Corrugated iron. Words that, for the British, conjure up damp chapels, musty pavilions, rusting outbuildings. Yet this was once a most modern material, strong but light and easily transported. Its heritage value is only now being recognised – brightly painted little lodges and cottages, quirky bargeboards restored, reveal a charm and even some architectural merit. Such of course has long been recognised in Australia, where corrugated iron has iconic status and a unique beauty in curved striped verandas.
The Melbourne gold-rush of 1851, with large-scale migration from Britain and Ireland, spurred extraordinary entrepreneurial activity. Newspaper columns were full of advertisements for portable iron houses for Australia, alongside suppliers of camp furniture, safes and chests, tents, saddlery, miners’ tools and pistols.
British manufacturers displayed their buildings in little mock towns. These were wonders in their own right, some admiring the technological achievement in the prefabrication of iron cottages, villas, shops, warehouses and hotels. Others reassured themselves that gold-seeking emigrants would be decently housed as family men and guarded from vice in portable churches.
But what was most remarkable was that an entire building (complete with furnishings, stoves, and cooking equipment) could be packed in a compact manner to avoid high shipping costs. And of even greater importance was that the unskilled emigrant could assemble a cottage or store in a matter of days.
This new book tells of Jane Cannan’s husband, the Melbourne agent for the London firm of Morewood & Rogers. Men like David Cannan, often ‘distressed gentlefolk’ trying to make their fortune, experienced the sharp end of the boom and bust. In her letters she reflected on the pleasures and pains of domestic life in her own diminutive, corrugated iron house, tinted like an oyster shell. Its compensation and novelty was its large plot in one of Melbourne’s rapidly developing suburbs, which were introducing an entirely new way of life to the world.