Ensconced behind a veil of trees, just off the heavily trafficked Main Road, is Eltham’s oldest surviving public building—its former court house. Recently, RBA had the opportunity to explore this unassuming, state heritage-listed, 160-year old place as we had been engaged by its custodians, the Nillumbik Shire Council, to investigate and document its physical condition with an eye towards its long-term continuance and management.


The court house was built in the context of a rapidly developing Eltham in the mid-19th century—then awash with capital and people drawn to the nearby Caledonia goldfield. As the population swelled with the diggers and the desperate, the preservation of law and order became a far more pressing issue. The brick and mortar solution to keeping the peace and encouraging respectability was the construction of a new courthouse.

In 1860, a contractor (a ‘Mr Duncan’) laid sturdy sandstone footings for a modest building, its walls constructed of hand-made bricks topped by a gabled roof clad in slate. The designer was Alfred T. Snow, then a clerk of works within the prolific Victorian Public Works Department, who was also responsible for other civic and justice projects in the period across Victoria. Embellishments were sparse but conspicuous: a rendered principal façade with tooled ashlar lines, a small porch displaying a vermiculated keystone and glazed fanlight, an oculus (Latin: ‘eye’) vent, sandstone window sills, and plush internal joinery, including a magistrate’s bench, cupboard, desks, and offender’s dock (all still extant). The courthouse continued to accommodate the Eltham Court of Petty Sessions into the mid-1980s.

Eltham court house RBA heritage
‘Eltham is a pretty little township on the Yarra Flats road’; the courthouse building circled.
(‘Eltham’, Illustrated Australian News, 26 December 1884, p. 212)
Alfred T. Snow’s plans, PWD, dated 1859.
(Extracted from the Justice Precinct, Eltham, Victoria: Conservation Management Plan,
prepared by the Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2006)

Over the early part of 2020, a small RBA team, led by our senior conservation technician, Margaret Nicoll, approached the courthouse forensically—unravelling its story and identifying a range of accretions (including the ‘good, the bad, and ugly’ of previous repair efforts) through documentary research as well as physical investigation and identifying and resolving numerous situations for a range of affected historic fabric. The outcome was to identify defects and deterioration to enable the development of a comprehensive plan for prioritised conservation works.

Sustainable building conservation, the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how buildings function, how they respond individually and subtly to climate and context, how they can be adapted, and how their lives can be prolonged, is a passion and particular expertise of RBA.

If this is of interest, we invite you to explore our past projects or get into contact with our team to discuss.

18 May 2020

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