In a new Hidden Documentary section, I’ve decided to open up the curiosity floodgates to you, dear reader. I want to know, what have you always wondered about Melbourne? Is it an old building you always pass on your way to work, or a piece of graffiti you’ve wondered about, or maybe where your local bus goes after you get off?
You can consider me your rent-a-writer. If you have a question about Melbourne, I will investigate it and endeavour to get you an answer.
This week, I’ve received a request from Canadian traveller Robin Urekar about something she’s noticed around the streets in her time here.
Why is there so much cast iron lacework on the buildings in Melbourne? Where does it come from and why is it in this city in particular and not others?
Cast iron lacework, for those of you who don’t live in Melbourne, are the ornate features you see on the outside of many of Melbourne’s older buildings. It can be on gates, fences, awnings, posts, verandas - and it’s absolutely everywhere in the inner city.
I took on Robin’s challenge and met up Victorian Cast Iron Restoration director Adam Schofield to find out.
Victorian Cast Iron Restoration, Kensington, 10am
After the gold rush in 1850s in Victoria, there was a huge building boom and many of Melbourne’s most prominent buildings and suburbs were built. The huge wealth from the gold fields meant developers could afford to build ornately in the Victorian style.
This development contrasts to Britain, where the Victorian style originates from. Ironically, there are far fewer examples of Victorian architecture in Britain itself, because there was far less demand for new buildings. It was also in the 1850s when Victoria built its own foundries for the first time and had the capacity to make cast iron without importing it from Britain.
Adam’s company is the leading cast iron restoration company in Australia and has restored the iron lace work on buildings across Melbourne including; the Melbourne Town Hall, Salvation Army Building and the Royal Exhibition Buildings. They have also worked internationally on many of Singapore’s colonial buildings.
I walked with Adam through his workshop as he pointed out dozens of different castings with encyclopaedic accuracy.
Within the history of the cast iron around the workshop, there is also the history of Adam’s family. Adam’s grandfather, Eric Haydon, bought the business in 1928 and the family has been creating cast iron on the same site ever since.
How it’s done
The process of restoration often begins with a photograph of the original building or design. Sometimes, a pattern for the lacework needs to be made from scratch if there isn’t any building pattern to work from.
This means Adam will begin by making a plasticine model and will draw the entire pattern by hand, which can take weeks. There may be an old pattern available, but it often needs to be cleaned extensively before it can be used.
Then, the pattern is made into a cast plate, from which an impression is taken. Once the impression is taken for both sides of the plate then a mould is made.
Adam sends the mould off to a foundry where molten iron is poured into it, making the cast iron lacework. Finally, Adam will paint up the cast and install it – creating a new piece of history for years to come.
First Hidden Melbourne mystery – solved.
If you have a question about Melbourne that you would like me to investigate for you, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m all ears.