Bark hut or stone fortress? The architecture of pastoral Queensland.

In South Australia we tend to take for granted the robust forms of farmstead architecture that proliferate in the agricultural regions of our state, and that are synonymous with our pastoral history and heritage. Little old stone cottages, homesteads, and ruins are so ubiquitous in the rural landscape that it’s difficult to imagine that they might be considered somewhat of an oddity in other parts of Australia.

In northern Queensland, European settlers constructed very different dwellings on the pastoral frontier during the late 19th century. In his rather poetic description of the architecture of the frontier, E.B. Sorenson writes of Queensland houses in 1911:

Though one finds all sorts of curious habitations sprinkled over the country, there is a certain architectural style marking the periods of settlement. What may be accepted as typical of early selection days is the ‘old bark hut.’ … The roof, as its name implies, was covered with stringy-bark, secured with bits of green-hide, and held down with crossed poles, called riders and jockies. The doors and shutters were made of split pine battens, and swung on leather hinges. There wasn’t a pane of glass in it; neither was there in the shingle-roofed cottages that became the vogue at a later period.

Whilst it’s true that this type of dwelling was typical for the earliest phases of settlement, architectural historians have noted that even the more permanent homes, intended for occupancy over the longer term, were still constructed predominantly of timber, or sometimes mud and rubble (Bell 1984; Sumner 1974).

No 10 Cambridge Downs, Stawell - Cambridge river in backgrou
Cambridge Downs n.d., Burke District, Queensland
Original stone homestead to the right was replaced by the timber building on the left, probably in the 1890s.

Cambridge Downs homestead, built sometime in the 1860s or 1870s, is therefore rare, although certainly not unique, for the region. Examples of other stone homesteads do exist, like Old Westmoreland Homestead and Elderslie Homestead, both on the Queensland Heritage Register. Nevertheless, in north Queensland, these types of buildings are few and far between.

The massive stone walls of the first Cambridge Downs homestead, the remains of which still stand today, were skilfully constructed from ‘flagstones’ collected in the vicinity. Photographic evidence and archaeological survey suggests that these walls were broken only by three to four windows, and a door to the front and the rear. Given that most settlers built much humbler bark and timber dwellings, what then, was the motivation for the construction of this comparatively substantial residence? Did the threat of attack really inspire the earliest settlers on this pastoral run to build a stone fortress?

Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student

Bell, P. 1984 Timber and Iron: Houses in North Queensland Mining Settlements, 1861-1920. St Lucia, QLD: University of Queensland Press.

Sorenson, E.B. 1911 Backblock homes and builders: The architecture of the pioneer. The Catholic Press, Thursday 13 April 1911. Retrieved 29 March 2014 from

Sumner C.R. 1974 Pioneer homesteads of North Queensland. In Dalton, B.J. (ed) Lectures on North Queensland History, pp. 47-61. Townsville: James Cook University.

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