Romsey Australia

Early Settlers' Homes and Bush Huts in Australia.

Bush hut circa 1890
Wattle and daub home with bark roof and parget wooden chimney.  1890


The first European settlers who arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788 were not aware of Aboriginal construction methods.
Building with earth was not a new thing to the original inhabitants of Australia, for thousands of years prior to European settlement the indigenous Australian aboriginal people developed appropriate dwellings for their lifestyle and environment.

  Traditional Indigenous gunyah (22)
Small bark shelter (gunyah) Traditional Indigenous homes , varied from temporary windbreaks and wiltjas (shelters), small bark shelters (gunyah) (20a) built over a wooden frame of stringybark or paperbark to substantial round houses thatched with grass for large families.
The materials used for the construction of homes, varied across geographic regions of the continent and depended on the availability and supply of materials. (20)

In the Lake Eyre region, mud was used with grass to waterproof dome shelters and in the Western Desert, tree limbs were used for shelter frames and spinifex for the cladding.
In the colder regions of south eastern Australia, stone huts  (21) consisting of stone circles about two metres across and 1.5 metres high were erected forming the shelter walls. Branches and vegetation were placed over these to form a roof. In South Australia, whale bones were sometimes used as a framework for structures.
The types of construction varied from dome frameworks made of cane through spinifex-clad arc-shaped structures, to tripod and triangular shelters, and to elongated, egg-shaped, stone-based structures with a timber frame, and pole and platform constructions. Annual base camp structures, whether dome houses in the rainforests of Queensland and Tasmania or stone-based houses in south eastern Australia, were designed for use over many years by the same family groups.
The explorer Eyre wrote:" ... we found a village of thirteen huts near mount Napier, they were cupola-shaped, made of a strong wood frame covered with thick turf. " (11)

Indigenous Australian aboriginal Dwellings. 1847

Native Village in the northern interior. 1847  (11)

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First European Settlers' Homes in Australia.

Early Australian houses were very primitive, and ranged from bough shelters with only a roof and no walls through to bush and bark huts,
log cabins, slab, wattle-and-daub, thatched and sod huts.
Since there was an abundant supply of timber, it was used for walls, roofs, floors, doors, windows and even chimneys.

Family living in a giant dead tree
Source and photo courtesy of: Forests Commission Victoria, Alps at the Crossroads, Dick Johnson

This family set up home in a giant dead tree. Note the post and rail fences each side of the tree depicting a boundary for their home.

Sydney Cove  1788
The first European settlers who arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788 soon found the small acacia trees were suitable for wattling and plastering with clay. The trees became known as wattles and the building process wattle and daub.
Governor Phillip sent out exploring parties to survey Sydney Harbour and the river at the head of the harbour shortly after landing at Sydney Cove. On Sunday 2 November 1788 Governor Phillip and others, including marines, established a military redoubt at Rose Hill. Convicts were sent to Rose Hill to commence farming. With the success of farming at Rose Hill, Phillip decided to expand the settlement.

In 1790 Governor Phillip and Surveyor Augustus Alt laid out a town plan with High Street (George Street) running between the planned site of Government House and the Landing Place to the east of this site. As set out, George Street was 205 feet (63 m) wide and a mile (1.6 km) long.
On either side of the street huts were to be at a distance of 60 feet (18.5 m) from each other, with a garden area allotted at the rear of each hut. The huts were to be built of wattle and daub and the roof thatched and were to be 12 by 24 feet (4 by 8 m).
The new street and the huts were built by the convicts from July 1790. By September 1790 bricks were being fired for a barracks and store house, a wharf was built just to the east of this site and 27 huts were being built along High Street (George Street).

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Extract from the Journals of Watkin Tench.   Captain of the Marines at Port Jackson from 20th January, 1788, until December, 1791.

Transactions at Port Jackson in the Months of April and May. 1788
As winter was fast approaching, it became necessary to secure ourselves in quarters, which might shield us from the cold we were taught to expect in this hemisphere, though in so low a latitude.
The erection of barracks for the soldiers was projected, and the private men of each company undertook to build for themselves two wooden houses, of sixty-eight feet in length, and twenty-three in breadth.

To forward the design, several saw-pits were immediately set to work, and four ship carpenters attached to the battalion, for the purpose of directing and completing this necessary undertaking.
In prosecuting it, however, so many difficulties occurred, that we were fain to circumscribe our original intention; and, instead of eight houses, content ourselves with four.
And even these, from the badness of the timber, the scarcity of artificers, and other impediments, are, at the day on which I write, so little advanced, that it will be well, if at the close of the year 1788, we shall be established in them.
In the meanwhile the married people, by proceeding on a more contracted scale, were soon under comfortable shelter.

Temporary wooden storehouses covered with thatch or shingles, in which the cargoes of all the ships have been lodged, are completed; and an hospital is erected.

Barracks for the military are considerably advanced; and little huts to serve, until something more permanent can be finished, have been raised on all sides.
Notwithstanding this the encampments of the marines and convicts are still kept up; and to secure their owners from the coldness of the nights, are covered in with bushes, and thatched over.

The plan of a town I have already said is marked out.
And as freestone of an excellent quality abounds, one requisite towards the completion of it is attained.
Only two houses of stone are yet begun, which are intended for the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. One of the greatest impediments we meet with is a want of limestone, of which no signs appear.
Clay for making bricks is in plenty, and a considerable quantity of them burned and ready for use.

3rd of November1788
A new settlement, named by the governor , Rose Hill, 16 miles inland, was established on the 3d of November, the soil here being judged better than that around Sydney. A small redoubt was thrown up, and a captain’s detachment posted in it, to protect the convicts who were employed to cultivate the ground.

