South Australia's homes of the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries sport some of the most beautiful examples of decorative cast iron imaginable. There are thousands of villas, cottages, houses and maisonettes whose verandahs and fences have been enhanced by the products of a gifted ironfounder or blacksmith.
The locally produced cast iron has become an important, if often underrated, part of South Australia's heritage.
Australian foundries were manufacturing their products for homes by the 1830s. The designs they used for the decorative work were, at this time, relatively simple pieces. Over the ensuing decades, as the casting craft increased in skill of manufacture, fandangles and frills superseded plainer patterns. Consumer demand and the variety of styles of cast iron available increased at a rapid pace.
The high point for decorative cast iron was reached at the time of the great suburban building booms of the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. Throughout metropolitan Adelaide, in areas as diverse as Leabrook and Malvern, stone and brick houses with their attendant decorative cast iron work were being erected. Cast iron was used to enhance both the dwellings of the poor and the mansions of the wealthy.
Yet not only did iron foundries manufacture mouldings of cast iron for verandahs. Chairs, tables, ventilation inserts, fencing, gates, posts and columns, lamp and gate arches, and even urinals were produced. While architects and social commentators of later generations belittled most of these productions, there can be no doubt that the great foundries of the Victorian period manufactured some superb architectural ornamentation. The very fact that much of it has survived until the present is testimony to its lasting strength and its appreciation by many people.
South Australia had many great foundries. One of the best known was the "Sun" foundry, of Hindley Street, Adelaide. The foundry was situated on land later taken over by a prominent brewery. Its proprietors, Colin Stewart and Allan Cameron Harley, promoted themselves as 'general ironfounders and blacksmiths' and manufactureres of 'architectural, sanitary, and general castings, and wrought ironwork'.
The firm published two known editions of its catalogue - the first in 1897 and the second in 1914.
The first edition of the catalogue, volume one, is full of architectural delights. It contains 120 pages of illustrations of fountains, arches, fences, cemetery enclosures, weather vanes, roof and verandah trimmings, lamp posts and other items.
This is not just an antiquarian book. It is an indispensable guide for social and architectural historians to the types of ornamentation available and the products wrought - a document of importance.
And those people who own houses from the era in which the catalogue was produced will be able to find material to assist them in the restoration and renovation of their dwellings.
Yet the book provides something more. The illustrations remind us of a craft from a gracious era, when people took the time to produce high quality, long lasting manufactures. It encapsulates the qualities and idiosyncrasies of a period of Australian History which continues to fascinate.