Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wood And Iron Houses In Vincent

I have spoken so far very little about the suburb of Vincent in the heart of East London. 
At present there are numerous construction sites in Vincent and business premises and offices with modern glass fronts mushroom all over the place to accommodate local companies. Unfortunately many old building have been torn down over the last four years and the plots were cleaned from all vegetation to allow for construction. I have been observing this process for quite a while and this made me tour the town from time to time, not only the Vincent area to capture especially the colonial wood and iron houses on film.

But there are still some colonial wood and iron houses to be found - like the one in Surrey Road that I am going to introduce to you today. Wood and Iron houses are fascinating architectural buildings found mostly in countries that were once ex British colonies.

When you drive or walk down Surrey Road in Vincent you can see this beautiful charming house with the appearance of a children's doll house.

Corrugated iron dwellings were originally designed to be relatively temporary structures and were therefore ideal as a housing solution for the first pioneers, that came to South Africa and the residents of mining settlements, such as Kimberley and Pilgrim's Rest. Later on these type of buildings were set up in the cities all over South Africa. 
Corrugated iron was first manufactured in London around 1830 when cropped and profiled steel sheets were galvanized producing lightweight, fireproof, corrosion resistant sheets ideal for export to British colonies, like Australia and South Africa, from about 1845. 

Corrugated iron was an excellent, ready-made building material meeting the diverse challenges of affordability, portability, utility and strength. 

According to Gill Vernon, who completed a study of wood and iron cottages in East London, a three-bedroom wood and iron house could be packed in a case weighing two tons, which made transportation of the prefabricated units relatively easy.

Corrugated iron sheets proved to be a first class building material and the houses weathered particularly well. 
By the 1880s larger finished timbers became available resulting in more elaborate structures.

Gill Vernon has identified some features that, with a few minor variations, were common to wood and iron houses. 
The houses were timber framed, clad externally with corrugated iron and internally with tongue and groove panelling of Baltic deal. They were usually built on a fairly substantial foundation, often stone, with sneeze wood posts supporting the wooden floors. 

The wooden floors were often raised above the stone foundations, preventing mould and mildew. Sliding sash windows were popular. In the gabled houses there were large louvre ventilators. 
The front veranda, consisting of timber posts supporting a straight or curved corrugated iron roof, shielded the front door and windows and kept the houses cool. An iron canopy over the windows was also popular. Kitchens originally included a brick chimney or embrasure.

Wood and iron structures were also popular as churches, outbuildings, shops and warehouses.


There are only a few of these buildings still to be found in East London and the surrounding areas. King Williams Town has still a few of them. There are some wood and iron houses in West Bank as well.

I have done a small photographic inventory of these houses for myself because I find them fascinating and beautiful. Often the fear of maintaining such a historical structure keeps people from buying wood and iron houses. As far as I know there is no programme in place to preserve the remaining few houses.

In many of these houses generations of the same family have lived. Once the owners get to old and financial means are lacking they have to sell the house. If this is not possible the deterioration is difficult to stop.

Many of the residential wood and iron buildings have been demolished or plastered over with the windows and front doors having been replaced. But it is essential to preserve the last remaining examples of South Africa's wood and iron buildings for posterity.

The study that Gill Vernon has conducted about the old wood and iron houses in East London has been done in 1984 more than twenty years ago. It would be interesting to research this topic again today.

If somebody is interested in reading more here is the references:
Vernon, G.N. 'A Study of the Wood and Iron Houses of East London, South Africa' in Annals of the Cape Provincial Museums (Human Sciences), Vol. 1, Part 4, 21.12.1984.

Amathole Museum's newsletter© Victor, S. 2009. Imvubu 21: 2, 2. 

Museum Files 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, this is really interesting, thank you. My parents live in one of these houses and they are a lot of work, but very comfortable to live in. cool in summer. Do you know how I could get hold of the book by Vernon?


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