The State of the Colony in November, 1790.
Cultivation, on a public scale, has for some time past been given up here, (Sydney) the crop of last year being so miserable, as to deter from farther experiment, in consequence of which the government-farm is abandoned, and the people who were fixed on it have been removed.

Necessary public buildings advance fast; an excellent storehouse of large dimensions, built of bricks and covered with tiles, is just completed; and another planned which will shortly be begun.
Other buildings, among which I heard the governor mention an hospital and permanent barracks for the troops, may also be expected to arise soon.
Works of this nature are more expeditiously performed than heretofore, owing, I apprehend, to the superintendants lately arrived, who are placed over the convicts and compel them to labour. The first difficulties of a new country being subdued may also contribute to this comparative facility.

Sydney 12th of November, 1790
Except building, sawing and brickmaking, nothing of consequence is now carried on here.
The account which I received a few days ago from the brickmakers of their labours, was as follows.

Wheeler (one of the master brick-makers) with two tile stools and one brick stool, was tasked to make and burn ready for use 30000 tiles and bricks per month.
He had twenty-one hands to assist him, who performed every thing; cut wood, dug clay, etc. This continued (during the days of distress excepted, when they did what they could) until June last.

From June, with one brick and two tile stools he has been tasked to make 40000 bricks and tiles monthly (as many of each sort as may be), having twenty-two men and two boys to assist him, on the same terms of procuring materials as before.
They fetch the clay of which tiles are made, two hundred yards; that for bricks is close at hand.
He says that the bricks are such as would be called in England, moderately good, and he judges they would have fetched about 24 shillings per thousand at Kingston-upon-Thames (where he resided) in the year 1784. Their greatest fault is being too brittle.
The tiles he thinks not so good as those made about London. The stuff has a rotten quality, and besides wants the advantage of being ground, in lieu of which they tread it.

Such is my Sydney detail dated the 12th of November, 1790. Four days after I went to Rose Hill, and wrote there the subjoined remarks.

Typical convict brick arrows.
The convict brick mark of a broad arrow was introduced in 1819. Some early Australian bricks have a thumbprint, thought to be a tally mark, while others carry paw prints from dogs, cats and possums scavenging for food among the bricks set out to dry.
The broad arrow was replaced by a dazzling variety of marks pressed into the brick frog (the shallow depression in the top surface of a brick) including animal designs, stars, heel prints and even a military medal. Source: And So We Graft from Six to Six: The Brickmakers of New South Wales by Warwick Gemmell.
Image courtesy of the author.

Parramatta ( Rose Hill ) 16th of November, 1790
The main street of the new town is already begun.
It is to be a mile long, and of such breadth as will make Pall Mall and Portland Place “hide their diminished heads.”

It contains at present thirty-two houses completed, of twenty-four feet by twelve each, on a ground floor only, built of wattles plastered with clay, and thatched.
Each house is divided into two rooms, in one of which is a fire place and a brick chimney.
These houses are designed for men only; and ten is the number of inhabitants allotted to each; but some of them now contain twelve or fourteen, for want of better accommodation. More are building.
In a cross street stand nine houses for unmarried women; and exclusive of all these are several small huts where convict families of good character are allowed to reside.

Of public buildings, besides the old wooden barrack and store, there is a house of lath and plaster, forty-four feet long by sixteen wide, for the governor, on a ground floor only, with excellent out-houses and appurtenances attached to it.

A new brick store house, covered with tiles, 100 feet long by twenty-four wide, is nearly completed, and a house for the store-keeper.
The first stone of a barrack, 100 feet long by twenty-four wide, to which are intended to be added wings for the officers, was laid to-day. June, 1791.
On the second instant, the name of the settlement, at the head of the harbour (Rose Hill) was changed, by order of the governor, to that of Parramatta, the native name of it.

December 2nd, 1791. Went up to Rose Hill.
Public buildings here have not greatly multiplied since my last survey.
The storehouse and barrack have been long completed; also apartments for the chaplain of the regiment, and for the judge-advocate, in which last, criminal courts, when necessary, are held; but these are petty erections.

In a colony which contains only a few hundred hovels built of twigs and mud, we feel consequential enough already to talk of a treasury, an admiralty, a public library and many other similar edifices, which are to form part of a magnificent square.
The great road from near the landing place to the governor’s house is finished, and a very noble one it is, being of great breadth, and a mile long, in a strait line.
In many places it is carried over gullies of considerable depth, which have been filled up with trunks of trees covered with earth.

All the sawyers, carpenters and blacksmiths will soon be concentred under the direction of a very adequate person of the governor’s household.
This plan is already so far advanced as to contain nine covered sawpits, which change of weather cannot disturb the operations of, an excellent workshed for the carpenters and a large new shop for the blacksmiths.
It certainly promises to be of great public benefit.

A new hospital has been talked of for the last two years, but is not yet begun. Two long sheds, built in the form of a tent and thatched, are however finished, and capable of holding 200 patients.

Of my Sydney journal,
I find no part sufficiently interesting to be worth extraction.
This place had long been considered only as a depot for stores.
It exhibited nothing but a few old scattered huts and some sterile gardens.
Cultivation of the ground was abandoned, and all our strength transferred to Rose Hill.

Sydney, nevertheless, continued to be the place of the governor’s residence, and consequently the headquarters of the colony.
No public building of note, except a storehouse, had been erected since my last statement.

The barracks, so long talked of, so long promised, for the accommodation and discipline of the troops, were not even begun when I left the country; and instead of a new hospital, the old one was patched up and, with the assistance of one brought ready-framed from England, served to contain the sick.

