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A Brief History of Australian Roofing

The Unique Australian Look

A roof pitch of thirty to forty degrees is necessary to shed water from a shingled roof. The steeper the pitch, the less likely it was that the roof would leak. Verandah roofs, which often had a low pitch, were covered with painted canvas or sheet zinc.

In most cases, the builders of these houses knew as much about the weather as we do. In fact, their buildings were better adapted to the climate than most of today’s new houses. Because they had no means of cooling a house and only limited heating systems they devised a variety of ingenious methods to make their dwellings comfortable. A careful look though an old house, with its verandahs, shutters, high ceilings, ventilated ceiling roses, opening or fretworked fanlights and many other features will confirm this statement.


Large roof cavities, the result of steeply pitched roofs, insulated houses and helped maintain a comfortable temperature in extremes of heat or cold.

Free is Good

One of the nineteenth century’s most popular roofing materials, shingles, were cut from a variety of timbers, including Eucalypt, Casuarina and Stringybark. An experienced shingle-splitter could cut about 700 shingles a day, enough to cover three square metres of a roof. Shingled roofs were popular when labour was cheap and trees were free.

The bush yielded a selection of useful building materials. For roofing, there were thatches of native grasses or the fronts of the grass tree or ‘blackboy’. Bush dwellings with walls of bark, slabs, earth or milled timber were roofed with sheets of bark, which because they could not be nailed, were held down by thick saplings tied together with greenhide thongs. In the dry inland where rain was rare, roofs were sometimes formed of brush, Spinifex or boughs. Roofs made of sawn and split palings were occasionally used, particularly in Tasmania.

While these materials were effective, durable and freely available on many building sites they were clearly unsuitable for large-scale housing in cities. Shingles were an exception and retained a loyal following in cities and towns across Australia from the first settlement period right into the twentieth century.

Metal as Anything

Experiments to produce satisfactory sheet metal roofing were underway in Britain during the 1820’s and 1830’s, spurred by the construction of the large buildings of the industrial revolution: railway stations, factories and gasworks. In the 1840s, the firm of Morewood and Rogers devised a system of flat tiles of zinc-coated iron with a rolled edge. Their patented roofing is still keeping the rain out of many early Australian houses.

Verandahs of early houses were often roofed with canvas, waterproofed with paint in striped patterns in an allusion to the ancient custom of striping the roofs of tents. Corrugated galvanised iron roofing, when it eventually arrived, was curved and painted to resemble canvas.

The use of metal roofing increased when it was realised that iron rolled into a series of regular corrugations was stronger, weight for weight, than flat iron sheets. This offered considerable savings in the quantity of metal required and in the structure of roofs. Hot-dip galvanising, introduced in the 1840s solved the problem of corrosion.

Galvanised corrugated iron arrived in Australia in about the 1850 and rapidly became the most widely used roofing material. It was easily and swiftly applied, even by unskilled labour, light, compact, inexpensive, fireproof, and immune from insect attack. Enough iron to cover the roof of a cottage fitted easily onto a dray or cart, making a load that was light enough to be dragged over bumpy roads to almost any bush building site.

Roofing iron used in Australia during the nineteenth century carried the names of British firms which became familiar to generations of Australians who saw their brands on the underside of their verandah roofs: Gospel Oak, Phoenix, Lysaght® and others. Australian manufacture of corrugated galvanised steel roofing began at Lysaght’s Works in Newcastle, NSW, on 4 April 1921.

The terms ‘corrugated iron’ or ‘galvanised iron’ became misnomers after about 1915 when steel began to replace iron in the manufacturing process. The change went unnoticed by the general public who continued to refer to ‘corrugated iron’ or ‘galvanised iron’. Today, however, the increasing used of Zincalume®, an alloy of zinc and aluminium, for coating corrugated steel roofing means the old term is fading.

Red Tile Roofs

Other popular roofing materials of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include slate and tiles. Slate from Britain and Europe was used as ballast in the ships and come to Australia in the 1830s and, after the discovery of local supplies in South Australia in 1840 and later in New South Wales, importing continued. Many slate roofs are notable for their decorative patterns, formed of slates of different colours and shapes. Ridging may be of lead, rolled and dressed over a timber dowel, galvanised iron or steel, cast iron or, after about 1885, of terracotta. The hips of some Edwardian roofs have concealed flashing with mitted slates to eliminate the need for capping.

Terracotta tiles have been used in Australia from shortly after the beginnings of European settlement. They were flat, unglazed, and resembled wooden shingles in appearance. However, the tile most commonly found on Australian houses in the Marseilles-pattern, which takes its name from the French city where these tiles originated. Marseilles tiles were first imported in 1886 and rapidly became popular for the Federation-style house, which had just been introduced.

Local production began in 1897 but it was not until the First World War terminated supplies from France that the Wunderlich Company began manufacturing the tiles in quantity. The orange-red Marseilles-pattern tiles gave a distinctive appearance to Australian suburbia.

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