration is given to what is done in the mean time. Yesterday's The Age article  shows an example of well preserved scar trees at Boort, that the local Aboriginal community consider a major part of their culture and heritage. They are, however, preserved in their present dead state,because the lake was artificially flooded as part of an irrigation scheme, which killed the trees and prevented further overgrowth of bark. As they were also in a protected piece of public land, and there was no demand for their timber until, sitting as it is in permanent water, it became commercially valueless, they did not get cut down or burnt.

At least a program to identify and record them, and monitor their condition (not just the Boort trees, but all the surviving scar trees in the country) would at least let us know what we are going to lose.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Pythagoras theorem of road naming

Heritage and archaeology consultants often see the process of change in the landscape when development occurs. We occasionally can be party to the detailed internal workings and decision making processes. For example, naming streets is often a critical element of marketing a new estate. Names that entice new residents meet complex council and Geographic Place Names Register requirements, and help give the neighbourhood a sense of place are very important. Some connection to the existing and past history of the area is sometimes also sought, including Aboriginal place names, in order to respect the local history. Or else the names of the developers' children are used. However, often unrelated or just weird names get through the system, such as Kilkenny Road in the Southpark industrial estate. (this was intentional)

One oddity is Pythagoras St in Epping. During the design stage, a new road was proposed running off Harvest Home Road at an angle. This would form the third side of a triangle. The road engineer referred to it as the hypotenuse road, and this became the working name for the street. Somewhere along the way Hypotenuse Street morphed into Pythagoras Street. In the mean time, the original section of Harvest Home Road that formed the first side of the triangle was removed and open space created in its place, making the initial concept redundant. Pythagoras Street might at least still acknowledge the many Greek Island immigrants who made the Epping area their home in the 1950s. (Pythagoras was born on Samos)

Friday, December 16, 2016

Richmond Malting silos

With continuing controversy over the Richmond Malting Site - which seems to hover around replacing the 1950s/60s concrete silos and what to do with the Nylex clock on top, I am still unconvinced of the significance of the silos, and think their importance should be re-examined.
Bulk grain storage was well underway by the 1920s, and the norm by the second World War. Innovative construction methods were tried and proven by Monash/Monier, Stone and Siddeley, and others early in the 20th century and also standardised by the war. Grains other than wheat were regularly stored in the same silos and there is no particular distinction between a barley silo or one intended for other gains, apart from their history of use. obviously barley silos tend to be associated with maltings. The first concrete silos were built in about 1907 when John Monash was commissioned to erect silos at Rupunyip flour mill. This was prior to bulk transport, so the purpose was to stockpile summer harvest grain at mills for use over the year, with shipment of whet to the mill and flour away from it, still manhandled in bags. Numerous flour mill associated silos were then built across Australia. The destruction of massive stacks of bagged wheat by mice plagues gave encouragement of silos for other stages in the handling processes, particularly at ports, and for wheat-board controlled stockpiles.
Stone and Siddeley's patent for prefabrication of panels which formed the silos, was put into effect in 1910 at the Albury Flour Mills (recently demolished), while Monash again used a panel system at Minnifies mill in about 1914. The use of slip form cast reinforced concrete became fairly standard by the 1920s, and progressed to larger installations.
There has been no detailed history or comparative analysis of bulk grain handling or concrete silos in Victoria (apart from Alan Holgate's and Geoff Taplin's work specifically on Monier silos), although some work has been done in NSW. The railfans have done some work on categorising, along with railway modellers who as always have a great understanding of the intrinsic values of railway places.
The statement of significance for the place focusses on the actual malting works. The silos are considered as 'supplementary to the "...1939-40 building for storing barley..." and "...represent an early surviving example of this form of barley storage system on a sale maltster site in Victoria", for its "landmark status", its "distinctive industrial aesthetic", and "... a significant cultural iconic feature..."
However, there are more economically important, older, taller, larger capacity and equally prominent grain silos around Melbourne, while the social significance, based on a pop song and a shared folk memory of being stuck in a traffic jam on a monotonous commute and recalling the time (too early in the morning or running late to get home) and temperature (freezing winter mornings or scorching summer afternoons), has never been tested or substantiated. Equally, engineer Bruce Day's Punt Road overpass and elevated freeway could qualify as the source of motorist frustration and creator of the South-Eastern Carpark.
There are now examples of silos converted to other uses around the world, including Melbourne. Some pretty wild results have come from the understanding that one large concrete structure can provide the basis for a range of new uses. In South Africa for example a combination of converted silos and stacks of shipping containers on top has helped deal with an accommodation shortage for students.
While another set is earmarked for conversion.