On the 26th of November 1791, the number of persons, of all descriptions, at Sydney, was 1259, to which, 1628 at Rose Hill and 1172 at Norfolk Island be added, the total number of persons in New South Wales and its dependency will be found to amount to 4059.*

[*A very considerable addition to this number has been made since I quitted the settlement, by fresh troops and convicts sent thither from England.]
On the 13th of December 1791, the marine battalion embarked on board His Majesty’s ship Gorgon, and on the 18th sailed for England.
A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson by Watkin Tench Capt. of the Marines 1791.
A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay Watkin Tench, Capt. of the Marines.
Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, New South Wales, 10 July, 1788.
Watkin Tench, resided at Port Jackson  from the 20th of January, 1788, until the 18th of December, 1791.

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Wattle and Daub house

A wattle and daub house

Governor Philip began a new settlement at Parramatta and before the end of 1790 there were thirty-two houses completed, built of wattles, plastered with clay and thatched.
The image above shows a wattle and daub house similar to the ones constructed at Parramatta. The first church built in Sydney by the Reverend Richard Johnson was a wattle and daub structure with a thatched roof.
Wattle and Daub Hospital in Melbourne demolished by a bull, late 1830s (12)
" Descriptions of the first 'hospital' vary, but agree that it was a totally inadequate hut of wattle and daub or similar structure, that its two rooms were shared with the constable, the magistrate and the post office,......"
Source: Cussen, Patrick Edward (1792 - 1849)

" A wattle -and- daub building was put up as a police office, on the site of the Western Markets, where it did duty for some time, until one night it fell : some say because it was undermined by a party of imprisoned natives ; but others, because a bull belonging to Mr. Batman had rushed against it."

" Trespass Against a Wall. Some Legal Definitions,
An old history of Melbourne relates that the first hospital, constructed of wattle and daub, was knocked down by a bull owned by John Batman. The animal scratched its shoulder against it, and the building collapsed. According to certain views expressed in the Full Court of the High Court yesterday the bull was a trespasser. Had he gently rubbed his nose against the wall there would probably have been no trespass.
The Court consisted of the Acting Chief Justice (Mr. Justice Isaacs), Mr. Justice Duffy, and Mr. Justice Clarke.
Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) Friday 10 October 1924 "

Wattle and daub
The typical English method consisted of vertical rods of hazel sprung into prepared grooves in the framing, between which thinner rods were woven in and out horizontally to form a basketwork, and both sides of the basketwork daubed with a mixture of clay, water and straw, sometimes with cow dung. (1)

Wattle and Daub house construction in Australia
Of all the hybrid forms wattle and daub is the best known, at least by repute, and it was used in the earliest days of Sydney Cove. (1a)
Wattling - that is, the weaving of flexible twigs like basketwork - was also used in New South Wales without any daub, and this is at least as old a tradition in Europe.

postcard of a wattle and daub bush farmers homestead
A postcard of a wattle and daub bush farmers homestead in South Australia circa 1900 (21)

Dictionary definition of wattle and daub as described in:
A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages by Edward E. Morris M.A., Oxon. Professor of English, French and German Languages and Literatures in the University of Melbourne. 1898 (2)

1:  " Wattle-and-Dab, a rough mode of architecture, very common in Australia at an early date. The phrase and its meaning are Old English.
It was originally Wattle-and-daub.
The style, but not the word, is described in the quotation from Governor Phillip, 1789.
"The huts of the convicts were still more slight, being composed only of upright posts, wattled with slight twigs, and plaistered up with clay." (1)

2:  Ross, `Hobart Town Almanack,' p. 66:  1836.
"Wattle and daub. . . . You then bring home from the bush as many sods of the black or green wattle (acacia decurrens or affinis) as you think will suffice. These are platted or intertwined with the upright posts in the manner of hurdles, and afterwards daubed with mortar made of sand or loam, and clay mixed up with a due proportion of the strong wiry grass of the bush chopped into convenient lengths and well beaten up with it, as a substitute for hair."

3:  W. Westgarth, `Australia Felix,' p. 20 1848.
"The hut of the labourer was usually formed of plaited twigs or young branches plastered over with mud, and known by the summary definition of `wattle and dab.'"

4:  Mrs. Meredith, `My Home in Tasmania,' vol. i. p. 179: 1852. "Wattles, so named originally, I conceive, from several of the genus being much used for `wattling' fences or huts. A `wattle and dab hut is formed, in a somewhat Robinson Crusoe style, of stout stakes driven well into the ground, and thickly interlaced with the tough, lithe wattle-branches, so as to make a strong basket-work, which is then dabbed and plastered over on both sides with tenacious clay mortar, and finally thatched."

5:  W. J. Barry, `Up and Down,' p. 21:  1879.
"It was built of what is known as `wattle and dab,' on poles and mud, and roofed with the bark of the gum-tree."

6:  J. H. Maiden, `Useful Native Plants,' p. 349:  1889.
"The ordinary name for species of the genus Acacia in the colonies is `Wattle'. The name is an old English one, and signifies the interlacing of boughs together to form a kind of wicker-work. The aboriginals used them in the construction of their abodes, and the early colonists used to split the stems of slender species into laths for `wattling' the walls of their rude habitations."

