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First Fremantle Traffic Bridge, 1866

Fremantle has had arguably five road bridges crossing the Swan River, two of which remain:
North Fremantle Bridge aka High Level Bridge aka Hump Backed Bridge aka Stick Bridge, 1866-1909.
Low Level Bridge, 1898-1909.
Renovated High Level Bridge, 1909-1939/1947.
Fremantle Traffic Bridge, 1939-.
Stirling Bridge, 1974-.

bridge 1

The first Fremantle bridge, 1866, was built out of timber by convict labour 1863-7, and was officially opened 2 October 1867 (Hitchock: 52). It was called the North Fremantle Bridge, and then, after the second bridge was constructed, the High Level Bridge.

bridge 1

The old Fremantle traffic bridge looking west, about 1880-1890. Built 1863-1866, by convict labour. Hump removed and bridge widened in 1908/1909. Re-decked 1915 and used until December 1939. Note archway [left] through approach demolished 1950. Jetty on right known as the Firewood jetty, afterwards used by Swan Brewery river traffic [until the 1920s when motor truck convenience superseded water-born traffic] per picturesque Kentish Lass. Swan Brewery Depot adjacent in 1900. Image #456, c. 1880.

Fremantle Rowing Club Regatta c. 1890
Spectators line the rail of the original traffic bridge to watch the Fremantle Rowing Club Regatta. The bridge was made of jarrah and called the "Stick" bridge. To the right is a marquee erected by the licencee of the Richmond Hotel, Fred Caesar. To the left, centre, is the Fremantle depot of the Swan Brewery, with the Kentish Lass, a single stern paddle wheeler, at the Firewood Jetty.

Library ref. 489:
The old Fremantle traffic bridge was commenced in May 1863 and was completed by convict labour in 1866. During the first two years of construction the average number of men employed was 48 and of these 28 worked in chain gangs, mainly quarrying and blasting for the approaches. The two men responsible for the design and construction were Captain Grain, R.E., and James Manning, Clerk of Works. In the early 1890s the bridge was reported to be unsafe and in 1892 the maximum load allowed on the bridge was reduced to 1 and 1/4 tons. A new bridge was built alongside in 1898 but at a much lower level. On the opening of the low level bridge on 28.09.1898, the old bridge was closed to all except pedestrian traffic. It was intended that the low level bridge would only be a temporary structure while the old bridge was removed and replaced with a wider structure having two 75 foot navigation openings. However, in 1908 when Fremantle and North Fremantle Councils wished to extend the tramway system to North Fremantle, they found that the low bridge was at the wrong level and had an awkward approach. An inspection of the old high level bridge revealed that of 319 piles examined, 306 were absolutely sound, and only 13 had some defect. No piles had to be renewed. In view of its excellent condition the old bridge was renovated (the hump was removed and the bridge widened.) The low level bridge was closed on 18.06.1909 and later demolished. Its piles were discovered to be in a poor state.) Apart from being redecked in 1915, the high level bridge continued in service until December 1939, when the present bridge opened. Source: Western Roads Vol 4 No 2, July 1979 See: 624.2 Miscellany File.


The hump backed bridge was also known as the stick bridge. Firewood jetty, later rebuilt in concrete was where the barges unloaded firewood; mostly cut from the bush around Point Walter and Attadale. Swan Brewery's shed is on the right. The Kentish Lass transported casks of beer from the brewery in Perth to the firewood jetty. From there they were taken by horse and dray to Fremantle hotels. Image #1164A, nd.


The hump backed bridge with North Fremantle in the background and the Swan Hotel at the far left. A Fremantle Rowing Club Carnival is in progress. The boatshed is on the left and there is a paddle steamer at the Firewood Jetty to the right. The Swan Brewery's shed is at the far right. Image #1164B, c. 1890.


The first bridge in 1890 in use for viewing some activity on the river - a rowing regatta, for example.


The second bridge was built 1896-8 just downstream of the first and called the Low Level Bridge; 1905 photo.


