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 18: Living with History

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It is less than 200 years since Phillip and the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove, less than 150 years since Stirling and the pioneers from the Parmelia disembarked on Garden Island. Of course, for more than 200 years before that, navigators—many Dutch, some English and a few French—had made acquaintance with the western coastline of what was then called New Holland. It was not always a happy acquaintance as the number of historic wrecks shows. Even so, when set against the long centuries of European civilization, our own record covers only a brief span of time, and the period of actual white settlement here is even more brief. But because this period has been one of active development and because development does, by its very nature, tend to destroy somewhat ruthlessly what was previously in existence, there is every reason to guard zealously any worthy reminders of our beginnings.

Fremantle is full of such reminders and the Fremantle City Council has a lively sense of history. Each year on Foundation Day, the first Monday in June, it commemorates the landing of Captain C. H. Fremantle to take formal possession for the British Crown ‘of all that part of New Holland which is not included in the territory of New South Wales’. The site is marked by a flagstaff on the Esplanade, but as the Captain who gave his name to the town left no footprints in the sands of time, there is some difference of opinion as to whether this is the actual site. However, the flagstaff with its explanatory plaque serves to recall an event which took place on 2 May 1829, about a month before the arrival of the Parmelia.

We have seen how the commercial hub was at first at the western end of the town site and how this moved eastward after the coming of the railway line in 1881. This left a small pocket at the western

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end of High Street which contains some interesting old buildings. There is, for instance, the Round House, the colony's first gaol, now restored and well maintained. In Cliff Street is the old Customs House, built in 1853 and marked by a plaque placed there by the Fremantle City Council. It is flanked by buildings of similar stone construction and has a small area of the original Yorkshire flagstones at its front door. On the northern side of it is a building used as the Government Stores and on the left another which is the office of the Inspector of Fisheries and Fauna. Behind these are some other large stone buildings, and it has been suggested that this whole complex of very old, stone buildings might be restored and renovated and converted into a modern ‘market place’ with an old-time atmosphere. This would certainly bring people into a part of Fremantle which at present is comparatively seldom visited. They would see near by a portion of the original home of Lionel Samson, built on a lot purchased in 1829 and now used as a bond store for the firm of Lionel Samson & Son Pty Ltd. Not far away, on the comer of Marine Terrace and Mouatt Street, they would see the old courthouse built during the 1880s to replace Fremantle’s first courthouse on Arthur’s Head.

It would be wrong to give the impression that this western end of the city is in a decrepit condition or that it is deserted in any way. It is quiet because it is no longer a retail centre. It is an area of wholesale houses, warehouses, insurance and shipping companies, a number of banks and several hotels which are advantageously dose to the wharves. Most of these buildings were built before or just after the turn of the century and some have fascinating architectural facades of that period. Many have in recent years been renovated and repainted so that they present an appearance of quiet prosperity. The entire west end of Fremantle is surprisingly clean and tidy and the establishment of a number of cafes, bistros and night dubs, very recently indeed, has made it the centre of Fremantle’s night life. Those who visit it for this purpose are probably entirely unaware of the places of historical interest near by.

One of the most significant acts of the City Council in post-war years was the restoration of King’s Square by dosing off a portion of High Street, described in the previous chapter. This gives a new quality to St John’s, a very beautiful little church, and to the Town

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Hall which seems to stand with a greater civic dignity than it ever had before. The church and the Town Hall are separated by a series of fountains, one large and three smaller ones. Another very handsome church is St Patrick’s built of stone in Adelaide Street near the Moreton Bay fig known as the Proclamation Tree because it was planted on 1 October 1890 to commemorate the granting of responsible government to the colony. Perhaps the Methodist Church in Market Street might be deemed worthy of preservation, although it is a modest little building and not the first one on that site. No doubt, churches continue to exist mainly so long as they have a congregation and the tendency is to move out of cities to where people actually live. But at least both St John’s and St Patrick’s make it worthwhile travelling some distance to attend worship.

In 1969 the City Council set up a committee of senior officers to investigate fully and report on the policy that it should adopt on the question of preserving historic buildings in Fremantle. Its purpose is to draw up a report on those worth saving and to make recommendations to that effect. 1 A firm policy with this in view will, it is hoped, forestall their precipitate destruction by private developers or by the government, where the buildings stand on land that is government-owned.

Without in any way anticipating what the findings of this committee may be, let us look quickly at some buildings, other than those already mentioned, of architectural or historical interest. No doubt, time will see the removal of the present Fremantle gaol, but there are some features there worthy of preservation—certainly the impressive gateway and perhaps the prison chapel. Not far from the gaol is a two-storey terrace of warders’ quarters in Henderson Street. They are amongst the first buildings to be erected by convict labour, the earliest dating from 1851. Renovated and modernized within, they might attract those who like to live in old buildings in a modern city, as has happened in certain older parts of Sydney and Melbourne. Now used as the administrative centre of the very large, present-day hospital complex is ‘the Knowle’, originally the impressive home of Colonel E. Y. W. Henderson, R.E., the Comptroller-General of Convicts. Later it became the first Fremantle Hospital and perhaps its present position will ensure its permanency. Should the whole

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hospital complex ever be moved to another site, it is to be hoped ‘the Knowle’ will be preserved.

