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 12:
The First World War and afterwards

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Visitors to Fremantle who were impressed by the fact that High Street was ‘one of the busiest retail marts in the State’, must also have noticed that it was an extremely narrow street. Indeed, its width from building line to building line is only 49 feet. On this point, Mr J. K. Hitchcock in his History of Fremantle (1929) makes an interesting observation.

When the original survey was made, that main thoroughfare was 66 feet wide. The early city fathers decided that such a wide street was too expensive to maintain and invited owners on either side to encroach to the extent of seven and a half feet, with the result that today the principal street is congested. 1

It is not clear when that decision was made, but with the introduction of trams in 1905 the congestion was further aggravated. In 1913 the mayor, Mr F. J. McLaren, suggested that steps should be taken to widen at least a portion of High Street. A bill was introduced in parliament to enable the Fremantle Council to resume land in High and Market Streets, between the Town Hall and Cantonment Street. 2 The new width of both streets over that portion was to be 62 feet and the corner of Market and High Streets was to be curved to give greater clearance for trams. A double tram-track was to be laid and the footpaths were to be widened from 8 to 12 feet. The mayor envisaged the possibility of the Council acquiring the property in the block under consideration at a cost somewhat vaguely estimated at between £70,000 and £100,000.

Although in the opinion of some councillors the bill was amended by the Legislative Council in such a way as to render it useless for their purpose, a committee was formed to draw up plans and specifications.

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This committee recommended that a complete and detailed valuation of the property should be obtained and that competitive designs should be invited for the buildings to be erected. The term of lease was to be thirty years, so that when it expired the loan raised for the acquisition would also have expired, and the property would then revert to the Council free of any encumbrance whatever.

In seconding the adoption of these recommendations. Councillor W. J. Sumpton said that this scheme would not cost the ratepayers one cent, and it would be a lasting monument to the municipal enterprise of Fremantle if it were carried out.

However, the ratepayers of Fremantle did not share their Council’s enthusiasm for this particular municipal enterprise. When a referendum was held on the subject on 14 October 1914, they registered emphatic disapproval. There were 198 votes cast in favour and 532 votes cast against the proposal, which thereupon lapsed. When it is remembered that the first suggestion to build a Town Hall was similarly negatived and later supported, there is a possibility that had the proposal been persistently pressed it would subsequently have received public approval.

But the war intervened. On 4 August Australia entered her first major world conflict and in the uneasy years that followed large-scale municipal enterprises were of necessity curtailed. On 12 August the first Council meeting after the declaration of war. His Worship expressed the opinion that they should give expression of their loyalty to the Crown. This was conveyed in a formal resolution to be sent to the representative of the King. It was carried with acclamation and the singing of the National Anthem.

Henceforth municipal activity was of secondary consideration. When the nation is engaged in a life and death struggle, local governing bodies must needs halt the natural evolutionary processes of development. Fremantle citizens, in common with all fellow Australians, responded to the call to arms in a way that gave practical demonstration of their loyalty. There were few families who were not represented in the enlistments to the armed forces, and there were many who suffered bereavement.

Crowded troopships steamed out of the harbour. Supply ships came and went, and those at home watched the course of events in a conflict, the magnitude of which was hitherto unknown. As time

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went on soldiers returned, some on furlough, but many more wounded or broken in health. Fremantle welcomed its returning sons and the commonwealth government established in the old Barracks buildings in South Terrace the No. 8 General Australian Hospital. When its accommodation proved inadequate, it overflowed into new buildings erected on a portion of the grounds of Fremantle Oval.

The mayor during these years was Mr W. E. Wray, who, towards the end of his term of office, agreed to accept re-nomination only in the hope that he would one day ‘be able to hoist the Allied flags at the top of the Town Hall’. He had already intimated his intention not to seek re-election for 1919 when his wish was gratified.

