Weatherproof, durable, lightweight, and cheap: corrugated iron defines a lineage of Australian buildings, writes Jenny Brown. Although it was exported to all British Empire colonies, none took to the material as enthusiastically as we did. Within a year of its invention it was being used in Sydney, initially to cover wooden shingles to make cottage roofs impervious. Within 25 years it was one of the variations on the materials used to make the thousands of pre-fabricated houses that were shipped into Melbourne.
By the end of the 1850s there were iron cottages scattered through the back lanes of the city, through North Melbourne, and in one dense subdivision in South Melbourne there were 100 iron pre-fab houses.

It’s vaguely hilarious that rusted corrugated iron has developed such cachet that it is preferred in retro-rustic landscaping.
It’s there en mass in the slumping fences, the garden sheds and the skillion roofing of back-room lean-tos. Why is self-evident: It was weatherproof, durable, lightweight, easily transported, stackable, supple and cheap. The gold rush population boom had created such an unprecedented demand for rapid-build residential that Melbourne became the pre-fab capital of the world. Many were still occupied in the 1930s and some were still in situ in North and South Melbourne in the 1960s.

In 1855 theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin built his cavernous curved-roofed Olympic Theatre out of iron. Now it is Patterson Place in deference to the owner of the largest cottage in the collection and the only one still in its original position.

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