Wandong Township and Terra Cotta Lumber Manufacture 1888-1903
The Wandong township developed slowly until the arrival of Robert Affleck Robertson around 1884. Through his involvement in the region’s forestry and sawmilling industries the township grew rapidly. With only a few services available in 1876, Robertson’s industries helped to create an exciting and vibrant environment. Having established several sawmills in the Plenty Ranges as well as connecting tramline, Robertson set about constructing a number of ancillary businesses to support his activities. He constructed the Wandong Coffee Palace and Railway Restaurant complete with a boarding house, a bakery, tea rooms as well as a few brick cottages for his managers.
This was an exciting time for Robertson as he sought to expand his operations. For Melbourne it was a period of booming economic growth fuelled by the introduction of many new and innovative technologies from around the world. This was particularly true for the construction industry with improved building techniques enabling buildings to reach new heights in elevation, design emphasis and style with Melbourne’s business core being transformed into a high-rise centre like those of the United States.
One product enabling such transformation was the introduction of terra cotta lumber. Designed primarily as a fireproofing technology, this block material consisting of three parts sawdust and two parts clay enabled buildings to be built to new heights. Said to be lightweight, able to be cut, sawn and nailed; providing good insulating and fireproofing qualities, the material was keenly adopted by Melbourne’s architectural community.
Robertson was at the forefront of this booming construction period and took the opportunity to expand his operations by constructing a terra cotta lumber manufacturing plant at Wandong. Acquiring four acres of land situated on a ’vast bed of splendid clay’ on the east side of the Epping/Kilmore Road Robertson erected a factory and drying sheds costing around £6,000. Described in 1891, the plant consisted of a sixty horsepower ‘engine and boiler house, numerous drying avenues, four burning kilns (four downdraft and one open one), each with a flue beneath the floor running to the smoke stack some distance away’. Each kiln capable of holding ‘terra cotta lumber equivalent to 20,000 bricks’ or 100,000 a week. The works also contained a Worthington pump to feed the boiler while the water supply for the works was drawn from a ‘dry water course where it (was) dammed and then pumped into an elevated tank capable of holding 2,400 gallons from which the boilers and machines (were) supplied’. As a contingency to ensuring the works water supply, a ’60-foot bore’ was also available.
The process of manufacture saw layers of sawdust added to the clay pit, wetted down and allowed to soak for only three days. The mixture was then transported in trucks up an incline to a loft aided by means of a ‘wire rope and friction gear’ which was then fed through a set of rollers and dropped into a pug mill in which a ‘set of knives’ cut the material before it was dropped into the ‘making machine’. The material was then extruded through a selection of dyes to the required dimension, laid out on tables and with the aid of wire appliances, cut to desired length. The blocks were then conveyed along a tramline to the drying avenues where the material was left to dry for about a week. It was reported that the plant had sufficient drying avenues for three weeks’ work and could produce blocks ‘varying from one inch thick to 13 x 11 inches’, the largest produced.
The only remnants of this once thriving operation are the brick cottages constructed by Robertson for his workers and the recently renovated St. Michael’s Catholic Church, all located within the Wandong township.