Posted in Facebook by Neil Smithson, citing Fremantle Ports as the origin.


The Low Level Bridge was wider and stronger but much lower. It was required by the increased commercial traffic mostly as a result of gold discoveries. It was, however, not suitable for the tramway which Councils wished to extend to North Fremantle in 1908. (photo 1907, Battye Library)

bridges 1906

The two bridges in 1906. Photo from Hitchcock: 95, credited to Nixon.

traffic bridge

My photo shows the still existing remains of some of the piles of the 1866 bridge.

John Dowson:
It was the 1866 Bridge of Styx that saved the Swan River from destruction. Once that bridge was built, and the railway bridge soon afterwards, it was just too hard to get the bridges out of the way to expand the port further upriver. Various plans had the port expanding all the way to Perth, with Freshwater Bay being totally filled in. The railway bridge built in the 1880s was later moved closer to the traffic bridge but thank goodness for Governor Hampton's Folly. The other thing that saved the Swan River of course was the limestone bar across the mouth of the river. If that hadn't been there the lovely river would have been a commercial traffic sewer all the way to Perth. The bar wasn't able to be removed until 26 years after the traffic bridge was built. (John Dowson, personal communication)

References and Links

Fowler, Audrey 1974, Notes on the oldest traffic bridge in Fremantle, the newsletter of the Fremantle Society, March.


The second of Audrey Fowler’s fascinating and factual looks into our history—

During the first twelve years of the Colony the Swan River provided the only means of transport between Fremantle and Perth. Up and down and across its broad and meandering course plied a variety of row-boats, sail-boats, whale-boats, ferries and barges, carrying settlers and officials, soldiers and merchants, building materials, farming tools and all manner of livestock.

By 1843 the Perth Causeway had been completed and road traffic between the Port and the Capital was possible along the rough bush track known as Canning Road. On the north side of the river another track gradually became established and here communication with Fremantle was effected by a ferry service between Cantonment Hill on the South bank and Billygoat Farm on the north. With the arrival of the convicts in 1850 the service was augmented by a convict ferry, and this inadequate arrangement continued until the appointment in 1862 of Doctor Stephen John Hampton as successor to Governor Kennedy.

Governor Hampton ushered in an era of harsh discipline previously unknown at Swan River Colony. He had been Surgeon in a convict ship, Comptroller-General of Convicts at Tasmania, and had a policy of extracting the utmost work from the convicts aided by the use of heavy leg-irons and chains and frequent floggings. Included in his impressive list of Public Works was the north bank road (now Stirling Highway) terminating in a traffic bridge across the river at North Fremantle. Naturally, the colonists loudly acclaimed the project, though many protested at the conditions under which the convicts were forced to work. The convicts also protested, but with more painful results, and the "crime of absconding" rose accordingly.

Work on the bridge commenced in 1863 to the design of Captain Grain, R.E., and James Manning, Clerk of Works, and it soon became evident that if the work were to proceed the men would have to be relieved of their shackles. The Governor quickly countered this risk to security by stationing a mounted policeman near the bridge, and by devising a system of signals and an alarm gun which "communicated instantly to the police, the military, and the public generally, the escape of a convict". In addition, sentries of the Enrolled Pensioner Force armed with loaded rifles were posted over the "stringent class" while at work and during the march to and from the prison. This was the chain-gang who quarried the limestone on Cantonment Hill for use on the bridge and to level the approaches.

In one of his despatches Hampton wrote:

"I believe that the punishment now awarded to absconders in nearly every case, namely, lashes, ranging from 50 to 100, and heavy irons on the public works for periods of time ranging from 6 to 18 months generally, and the strictest separate confinement when not on public works, will again reduce this crime to proportions more similar to those in which it existed in the earlier portion of the Imperial Convict System in this Colony..."