On 18 November 1918—Mr Wray’s last night in office—the members of the Council joined in eulogizing the way in which the mayor had carried out his duties over that difficult period. Mrs Wray’s services to soldiers at the Base Hospital was also warmly applauded. In responding. His Worship said that hoisting the flags of victory ‘was about the happiest act [he] ever performed or ever will perform in [his] life’. 3

He proceeded to move four resolutions: one of gratitude to ‘Almighty God for the great victory vouchsafed unto Great Britain and her Allies’; one of ‘deep and heartfelt loyalty to His Majesty, King George the Fifth’; one to record their ‘sincere sympathy with the relatives of those who have made the supreme sacrifice’; and one of ‘thanks to all those who at the Empire’s call of need went forth and fought to victory’. 4

With this gesture and wearied no doubt by the strain of the war years, Mr Wray laid aside the mayoral robes. His successor was Mr W. Montgomery, but at the end of 1919 a comparative newcomer successfully contested the mayoralty. This was Mr F. E. Gibson, who only five years previously had come to Fremantle from Leonora. He continued in office until the end of 1923, when he decided not to seek re-election. For the next three years the position was held by Mr J. Cooke, but when Mr Cooke intimated his intention to resign at the end of 1926, Mr Gibson returned to preside over Fremantle’s municipal affairs. He continued in office until 1951. His completion of twenty-five years of service was recognized by his

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elevation to a knighthood in the New Year honours at the beginning of 1948.

It may be generally conceded that World War I marks a turning-point in history, and this is reflected in municipal affairs no less than on the wider stage of international politics. The year, 1919, which ushered in the peace, was the threshold of a period of struggle and change. The world had to adjust itself to new conceptions. This was not, perhaps, readily admitted at the time, but events which followed created doubts which the passing of time confirmed. No doubt the great majority of people hoped for a return to conditions as they had known them before the war. But the seeds of unrest sown during those four years could not be lightly disregarded. After a brief interim of apparently normal progress and prosperity, the world plunged into an economic depression which, in the havoc it wrought, was no less spectacular than the open conflict ten years earlier. The nations had not fully recovered from the effect of this economic disturbance when they were plunged into World War II, an upheaval more cataclysmic than its predecessor.

It is against the perspective of these restless years that subsequent events in the municipal history of Fremantle must be studied. No longer can we record orderly progress towards planned objectives. Progress there was, but it was periodically arrested and suspended. And in the confusion of these events, all thoughts of ever widening High Street in the central city area went by the board. Probably it had become a project too expensive to contemplate. It remains narrow today, but there may be a compensating factor in this, that motor traffic has to proceed slowly and with caution.

Outside of municipal affairs, the early years of peace were uneasy years. During the war, a strike of waterside workers had led to the employment on the wharves at Fremantle of volunteer workers, who were non-unionists. Their presence was a source of constant friction which, in May 1919 flared into open hostility.5 The demand for the removal of the volunteers met with no support from the government and on Sunday, 4 May, when police were sent to enforce the existing law they were met by an angry but determined crowd of wharf labourers. In the fracas which followed, the Riot Act was read, blows were exchanged, stones thrown, and a lumper named Tom Edwards was killed. Blood-letting is not a characteristic of Australian strikes.

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nor, indeed, of the Australian people, and its occurrence on this occasion led to the subsequent return to the principle of employment for unionists on the wharves.

In 1920 further strikes occurred in such widely separated occupations as those of the civil service and marine dealers. In 1921 there was a strike of locomotive engineers and in 1922 of the mechanical staffs of the state's leading newspapers. In 1924 the shipping services of the whole of Australia were dislocated by a continent-wide strike of the maritime unions, and there were further waterside troubles in 1925. These matters are mentioned because they were symptomatic of the times and reveal the background against which the Fremantle Municipal Council set about putting its house in order in the years following die Treaty of Versailles.