Early Australian Wattle-and-daub buildings.
In early Australian buildings panels of wattling were sometimes used to close window openings, and a convict wrote home from Sydney in the first year of settlement of the miserable huts with windows filled with 'lattices of twigs'. (3)
In the 1820s the verandah of the government hut at Wallis Creek [Maitland] was temporarily enclosed with panels of wattle to allow a police contingent to bivouac there (the hut itself being occupied already by the Ogilvie family. (4)
In the Moreton Bay [Brisbane] area in 1824 runaway convicts had built a sort of antecedent of the bough shed - a shed consisting mainly of a wattled roof supported on eight posts, measuring 7.2 by 1.8 metres, with the wattling partly thatched over with gum tree branches. (5)

In Sydney even chimneys were made of wattling, leading in 1842 to the issue of a warning about the risk of fire. (6)

The technique would have been known to nearly all British colonists, often directly from their own experience at home, but more especially from emigrants' handbooks.
Mann's Emigrants Guide to Australia advised in 1849: (7)

" The most usual style of knocking up a house is that called wattle and dab. Strong uprights of wood are driven into the ground, and long narrow sticks are then woven across these, like the twigs of a wicker basket. Moist clay, or earth, well mixed up with chopped hay or straw, is then plastered over this, and finished off with a trowel. The whole is then white-washed inside and out ... "

In 1837 Thomas Napier built his house in Collins Street - one of the more pretentious dwellings in the settlement - of wattle and daub with a rush thatched roof. (8)

'Garryowen' [Edmund Finn], describes the method in enough detail to suggest that he really was familiar with it in the local context: (9)

"... the size of the required 'premises' was to be marked, and stakes or posts to be driven into the ground a few feet apart: these were then connected with interwoven twigs of gum, wattle or ti-tree, like rough wickerwork. The next stage was to 'daub' well on both sides with kneaded clay, and so puddled, when bakes in the sun, the walls became weatherproof. After roofing of bark, reeds, or shingle was attached, if there were the addenda of a brick chimney, and a dash of whitewash externally, the habitation or store, as the case may be, was considered complete. "

John McKimmie of Bundoora, north of Melbourne, spoke of a daub made from clay and cow dung, the same mixture as was used for flooring. (10)

     A regulation style Wattle and Daub House

Wattle and doub house.

Wattle and doub house.
Image courtesy of: State Library New South Wales

The construction of a regulation style wattle and daub house according to the American adventurer Gus Peirce who arrived in Hill End in 1871.
" This house was constructed in regulation style, without sills, by simply driving saplings into the ground at regular intervals, on either side of which were fastened the wattles or split limbs, forming horizontal half-rounds, the space between them being filled in solid with a mixture of earth, water, and grass. The roof was made of saplings and gum bark, and a chimney erected of slabs and finished with a barrel. A trench was then dug around the hut to drain off the water, and the new residence was complete.  " (16)

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The Shortage Of Good Mortar.
The prevalence of single storey buildings in early Sydney, as well as their rapid rate of deterioration can be attributed to the shortage of good mortar.
Governor Phillip said. " the materials can only be laid in clay, which makes it necessary to give great thickness to the walls, and even then they are not so firm as might be wished. ".
Brick walls were built with mortars of clay or loam at Government House, Parramatta, 1790, and at John Macarthur's Elizabeth Farm 1793.

Lieutenant-Governor David Collins was particularly unfortunate, the house built for him on the western side of the Tank Stream lacked the necessary amount of lime and " gave way with the heavy rains and fell to the ground ".

 Sydney Tank stream
The Tank Stream Sydney (17)

Loam was also used for plastering.
Neither limestone or chalk was to be found in the vicinity of Sydney Cove, and shells were burnt for lime in the first months of settlement.
Governor Phillip is said to have brought a little lime from England to the settlement, but he had to try and obtain more locally even for his own house.

" The Governor ", wrote John White, " notwithstanding that he had collected together all the shells which could be found, for the purpose of obtaining from them the lime necessary to the construction of a house for his own residence, did not procure even a fourth part of the quantity which was wanted. "
Such lime as could be obtained from sea shells at Sydney was in great demand for stuccoing and plastering over the other inferior building materials, and not much was used for mortar or other structural purposes.

As a general rule shells can be easily seen in the mortar of older buildings in coastal and riverine New South Wales.
Shell lime was burnt from the piles of oyster shells found in Aboriginal middens all along the coast,
These proved a valuable resource to us, and many loads of shells were burnt into lime...(20) ", and when these were exhausted the bays and inlets were dredged for live oysters.

In the 1850s and 1860s the activities of the shell diggers had become a problem in the Sydney region, and were resulting in the depletion of oyster supplies, a problem overcome only when the establishment of railway connections in the 1870s enabled rock lime to be brought from inland.

Animal hair such as horse hair was sometimes mixed in the mortar, or human hair if necessary.
In 1832 it was reported that four hundred convicts were being shorn at Norfolk Island to provide hair for the purpose.
Partially Referenced from. Cement & Concrete: Early Lime & Cement:

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Historical Description of Australian Settlers Homes  1800's

Early settlers hut

Early settles hut in the Wielangta Forest, Tasmania
Photo courtesy

The first detailed description of a Bark Hut in Australia:  1822
" Some stakes of trees are stuck in the ground, the outside bark from the trees is tied together, and to these with narrow strips of what is called stringy bark; being tough, it answers the purpose of cord, and the roof is done in the same manner.
There was a kind of chimney but neither window nor door, but a space left to enter. "   Source.   'Journey from Sydney to Bathurst in 1822'  Elizabeth Hawkins

Construction of an Australian bark hut.   1826
One of the earliest descriptions of the construction of an Australian bark hut is that by James Atkinson in 1826

" ...this is effected by setting up corner posts of saplings, surmounted by plates, and the frame of a roof of small poles.

 Stripping bark for roofing Some large sheets of the bark of the box or stringybark are then procured; some are set on their ends to form the sides, and others laid up and down on the top to form the roof, with one or two long pieces lengthways to form the ridge, securing the whole by tying it with strips of the inner bark of the stringy bark; a space is left for a door, and a square hole cut for a window, and pieces provided to close these apertures at night; some long pieces are then built into the form of a chimney at one end, and sods placed inside to prevent their catching fire.
Care is taken to give the different sheets sufficient overlap to allow for their shrinking, and also to give the eaves sufficient projection to carry the rain water from the walls; a trench is dug round to carry off the wet ... " Source.   Atkinson, Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales, 1826. pp 29-30.

