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 19: Two Great Civic Leaders

For the past half century, except for the years 1924-26, only two men have occupied the position of Mayor of the City of Fremantle. Neither would claim that he imposed his will upon the Council, but with the late Sir Frank Gibson and the present Sir Frederick Samson at the helm for such a long period, the Fremantle City Council has enjoyed stability and a continuity of purpose that might well be the envy of many another local governing authority.

Frank Ernest Gibson was born at Egerton, Victoria, on 17 July 1879. After education at Grenville College and the Ballarat School of Mines, he came to Western Australia in 1902. He went first to Cue on the Murchison goldfields and then to Leonora where he was a councillor for some years before being elected mayor in 1912. In 1914 he removed to Fremantle and opened business as pharmaceutical chemist. That he quickly gained the confidence of the people of Fremantle is shown by his success at his first mayoral election in November 1919, without previous membership of the local Council. However, his apprenticeship in local government at Leonora had given him a fine sense of its dignity and responsibility, a sense he was to develop further during his long years of office in Fremantle.

In March 1921 he was elected as Member of the Legislative Assembly for Fremantle, occupying the dual position of M.L.A. and mayor until November 1923, when he did not seek re-election as mayor. His immediate successor was Mr J. Cooke. However, in March 1924 Frank Gibson was defeated at the Assembly elections by the Labor candidate, Mr J. B. Sleeman, later the Hon. J. B. Sleeman and Speaker in the Legislative Assembly, and felt free to stand again for the mayoral election in November 1926. He was

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successful and from the beginning of the following year until 1951, when he retired from office, he enjoyed an unbroken period as mayor, being opposed at only three subsequent mayoral elections. Later, in 1942, he became Member of the Legislative Council for the Metropolitan Suburban Province and in 1950 survived a change of electoral boundaries to continue as M.L.C. until 1961 when he retired from politics. He died on 31 December 1965. In the New Year’s Honours, 1948, he had been created a Knight Bachelor in recognition of his long period of public service.

It was as Sir Frank that I came to know him well when in 1948 the Fremantle City Council invited me to prepare the first version of this book to commemorate the centenary of the establishment of the Fremantle Town Trust. He had by then become something of a father figure in the community, and I gathered the impression that he wore his knighthood lightly. People who had known him as Mr Gibson, the chemist, to whom for years they had taken their doctors’ prescriptions to be made up or perhaps whose advice they had sought in the event of minor ailments, appreciated the friendly smile of Sir Frank when they passed in the street. Tall and white-haired, he was an unhurried man and would often pause for a chat.

In Council matters, too, he was modest and unassuming. When I asked him to define his policy over the years, he smiled and said that he didn’t think he had one. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that, without having a direct policy himself, he possessed a temperament which encouraged policy in others. He was quick to recognize a wise suggestion the moment it was put forward in the Council Chamber, and from that moment it had his active support.

He thought and acted collectively for the Council as a whole. Although he not infrequently instigated progressive measures, he never claimed for himself any individual credit. It was the work of the Council as a body. On the other hand, he was not slow to recognize the part played by individual councillors and to extol them personally for their contribution to the general good.

Nowhere was his attitude more clearly shown than in his reply to a petition, signed by all twelve councillors in October 1934, asking him to nominate for a further period as mayor. That the request should have been unanimous touched him and in reply he said,

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It would be difficult for me to express my feelings at the present moment. 1 would like to assure you that I regard this document I hold here as being one of the most valuable it has been my lot to possess. To know that I have the friendship of every Councillor round this table and that you have appreciated what I have done, goes a long way to recompense one for the efforts put forward on behalf of the community ... I have done it because I like doing it, not altogether from a sense of duty. 1

A lifetime of public service, given because he ‘liked doing it' and ‘not altogether from a sense of duty', is as rare as it is valuable. The years in which he served as mayor were, in the main, troubled ones. He reminded the Council of this in his final Annual Report for the year ended 31 October 1951.

