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 3:
End of the first decade

Stirling returned from England in August 1834 with a knighthood and his rank raised from Lieutenant-Governor to that of Governor.

During his absence the colonists had not been idle. Communications had been improved. Roads had been cut, one from Fremantle to the Canning and another from Perth to Mt Eliza. The latter was subsequently continued to Fremantle so that land communication became possible between the port and the capital. While goods and letters continued to be transported by boat, land travellers could make a faster journey on horseback, crossing the river by ferry at Preston Point.

In 1835 the ferry was shifted to the Cantonment, the ferryman at the time being John Hole Duffield. Subsequently it was returned to Preston Point and for many years was operated by a Pole, called John Peril. At no time, if one may judge from correspondence on the subject, does the position of ferryman appear to have been a lucrative one.

Fremantle at this stage was becoming popular as a health resort for tourists from India. The harbour facilities were the cause of some anxiety. There was only a very short jetty, and boatmen plied between it and the ships lying at anchor. Sometimes they carried passengers on their backs, wading through thirty or forty yards of mud to the shore.

As early as September 1830 there was a proposal to construct a breakwater at the mouth of the Swan River. It was to be 1,000 yards long and its cost was estimated at £165,000. Again in 1839 the Surveyor-General Roe prepared specifications for a harbour protected by a mole at a cost of £57,767. Both of these plans were too ambitious for the young colony. For the time being little was done to improve

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conditions in the roadstead, other than the provision of additional buoys and beacons.

The natives, who had been friendly and even co-operative in the first two years of the colony, flared into open hostility during Stirling’s absence. Fremantle was never a main centre for their activities. True, on 24 January 1831 some natives had set fire to and totally destroyed Agett’s house on the right bank of the Swan River. The act seems to have been premeditated for some days previously, but was finally consummated during Mr Agett’s absence in Perth. No reason has been ascertained, but there were several similar acts of incendiarism in various districts about that time. More serious was the shooting of a native at Melville later in 1831, to which the blacks retaliated by killing a servant named Entwistle.

In 1833 a man from Van Diemen’s Land, seeing natives on the road between the Canning and Fremantle, shot one without provocation. A few nights later a Fremantle merchant, observing three natives breaking into his building, shot another. These two acts led Yagan, who was picturesquely described in the press of the day as the ‘Wallace of the Australian aborigines’, to spear two men on the Canning. This, in turn, led to the death of Yagan in particularly callous circumstances. There was trouble throughout the colony, which caused the governor to revoke his earlier attitude of sympathy towards the natives and culminated in the Battle of Pinjarra in October 1834. Thereafter, except for isolated cases, little hostility was offered by the blacks.

Agriculturally, the colony had made considerable advances. In 1833 the area under crop was 600 acres and the carry-over from the previous harvest was so considerable that when in September of that year a vessel from Hobart arrived with 2,000 bushels of wheat, its cargo was returned as not required. In the following year, there were over 900 acres under crop, including 564 acres of wheat, 100 of barley and 116 of oats. Nevertheless, in spite of this increase, within a few weeks of the governor’s return there was a critical food shortage which was only averted by the timely arrival of vessels from the Cape, from Mauritius and from Java.

One of Sir James’s first acts was to extend the Civil Establishment of Western Australia. This included Sir James Stirling, Governor, Commander-in-Chief and Vice-Admiral, salary £800 a year; Mr P.

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Brown, Colonial Secretary, Colonial Registrar, and Clerk of Council, £500; Mr J. S. Roe, Surveyor-General, £400; Dr Collie, Colonial Surgeon, £273. 15s.; Rev. J. B. Wittenoom, Colonial Chaplain, £250;

Mr H. Sutherland, Collector of Revenue at Fremantle, £200. Government Residents were appointed at King George’s Sound, Augusta, Guildford and Fremantle at a salary of £100 each, the position at Fremantle being filled by Mr G. Leake. Harbour Masters at King George’s Sound and Fremantle also received £100 each, the latter being Daniel Scott. On the legal side, there was Mr W. H. Mackie, Chairman of Quarter Sessions and Commissioner of Civil Court, £300; Mr G. F. Moore, Advocate-General, £200; Mr A. Stone, Clerk of Peace; Mr H. Donaldson, Sheriff; and Mr H. Vincent, Gaoler at Fremantle, £100 each. Provision was made for schoolmasters at Perth, Fremantle, King George’s Sound, Guildford and Augusta at £50 each. 1

Post offices were not officially established until 1846. Prior to this postal business had been conducted by merchants. In Fremantle, Mr Lionel Samson performed this service from May 1830 and Mr John Bateman from March 1833. The Bateman family maintained their connection with the Fremantle Post Office until 1861, successive post-masters being John Bateman (1833-54), M. Bateman (for a short period, 1854-55) and Walter Bateman from April 1855 until November 1861, when he was succeeded by Mr A. Francisco.

The first school-master appointed under the terms of Governor Stirling’s proclamation was Mr Launcelot Taylor Cook. He had previously opened what was probably Fremantle’s first school on 15 July 1831, when £20 a year was allotted to him out of the government purse. This school continued throughout those early years, until, on 1 December 1832, a new one was opened and partly financed by the novel method of auctioning a cask of ale presented to the old one by Captain Fremantle during the second visit of the Challenger in September of that year.* Mr Cook was not in charge at that time. He had been appointed Master of the Colonial School in Perth, a position he held for only six months. Thereafter, until his re-appointment in 1834, he was on the staff of the Colonial Chaplain, Rev. J. B. Wittenoom.