The war had not been over for one month before one of its immediate aftermaths began to concern the Council. Several ships were expected with patients suffering from pneumonic influenza. The Medical Officer of Health, Dr Birmingham, pointed out that, while the handling of these incoming patients was the concern of federal quarantine officers, the health of Fremantle was the Council’s own responsibility. He therefore advocated the preparation of a special isolation hospital, a disinfection chamber, and the provision of facilities for preventive inoculation. Attempts were made to persuade the authorities to land all cases of pneumonic influenza at Rottnest, but sufficient hospital facilities were lacking, so they were brought as previously arranged to the Quarantine Station at Woodman’s Point.

By 16 December 1918 inoculations started in Fremantle and plans were made to mobilize an ambulance fleet, a body of volunteer nurses, and an emergency food supply to afflicted premises, in case of a local outbreak. The first suspected cases of influenza in Fremantle were reported to the Council on 16 June 1919, and thereafter the epidemic spread rapidly. While the main hospital for the sufferers was the old military camp at Blackboy Hill, part of Fremantle Public Hospital was set apart for their treatment, and when accommodation there proved inadequate preparations were made to use the schools at Alma Street and South Terrace. By September 1919, 223 cases of influenza had been reported in the town and there had been 14 deaths. The Alma Street school was now full,

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but the epidemic had passed its peak. Thereafter, the number of cases declined, and, although a single recurrence in May 1920 gave cause for alarm, there was no subsequent outbreak. The epidemic had been savage while it lasted, but the precautionary measures taken by the Board of Health under the guidance and personal supervision of Dr Birmingham greatly lessened its incidence in Fremantle.

While this visitation was dislocating the life of the town, the Council was gathering the threads of its municipal business and planning for post-war expansion. Reference has already been made to the development of South Beach as a watering-place. In 1916 a jetty had been erected for the Council by officers of the Public Works Department.

It was now proposed that more substantial and commodious buildings should be erected there. The dressing-shed in existence, previously the old hall from the end of the Long Jetty, was described by Dr Birmingham as ‘the filthiest place he had ever been in and a disgrace to the community’. He recommended that a charge of dynamite should be placed under it. It is not on record that this drastic step was taken, but early in 1922 it was suggested that, since the buildings erected on the Fremantle Oval as part of the Base Hospital were no longer in use, they should be taken down and re-erected at South Beach. Competitive designs were called for a building to include dressing-sheds on the ground floor, and tea-rooms and a hall upstairs. Of the five designs submitted, that of Mr A. E. Atkinson of Inglewood was selected, and a loan of £3,000 was authorized for its construction.

Thus the Hydrodrome came into existence. It was officially opened early in 1923, although at the time it was in an unfinished condition. The jetty was reconstructed in 1925, and land adjacent to the beach was grassed and planted with Norfolk Island pines. In 1926, with the co-operation of the Public Works Department, a protective sea-wall was planned. This was constructed in 1927 and 1928, during which time the swimming pool was also enclosed with shark-proof netting.

While this extension of swimming facilities in the South Ward was being made, there was a determined move for the reestablishment of sea-baths adjacent to the city proper. The old buildings had

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been dismantled and sold in 1917, but in June 1921 the Fremantle Business Men’s Association, in conjunction with the Fremantle Amateur Swimming Association, brought a deputation to the Council pressing for their revival. 6 A committee which was appointed 7 recommended that the old site near the Fish Markets jetty be granted to the Swimming Club on a 21-year lease, providing they were prepared to enclose the area with shark-proof netting. 8 This the club was financially unable to contemplate, so the Council agreed to place £500 at their disposal, the expenditure of that amount to be spread over 10 years.

There is no record that any of this money was ever expended. Doubts were expressed as to the extent to which the Council could claim to control those waters, and when the matter was submitted to the government, the minister in charge objected to the construction of any permanent features which might interfere with the operations of the fishing fleet.