The Aborigines were indeed important in showing the settlers how to strip bark and which species to use. However, the Aborigines lacked the technology to cut bark on a large scale until the European tomahawk became available.
An early indication of direct transference from the Aboriginal to the European culture of the idea of using bark occurs in Dawson's account of the Aboriginal contribution in 1826.

" As soon as we had raised the frames of some our intended habitations, we were sadly at a loss for bark to close the sides and cover the roofs. "  Seeing their plight, a local Aboriginal brought a dozen of his fellow tribesmen to assist.
  " having received each a small hatchet, set to work in good earnest, and brought such a quantity of bark in two or three days as would have taken our party a month to procure. Before a white man can strip the bark beyond his own height, he is obliged to cut down the tree; but a native can go up the smooth and branchless stems of the tallest trees, to any height, by cutting notches in the surface large enough to place the great toe in, upon which he supports himself, while he strips the bark quite round the tree, in lengths from three to six feet. These form the temporary sides and coverings for huts of the best description. "  Source:  Robert Dawson, The Present State of Australia [London 1830], pp 19-20.

A less satisfactory transaction between the races occurred when 'Cocky' Rogers, superintendent of 'Grantham' station in what is now Queensland, simply helped himself to four hundred sheets of bark from Aboriginal humpies, with which to roof his store sheds and huts.
 Source:  Steel, Brisbane Town in Convict Days, p 299.

A church clad with bark.  Stanthorpe, Queensland  1872.
This structure was entirely clad with bark, and rectangles were cut out for the windows. These were then covered with bleached hessian sheets which could be rolled up to allow light to enter the structure.

Bark Church 1872
Wedding at Stanthorpe's Presbyterian Church, December 1872

Photographer William Boag:
The early part of William Boag's career was spent in Sydney where he was in partnership with portrait photographer Joseph Charles Milligan. During 1871 he travelled around Queensland and captured images of local crushing mills and sugar plantations.
Images by Boag are in the collection of the Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society.(23)

Bark School 1872
Schoolchildren outside Stanthorpe State School, 1873

An extract from:  " AN EMIGRANT'S ADVENTURES " 1820

A little hut by the road-side.
" The hut itself, which was merely a few sheets of bark stripped from trees, and each varying from the size of a common door to that of double that width by the same length, was but a single area of about nine feet one way by six the other; the roof, too, was of bark, and of the usual shape.
One of the six-feet ends was a chimney, through out its whole width, in which the fire was made by logs of any length and thickness available.

On the earthen hearth, at the other six feet end, was a sort of berth, also of bark, like the bunks on board ship, fixed at about three feet from the ground; whilst at the nine feet side next the road was the door, which likewise was of bark; and at the opposite parallel side was a little table, and that too was of bark, to wit, a sheet about three feet one way by two the other, nailed on to four little posts driven into the ground, and having of course its inner or smooth side upwards.

The architect of the building had used all his materials whilst green, so that in seasoning they had twisted into all manner of forms except planes and as is usually the case, the worst example came from the most responsible quarter; the table was the crookedest thing in the whole hut, not excepting the dog's hind leg.

Standing about the floor were sundry square ended round blocks of wood, just as they were first sawn off the tree transversely , they were each about eighteen inches long, and their official rank in the domestic system was equivalent to that of the civilized chair.

After a good supper of hot fried beefsteaks, damper bread and tea, which our host, a free hearted, hardworking bushman, gave with many a "Come, eat, lad; don't be afraid; there is plenty more where this came from," etc., etc., according to the custom of the colony and especially of his class, we betook ourselves to a smoke of good old Brazil, over the latter part of our quart pots of tea; and then at nearly two o'clock my companion re minded his brother that it was " time to pig down."

Accordingly our entertainer, clearing the floor by making us stand in the chimney, putting the blocks under the table, and giving his dog a kick, which I thought the thing least to his credit that I had seen him do, began to " make the dab."

This was accomplished by stretching his own bed, which was only adapted for a single person, lengthwise across the hut, at about six or seven feet from the fire place; then lying down across the hut in the same manner between the bed and the fire place all the old clothes he could muster of his own; and finally over these he spread about half a dozen good-sized dried sheepskins with the wool on.
These, with a blanket spread over the whole, really made a very tolerable bed. Certainly towards morning I began to feel a good deal as if I were lying with my body in a field and my legs in the ditch beside , however, I have had many a worse lodging between that night and this. "

Our hosts were two Irishmen, brothers.
"  The hut was well built of slabs split out of fine straight-grained timber, with hardly a splinter upon them; and consisted of several compartments, all on the ground floor.
The only windows were square holes in the sides of the hut, and a good log fire was blazing in the chimney.

On stools and benches and blocks about the hut sat a host of wayfarers like ourselves, and several lay at their ease in corners on their saddle cloths or blankets, whilst saddles and packs of luggage were heaped up on all sides.
Supper was over, and the short pipes were fuming away in all directions. Our hosts were two Irishmen, brothers, who had got a little bit of good land cleared here in the wilderness, and refused nobody a feed and shelter for the night.
They soon put down a couple of quart pots of water before the blazing fire, made us some tea, and set before us the usual fare, a piece of fine corned beef, and a wheaten cake baked on the hearth. "
Source:  Settlers and Convicts - Recollections of Sixteen Years Labour in the Australian Backwoods.
Alexander Harris (1805-74)

Interior of a Settler's Hut
Bushman inside a slab hut circa 1870 (24)

A Sketch of the interior of a Settler's Hut 1849

Sketch of the interior of a Settler's Hut

" The Sketch of the Settler's Hut from the pencil of Mr. Skinner Prout represents an Australian dwelling, of a class commonly met with in the Bush.
It is constructed of rudely split logs placed upright in the ground, the interstices being in most cases filled up with mud or clay; but the peculiar circumstance connected with the Hut here drawn was this:--

On one of his sketching excursions our Artist was anxious to cross some mountain tiers, in order to make a straight line to a spot he was anxious to visit at some twelve miles distant.
He was aware that there was no marked road; and that to attempt it without a guide would be to run a serious risk of losing himself in the intricacies of the wild forest with which the country is covered.
However, he very soon had the gratification to reach a clearing, and to see, a few hundred yards before him, a column of bright blue smoke rising among the gum-trees, and indicating the hut of some settler.

