Fremantle Stuff > Ewers

John K. Ewers 1971, The Western Gateway: A History of Fremantle, Fremantle City Council, with UWAP, rev. ed. [1st ed. 1948].

Chapter 10:
The Fremantle Harbour

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Earlier chapters have made it clear that Fremantle’s major problem from the foundation of the colony was the provision of an adequate harbour. The Long Jetty, of which 1,400 feet were completed by 1873, and which was extended to 3,830 feet ten years later, was never more than a makeshift

There was, however, considerable difference of opinion as to where the harbour ought to be situated and what form it would ultimately take. In the early seventies, three Victorian engineers, whom the colonists consulted in the matter, strongly recommended the site at Cockburn Sound as the solution of their difficulties. Mr Wardell, civil engineer, of Sydney, reported that any solid work projecting from Rous Head or Arthur Head would cause the coastal sand-drift to silt up the harbour mouth. This matter of sand-drift remained a real obstacle to any plan for an inner harbour. Yet there is little evidence that anybody took the bother to question whether it was, in fact, a reality.

When Sir John Coode, an eminent English engineer, was consulted in 1875, he issued a report made without a personal inspection of the site. He worked on the excellent marine surveys made by Captain Archdeacon of the Admiralty Survey Department, and he placed great reliance on Mr Wardell’s statement regarding sand-drift, especially as the comparatively small rise and fall of tide would be insufficient to scour the opening to the harbour. Nevertheless, he discarded suggestions that the anchorage should be ‘anywhere than at or immediately adjacent to the Swan River entrance’. 1

In November 1877 he prepared two alternative plans. Each was for an external harbour. The first, known as Design A, provided for an open timber viaduct, 2,600 feet long, running in a north-

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westerly direction from Rous Head into 29 feet of water. At the end of this viaduct was a breakwater of concrete blocks in four connected sections towards the south-west, providing protection to berths on the lee side of it and also to an open-piled jetty of 800 feet and a wharf of over 700 feet. In all there would be a total wharfage of 4,100 feet at depths varying from 29 to 33 feet at low water. Its estimated cost was £638,000.

Design B provided for a shorter viaduct running from Arthur Head in a south-westerly direction for 1,800 feet into 20 feet of water. From this point, a solid arm of masonry continued for 700 feet, and then turned in a southerly direction for a further 800 feet, terminating in 27 feet of water. This scheme provided for 1,500 feet of wharfage at depths varying from 20 to 27 feet at low water, and was estimated to cost £242,000.

Neither design was seriously considered as practicable for the colony in those days, although the Fremantle Municipal Council in 1884 prepared a petition to the governor, praying that design B should be adopted in preference to design A. The petitioners were actuated by the comparative cheapness of the second design, and also by the fact that the more ambitious scheme from Rous Head would necessitate the construction of new railway lines. If would also have shifted the main harbour activities away from the already well-established town on the south side of the river.

In 1884 it was decided to ask Sir John Coode to make a personal inspection of the site. This he did in 1886, spending five weeks examining Gage Roads, Owen Anchorage, Cockburn Sound and the Swan River between Perth and the sea. His second report, presented in March 1887, advocated a harbour somewhat similar to that planned in his former Design B. 2 The viaduct was 200 feet shorter, but the solid portions beyond it were longer. It provided for 2,500 feet of wharfage in water varying between 22 and 29 feet at low tide. The estimated cost was £448,000, with an additional £47,000 to be provided for a dredging plant He added that, if the sum to be made available was not to exceed £150,000, as was the intention at the time, then it would be impossible to provide works of real practical utility.

Here the matter rested until the arrival of Mr C. Y. O’Connor in 1891 as Engineer-in-Chief for Western Australia. He found that the

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main port of the colony was ill-served by a long jetty where in fine weather vessels of 12 feet draught could tie up.* Larger vessels had to lie in the Roads and discharge their cargoes into lighters. Mail-boats from England by-passed Fremantle, making Albany their port of call.

* For a vivid description of conditions in 1892 see Appendix 16.

