Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

Whaling in the early days

P. E.C. de Mouncey

de Mouncey, P. E.C. 1930, 'Whaling in the early days', Early Days, vol. 1, part 8: 58-60.

[Read before the Society, October 11, 1929]


On Saturday, October 11, 1930, at 3 p.m., a tablet placed by the society at the whaling tunnel, Arthur’s Head, Fremantle, was unveiled by the Mayor of Fremantle (Mr. F. B. Gibson). Dr. J. S. Battye (vice-president) presided. The tablet, which is affixed to the wall at the eastern entrance to the tunnel, facing High-street, bears the following inscription:

This tunnel was excavated by the Fremantle Whaling Company in 1837 to facilitate the transport of whale oil and merchandise between Bather’s Bay and the town of Fremantle.

Erected by the Western Australian Historical Society, 1930.

This tablet was the first of a series to be erected by the society. After the gathering the Mayor entertained members of the council of the society and old residents at afternoon tea at the Town Hall supper room.

In the course of the ceremony the following paper was read by the Hon. Assistant Secretary (Mr. P. E. C. de Mouncey):—


[By Mr. P. E. C. de MOUNCEY.]

Owing to the number of whales of various species sighted off the vicinity of these coasts, the establishment in this Colony of a whale fishery by private individuals was mooted as early as October, 1829, when the Government was notified as to the proposed undertaking.

There were two whaling companies in existence in: 1837—the Fremantle Whaling Company and the Perth Whaling Company. The Fremantle Whaling Company operated from Bather’s Bay and the other from Carnac Island. The Perth Company had a seven year’s lease of this island from the Government.

Both companies appeared to be on very friendly terms, and friendly rivalry existed between them, as on Friday, June 2, 1837, the day following the eighth anniversary festivities of the foundation of the Colony, a boat race was held between the rival companies, and the Perth boat won the prize.

On Friday, June 9, 1837, the first whale was caught near Cockburn Sound. A party of the Perth Whaling Company on Carnac Island first saw it and set out in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Mr. Thomas Peel, who happened to be on his way from the Murray to Fremantle, apparently via Cockburn Sound, saw two whales and notified the men of the Fremantle Company. The whalers manned the boats and were soon up with the whale. The parties of both companies attacked it, which they succeeded in killing and subsequently it was hauled to the jetty at Bather’s Bay, where it was tied up the following morning. To celebrate what was considered a memorable event the guns at Fremantle were fired for two or three hours that morning.

Up to Friday, August 4, 1837, it was estimated that 35 tons of whale oil and 15 hundredweight of whale bone had been procured by the two companies since they had started operations. These quantities were not thought considerable.

In the same year the two companies agreed to amalgamate for 12 months, but before the time had expired, the Perth Company withdrew from the agreement and in February, 1838, it discontinued operations altogether and in March of the same year its effects were sold.

The whaling industry was carried out sometimes under tragic circumstances. On Monday night, July 3, 1837, a small craft called the Settler belonging to the Perth Whaling Company, broke from its moorings and was seen early on the following morning by the whaling party on Carnac Island, drifting slowly to the northward. One of the whaleboats was instantly manned by six young men, all about 21 years of age, employees of the company, who set out to recover it. The time passed, the boatmen did not return, and fears were entertained for their safety. Later when the empty whale boat, and the boat that had broken adrift, together with some wreckage and a cap, were found on the beach, north of Fremantle, the men were given up as lost.

On another occasion, on Monday, August 7, 1837, the boats of both whaling companies were attacking two whales a short distance off Arthur’s Head, Fremantle. From the high land, spectators watched the encounter, and who saw the water in the area of the attack covered with blood and foam. One of the men in the boats, by name John Stevens, when in the act of throwing a harpoon at one of the whales, was killed by a blow from the flukes of one of the mammals.

Building the Tunnel

The following extract from The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, of Saturday, June 10, 1837, relates to the building of the tunnel through Arthur’s Head:—

“A proposal has been made to the Government by the proprietors of the Fremantle Whaling: Company, who have already made great progress in the formation of a jetty near Angrlesea Point, at Fremantle, to carry out a breakwater, in order to afford a facility to shipping: of 150 tons to discharge cargo. The condition required by the company on the part of the Government, is, that a tunnel should be cut from the jetty through the rock under the Jail communicating with High-street. To determine the practicability of this design. His Excellency the Governor, accompanied by the Hon. J. S. Roe, and G. F. Moore, Esquires, Commissioners of Works and the Civil Engineer, H. W. Reveley, Esq., visited Fremantle on Thursday last. The possibility of completing so desireable an improvement, we believe, was not questioned; and the proposal was entertained as a very liberal one on the part of the company. Whether the work will be entered upon at present, or not, remains a subject of consideration; firstly, on the ground of our scanty means; secondly, from the scarcity of hands to perform the work effectually.”

Soon after this inspection, however, the Governor presented to the company the freehold land on Arthur’s Head adjoining their new jetty. This land was part of the private property of Sir James Stirling. The Press of the time reported that the gift was “considered a very valuable and liberal” one. Early in August of the same year the company started excavating the tunnel through the rock, Mr. H. W. Reveley being engineer of the undertaking. Five months later, in January, 1888, the work was completed. The tunnel was intended to give easier access to Fremantle for the whale products of the company and merchandise from ships and it was estimated that the time saved in discharging a vessel, would be at least one half of that formerly taken. The company was to have the lease of the tunnel for seven years and tolls would be levied by the company.

The entrances to the tunnel at both ends have for some time been closed up with sheets of galvanised iron.

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