Australian hospitality has become proverbial, and, says Mr. Prout,
" perhaps few persons have experienced it more frequently than myself. My wanderings as a sketcher have often led me among scenes and in situations where I have been wholly dependent on such sources for food and shelter; and I have ever received it with a hearty good-will, and in such a manner as one might have inferred that I had been rather the dispenser than the recipient of such kindness.
It was just so, at the time to which I have alluded. I made my wants known, and a young man who was the shepherd on the station offered to become my guide.

This matter being settled, the iron pot was placed on the fire, and a plentiful repast of mutton chops and sassafras tea prepared us for our journey; but before we started, my friend 'Joe' must have his pipe, and I must have my sketch.
The interior of the little hut presented so quiet, so enticing a bit, that I must needs make a memorandum of it. Joe had smoked himself into a state of semi-dreaminess, and seated on a log of wood, displaying an attempt at the formation of a chair, was contemplating with a most thoughtful visage a large posting bill. an advertisement of the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS, announcing the Queen's visit to Drayton Manor, &c. Doubtless, dreams of greatness, and thoughts of home, were passing through the poor shepherd's mind: he appeared quite lost in thought, and in imagination was far, far away from the wilds of Australia; but his kangaroo dog, which had been lying at his feet, roused himself, disturbed his master's reveries, and at the same time afforded me an intimation that it would be well to commence our journey."
How the posting-bill, announcing the Visit of Queen Victoria to the Midland Counties of England, had found its way into the Settler's Hut, we are not informed; but there our Artist witnessed the affiche, treasured as a picture." (19)

A postcard of an Australian Family Hut circa 1880
A postcard of an Australian Family Hut circa 1880

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An extract from:   " Australian Life, Black and White "  1885

The stockman's hut.
Each stockman's hut stood by itself in a clearing, leagues distant from any other dwelling, and as far as might be from the nearest scrub, in the thickets of which the Blacks could always find an unassailable stronghold.
The hut was built of logs and slabs, the roof of bark; the fireplace was a small room with a wide wooden chimney. Shutters there were, and a door, but locks were unknown, and bolts and bars were of the most primitive description.

The settler depended for safety upon the keenness of his hearing, the excellence of his carbine, and the Blacks' superstitious dread of darkness, which makes them averse to leaving their camp except on moonlight nights, or with an illumination of burning firesticks.

Naraigin Sheep station. circa 1850's
Naraigin was a station in one of the most unsettled districts--on the very borders of unexplored country, of which my father took possession when I was about seven or eight years' old.

A queer one-storied hut, built of slabs which had shrunk apart, so that there were wide gaps everywhere, with a sloping roof of bark and a wide and roughly boarded verandah.
Windows there were none, that is to say in the sense of panes of glass , there were wooden shutters that could be closed at night.

Most of the floors were earthen; I think the sitting-room was boarded, but am not sure. The rooms were unceiled, and I have a vivid recollection of uncanny looking white lizards and bloated tarantulas which abode beneath the rafters.
There was a kitchen behind, connected with the house by a covered passage; and there were other outbuildings--a meat store, on the roof of which the bullock hides were stretched to dry, and a wool-shed some little distance away, which with its many pens, its empty wool bales, and presses, its odd holes and corners, was the most delightful playing-- ground imaginable.

Then there was a garden, fenced in with hurdles, over which our tame kangaroo took his daily constitutional; but nothing grew in it except pumpkins and fat-hen. Well for us that they did flourish, for we lived on pumpkins and mutton for three months, during which time the drays were delayed by flooded creeks, and the store was empty of flour, tea, sugar, and all other groceries. "
Source:  Australian Life, Black and White by Rosa Praed 1885

Rosa Praed.
Rosa's father, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior, had arrived in New South Wales in 1839 at the age of 19. A handsome 'ladies' man' and 'a gentleman squattah who drove his own [bullock] team'.
He married the Anglo-Irish emigré, Matilda Harpur, in Sydney in 1846.

Third born of this union, Rosa Caroline 's most formative early childhood years were spent on the frontier outpost of European settlement, Naraigin, on the Auburn River 300 km north-west of Brisbane where the town of Hawkwood now stands.

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The first hotel at Coolgardie.

A structure of hessian and corrugated iron.

September, 1892
" As recreation we used to play occasional games of cricket on a very hard and uneven pitch, and for social entertainments had frequent sing-songs and “buck dances”—that is, dances in which there were no ladies to take part—at Faahan's Club Hotel in the town,
“Hotel” was rather too high-class a name, for it was by no means an imposing structure, hessian and corrugated iron taking the place of the bricks and slates of a more civilised building.
The addition of a weather-board front, which was subsequently erected, greatly enhanced its attractions. Mr. Faahan can boast of having had the first two-storeyed house in the town; though the too critical might hold that the upper one, being merely a sham, could not be counted as dwelling-room.
There was no sham, however, about the festive character of those evening entertainments. "  David W Carnegie (1871-1900)

Historical data sourced from: SPINIFEX AND SAND  
A Narrative of Five Years' Pioneering and Exploration in Western Australia

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Early Settlers Homes in Victoria circa 1860.

