IT IS ironic that in the same week the Bass Coast Council approved the much-debated and initially (still?) flawed historical overlay, the council was reportedly considering an application to demolish one of the most significant buildings in Wonthaggi. While the Wonthaggi Historical Society is focused on this development, with letters being written, reports compiled and motions passed, it seems a good time to explain how the building came to be, its significance as a part of Wonthaggi history and, importantly, what a wonderful building it was when it was built, and still is.
Robert Owen and the Co-operative Movement
In England, Robert Owen (1771-1858), a utopian socialist and social reformer, was the father of the Co-operative Movement, which was, for our purposes in this report, a co-partnership among employees for social and economic wellbeing. The Co-operative Movement became popular in coalmining communities throughout England, Scotland and Wales in the late 19th Century, so it is no surprise that when the State Coal Mine opened, bringing an influx of workers from northern England and Scotland and the establishment of a town, the idea of setting up a co-operative was in the air.
Matt McMahon, the idealist we needed
Early attempts to establish co-ops in older mines in Jumbunna and Outtrim had failed, perhaps because they did not have charismatic characters like Matt McMahon to make them succeed. Matt was a political thinker and an idealist who could enter a room and clarify any confusion about issues of democracy, constitution, collective decision-making and social justice to the satisfaction of all parties.
The Bakehouse masthead, a reminder of Wonthaggi's co-operative past
The right climate creates an opportunity
Matt and several other miners/townspeople attempted to get a co-operative going as early as 1910, but it was not until 1912 that there was the right climate – a new town with a self-help, can-do ethos and democratic ideals combined with workers fresh from the Rutherglen, Creswick, Allandale, Ballarat gold mines – to take the ideas of co-operativism and make them work. Since, the ideal was for co-ownership of any enterprise, anyone who wanted to become a member of the Wonthaggi Cooperative had to become a shareholder, required to maintain a minimum shareholding of five pounds, which could be bought on a subscription system at two shillings and sixpence a fortnight. By late 1912 there was enough support for the co-op to commence trading from its first premises in Watt Street, on the very block where the Bakehouse now stands. This first use of the block was for a grocery and general store, which, as the co-op grew, had to be shifted to larger premises on Graham Street in 1918.
An architect is hired
The building at Watt Street was probably then used to stable the horses that pulled the carts to deliver goods to homes throughout Wonthaggi (the wonderful story of the carters and how they operated will be saved for another PLOD), before it was torn down and rebuilt to house the expanding bakery connected to the co-op. The first bakery had been at the back of the Graham Street premises, but after John Short took over as manager of the co-op, the boom years started and expansion was the word. In 1925, under the guidance of Short, the co-op employed a Collins Street architect, Harry A. Norris, to re-design the Graham Street shop (with the remarkably innovative inclusion of a cool store!), and at the same time design a new bakehouse to be erected across the lane at the back of the co-op building on the original co-op premises at Watt Street.
A builder is found
The Bakehouse was built by Mr Frongerude, a Norwegian man (tragically, he and his whole family later drowned at Inverloch). Mr Frongerude, who was a master builder and perfectionist, was also responsible for building the Wonthaggi Railway Station, the Post Office, the State Bank and other public buildings in Wonthaggi. It is known that he salvaged and used the bricks from the original building at Watt Street in the new building. The Bakehouse was ready for use in 1926, when the co-op and Wonthaggi were at their height.
Sam Gatto uncovers Harry A Norris’ specifications for the New Bakehouse.
During his researches for his book on the history of the Wonthaggi Hospital – also run as a co-operative – Sam Gatto came across the detailed specifications for the building of the New Bakehouse tendered in 1925. The details in this document prove beyond a doubt that the Bakehouse is not a useless old building ready to fall down as the application for demolition declares but is a significant building constructed to last into perpetuity. Norris tendered his specifications on October 9, 1925 and in it declared, “The work is to be carried out in accordance with … this specification … and to the entire satisfaction of [the architect].”
All materials to be “best of their description”
The architect required that all “materials and workmanship are to be the best of their respective kinds and the work is to be executed and finished in the best and most substantial manner.” He specified depths of excavation, levels, fillings, concrete – 4 parts bluestone screenings, 2 parts clean sand, 1 part Geelong Portland cement – widths and thicknesses of sleepers and lintels, piers and openings. He declared “Bricks are to be approved machine made, the best of their description, hard, sound, and well burnt, of uniform size and color well soaked before using” and insisted that no lime mortar would be used in the contract.
Details of construction are available to peruse
The building, according to the original document, was to be made of brick, cement, steel and ironite. A photocopy of the original specification document – the Bake Hall and Loading Yard, the construction of the building, including roof trusses, flashing, spouting, purlins, windows, sashes, doors, plinths – is available in the museum for members and visitors to study. All the detail in the document is further argument – nay, conclusive argument – that the building must not be demolished.
This essay was first published in The Plod, the newsletter of the Wonthaggi Historical Society, in 2007 when Bass Coast Council was considering an application to demolish the Bakery. It is based on notes and comments by Sam Gatto and Terri Allen, information from Google and facts from Tilo Junge’s book, Wonthaggi’s Bread Tokens.
October 8, 2015
I liked your story about the bakehouse. It takes me back when I was a young lad in the `60's. I used to work there between school and weekends to earn some pocket money. I think they used to produce all kinds of bread under the name of "Country Style" bread. It was great fun to work there. I used to help in the baking process and also deliver the bread (with a baker friend and driver Jock Boynes) across Wonthaggi, Dalyston and Kilcunda.
I lived in Wonthaggi through all my school years Primary (Wonthaggi North)& Secondary (Wonthaggi Technical) I lived at 8 wentworth rd in wonthaggi as a kid I used to watch the steam train (from the kirrak coal mine) go by all the time it is a shame there are no photos of my area from all those years ago but I do have some train tickets and a timetable and 2 movies about the blue and yellow passenger train and also when thekirrak mine closed on an open day then.
I remember as a kid that before the mines became a tourist attraction I used to explore the mines a bit dangerous when I think about it now.