Timber and iron : houses in North Queensland mining settlements, 1861-1920

Bell, Peter Timber and iron : houses in North Queensland mining settlements, 1861-1920. St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1984.

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Author Bell, Peter
Title Timber and iron : houses in North Queensland mining settlements, 1861-1920
Place of Publication St. Lucia, Qld.
Publisher University of Queensland Press
Publication year 1984
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
ISBN 070221714X
Total number of pages 244
Subjects 310101 Architecture
12 Built Environment and Design
Formatted Abstract/Summary



The older houses of North Queensland are distinctive in appearance and have frequently attracted comment from visitors. "At their worst", reported one tourist in the 1930s, "they are square wooden boxes on long legs." More scholarly observers in recent times have expressed less caustic judgements. "The vernacular timber house of North Queensland is of so distinct and local a character as to deserve some explanation," one said. That explanation is the object of this book, which studies the history of house construction in the region during its first six decades of settlement by Europeans. The characteristic features of the North Queensland house will be described in some detail in later chapters, but they can be summarized briefly here. The houses are highly standardized — the majority reducing essentially to one of two basic floor plans — and are almost invariably built in timber and iron. They are usually elevated above ground, sometimes to a height of 2 metres, and most employ a wall frame of light studs which are boarded internally but left exposed on the outer face of the building. Almost every house has a veranda on one or more walls. Decorative detail is subdued, typically confined to a few conventional embellishments in sheet metal and fret-sawn timber. All of these characteristics are found in other parts of Australia, but their combination into a frequently repeated whole identifies the instantly recognizable North Queensland house. 


The assumption is commonly made that these distinctive elements originated as deliberate responses to a tropical environment. However, in a thesis addressing that topic, Ray Sumner concluded: "While it is true that the distinctive North Queensland house evolved at least partially in response to climatic problems, there is also abundant evidence of a general lack of attention to climatic considerations, indicating that climate was not the controlling or most significant influence on housing." That finding is the starting point of this account. Sumner's conclusion that climatic influences were not the most significant determinants in the evolution of the distinctive North Queensland house naturally invites inquiry into the other influences that were equally or more, pervasive. The origins of the early settlers of the region, their previous experience, financial circumstances, and way of life all suggest themselves as warranting research. Further, an examination of a large number of the extant older houses of North Queensland might be expected to yield information about the trends of local evolution in houses, to assist in identifying antecedents elsewhere. While much has been written on the history of Australian buildings in the last twenty years, few if any accounts have attempted to describe the building stock of any part of the continent in sufficient detail to acquaint the reader with what is typical, what occasionally occurs, and what is unknown. Indeed, many studies perversely preoccupy themselves with the atypical. This study seeks to describe the history of houses in one region, over a period of sixty years, combining the documentary evidence normally sought by historians with a field survey of nearly four thousand houses in North Queensland towns. 


The North Queensland region is defined here as the hinterlands of the east coast ports from Bowen north, and of Normanton and Burketown on the Gulf of Carpentaria; or broadly Queensland north of 21° latitude. Within that region, the study concentrates on houses in settlements — cities, towns, townships — any groups of habitations sufficiently stable to support a commercial or administrative infrastructure. Ephemeral settlements such as railway-construction or alluvial-mining camps are not excluded; these were at times quite sizeable urban concentrations, despite the flimsiness of their fabric…. 

Keyword Architecture, Domestic -- Queensland
Vernacular architecture -- Queensland
Dwellings -- Queensland
Q-Index Code AX
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown
Additional Notes Permission received from University of Queensland Press to make this item publicly available on 5th June 2013

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Created: Wed, 21 Apr 2010, 10:59:58 EST by Ms Kerline Usher on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service