Opposition to the scheme came from the residents of South Fremantle. Their obvious reasons they disguised by claiming that a site adjacent to the Fish Markets was unhealthy. With this the Health Committee of the Council did not agree, and finally the Colonial Secretary gave permission for the use of ‘that portion of the water between the Fish Markets and the Breakwater conditionally during the summer months, provided it is left available for the fishing fleet in winter time’. 9

A new move was made in 1926, although it was clear by this time that a number of councillors felt that the improvements being effected at South Beach provided the real solution. However, other sites were inspected and the feeling of the ratepayers generally was tested at a referendum on the question at the end of 1926. Those in favour numbered 2,134; those against, 875.

Still the Council dallied with the proposition. After innumerable conferences, it was recommended that a site ‘almost in front of the Bandstand on the Esplanade adjacent to the Naval boat shed’ should be utilized. Once again, nothing was done, until in 1929 we find the Council in agreement that their financial position did not warrant further expenditure on bathing facilities at the present. Further representations were made, but to no avail. And there the matter has rested ever since.

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Contemporary with these abortive moves for sea-baths was a revival in the Council’s interest in the Fish Markets. These had been in operation for many years, but in 1921 the Council sought to acquire a greater participation in their financial return by appointing its own auctioneer. When this was proved legally impossible, they came to a working agreement whereby they should levy 2 per cent on all fish sold therein.

Difficulty was experienced in enforcing the by-law which provided that all fish caught within 15 miles of Fremantle must be landed at the Fish Markets jetty. Many boats continued to land their catch at the harbour jetty, where lower rates were paid to the Harbour Trust. To meet this competition the Council decided to lower their rates from 1s. to 6d. for every 80 lb of fish landed.

In 1927 the government proposed to remove the Fish Markets from the end of the jetty to a position on shore and at the same time to reconstruct the jetty which was in a bad state of repair.10 The cost was estimated at £6,300 and the Council entered into an agreement with the government for a period of 21 years. ‘Should the revenue in any one year exceed maintenance charges, interest at 6% and Sinking Fund [payments] at 1%, such surplus shall be the property of the Council.’11 The work of removal of the markets and the reconstruction of the jetty was carried out in 1928.

This was a curiously unsatisfactory arrangement. In effect it placed upon the Council the full responsibility for maintaining payments of both interest and sinking fund, yet contained no provision for any ultimate reversion of the property to the Council. It was entered into only because of the recognized need of maintaining a fish market in Fremantle and in later years the Council seized the opportunity to relieve themselves of the financial burden entailed.

In July 1922 the mayor on his return from a visit to the eastern states brought up the question of the municipalization of the distribution of milk. This had been raised as early as June 1912, when a referendum taken on the subject showed 861 ratepayers in favour and 129 against the proposal. However, nothing further was done at the time. Now a committee was formed and in August 1922 a report of the municipal milk supply operated by the Wellington City Council, New Zealand, was tabled for the information of the councillors.12 After deliberating for two years the committee was

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rather inclined to favour municipalizing the distribution rather than the whole supply. 13 The Chief Health Inspector, Mr T. J. Smith, recommended pasteurization and the Council asked the Health Committee to submit an alternative scheme under which the retailing was to be left in the hands of private retailers. To this the Committee replied that

no alternative scheme can be of benefit to the health of the community which docs not include the municipal distribution of milk, owing to the fact that the danger of contamination would still exist, and the cost to the consumer would be considerably increased over that outlined in the original scheme.14

It was decided to hold a referendum with the annual elections at the end of 1924. 15 The question asked was: ‘Are you in favour of the Council being granted power to control the milk supply of the Municipality, such power not to include the production of the supply?' 16 The voting was: those in favour, 1,762; those against, 1,191. Thereafter the matter lapsed. Plainly there was a difference of opinion within the Council as to the necessity for such a move. On two occasions the ratepayers had given a clear indication of their views, but they were disregarded. This is all the more surprising because at no time had the Council shown indifference towards matters concerning the health of the town.