A bush hut of slabs and bark   circa 1860

Descriptive Sketch of Victoria circa 1860.
" The first settlers endured the inclement climate and the harshness of the bush as they went forth into the forest with the manly determination to reclaim the wilderness and to make themselves a home in its previously unbroken solitudes. To do this, has involved no small amount of courage, of patient endurance, of steadfast hope, of physical strength and of pertinacious toil.
Most of the selector’s capital consists of these admirable qualities, for his stock of ready money is usually exhausted by the time he has ringed and felled a few trees upon the site of his future homestead, erected a hut of slabs and bark, furnished it with a trestle bed and blankets, a rudely-constructed table and bench, a few cooking utensils, an axe, a spade, a crosscut saw, and a supply of flour, tea and sugar.

He knows that he must "shun delights and live laborious days," and when he has broken up a few perches of land and put in his first crop, he is not unfrequently compelled to seek for work in the neighbourhood at fencing or road-making, in order to maintain himself until the "kindly earth" shall have yielded him her increase.

In some cases the free-selector, who is fortunate enough to be the possessor of a horse and to be quick and dextrous in the use of the shears, sets out in the beginning of August for the woolsheds in the south of Queensland, or in the north of New South Wales, to fulfil a yearly engagement at sheep-shearing, and makes his way downward from station to station, through Riverina and the Murray country into Victoria, returning in time to gather in his own crops, and with cheques in his pocket representing at least a hundred pounds.

Wattle and daub home with bark roof and parget wooden chimney.

He is thus enabled to purchase a few head of stock or a better description of plough, to build a more commodious hut, and to supply the wife and children, for whom he has been making a home in the bush, with such articles of wearing apparel as they may stand in need. There is plenty of hard work and very little recreation in such a life, and the most lively imagination would fail to invest its prosaic realities with a halo of romance or with an air of poetry.  "

Historical data sourced from: "Picturesque Atlas of Australasia" a three-volume geographic encyclopaedia of Australia and New Zealand compiled and published in 1886. Descriptive Sketch of Victoria  

Description of the erection of a bush hut in Gippsland in the 1860's:

" The timber on the Gipp's Land hills is free splitting.
The kind mostly used for splitting purposes is the stringy bark, so called from the facility with which it can be stripped or pulled into strings, and the fibres of which can be twisted into ropes for houses.

The method of barking the tree is to ring it at the butt, and again eight or nine feet above, then split it down from one girdle to the other, get the fingers in and start it from the wood. When once started, it will readily peel around the body of the tree, and come off one whole sheet, eight feet long and from three to six feet wide.
Take a long-handled shovel and strip off the round outside bark, and it will resemble a side of sole leather. Two men can strip from forty to sixty sheets in a day, so it did not take long to strip enough bark to cover a house, sides, roof and all.

The young stringy bark trees make the best of poles, and one can cut them twenty five or thirty feet long, as straight as a candle, and, if desired, not more than three inches in diameter. Two men can go into the bush and strip the bark, cut the poles and put up a house inside of a week, and a good tidy-looking one too, and such a one as many thousands who are worth their thousands of pounds have lived in for years. "
Source:  C D Ferguson [ed F T Wallace], The Experiences of a Forty-Niner during Thirty Four Years Residence in California and Australia (Cleveland [Ohio] 1888), pp 469-70.

Early settlers Butcher's shop
Butcher's shop in a slab hut with bark roof, Tambaroora NSW
Photo courtesy

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Adobe or mud brick construction  mid 1800's

A mud brick home in Victoria, c1890.

Adobe or mud brick construction developed from the mid 1800s, the Southern Australian reported in 1839 of this form of construction: nearly thirty houses have been erected, they are mostly built of pisé , or of unburnt bricks, which have been hardened by the sun.
With the increase in availability of baked bricks and milled timber it became less common and was mostly restricted to remote rural areas
Note the Bicycle resting against the wall under the right window.
A new bicycle costs about $31.00 ($1,550.00 at todays prices) the equivalent of more than seven weeks wages.(13)
Data sourced from:  Earth Building Research Forum at the University of Technology, Sydney

Perception of a pisé house as described in the novel :
Tales of the Colonies by Charles Rowcroft.(14)
"Come, give us your advice about a pisé house, as you have seen some of them and I have not; will they do?" "Do! Lord bless you--never think of making a mud-pie and calling it a house. Who ever heard of patting mud up into a heap, and then setting a roof on it? Why, it must crumble to pieces, or be washed away by the first rain that comes. But why talk of a mud house when you have plenty of stone on your own land?"
Charles Rowcroft (1798–1856), arrived in Hobart in 1821 and took up a large land grant near Bothwell.(15)

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1901 Census of Australian Dwellings and their type of construction.
In 1901, 786,331 dwellings were counted.
Of these dwellings,
459,558 (58.4%) were made from Wood, Iron, Lath & Plaster, Slab, Bark, Mud, etc, 266,246 (33.8%) were made from Stone, Brick, Concrete, etc; and 42,967 (5.6%) were made from Calico, Canvas etc.(a)

In the 2001 Census, there were a total of 7,072,202 occupied private dwellings comprising 5,327,309 separate houses (75.3%), 632,176 semi detached, row or terrace houses and townhouses (8.9%), 923,139 flats, units or apartments (13.1%) and 134,274 other dwellings (1.9%).(b)

Footnote (a) Dwellings under construction have been included in dwelling counts. The categories of materials have been grouped to provide comparable categories across states. The category "Wood, Iron, Lath & Plaster, Slab, Bark, Mud etc" includes wattle, dab and metal. The category "Stone, Brick, Concrete etc" includes adobe and pise. The category "Calico, Canvas etc" includes linen, tents, drays and hessian.
Footnote (b) The 2001 results are for occupied private dwellings only.