However, the hardened "stringent class" apparently considered all this well worth enduring for the dubious pleasure of earning for themselves 3 days solitary confinement on bread and water, and the Governor concluded that the latter punishment was in fact an inducement to misconduct. He said: "...those who know what a Western Australian summer day is will have little doubt as to which the convict will prefer; the intense pleasure (to him) of abusing an officer, and then sleeping in a cool stone cell for the greater part of 3 days and nights, or working in the roasting sun and sleeping, perhaps, in a bush hut full of mosquitoes..."

He then increased to one month the "...detention in dark cells on bread and water. This latter punishment (said the Governor) is much dreaded by the men and has acted as a preventative amongst many who have undergone every other form of punishment without the least good effect. Even the most reckless shrink from it..."

In 1864 James Manning, Clerk of Works, reported on the progress of the bridge:

"The works connected with this structure have been commenced. A building 40'x18' for mess room and tool store, a cottage of two rooms for the warder in charge have been erected, and wharfage has been built extending about 90 yards in length and 26 yards in breadth. This space has been filled up with stone and rubble quarried on the high ground in the rear by the "stringent class", tipped over the bank, and then removed by ordinary prisoners to fill up and form the wharf. A quantity of stone has also been dressed for the arch and archway."

Convict labour was in great demand at this time for public buildings, roads, bridges and jetties throughout the rapidly expanding Colony, including the permanent prison (the present Department of Corrections) and the Lunatic Asylum (now the Fremantle Museum and Arts Centre), which was completed in the same year as the North Fremantle Bridge. James Manning explained the reason for the delay in his report of 1865:

"Owing to the pressure of other work very little progress was made during the former part of the year ... it is now fairly going forward. The piles drive remarkably firm and satisfactory; the first tier of six piles required an impact of 5,026 tons in aggregate to drive them, and the others are equally satisfactory. The chain-gang have been employed quarrying stone and carrying out the embankment."

1866 saw the bridge nearing completion:

"This structure has progressed, but not as briskly as it might have done. The chain-gang have been employed quarrying stone for the abutment on the south side, which is rising satisfactorily. The piles are nearly all driven, or at least so far as to allow the caps to be put on; the south portion of the upper structure has been hoisted, the joist and cradling fixed, the floor laid, and the guard railing commenced. Judging from the portion completed, there is no fear of oscillation." Though the project was not finally completed until October 2nd, 1867, Governor Hampton reportedly drove across the bridge in his carriage on Wednesday, 14th November, 1866. Perhaps he regarded this action as sufficient ceremony to declare the bridge open, because the only reference to the event was published in the Perth Gazette a week later:

"The Fremantle Bridge was thrown open at noon on Wednesday for general traffic, and the ferry boat has been removed."

But Governoral pique, if such it was, did not prevent such an important occasion to pass entirely unmarked - the evening following the news item the Volunteer Corps paraded for a march to the bridge, with the band playing, and followed by an enthusiastic crowd of citizens. The assembly marched across the bridge and halted in the middle on the way back. Captain Manning gave a short address, the Corps gave His Excellency three cheers, then marched back to Fremantle in a cloud of dust.

Thus the "Bridge of Sticks" was opened, so called because of the forest of timber used in its construction. Later, the name was derisively corrupted to "Styx", allegedly by the convicts identifying with the celestial ferryman of Greek mythology: the Greeks believed the River Styx encompassed Hades, and that all who after death sought to enter the spirit world had to cross it, with a coin in the mouth to pay the ferryman.

During 1867 the "stringent party" quarried and broke more limestone from Cantonment Hill to pave the bridge and build a sea wall, and the final cost was given as £2,986/2/5, the overall length as 2,078 feet, and the highest point above water as 42 feet. The bridge had a distinct hump in the middle to allow the passage of shipping, and its superstructure was supported on 319 jarrah piles. In 1900 the hump was removed and a tramway laid across to North Fremantle. The bridge survived until 1939 when it was demolished and replaced with the present one, and all that now remains of the "Bridge of Sticks" are a few rotting stumps of piles on either bank.

Audrey Fowler

Garry Gillard | New: 27 June, 2020 | Now: 11 December, 2023