Further afield even in Ecuador they are doing it.
In Holland, squatters took over a set of silos before a conversions created one of Amsterdam's most expensive sets of housing blocks -

And closer to home a recent conversion in Bunbury WA sees a very Post Modern - looking hotel -
In Ballarat -
and Hobart -
Even the very large sets, with difficult to use internal drums are finding new life such as these at Akron University.
and the Silo Student Dorms, Norway -
And as for the clock; there was another one that was demolished with little fanfare in Mentone.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gough Whitlam's Birthplace, 'Ngara' 46 Rowland Street Kew.

I recently wrote to the Boroondara Council congratulating them on their decision to keep Gough Whitlam's Birthplace on the Heritage Overlay. While this went against the conclusions of a some experts in the Heritage Council and Planning Panel process, it does, I believe, represent the wishes of ratepayers and the general public (despite there being some vociferous detractors on both the question of preserving the house, and the Whitlam Government's legacy generally). I think it is the right decision and one that will be rewarded in the future by generations that look back and will have a place to focus their considerations of the better efforts of our politicians in improving the lives of their constituents.

Last weekend, anticipating it might be the last opportunity to do so, I drove over to Kew to take a couple of photographs and draw a sketch of the house (I am no artist, this was merely an aide-memoire). In the 20 minutes this took, I saw about a dozen people drive past, and either stop to have a quick look at the house, take a photo, or ask me what I was doing. All were aware that it was Gough's birthplace, and several made a special visit to have a look. This may have only been because of media coverage, but given the last item in the papers was from mid October, they must have had in their minds the need to pay homage of sorts for some time prior. This demonstration of interest in the house confirms to me an underlying need to commemorate and preserve places as symbols of what we hold important in our history and society.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Restoration Australia quick review, Episode 7 Holowiliena

Numerous restored "miner's" and "settler's" cottages have been made available for tourist accommodation in the Flinders Ranges. Frances and Luke Warwick are therefore working in an established context. I went past the station turn-off a few months ago, on a trip to the Flinders Ranges. It is a region dotted with the ruins of heartbreak homesteads, farmers who didn't head Goyder's Line.

The landscape appears to be reclaiming the pitiful efforts of Europeans, with piles of stones left from cottages just looking like natural outcrops, and  rammed earth turning back to just earth. Pug and Pine is a local specialty, with Blinim in the northern Flinders Ranges having a regional concentration.

There is a substantial family story behind the Holowilena property – both through the continuing family connection, and the difficult inheritance process. But the main story is really about how preserving old buildings at a local and personal level. It is as much a mainstream activity, and a part of Australia's history and environment as the big museums and tour destinations like the reef, the rock and the rainforest.

Holowiliena itself has been pretty well heritaged, with articles under the auspices of the old Australian Heritage Commission going back 15 years. It was previously subject to an ABC Doco, so it was perhaps an easy choice for the show – maybe the ABC Adelaide production house as already being wound up as it was finishing. An Article in the ASHA Journal.Toured by the Blacksmith's association. Represented on tourist associations and with its own website. Its own facebook page.

Looks like for the last episode, the ABC abandoned its 'Aussie battlers saving old houses' idea, and recognised the benefits of team effort, linkages to support organisations and specialist skills.
That said, I thought Sibella's comment that the Warwicks had "not many heritage skills to speak of" a bit patronising and disingenuous, given the obvious skills that like most outback farmers they do have. Where else could a couple just go out the back and fire up a lime kiln? In fact, for a change the program actually showed some of the restoration and traditional building skills that go into making and maintaining houses. We saw lime burning and slaking, blacksmithing, hot riveting, plastering, bush carpentry, the very rare pug & pine building technique, bag sewing and limed hessian lining, as well as the interminable pointing. In the absence of a dramatic narrative (no evidence or a strained relationship and no clipboard wielding heritage bureaucrats in site), everyone could just get on with the hard work.

The real dilemmas of heritage restoration are also given more space, such as the question of whether replacing all the wall timbers removes so much fabric that the restoration loses authenticity, and they are left with the replica rather than a restored original. We can see the Burra Charter and the Conservation Plan in action. I wonder what documentation was done before the work was carried out and the original fabric lost for ever.

The thousand hours of labour over a few days, that went into the work, equates reasonably well with a couple of years of weekends by the lone amateur restorer, reinforcing the point that all any building needs to bring it back and keep it going into the future is the right amount of effort.
The ‘Construction Industry Training Scheme’, run by English stone mason Keith McAllister is replicated in many states. The range of skills available through the program should make any restoration project a cinch, if you can access it. The ICOMOS Traditional Trades Working Group is doing its part.

While the evidence for lost archaeology was only circumstantial in this episode and it was hard to fault the methods employed, I did noticed that the original timbers in the scalp hut appeared to have been debarked, but the bark was left on the new timbers – I hope this doesn't cause problems for them when the bark breaks away.