After studying the various schemes that had been suggested, O’Connor decided that a harbour in the river mouth was practicable. By the end of his first year of office he had submitted to the Director of Public Works, Mr H. W. Venn, two sets of plans. The first provided for works ‘sufficient for some years to come’—a north and south mole to protect the entrance to the harbour, a dredged outer channel, an inner basin and 3,350 feet of wharf on the south side. The reclamation of 19 acres on both sides of the river was involved and the estimated cost was £560,000. 3

As against that scheme, which would take five years to complete, O'Connor prepared a second, designed to meet the requirements ‘of the largest class of ships that might be expected to be necessary to provide for in the next generation or so’. 4 This gave 2,900 more feet of wharfage, and a larger inner basin; a greater amount of land to be reclaimed, but in other essentials it was merely an extension of the smaller scheme. It would take eight years to complete and would cost £800,000. He ridiculed the suggestion that sand-drift would silt up the harbour mouth. This fear, which had gained currency following Mr Wardell’s report in the seventies and which had so strongly influenced Sir John Coode’s subsequent recommendations, was not borne out by the facts. Testing on the spot proved this and the opinions of local fishermen and others with a long knowledge of the sea-floor in the vicinity of the river-mouth confirmed it

However, Sir John Forrest had other ideas. On 6 January 1892 in the Legislative Assembly he moved:

That this House approves of the scheme of harbour improvements for the port of Fremantle as proposed by the Government, which includes opening a passage through the Success Bank at Owen Anchorage, the construction of a wharf at or near Catherine Point, and a connection by railway from such wharf to the Customs House and goods sheds at Fremantle, in accordance with the plans and sections on the table of the House. 5

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This he believed could be constructed for £150,000, in spite of the insistence of the Director of Public Works that the engineer-in-chief said it would cost between £400,000 and £500,000. Obviously, the premier was looking for a ‘cheap’ harbour, and a ‘cheap’ harbour he would have got, had not he met with stiff opposition in the House. The outcome was the appointment of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses to inquire into the question of harbour works at Fremantle, and having regard to the amount of money at present available or likely to be available, to report what plan would be the best to give secure accommodation to the largest class of ocean-going steamers.

On this committee the Assembly was represented by the Hons. H. W. Venn and W. E. Marmion, Messrs C. Harper, A. R. Richardson, and W. S. Pearse; the Council’s representatives were the Hons. W. D. Moore, E. T. Hooley, T. Burgess, G. W. Leake, and M. Grant It will be noticed that the interests of Fremantle were not overlooked when these committee-men were appointed.

In giving evidence before the Select Committee, O’Connor displayed both dignity and patience. Some questions were asked calculated to anger him. ‘Do you think that after the country has decided to refer the matters to an eminent marine engineer his opinion should be totally ignored in favour of the opinions of others—civil engineers and amateur engineers?’ To this he replied that there was no conflict between his ideas and those of Sir John Coode, adding that it was difficult ‘for a layman to form an opinion as to whether one engineer’s views are in conflict with another engineer’s views upon purely technical points’. 6 Since the committee was composed of laymen, this was a sharp rapier thrust Then he proceeded to criticize the cheese-paring attitudes of leaders of the colony. Earlier considerations had been influenced by ‘what was supposed to be within the means of the colony’. He gave it as his opinion that, had Sir John Coode not been ‘cribbed, cabined and confined by these considerations, he would very likely have gone in for opening the river from the beginning’. 7

In urging that it was unwise economy to embark upon a makeshift scheme which must later be abandoned and involve a capital loss, he showed sound judgment. As Dr Harris puts it,

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To the politicians, economy consisted in avoiding spending money, whereas to O’Connor economy implied securing good value for the money spent. 8

Others to give evidence before the Committee were the Hon. J. A. Wright, M.I.C.E.; Mr. Francis William Martin, who had experience of harbour works in New Zealand; Captain Russell, Chief Harbour Master; Mr John Bateman; Captain Ferguson and Captain Owston. After sitting for seven days, the following two resolutions were moved:

(1) That the evidence given and the opinions expressed to this committee by the engineers and nautical authorities consulted point strongly to the superior advantages of opening the mouth of the Swan River over any other project, and this committee is therefore of the opinion that the scheme as recommended by the Engineer-in-Chief and shown on drawing P.W.D. 1468 should be adopted.