The old Fremantle Boys’ School is now in a derelict condition and the block it shares with Princess May Girls’ School, also now disused, is so centrally situated that the demolition of both buildings seems inevitable, if not imminent. But it is hoped that at least the original part of the Boys’ School will be preserved. Erected in 1854 to the design of W. A. Sandford, and at present not easily distinguishable from later additions of somewhat similar design, it has pleasing architectural features with its Cape Dutch gables. Another interesting school is the old Grammar School in High Street. Opened in 1882, it is built of stone and has on one wall its own ‘coat of arms’. Here and there in the city are memorials and statues of various kinds which, while not in themselves possessing perhaps the highest degree of aesthetic value, nevertheless serve as reminders of people or events of the past. Certainly, no one would ever dream of removing the War Memorial on Monument Hill overlooking the city.

The mayor, Sir Frederick Samson, has indicated his intention to bequeath to the Council his home in Ellen Street. This 82-year old building is in excellent condition and was the first house designed by the late Sir Talbot Hobbs. Set in nearly an acre of land, laid out with a garden which includes over 200 rose bushes and with lawns and trees, the house contains many valuable pieces of period furniture, together with a rich assortment of documents and photographs dealing with the Samson family and others who were closely connected with the early days of Fremantle. Because of Sir Frederick’s life-long habit of collecting and treasuring items of historic value, this house comes ready equipped as the museum he wishes it to be.

Not all old buildings are endowed in this way. For instance, there was the imposing, if somewhat austere, grey limestone building in Finnerty Street. Most people entering or leaving Fremantle by the traffic bridge were aware of it without knowing much of its past. Some school-children knew it when the John Curtin High School, overcrowded in the first years of its existence, occupied some rooms temporarily. Some students of arts and crafts from the Fremantle Technical School knew it when it was used for a number of years as a temporary annexe. The first close-up view many of the public

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had of it was probably in 1966 when, during the Festival of Perth, it was used as the background of a son et lumiere presentation of significant events in the state’s history. And a most impressive background it made, even if the dark of night concealed the damage which time and vandals had done to it.

Erected by convict labour in the years 1861-65, it was the first lunatic asylum in the colony. After the last of its patients were shifted to the new Claremont Mental Hospital in 1909, it was for a time disused until it reopened as a ‘temporary’ Home for Aged Women. As such it continued until 1942 and then, until the end of World War II, it was the headquarters of the United States Forces stationed at Fremantle. Military occupation is seldom a way of improving the condition of any building and they left it somewhat worse than they found it. Except for those small portions used for the temporary accommodation of classes by the Education Department, it was derelict. Too often used as a ‘temporary’ this or that, there seemed little reason for preserving it—certainly not because of the purpose for which it was originally erected, nor those for which it was subsequently used. In 1957 it was marked down for demolition. However, as related elsewhere, through the initiative of Sir Frederick Samson and with the full support of his Council, the Premier was persuaded to agree that his government would share the cost of its restoration and maintenance as a maritime museum and arts centre, and so fulfil part of the city’s Town Planning Scheme.

It was opened to the public on 17 October 1970 by His Excellency the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, who reminded his audience that he had been born in Fremantle although he could not claim long or close association with it. Only the museum section of this old building has been completed, the state government contributing $110,000 and the Fremantle City Council $80,000. There are thirteen galleries, seven on the ground floor and six on the upper. They are appropriately named after ships that visited Western Australia in the early days, and each is devoted to a certain aspect of our history. This is the first regional museum to be established in Western Australia and may well be the forerunner of many others. Conducted as a branch of the Western Australian Museum at Perth, it is manned by experienced museum staff.

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It was really the building itself that saved it. Sir Paul, in his opening address, pointed out that ‘the architectural merit of the building, the native rock from which it is made, and the labour of those who worked on it have left for us a building of importance in itself’. Quite apart from the interest of its exhibits, one is impressed on entering it by its lofty ceilings and archways. The limestone of its exterior walls have been faithfully restored and, from whatever angle one views it, it is a building of noble and dignified proportions.

The project architect, Mr R. McK. Campbell, had to work without copies of its original interiors, but became so absorbed in his task that he devoted the greater part of his working hours to it in an office set up within the building for that purpose. In a brochure prepared for the opening day, he writes:

The design of the façades shows some Gothic influence which was enjoying a revival in England at that time, while the form of the roofs and gables are patently Cape Dutch, which may have made an impression on Colonel Henderson on his voyage back to Fremantle. The building as a whole bears no architectural similarity to any contemporary institutions in England, and appears to be a happy synthesis of the ideas, materials and techniques that were available at that time. 2

No other single feature of Fremantle's early days will focus public attention on the past as much as this building. When the Arts Centre is later established, people will have the opportunity of becoming familiar with some aspects of the present-day life of the community not usually revealed to them. It will not only be a place where works of art will be exhibited; it will be a centre where craftsmen in various fields will be seen at work. Men and women skilled in weaving, ceramics, sculpture, woodwork, jewellery, art-metal work and fabric printing will be there at certain times and the public will be able to watch them at work. Some of the items they have made will be on sale. The whole complex should excite a lively interest and attract a constant stream, not only of local people, but also of tourists from interstate and overseas.

In Fremantle, more perhaps than in most Australian cities, we feel that we are living with history, side by side with the busy stream

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of twentieth-century life. This should remind us that only out of a remembered past can we build a reasoned, intelligent, satisfying present and future.


1 Fremantle City Council, Fremantle—preservation and change (Fremantle: Civic Administration Centre, 1971).

2 Western Australian Museum, Fremantle Museum (Perth, 1970), p. 10.

Go to Chapter 19: Two Great Civic Leaders.

Garry Gillard | New: 6 July, 2021 | Now: 8 July, 2021