We have had to contend with a world depression, a destructive economic condition that destroyed contentment and happiness and created uncertainty and bitterness, the consequences of which were almost as chaotic to our well-being as a war, and a further world war more devastating in its action and consequences than the first conflict. Furthermore, a war which was brought to the very shores of this country. [Although six years of peace had passed in the meantime, he added:] the world has not yet recovered and its people are not yet at peace with one another. The present unsettled and unhappy conditions are to me as apprehensive and even as ominous as they were in 1939. 2

Yet he could report that in those early uneasy years of peace, ‘Fremantle has progressed and developed to a greater extent than at any other period of its history, and the citizens have every reason to feel proud of the part they have played in this eventful era.’ Those post-war years had seen the establishment of the free library, the Health Centre, the Women’s Rest room, new recreation reserves and playgrounds, and the early stages of the city’s town-planning scheme which, he said, would ‘ultimately give to our citizens even greater well-being and contentment’.

He saw as highlights of the past three decades the erection of the War Memorial (with plans then in hand to commemorate also those who had served in World War II), the elevation of Fremantle ‘to the dignity of a city in 1929', and the number of occasions when it had been his privilege and honour to ‘extend a welcome to members

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of the Royal Family’. This was the backward glance of an essentially simple and modest man. In conclusion, he congratulated his successor upon his election to the office of Mayor of Fremantle. He said:

Councillor Samson needs no introduction to the people of Fremantle; he is one of the best known figures in this community, having lived here all his life, and having served on the Council as a member for the City Ward for a period of 15 years. 3

In point of fact, his successor, William Frederick Samson, was unopposed at that election and it is a testimony to his instant and sustained popularity that he has been unopposed at every subsequent mayoral election. Indeed, while I was engaged on the revision of The Western Gateway for this edition, I have been deeply impressed by the warm reaction people of all walks of life have given at the mention of his name. ‘Fremantle is very lucky to have him as mayor’, and ‘Everyone loves Sir Frederick’ are examples of their comments, always quite unsolicited. It is not always easy to retain a reputation like that in public life and the reason probably lies in the fact that, in addition to his own tireless enthusiasm and bluff cheerfulness. Sir Frederick Samson is Fremantle in a very personal way and to a very significant degree.

His grandfather, Lionel Samson, pioneer settler and merchant, was a member of the Fremantle Town Trust from 1855 to 1858 and again in 1862. His uncle, William Frederick, after whom he was named, was a councillor from 1883 until 1891, and mayor for two years, 1892 and 1893. His father, Michael, the eldest son of Lionel, was educated at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, travelling there in 1855 and returning in 1859 in ships chartered by Lionel Samson. Not being attracted to his father’s business, he went to China and returned after many years to become Inspector of Customs at Fremantle. Shortly after his retirement from that position at the age of 60, Michael Samson became Mayor of Fremantle in 1905 and died in office in 1907. From this it will be seen that Sir Frederick not only has his roots in the town of Fremantle, but his forebears by their example bequeathed to him an interest in its local government He was born in Ellen Street in 1892 in the same house he lives in today. Indeed, he likes to point out that he sleeps in the same room

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he was born in, One of his earliest memories when he was four years old is of the camels of Tsai Mahomet and Fsai Mahomet camped in the park opposite, before setting out on their long trek to Coolgardie where Hayley and Ford had found gold the year of Sir Frederick's birth. They used to bring their camels to the backyard and water them from a well inside the house and opposite the kitchen The well is still there today, all 70 feet of its depth untimbered in solid limestone. Indeed, the entire Ellen Street house is the repository of much of Fremantle’s early history. Sir Frederick has intimated that he wishes it to be preserved as a historical museum.

His education commenced at the age of seven when he went for a few years to a school conducted by Miss Hamer at the rear of the old Johnston Memorial Church, but in January 1903 he began school in earnest at the Christian Brothers’ in Fremantle and later became a boarder at Christian Brothers College, Perth. He recalls how, in his early weeks at the former, he was given six cuts of the strap, a bit of leather trace about 15 inches long, for answering Brother Purton back. Incensed, he announced to his schoolmates that they were not going to knock him around like that, that he would get a note from his father. His father obligingly wrote a note for him which the young Frederick presented to the Principal, Brother Morgan, that afternoon. A little later during a mental arithmetic lesson, Brother Morgan called him to the table and gave him the note his father had written. ‘Read it, my boy’, he said, a smile on his face. The youngster looked down at his father’s clear handwriting and read, ‘My dear Brother Morgan, Fred has complained very bitterly to me that he has been soundly strapped by one of the brothers, for of course no misdemeanour whatsoever. I would be very much obliged if you could see your way clear to give him a good thrashing three times a week, whether he deserves it or not.’ After that, he recalls, no complaint ever went home, and adds, ‘I thought in after life that that was a great compliment to the Christian Brothers by my father for the great reliance he placed on their integrity.'

