Cordwell Lane

Australian design through time: the colonial years

Take a step back through the ages with us as we look at the history of our homes. Welcome to the first in our series ‘Australian design through time’ – The Colonial Years.

Photo courtesy Trevor Mein


Sarah O'Donovan

Beyond our maslovian need for shelter, in perpetuity our homes are so much more. They are the places we choose to be, our havens and a visual display of the love between a builder and their craft. Take a step back through the ages with us as we look at the history of our homes. Welcome to the first in our series ‘Australian design through time’ – the colonial years.
Occurring upon colonisation, the matriarch of Australian home design was a tent city on Sydney’s shores.
With the poor quality of axes and spades, and the shortage of nails, tents offered an easy, short-term solution until techniques, supplies and – let’s be honest – mass convict labour could be put into action.
Forced into urban centres in search of paid labour prior to their sentencing, convicts adapted simple animal-shelter-style buildings from the locally available materials to create huts with wattle-and-daub walls. 
So useful were the local acacia trees for weaving shelters that they were given the name ‘Wattle’ meaning to fence or frame. Clay sourced from the coves around Port Jackson created a mortar and weather protective coating, while lime for cement was obtained by burning oyster shells.
post office
A post office in South Australia is a perfect example of colonial architecture
Framton Goodman via Flickr
sedan cottage
A 140-year-old cottage demonstrates the early days of Australian building techniques and materials
Denisbin via Flickr
Initially two local roofing materials were available – thatched reed from the Cook’s river and bark peeled off in large sheets. Methods of heating and flattening the bark were used by the Aboriginal people and these were quickly assimilated by the convict builders. 

Once a few consistent building methods were established, we reached what is now referred to as ‘old colonial’ style: imagine a collection of ‘shacks’ nestled in the bush, imported corrugated iron roofs sheltering the verandas, often held in place with what looks like thick branches. 

Decades later grand public buildings constructed with light clay bricks provided examples of ‘colonial regency’ and ‘colonial Georgian’.

Colonial architecture often resembled what was seen in England at the time, with European settlers heavily influenced by their motherland. This was particularly noticeable after 1793 when the landscape became increasingly influenced by English culture thanks to the writers, musicians, architects and other creatives that began flocking to the country on migrant ships. 

However, buildings constructed during this period were still predominantly built according to the availability of materials and requirements of the environment, while importation of glass and bricks became more frequent from 1790–1840.
Cordwell Lane
Captain Kelly's cottage in Tasmania has been impeccably restored 
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein
Cordwell Lane
The corrugated iron roofing paired with a veranda makes for an iconic heritage style
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein
Externally, buildings typically featured small multi-paned windows and were rectangular in shape and neutral in colour. Roofing materials still typically consisted of corrugated iron – this was before the development of shingles. 

Verandas were commonplace in both a nod to the English portico and a bid to help acclimatising immigrants get some reprieve from the harsh Australian sun. These verandas also offered external access to bedrooms. 

The working family and farmer homes often began as one room, due to financial constraints and resource availability, with additional rooms being added as time went on. Because of this, the end result was sometimes asymmetrical and a labyrinth of corridors and doors

For wealthier homeowners and large public building however, a symmetrical design was usually developed and built from the beginning, reflecting the emerging age of classicism and the end of the renaissance period occurring in Europe at the time. 
The Olives in Glenelg, built in 1867, demonstrates the lasting impact of colonial style architecture
Denisbin via Flickr
sydney museum
Australia's first public Museum was established in Sydney in 1827
Blue Mountains Library, Local Studies via Flickr
Existing examples of buildings constructed during this time are a testament to the quality materials and workmanship Australia began exhibiting from a young age, though there are few residential examples still standing today. 
Cordwell Lane
Captain Kelly's Cottage, Bruny Island, Tasmania
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein





Captain Kelly’s Cottage is a delicately restored weatherboard home on Bruny Island which exemplifies the liberal use of corrugated iron and timber cladding, as well as the style’s iconic feature – the veranda. 




Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney is an awe-inspiring example of the latter half of colonial design with its tall ceilings and multi-paned windows. The building was originally commissioned as a residence for a government official but now serves as a historical ‘living museum’.

ellizabeth bay house
Elizabeth Bay House, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney
Michael Woodhead via Flickr

If you have a colonial-style home there are certain materials and products you can use to modernise the building while paying homage to its history:

  • corrugated iron roofing 
  • locally-sourced timber 
  • large block bricks
  • small or multi-paned windows 
  • internal timber panelling 
soul of gerringong
A modern example of colonial-style windows
Photo courtesy BAM Constructions
soul of gerringong
A wrap-around veranda and corrugated iron roofing executed with style
Photo courtesy BAM Constructions

Did you know…

In 2007 it was estimated that 22 per cent of living Australian residents had convict ancestors, so what was life like in a community of felons?

  • It has been reported that the first European settlers in Australia drank more alcohol per head than any other community in the history of mankind.
  • In 1832, 300 female convicts at the Cascade Female Factory mooned the Governor of Tasmania during a chapel service. It was reported that in a ‘rare moment of collusion with the convict women, the ladies in the Governor's party could not control their laughter’.
  • Convicts were not sent to Australia for serious crimes such as murder, sexual assault, or impersonating an Egyptian, those offences were punishable by death in England.
  • Crimes punishable by transportation to Australia included recommending that politicians get paid, starting a union, stealing fish from a river or pond, embezzlement, receiving or buying stolen goods, setting fire to underwood, petty theft, or being suspected of supporting Irish terrorism.
  • Australia's first police force consisted of 12 of the best-behaved convicts.

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