Hessian homes

The walls were hessian bags sewn together and nailed to wall frames of cut saplings, and the outside of the external walls was painted with a mix of lime, salt and water, or whitewash as it was known. Newspaper pages were pasted, perhaps with flour and water, to the hessian on the inside and to both sides of the hessian partitions that formed the two bedrooms. The door was made with saplings, the roof was corrugated iron more or less flat, and the floor was made with round poles split lengthways and laid flat side up directly onto the ground. Windows were made of flattened tins and hinged at the top.

Betty Parkinson lived in that bag hut in a village of bag huts on the outskirts of Cessnock as a child, three quarters of a century ago. Today she lives in a brick and weatherboard house not far from the long-gone hut. Is she, I asked yesterday when I read her letter in this paper about the hut, any better off? No, she says, although I suspect that at age 83 she’d appreciate the undoubtedly more even floor.

Earlier another reader of mature years, Elaine Richards, had written in the Herald that families sharing houses, that living in cramped conditions, was nothing new, and Mrs Richards was responding to a front-page news report that the cost of houses in the Hunter had forced many families to share houses and even, in some cases, rooms. She told how she and her husband had rented a room with the use of one shelf in the fridge and the bottom shelf in the oven, and that this common situation did not make news.

In a previous letter she wrote how, when she lived as a child at Mayfield West, she was under the impression her friend’s parents in a nearby settlement were rich because their house had wooden floorboards when the others had dirt floors.

A house I boarded in at Coonamble 40 years ago had a kitchen with a dirt floor, although the floor was so shiny that it didn’t at first appear to be dirt. The uneven surface gave it away, and it wasn't, by the way, dirty. And I recall that the first house my wife and I bought, a miner’s cottage of four rooms and a skillion bathroom in Cooks Hill, had decades earlier been home to a family of 11! Naturally we doubled the size of the house before we could even think about moving in with two children.

It is our expectations that have changed, and, wow, don’t we pay for that! We borrow so much money to buy the house that meets our expectations that both husband and wife have to bring in an income, and disaster looms if one fails; and the house that meets our expectations costs so much because both husband and wife are prepared to work to meet their expectations! Like everything else, the price is determined by what people will pay.

When the loan is reduced after a decade or more we borrow again to extend and renovate, to meet new expectations for a bigger or fancier house.

Is our life improved for having a kitchen like one we saw in a glossy magazine? Am I better off for living in a house with four or five rooms I don’t need or even use? We have so-called entertainment areas when guests still stand or sit on stools around the kitchen bench, we have rooms that are little more than storerooms for the stuff we buy and don’t use because we don’t need it or it is useless.

My life would be improved if our house were smaller, and one reason is that family members would spend more time together even if it was watching television. A child watching television in one room while parent or parents watch in another room, the child living on a separate floor, using a separate bathroom, is close to living separately, to living in another house.

Would walls of hessian and pasted newspaper reduce the quality of my life? I think not, even if insulation and sound-proofing were reduced. It may be that the main drawback would be in durability, although durability matters only because we pay more than we can afford for a house. If we did not have a life-ruling preoccupation with living further up the hill, we’d not only happy, we’d be happier, within whitewashed hessian walls.

Do we devote too much of our life to house? Need it be any more than comfortable shelter? Will it ever be again?

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