(2) That this committee is of the opinion that inasmuch as there is a sum of about £134,000 available for harbour works at Fremantle, and that the Engineer-in-Chief advises that by the expenditure of about £250,000 the scheme he recommends for the opening up of the river can be so far completed as to be available for vessels drawing eighteen feet of water, and that further expenditure will make this harbour available for the largest class of ocean steamers, it is desirable that this work should be undertaken without further delay. 9

And without further delay the scheme was introduced in the Legislative Assembly on 9 March 1892. Sir John Forrest, convinced that expert and lay opinion agreed upon the advantages of a harbour in the river mouth, abandoned his own preference for a site at Owen Anchorage. He told the House he was very pleased indeed with the turn events had taken. He warmly congratulated the country upon having such an authority as their engineer-in-chief. They could depend upon it that the engineer-in-chief was quite alive to the responsibilities he had taken upon himself. If doubts existed in Sir John’s own mind, he was careful not to express them. In the event of the undertaking proving a costly failure, they would know who to blame.

But the undertaking proved a complete vindication of C. Y. O’Connor. From the moment the first truck of Rocky Bay stone was tipped into the sea by Lady Robinson, wife of the governor, as the

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beginning of the North Mole, its success was never in doubt. Fremantle citizens watched the growth of their harbour with a curious pride. True, from time to time, they protested to the municipal authorities about the excessively heavy blasting that was going on at the rivermouth, and the Council passed their protests on to the right quarter. But the bar had blasted their hopes on so many previous occasions that it must have been a day of great joy when on 4 May 1897 the old Sultan, 2,062 tons, a familiar vessel for many years on the Fremantle-Singapore run, came to berth with full flags flying.

Sir John Forrest, too, had long since ceased to fear the outcome. At a postal conference in Hobart in February 1895 he advocated that

Fremantle should be made a port of call for the mail steamers—believing as I do that the greatest disadvantage our Colony labours under is that the seat of Government is not on the highway of commerce and civilization from the Old World to the New. I rejoice that there is a probability at no distant date of this great disability being removed, and the chief port and the metropolis being placed on the main highway, not as at present round the comer.

These sentiments were warmly applauded by the councillors of Fremantle and a letter of approval was sent to Sir John. On 8 October 1897 the S.S. Cornwall, 5,500 tons, arrived. It was the first British freighter to enter the inner harbour. The first mail steamer was the German S.S. Gera, which arrived on 10 August 1898, followed on 4 October by the Prinz Regent Luitpold.

Royal Mail steamers did not enter Fremantle Harbour until 1900. The first was the R.M.S. Ormuz of the Orient Line on 13 August, followed by the R.M.S. India of the P. & O. Line a week later. Both were outward bound from Australia to England, so it was left to the R.M.S. Himalaya to be the first mail steamer direct from London to berth at Victoria Quay. And by the strangest of coincidences, the master of the Himalaya was a native of Fremantle—none other than Commander William Leake Broun, second son of R. McBryde Broun (or Brown, as he then spelt it), who was for many years government resident at the port.

When this fact was discovered by the Municipal Council, it was decided to make the visit a gala occasion. It was proposed that the

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expected day of arrival, 5 September, should be a public holiday with sports on the Fremantle Oval and a fireworks display at night. In addition, an address of welcome was to be prepared and Commander Broun was to be presented with a large framed and mounted photograph of his native town. Unfortunately, the delayed arrival of the vessel caused the public celebrations to be abandoned. The Himalaya finally berthed on the afternoon of 12 September 1900.

The mayor, Mr E. Solomon, and councillors of Fremantle, together with the premier, representatives of the Perth Chamber of Commerce, Sir George Shenton, Mr C. Y. O’Connor, and other officials formed the reception party. Mr Solomon welcomed Commander Broun back to Fremantle and presented him with the photograph and the address, which read:

We, the Mayor, Councillors and Burgesses of the town of Fremantle desire to congratulate you on the arrival of the first Royal Mail Steamer from London calling at the Port of Fremantle.

We note with pleasure and pride the very singular coincidence, that it has fallen to the lot of a native of this town to command the steamer inaugurating the new departure in the royal mail service, making Fremantle the first port of call in Australia: and we trust that this most pleasant surprise may be taken as a good omen both for yourself and for the place of your birth.

