Sir Joseph Totterdell: Remarkable Australian Bricklayer who Transformed the Brick Building Industry in WA

sir-joseph-totterdell-wth-caption-v2This is the very remarkable story of a clever and industrious man who foresaw the needs of the building industry in Western Australia and took action to make it happen. Son of a Bricklayer and Brickmaker, Joseph Totterdell (1885-1959) immigrated to Australia from England in 1903. Before doing so he completed a five year Bricklaying apprenticeship where he was indentured to his father from the very young age of thirteen.

Upon arriving in Perth, together with his brothers Daniel and Samuel, he opened a building company. Totterdell Bros Ltd built many homes and commercial buildings throughout Perth and Fremantle, some of which are still standing today.

Eventually becoming Master Builders they also contracted to Elder Smith and built the Wool Sheds in Fremantle, of vital importance for West Australian exports for many years to come.

In 1931 Joseph was elected to the City of Perth Council. Fourteen years later in 1945 he also became Mayor of Perth. While still Lord Mayor, he entered state politics in 1950 and successfully contested the seat of West Perth for the Liberal Party and served one full term.

In his maiden speech to Parliament, Joseph raised several concerns regarding post war construction methodology and ‘build times’ in WA.

Prior to World War II the Housing Commission could only build 2,400 homes per annum. Given the high number of soldiers returning from the war a new target was set at 6,300. However, Joseph proposed a new target of 10,000. To do so he called for three major actions that would set the pace and standard for the use of double clay brick construction in Western Australia for many years to follow:

Firstly he identified that the quality of face bricks at the time were poor and required much sorting to find product with a true straight arris (brick edge). For bricklayers to lay more than 400 bricks per day, the quality of face bricks needed to improve quickly. He advised Government that the bricklaying rate using current face bricks was inadequate, given his own personal productivity targets set in his time as a bricklayer/builder.

Secondly the volume of face bricks produced needed to increase to meet current and future demand.

At the time there was only one major brick plant in the Perth metropolitan area. Sir Joseph called for as many as five plants to be established as to boost production from 5 million per bricks per annum to 100 million. Today it is more than twice that!

Thirdly he recommended that given our availability and quality of natural clay to produce bricks and shale to produce cement, more homes should be built in double clay brick as opposed to brick veneer. It was a compelling argument especially given that some timber and nearly all cement products were supplied from abroad at the time, which was expensive.

This recommendation was particularly aimed at the Building Commission which was building many pre-fabricated homes from asbestos and timber at the time, and they were hot in summer and cold in winter!

Some memorable quotes that he made in that inaugural speech to Parliament, in reference to lifting the use of quality double clay brick construction, included the following:winston-churchil-quote-special-size

Throughout his life he was a very active member of not only the building industry, but society in general. He was president of the Master Builders Association from 1931 to 1932, Federal President of the Master Builders of Australia at the World Conference in 1936, Director of Broadway Pictures Ltd, a Justice of the Peace and a Member of the Commercial Travellers Association.

There are several icons around Australia that bear his name such as the Totterdell Loop in the Australian Capital Territory, Totterdell Park in West Perth and Totterdell Hall in Subiaco which is heritage listed.

As a result of all of his services to his country he was knighted by the Queen in 1953. He was an amazing man and bricklayer! Other Success Stories


Dean Pearson
ABBTF WA Manager

2 Responses to “Sir Joseph Totterdell: Remarkable Australian Bricklayer who Transformed the Brick Building Industry in WA”

  1. Ian Stewart

    Great story about Sir Joseph. I believe that one of the reasons that full brick construction was normal in W.A. is that termites are rife there. I guess that treated timber and steel frames have made a niche for themselves in home building there now.

  2. Carl Smith

    Brick building history helps us understand the past to predict the future and help in creating it. It can tell us what to do and what to avoid. Sir Joseph’s works really helped improved the home building industry on what it is today.


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