A matter which found a more ready response was the suggestion of a war memorial for Fremantle. This was introduced to the Council by a deputation of three (Messrs W. Watson, J. J. Higham and Captain Laurie) representing the citizens of the town. They suggested that the obelisk on Monument Hill should be replaced by a suitable memorial and the entire area made into a beauty spot.

The mayor, Mr F. E. Gibson, said that the reception of no other delegation since he had occupied the mayoral chair had given him so much pleasure. He felt that a reproach rested on the municipality of Fremantle in not having done something to commemorate the memory of the boys who left these shores. He was exceedingly pleased when, after the service in connection with the Armistice Day proceedings, he was asked whether he would receive a deputation of relatives of fallen soldiers. He was pleased to hear the remarks made by the gentlemen who had just spoken in connection with the site

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on which the monument would be raised, because, at that meeting in the mayor’s parlour on the day to which he had referred, he had suggested that there was no other site in Fremantle as suitable as that of Monument Hill. It was so obviously the best that could be chosen in the district that it had asserted itself in the mind of every member who was connected with the movement. He was more than pleased that a committee had been appointed, because he was sure that the association of gentlemen like those present that night, along with others who had been appointed, would spell success to the object of their hearts. He considered there was no spot in Fremantle or in the metropolitan area which so lent itself to so noble an object, no spot so suitable, as one overlooking that ocean across which those lads had sailed away, many of them never to return. He moved

That this Council pledges itself to do all in its power to assist the Committee of Citizens of Fremantle formed to erect a Memorial to Fallen Soldiers on Monument Hill, and places on record its desire that its successors for all time should do everything necessary to keep the grounds surrounding the Memorial in such a manner as to be worthy of the object for which the Memorial was raised.

When the motion was carried unanimously, Mr Gibson turned to the deputation and said: ‘There, gentlemen! That is your answer.’ However, the response to the appeal for funds was not as ready as had been anticipated, and for some years the project hung fire. It was not until 1927 that the work was seriously taken in hand, and it was finally unveiled on Anzac Day, 1928. The memorial is a handsome and dignified structure, the work of two honorary architects, J. F. Allen and C. H. Nicholas. Time and wise planning have combined to beautify the hill upon which it stands, a hill which at the time of its erection was a barren limestone waste.

An interesting feature of the memorial is the brief history of Fremantle, prepared by Dr J. S. Battye, Chief Librarian, and placed in a recess under the base of the pile at the request of the Fremantle Fallen Sailors and Soldiers’ Memorial Committee. Its purpose, to quote the words of the document, was so that

In the passage of years future generations may, when the same is removed, or crumbles to dust, learn something of the people of today and the history of the events which led to the making of them.

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The document concludes with the following words:

The cost of the Memorial, approximately £6,000, has been raised by voluntary subscription from the people of Fremantle, aided by the strong patriotic support and the generous financial assistance of the Fremantle Municipal Council.

Fremantle is eminently fitted to be the site of such Memorial when it is remembered that for the great bulk of all Australian troops it was the port of departure and the port of return.

The site of the Memorial is the most prominent elevation in the District. When erected it will be visible fifty miles at sea. It will be the first Australian object that will meet the eyes of travellers coming from the westward and will serve, it is hoped, for all time as a dignified, silent and reverent reminder of the stress and strain through which the peoples of the Empire were called upon to pass, as well as a standing memorial to the sons of Fremantle and its district who gave all they had, even to life itself, to the service of their country.

While this was looking to the future, the past had suddenly thrust itself upon the notice of the people of Fremantle two years earlier.

In 1926, following a heavy winter, the railway bridge built in the eighties of the previous century unexpectedly collapsed. And in the same year the building known as Manning’s Folly, which was of much older vintage, was condemned because of the daily expectation that it would collapse. The latter was not demolished until 1928, and then only after repeated threats of litigation, and its disappearance probably caused few heart-burnings. But the collapse of the railway bridge was startling in its suddenness and the question of the up-river extension of the harbour was raised all over again when consideration was given to repairing the breach in its timbers. Ultimately, it was decided that for the time being there was no cause to make provision for increased harbour accommodation, and the bridge was restored to a condition of safety—but not without some months of disruption of rail-traffic and a corresponding loss of trade to Fremantle business houses.