You will no doubt be pleased to note the progress that the Colony of Western Australia has made of late years, and the improvements which have taken place in your native town since your boyhood; and we desire you to accept the accompanying framed photograph of the town and port of Fremantle as a small token of our esteem and as a memento of this important visit to ‘The Golden Gate of Australia’. 10

In reply, Commander Broun said that it delighted him to think that he was in command of the first British Royal Mail Steamer to call at his birthplace from the old country. It was 42 years since he had left Fremantle, although this was not his first trip between home and the colony. It was not now the Fremantle he had known, and the changes he saw were simply marvellous. Now that the British mail steamers had come to Fremantle, he hoped they would always come. He would be only too glad to do all he could to help forward his birthplace.

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The President of the Perth Chamber of Commerce then presented the visitor with a gold pendant for his watch-chain, and in responding Commander Broun proposed the health of Sir John Forrest. The premier made a happy speech, in the course of which he said: ‘We [can] begin to believe now that we are on the high road . . . of trade and commerce between the old country and Australia.’ 11 This day was a landmark in the history of Western Australia. Indeed, among the old colonists present there were many landmarks. He singled out for special mention, Captain John Thomas,

one of the founders of the country, who even in the wildest imaginations of his early days could never have thought of seeing such a magnificent steamer as the Himalaya alongside a wharf in Fremantle. Captain Thomas can tell you that when he landed here, there was only 2 ft. 6 ins. of water across the bar at the entrance to the Swan. Now there [are] 32 ft. of water in every part of the harbour where that steamer [can] or [is] likely to go. 12

It was fitting that Sir John should choose Captain John Thomas as the medium for his comparisons between past and present Fremantle. A settler in 1830, Captain Thomas was a pioneer ship-owner and merchant at the port, and for ten years a member of the committee of the Fremantle Town Trust, and at all times one of the leading citizens in the colony. Before concluding, the premier paid a tribute to Mr C. Y. O’Connor, whose health was proposed by Sir George Shenton. The engineer-in-chief, in reply to the toast, reminded them that in November 1892 he had undertaken to have the harbour so far advanced at the end of eight years as to permit of the entrance of the largest steamers. The eight years had not yet expired and his promise was already fulfilled.

It was, indeed, a happy occasion. Fremantle had at last obtained a harbour designed to meet the needs of both the present and the future. It was not in every respect the harbour which O’Connor had originally designed. He increased the length of the north mole from 2,934 feet to 4,800 feet. He extended the entrance channel and widened the inner basin from 800 feet to 1,400 feet. He added a mail-boat jetty extending from the north shore. At the time of the arrival of the Himalaya the work was far from completed. It was still incomplete at the time of O’Connor’s death in 1902, but, planned to the most minute detail, it provided an anchorage which has

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played a large part in the prosperity of Western Australia. In addition to accommodating a vast tonnage of shipping over the years, it was to serve as an important submarine base during World War II. Some have claimed that it was the largest in the southern hemisphere, but the truth of such claims is hard to establish.

The town’s gratitude was recorded in the minutes of the Council on 4 September 1900, when it was moved:

That this Council place on record their high appreciation of the efforts made by the Government during the past six years in constructing a safe and commodious harbour at Fremantle which has reached so successful a result as was recently witnessed by the arrival and berthing of both Orient and P. & O. Mail Steamers alongside the wharf in the inner harbour. 18


1 M. Harris, ‘A maker of Western Australia, Charles Yelverton O’Connor, engineer and economist’, MA. thesis. University of Western Australia, p. 21.

2 Ibid. p. 24.

3 ibid. p. 38.

4 Western Australia, Minutes Votes and Proceedings (P.P.), 1892, p. 14.

5 Western Australia, Parliamentary Debates, 1892, ii, p. 186.

6 Western Australia, V. & P. (P.P.), 1892, p. 18.

7 Ibid, p. 17.

8 M. Harris, ‘Charles Yelverton O’Connor, Engineer-Economist', University Studies in History and Economics, i, no. 1 (1934), p. 46.

9 Western Australia, P.D., 1891-2, ii, p. 808.

10 Address, M.F.M.C. 12 Sept. 1900, F.T.H.

11 West Australian, 18 Sept. 1900.

12 Ibid.

18 M.F.M.C. 4 Sept. 1900, F.T.H.

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