Given the heritage and restoration industry is worth billions, this modest program (and particularly  as represented by the final episode of the series) should really be among a whole genre of television. Instead we get fake psychodrama, melodrama and soap opera wrapped in infomercials and 'reality' shows. The value of heritage is more than monetary, place defines us, and caring for it properly can cement our relationship with the world around us. Much better to fix up granddad's cottage the way he had it, than fuss over glass splashbacks or concealed lighting.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Birthplace museums and heritage sites

Why is it that American, European and Asian heritage so fully embraces the concept of the birthplace?

Here are just a sample of birthplaces commemorated by heritage preservation listing, museums and other memorials:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Restoration Australia quick review, Episode 6 Keera Vale

Dramatic music keeps the artificial tension heightened, perhaps because not a lot happens otherwise. A worthy house and worthy restorers fulfilling the 'Aussie battler' roles nicely. But one wonders how this story differs from any of the thousands of amateur fixer projects that abounded in Melbourne and Sydney from the late 1960s. The sandblasted brick feature walls and stripped back floor boards of my high school teachers' Carlton terraces were the progenitors of this episode. Clumsy propping and smashing was the order of the day then too. A couple of times I thought of Basil Fawlty's shonky builder with his inadequate lintels holding up the load bearing wall.

And why do we keep hearing about the convict bricks; how can you tell? - is this just a short-hand derogatory term for any sub-standard hand-made bricks. The Order-in-Council ending transportation to New South Wales, is dated 22 May 1840 and only a handful arrived in 1842 and 42. Convict gangs may have been still making bricks in the 1840s, but private companies and freeman brickmakers were commonplace in the 1840s. Brickfield hill near Castlereagh St. was the centre of Sydney brickmaking until about 1840, when many brickmakers were forced out to places such as Glebe, Newtown, Redfern, Camperdown and Waterloo, and further afield. For example Captain Westmacott Aid-de-camp to Governor Richard Bourke, settled near Bulli in 1837 and was a brickmaker among his many endeavours.

While some convicts or ex-cons may have provided labour, these were run as private businesses, so non-convict bricks were widely available.. Some more sophisticated analysis of the bricks might have made better television (like the Timeteam experts in everything) and also offer some hope to all those other renovators struggling with rising damp and crumbling convict bricks.

But getting back to the drama; Harold and Jenny have taken on a dream to fix up Judge Roger Therry's 1843 home, referred to as Wollongong's oldest house, Although others claim this title too, such as Little Milton from the 1830s.

The render clearly was a not terribly successful attempt to do something about the poor quality bricks, and given the extent of decay, the possibility of returning it to its nineteenth century appearance seems very remote. A refiring program like that used at Port Arthur would be impressive to see however.

There is some interesting actual restoration taking place too. The poured on ceiling repair looked like a sloppy mess, so what did they actually use, and how does it actually work? Lots of patching brickwork and replacing render going on but the details of the mix were covered in Episode 2 so maybe they don't need to go over them again.

And what about the staircase. there is an 1852 staircase going in Geelong that they miss-out on. Anyone know what 1852 house in Geelong is being wrecked?

The owners were indicated they were trying to negotiate the tensions between restoring a heritage building and complying with building standards. But that had been covered in Episodes 2 and 3.

I read elsewhere, that an underground cellar which was used for root vegetables, was un-earthed, and 1920's car parts were dug up in the garden. Sibella's blog has some arty pictures of old bottles and cutlery - is this more archaeology going un-permitted and unrecorded?

But the main thing, is the lack of time, despite the couple of years in the making, that means we don't really see much happening here. After smashing concrete and cracking off render, there seems only enough energy to produce a distempered wall finish which is clearly on-trend, even if entirely accidental. It might be part of the leftovers of shabby chic style, or even the fad for ruin aesthetics.

We get a teary glimpse at the architect's rendering of the restored house, with its verandahs back in place. There is also a very modern rear addition not shown in the program, which might just be a fancy of he architect, or could be intended to replace the missing service quarters. the underlying value is one of status and snobbery. People who always wanted to live in the big house on the hill. something that will one day be impressive and give one a sense of self worth. A couple of comments go to the idea that you need to be rich and it will cost a fortune to fix up a house such as this, ignoring the sociology of so many people over-investing in their houses for personal and aesthetic reasons.

Some references to check up on those 'Convict Brick'.

Dawes, A. 1935. Early brickmaking in Australia, The Clay Products Journal of Australia 1/11/1935.
Pavlou, 0.1976. The history of bricks and brickmaking in N.S.W. 1788-1914. Unpublished B.Architecture thesis, University of N.S.W.

Gemmell, Warwick.  1986.  And so we graft from six to six : the brickmakers of New South Wales.  North Ryde, N.S.W :  Angus & Robertson

Gibbons & Masters Patent Brick