After matriculating through the Adelaide University, which in those days were conducted the matriculation examinations in Western Australia, Frederick Samson enrolled at the newly established University

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of Western Australia in 1913, intending to study Engineering, and recalls attending the first lecture given by the late Professor Ross. He was secretary of the University Cricket Club. Cricket and rifle shooting have been his two favourite sporting activities and he has retained an interest in both through membership of many associations connected with them. However, World War I intervened in his university studies. Having been a lieutenant in the Citizens Forces he expected to be an early member of the Australian Imperial Force, but as he did not meet the minimum height requirements, he then joined the Air Force. An accident at home incapacitated him from further service. He did not return to the university, but instead obtained work for the duration of the war with the Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Department.

Although at 78 Sir Frederick is a picture of robust health, he has had two accidents that might have been serious and two illnesses that certainly were. As a boy of thirteen he was blown up by a steam engine he had which ran on methylated spirit. While some methylated spirit was being poured into it the drum exploded and threw him against the side of the house, setting fire to his clothing. He remembers running around the side and sitting under a tap which he turned on to put the fire out. He was, as he puts it, covered with blisters, blinded for a fortnight, and away from school for six months. Then there was his home accident in which he cracked a kneebone. After the war he was articled to the surveying firm of Crossland and Hardy and in 1919, while surveying outside of Moora, caught pneumonic influenza and was, in his own words, ‘out of action for five years’, suffering from seven haemorrhages in that period. Later he joined partnership with another surveyor, W. H. Shields, until in 1931 he began his own real estate business. When asked why he chose to be a land and estate agent, he replies with a smile, ‘Well, I knew a bit about land.’ In 1935 he married a Fremantle girl, Daphne Alice Marks, but they had no issue when she died in 1953. He still looks in at his office in Queen Street every day, but admits he does not do much work there other than valuations—big ones. His main activities today are, of course, connected with the Fremantle City Council and at special functions his younger sister, Mrs A, R. D. Laurie, O.B.E., acts as a very gracious hostess. But even after his election as Councillor for the City Ward in 1936, serious illness

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again threatened him in 1948 when he was stricken with Bright’s disease, a complaint from which few recover.

It seems that he has survived all these contingencies of accidents and illness because it was his destiny to become the popular and energetic Mayor of Fremantle that he is today. At 78, he attends all committees of the Council, although he is by choice chairman of none, except the Executive Committee. At Council meetings he presides without a gavel. All he has on his table are a blotter to dry his signature when he appends it to the Minutes, and the Council Bible open at Psalm 133, the first verse of which reads: ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’ Sometimes, when contentious matters are under discussion and the public gallery is filled with ratepayers who might be expected to make noisy interjections, he has been known to read that verse at the outset of the meeting to remind them of the spirit in which they are met together.

In 1962 he was created a Knight Bachelor, but like his predecessor he wears his knighthood lightly. Although he is a stickler for protocol when called upon to receive important people, including Royalty, at the Town Hall, he manages to invest the proceedings with a degree of informality which must be refreshing to visitors accustomed to listening to somewhat starchy addresses of welcome at such functions. He has a great fund of anecdotes and digs deeply into Fremantle’s past for incidents that are relevant to the occasion as they affect Fremantle’s present.

