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Whaling Complex

Hitchcock 1929:
In 1837 the Fremantle Whaling Company, which had been established the previous year, began operations by capturing a whale off Carnac. Long before that American whalers were frequent visitors to those waters and reaped a rich harvest. The day of kerosene had not then dawned and the odoriferous whale-oil in the old-fashioned chimneyless and smoky lamps was the only illuminant except candles. In those days whales frequently came into Fremantle Harbour at certain periods of the year, and for many years whaling was a staple local industry. Probably the industry reached its zenith in the fifties and sixties. The rival crews then were those of John Bateman and Joshua J. Harwood, and when whales were sighted the boats of the two firms were manned immediately, while the townspeople congregated at various vantage points to watch the race for the prizes to be won. During the whaling season the natives came to Fremantle in hordes and feasted to satiety on the scraps after the oil had been boiled from the blubber.
The whalers' storehouses were cut out of the rocky cliffs south [north] of the tunnel, and there were their ranges of furnaces and try-pots. Their long, sharp boats were always kept ready for instant action with oars, harpoons, baskets of coiled line, lances and muffled rowlocks conveying an idea of the energy and activity of the whaling parties in their palm days.
In 1848 the Fremantle Whaling Company ceased operations and the assets were taken over by Patrick Marmion, who continued the business. (Hitchcock 1929: 25)

Debby Cramer 1990:

Whaling Complex

After the settlement of the Swan River Colony in 1829. sightings of whales off thecoast were common and whaling was soon envisaged as a possible industry. It was not until 1837. however, that the whaling industry was organised in the young colony. In that year two whaling companies were formed: the Northern (or Perth) Fishing Company . whose shareholders were chiefly Perth residents and agriculturalists on the Swan and which operated mainly from its depot at Carnac Island, and the Fremantle Whaling Company, which had its station at Bathers Bay, behind the cliff to the south-west of the Round House.
The Fremantle Whaling Company operated from a portion of land leased from the Government described as extending 'from Point Marquis to a Bluff Head on the northwest comer of Anglesea Point'. The lease was initially for five years, after which all buildings and improvements were to revert to the Crown free of charge. During 1837 and 1838 the Company made a number of improvements to their portion of land in order to make it suitable for whaling. The whaling complex was comprised of the whalers jetty, breakwater and tunnel, station house, tryworks and whalers cave.

Whalers Jetty

In April 1837 the Company began erecting a substantial jetty near the northern end of Bathers Bay. Some of the labourers were prisoners from the Round House. The jetty was about twenty-five yards (22.86 metres) in length and the Perth Gazette reported that 'The work is done in a substantial and masterly style: the breadth of the jetty at the seaward extremity is about twenty feet (6.1 metres) ...’ The jetty is first shown on a plan surveyed by A. Hillman In 1838.

Breakwater and Tunnel

The Company then constructed a breakwater out from Bathers Bay to provide a sheltered anchorage so that ships up to 150 tons could safely discharge their cargo. Remains of the breakwater can be seen at the northern end of the beach.

The idea of cutting a tunnel through to connect the jetty with High Street is credited to Henry Willey Reveley. the colony's civil engineer, who wrote of the plan to Governor Stirling in April 1837.

The advantages of being able to transfer oil and other goods so easily between the beach and the main street were obvious to all. The work began in August 1837, directed by Reveley with prisoners from the Round House providing much of the labour. It was completed in January 1838.

Station House

Tenders were called on 3 February 1838 to erect this building for the Company: ‘fifty feet [4.57 metres] in length, 16(4.88 metresjwide, and 16 [4.88 metres] in height. The Contractors to find all Materials, except the Stone'. The Station House, or warehouse, stood just north of the western entrance of the tunnel. Early drawings show it as a two-storey rectangular building. A hoist beam attached to the apex of the gable on the southern wall suggests that casks of oil were hoisted from the ground, through this upper opening, and then stored.