Building was brisk throughout these post-war years. An acute housing shortage was revealed in 1923 and there was a suggestion of a Council Housing Scheme. 17 This was rejected in favour of assisting established organizations such as Building Societies and the Workers’ Homes Board, by making available 9 acres of land in

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Gibson, Shepherd and Lefroy Streets and 182 acres of the commonage adjoining Chester Park.

The Council embarked on a major building project of its own in 1929 when it decided to erect premises on the land immediately behind the Town Hall. The structure was such that it could, if necessary, be later utilized as an extension of the Town Hall. For the time being it was planned to use it for letting purposes and two early applicants for office accommodation were the Tramways and Electric Lighting Board and the Federal Electoral Department. With a promise of £500 annual rentals from these two concerns alone, the Council entered confidently upon the expenditure of £10,000 upon what was subsequently named the Centenary Buildings.

A hint of the approach of the hundredth anniversary of the first landing at Fremantle was given when on 20 February 1928 Councillor G. W. Shepherd gave notice that he would move at the next meeting that, as a centenary honour, Fremantle should be made a city. 18 This was formally moved on 5 March, not by Councillor Shepherd, but by Councillor J. Stevens. 19 A petition was accordingly prepared for presentation to the governor and in due course His Excellency notified the Council of his approval.

Meanwhile, arrangements had been made to celebrate the centenary in a manner befitting the occasion. A committee was formed which, in addition to planning a celebration during the year, also decided to publish The History of Fremantle, 1829-1929, which had been prepared by an old resident, Mr J. K. Hitchcock. In a preface to this book, Mr Hitchcock points out that he had ‘lived through three-fourths of the period covered’. He therefore had the advantage of a personal acquaintance with many of the people and events of which he wrote. Its publication was a tribute to the enterprise of the Fremantle Centenary Committee and particularly to its Chairman, Councillor F. Hollis, who then and subsequently was active in arousing and preserving an interest in Fremantle’s historic past.

The last meeting of the Municipal Council was held on 27 May 1929. The mayor took the opportunity of outlining the nature of the ceremony to be held on 3 June and invited the councillors to bring ‘their lady-folk’ with them to the first meeting of the Fremantle City Council to be held immediately after the official proclamation. So another chapter in the story of local government in Fremantle was brought to a close.

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1 J. K. Hitchcock, History of Fremantle (Fremantle: S. H. Lamb, 1929), p. 94.

2 4 Geo. V, No. 23, An Act to empower the Municipality of Fremantle to acquire, use and dispose of certain lands within the Municipal District for the Benefit and Improvement of the Town, 10 Sept. 1913.

3 M.F.M.C. 18 Nov. 1918, F.T.H.

4 Ibid.

5 Communication by the Mayor, M.F.M.C. 5 May 1919, F.T.H.

6 M.F.M.C. 20 June 1921, F.T.H.

7 Ibid. 5 Sept. 1921.

8 Ibid. 19 Sept. 1921.

9 Ibid. 20 Oct. 1924.

10 Ibid. 24 Jan. 1927.

11 Ibid. 16 Apr. 1928.

12 Ibid. 21 Aug. 1922.

13 Ibid. 14 Apr. 1924.

14 Committee Report, M.F.M.C. 24 Apr. 1924, F.T.H.

15 Ibid. 24 Apr. 1924.

16 M.F.M.C. 3 Nov. 1924, F.T.H.

17 Ibid. 17 Sept. 1923.

18 Ibid. 20 Feb. 1928.

19 Ibid. 5 March 1928.

Go to Chapter 13: The Fremantle City Council.

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