My own favourite story does not go far back in time. The Council Chambers were being renovated in 1938 and, happening to look in when these were nearing completion, he saw that the wood-carver had just finished the Council’s motto, Nec prece, nec pretio, but had made the last word, pretic. ‘That’s wrong’, he told him. ‘That “c” should be an "o". ‘That’s easily fixed’, said the wood-carver, and with a deft blow of his chisel changed the ‘c’ to an ‘o’. He stood back surveying his handiwork. ‘What's it mean, anyhow?’ he asked. ‘Well, literally translated, it means “Neither by prayer nor by price”, but we freely translate it as “Neither by entreaty nor by bribery”.’ ‘What's the strength of that?’ asked the wood-carver. ‘It means that councillors can’t be got at', Frederick Samson explained. 'What bloody rot’, said the man. ‘You could buy any of ’em for

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sixpence!’ With a smile on his face, Mr Samson was about to leave the Council Chamber, but at the door he turned. ‘You’re wrong, you know. You couldn’t buy me for under a shilling!’ and went out. Only then did the wood-carver realize he had been speaking to one of the men whose incorruptibility he had disparaged. He went out of his way to make sure he had not given offence. Sir Frederick recalls that at a Council meeting some months later, when certain members were making a parade of their personal virtues, he told them this story and he still remembers with a chuckle that it rather ‘quietened them down’.

Any conversation with him is likely to be punctuated with stories like that, although most of them go much further back in history. But he brings a deep seriousness of purpose to his position as Mayor of Fremantle, which he almost invariably refers to in his Annual Reports and at civic receptions as ‘the Western Gateway to Australia’. I asked him what he considered were the highlights of achievement during his years with the Council. The first of these took him back to 1946 when he was Chairman of the Town Planning Committee. He put forward the suggestion that part of the 1,250 acres of Fremantle’s original land grant should be developed, some for housing and some for industry. An area of 1 square mile was agreed upon for industry, although this was later reduced somewhat, and the land was to be offered at £1 an acre. This was the genesis of the industrial complex that later became known as ‘O’Connor’, the full development of which was, as we have seen, spread over many years.

That initial decision of the committee had an amusing aftermath. When this was ratified by the Council and the daily newspapers carried the story of land for industry at £1 an acre, 1.5 miles from the port, he was visited at his office in Queen Street by a group of angry men who accused him of ‘giving away the birthright of the workingman to the capitalists’. He heard them out patiently, and then said: ‘I am very busy, but if you can answer this question sensibly I will listen to you. If there are no factories and no industry, where is the worker going to work?’ The balloon of their protest was effectively pricked and they melted away without further protest. But he was equally outspoken to the industrialists. Even after he became mayor, not all who had applied for land had developed it as quickly or as fully as expected. One such firm, Melbourne based, had indeed

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erected only a few sheds when one of their directors happened to visit Western Australia. The local manager invited the mayor to meet him at lunch and Sir Frederick lost no opportunity of telling him that it was high time his firm stopped spending their money in New South Wales or wherever they were spending it, and started at Fremantle. Within a very short time the building of a modern factory began. Sir Frederick has this blunt way of letting people know exactly what is in his mind, and of doing it without giving offence.

The other highlight he remembers with pride is of a meeting he called at his home in Ellen Street in 1958 to see what steps could be taken to preserve the former Old Women's Home and Lunatic Asylum in Finnerty Street as a historical museum. Following this, approaches to the state government for assistance met with only a lukewarm response. Then in 1963 the Earl of Euston, then Chairman of the National Trust of Great Britain, and Lady Euston in company with Mr Hew Roberts, Director of Adult Education and a member of the Council of the Australian National Trust (W.A.), inspected the building. Sir Frederick tells of the outcome in these words: ‘The Earl of Euston came over to my home on the Saturday morning for tea with my sister and me. He said: “Don’t let them pull that place down. It is the best example of Colonial Gothic in Australia”.’ Its story has already been told, but Sir Frederick Samson initiated the move in 1958, five years before an impressive outside authority caused the government to take notice and agree to make a handsome grant available for the purpose.

Perhaps on that note we should close this brief sketch of the man who is at the present time Mayor of Fremantle. Just as everything that ever happened in Fremantle from the earliest days to the 1970s is part of his being, so he, too, occupies a unique place in its history with which he, through his family and through himself, has been so closely identified.


1 M.F.C.C. 15 Oct. 1934, F.T.H.

2 C.F., R.S.A. 31 Oct. 1951, F.T.H.

3 Ibid.

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