Materials Used in Dwellings
Wood, Iron, Lath, Bark
Plaster, Slab
Stone, Brick,
Concrete etc.

Canvas, Tents.



New South Wales
Queensland (a)
4,819 (a)
South Australia
Western Australia

(a) Count for Not Specified in Queensland includes Ships (203) and Drays (263).
Note: In 1901, New South Wales included the area now known as the Australian Capital Territory. Figures for South Australia included the Northern Territory.
Data Source: 1901 State Censuses (Census of Queensland 1901, South Australian Census 1901, Census Western Australia 1901, Census of Victoria 1901, Census New South Wales 1901, Census of Tasmania 1901).

Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing - 00 1901 Australian Snapshot:  
Australian Bureau of Statistics.

An exhibition from the NSW State Cultural Institutions:
Built for the bush: green architecture of rural Australia looks at traditional sustainable principles used in architecture from the early days of British settlement and discusses how they are applied to environment and become more sustainable designers of products and homes.
View Historic Houses Trust:
Secondary Teacher notes.,_5_and_6_Education_Kit.pdf
Stage 2 & 3 Education Kit.

Other Articles
1:  Early Settlers in Victoria Australia.
2:  Drought and Bush Fires in Victoria 1851 Black Thursday.
3:  Chronology of Australian Major Bush fires.
4:  Chronology of Australian Major Droughts.
5:  Archaeological site at Mount William Stone Hatchets.
6:  Megafauna bones found at Lancefield - Giant Kangaroo.
7:  Is there a risk of a volcanic eruption in Australia ?

References and other Sources:
(1) Cook, English Cottages and Farmhouses, p 14.
(1a) Arthur Phillip, Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (London, 1789), p 145.
(2) A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages by Edward E. Morris M.A., Oxon. Professor of English, French and German Languages and Literatures in the University of Melbourne. 1898
(3)  Historical Records of New South Wales, I, part II, p 747, quoted in John Archer, Building a Nation (Sydney 1987), p 28; or Historical Records of New South Wales, II, appendix I, British Museum Papers, pp 746-9, as quoted in Helen Heney [ed], Dear Fanny (Rushcutters' Bay [New South Wales] 1985, p 1.
(4)  George Farwell, Squatter's Castle (Melbourne 1973), p 54.
(5) Allan Cunningham, Journal 1822-31, S29, New South Wales Archives Office, 9 July 1827, 'Report of Observations made during the progress of a late Tour between Liverpool Plains and Moreton Bay', quoted in Ian Evans et al, The Queensland House: History and Conservation (Mullumbimby [New South Wales 2001)
(6) Sydney Gazette, March 1804, quoted in John Archer, Building a Nation (Sydney 1987), p 32.
(7)  Mann's Emigrants Guide to Australia (London 1849), p 23, cited in Michael Pearson, Notebook on Earth Buildings, p 31.
(8)  F J Wilkin, Baptists in Victoria: Our First Century 1838-1938 (Melbourne 1939), p 9.
(9) 'Garryowen' [Edmund Finn], The Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835 to 1852 (2 vols, Melbourne 1888),
(10) Len Kenna, In the Beginning there was the Land (Bundoora [Victoria] 1988), p 34.
(11) Image source   Native Village in the northern interior. 1847
By Capt. CHARLES STURT, 39th Regt. F.L.S. and F.R.G.S.
(12) Date of the incident presumed to have occurred in the late 1830s
A short history of The Royal Melbourne Hospital
(13) Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
(15) Source: Hand made homes
(16) Source: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies
(17) Image Source:  The Tank Stream Sydney. The Coming of the British to Australia 1788 to 1829  by Ida Lee (Mrs. Charles Bruce Marriott) LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO. 39 PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON NEW YORK AND BOMBAY 1906
(18) Source: An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins Esquire Late Judge Advocate and Secretary Of The Colony. 1798
(19) Source: Bound volume of the Illustrated London News January to June 1849
Image source. A bush hut of slabs and bark circa 1860
"Picturesque Atlas of Australasia" a three-volume geographic encyclopaedia of
    Australia and New Zealand compiled and published in 1886. Descriptive Sketch of Victoria
(20a)  Source: Aboriginal Housing Construction.  Accessed 12/12/2010
(20)  Source: Aboriginal Housing.  Accessed 12/12/2010
(21)  Source: Aboriginal culture. Traditional Life  Accessed 01/05/2010
(22) Image: Dome sweet dome ... a shelter in western Victoria from 1847. Source:  Gunyah, Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia.
(23)  Image courtesy of Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society.
(24)  Potograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Further Reading:
• Australian Building: A Cultural Investigation by Professor Miles Lewis.
 - University of Melbourne  Website:
• Australian Children’s Television Foundation  Website:
• Australian Children’s Television Foundation  Website:
• My Place for Teachers [Episode 22 | Milking time] Student Activity 2: Home sweet home  Website:
• Garryowen (E. Finn), Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
• Memmott, Paul, Gunyah, Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal architecture of Australia, University of Queensland Press, 2007.
• Basedow, Herbert, The Australian Aboriginal, Preece, Adelaide, 1925.
• Australian forest profiles: Acacia -
• An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 2 by David Collins Esquire Late Judge Advocate and Secretary Of The Colony. 1882
Romsey Australia, 'Early settlers' homes and bush huts in Australia', is cited for further reading at:
• Australian Children’s Television Foundation   Website:
• Education Services Australia   Website:
• Historic Houses Trust:   Website:
• Secondary Teacher notes.   Website:,_5_and_6_Education_Kit.pdf

Early Settlers Homes and Bush Huts in Australia.  ( 35 pages )

by Romsey Australia
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.


Revised 27/03/2013