Once a whale had been successfully captured and brought back to the whaling station, it was flensed and the pieces of blubber were boiled down into oil. At the Bathers Bay whaling station the try-works and shed (sometimes called the blubber house and tryworks) were in the north-west corner of the bay, near the cliff. Horace Samson's early pen and ink drawing (c. 1840) shows a simple timber shed, open on two sides, containing a small boat and several casks. Beside it, near the cliff, is a large trypot and several more casks. The archaeological expedition mounted in 1984 by the WA Museum unearthed the brick bases of three hearths once used for melting down the whale blubber.

Whalers Cave

A 'cave'or 'store room excavated out of limestone cliff' was located between the Station House and the Tryworks. It is not known exactly how this was used by the whaling Company.

After some years of watching whales off the coast being caught by whaling crews from other countries, notably from the United States and France, the colonists were eager to be participants rather than mere observers. Interest in the new venture spread throughout the settlement, the Perth Gazette ran a series of articles about whales and the crews of the two rival whaling companies challenged each other to a boat race.

The first whale was caught on 9 June 1837 and it was a joint effort by both companies. A man from the Perth party threw the first harpoon but the whale was moving at such a speed that the prow of the boat was dragged under water and the men were forced to cut the line. The Fremantle men then were able to spear it and drag it back to the bay. where it was flensed and the blubber rendered down in trypots. The two companies shared in the profits.

At the end of the first whaling season the books of the two companies showed that 71 tons of oil, valued at £1410 ($2820) and 4 1/2 tons of whalebone worth £360 ($720) were exported from Fremantle. However, the rival companies had found it necessary to cooperate in many of their catches and they both started the 1838 season encumbered with excessive overheads. By May 1838 the Perth Company had wound up its affairs. The Fremantle Whaling Company operated at a loss in both 1838 and 1839, when it was made over to Lionel Samson and Sons, merchants, to whom it was heavily indebted. Samson in turn leased the boats, tryworks, jetty and station house to Captain Daniel Scott and Anthony Curtis, two notable Fremantle merchants. The plant and equipment continued to be leased, to various persons over the years, and the export value of whale products fluctuated: £2700 ($5400) in 1839, £4377 ($8754) in 1848, £1486 ($2972) in 1849 and £2305 ($4610) in 1850. In the meantime the export value of wool steadily increased.

The Fremantle Whaling Company continued to struggle throughout the 1840s. Its position was not unique, for the number of whales throughout the world was declining due to many years of over fishing. Equally significant was the discovery of kerosene in the United States in 1850, which brought about the further decline of the whaling industry and altered lighting habits around the world. By the end of 1850 the Fremantle Whaling Company, after 13 years' operation, was to be dissolved. The treasurer placed a notice in the Inquirer on 4 December announcing that trypots, copper coolers and timber and fittings would be sold for cash, 'the Company being about to be dissolved'.

The Whaling industry was global in its scope and it enticed adventurers, skilled seamen and merchants from around the world. Whale oil and other products of the industry were important to the economies of many nations and affected the lives of people from all walks of life. The whaling station at Bathers Bay brought all these facets of the industry to the people of Fremantle and Western Australia.

City of Fremantle February 1990

This information sheet and the reports on which it is based were prepared by Debby Cramer. The reports are available for inspection at the Fremantle Library.

The Arthur Head Collection

The Arthur Head Collection was a project coordinated by the City of Fremantle with funding from a grant available from the Federal Government to celebrate the Bicentennial year in 1988 [resulting in] a huge collection of materials in various formats including documents, reports, photographs, maps, bibliographies etc. to help research the site. ... Pam Harris, Librarian, Fremantle History Centre. May 2018.

The Arthur Head Collection 1990 Report

The City Council in 1990 published a folder containing a summary of the research Pam Harris mentions above, consisting of a page about each of these buildings. This is one of them.



Garry Gillard | New: 25 May, 2018 | Now: 18 January, 2024