* For names of children attending the Fremantle Colonial School in 1835, see Appendix 3.

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On 29 September 1836 Mr Cook’s services were dispensed with and Mrs Bateman was temporarily appointed to the position. How long she remained in charge is not clear. The school at this time catered for both boys and girls, who paid a weekly subscription. In 1846 there was a move to establish a ‘free’ school in Fremantle, when it was expected that from 30 to 40 children would be in attendance on the free list, and about 20 whose parents on a small charge would contribute to their education. William Owen applied for the position of headmaster. There were two other schools then in existence—one conducted by Ellen Woodward with 14 pupils, the other in the charge of Mrs Pengilly who had 16 pupils. There was also a native school of 11 pupils under a Mr King. When the Board of Education was established in 1847 to supervise and control the government schools, Mr Owen was already in charge and continued under the Board. By 1848, the enrolment had reached over eighty and his wife was appointed to assist him.

The Government Resident at Fremantle when Stirling proclaimed the Civil Establishment in 1834 was Mr George Leake. But a few months later he was succeeded by Mr R. McBryde Brown,* a brother of the Colonial Secretary, Mr Peter Brown. He held office until his death in 1858, and during that time served Fremantle well in an office that included multifarious duties, covering shipping, customs and the general welfare and advancement of the town and its citizens. Here and there among the official correspondence, which almost invariably begins with a formal ‘Dear Sir’, we find an occasional letter of a more confidential nature, beginning with ‘Dear Peter’. Not infrequendy we find him applying for an increase in salary, which, in spite of the wider nature of his activities, was the same as that of other government residents. Whereupon his brother replies on behalf of His Excellency the Governor that he

admits the justice of your plaint and regrets that any Public Officer should be so ill-paid as you are proportionate to your duties, but I am directed to inform you that there are in reality no funds on which any additional salary could be borne, were it even sanctioned. 2

We shall hear more of Mr McBryde Brown’s work as time passes. Meanwhile, when Governor Stirling brought down his first budget, there was considerable criticism from the settlers. Even the nominated

* See footnote on p. 4.

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members of his Legislative Council took exception to some of its items. There appears to have been a healthy move towards a form of representative government, which, of course, was not introduced for many years to come. The independence of the settlers expressed itself at public meetings held all over the colony, one from Albany at that time sending a recommendation for the introduction of convict labour. This was not seriously entertained elsewhere in the colony, but it underlines the shortage of labour, a problem which grew in intensity as the years passed. The British government’s action in abandoning land-grants in favour of outright sales had resulted in a serious reduction in the number of migrants to Western Australia. Many favoured a return to the old system, but the Home authorities, following the custom established in the eastern colonies, continued to increase the minimum price. In a despatch dated 19 March 1840 it was raised to 12s.; in June 1841 to £1.8 Actually, the biggest turnover in land during these years was by the private sale of estates already alienated at prices as low as 2s. 6d. per acre. The mass effect was to bring about a stalemate in the colony’s economics and to further accentuate the dearth of labourers.

Fremantle was not direcdy interested in squabbles about land prices, but it naturally reflected the prosperity of the colony. There is evidence that during the second half of the thirties it suffered a slight decline. Lieutenant Bunbury, writing in 1836, says:

Some good houses built in the first days of the Colony . . . are now rapidly going into decay; many of them are half buried in loose white sand which drifts with every breeze and smothers the fences and even walls in the town. 4

Captain J. Stokes of the Beagle which visited Fremantle in 1837 is even less entranced: ‘Fremantle, of which it was wittily said by the quartermaster of one of His Majesty’s ships who visited the place, “You might run it through an hour glass in a day”, is but a collection of low white houses scattered over the scarce whiter sand.’ 5 Again, towards the end of that year, we have the comments of James Backhouse:

Fremantle resembles some of the little coast villages on the limestone of the county of Durham, but it is even whiter than they, and it is

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greatly inconvenienced by the drifting sand . . . The population is about 200. 6

But the year 1837 was memorable for the establishment of a new industry at Fremantle. In August 1836 the prospectus of the Fremantle Whaling Company was issued. Before it began operations the following year, a second company was formed, the Perth Fishing Company, its shareholders being chiefly Perth residents and agriculturists on the Swan. Both companies secured adjacent blocks of land at Arthur’s Head. In addition to this, the Perth company established a depot on Carnac Island, the original Rush Church in Perth being purchased and removed there for the erection of a store and quarters.

Great rivalry existed between the two concerns. W. B. Kimberly tells how one day

Mr Thomas Peel observed two whales in the Sound while proceeding from the Murray River to Fremantle by boat. He reported the circumstance at Arthur’s Head, and a boat was immediately manned and despatched to chase the monsters. The party stationed at Carnac Island caught sight of them at about the same time and joined in the pursuit.

The Carnac boat came up to the prey first and attached a harpoon. The whale dashed through the water with such amazing rapidity that the prow of the boat was dangerously dragged under the water, and the men were forced to cut the line. The Fremantle boat now came within spearing distance. The harpoon was hurled successfully, and the whale was eventually captured. It was drawn to Arthur’s Head, and there relieved of its oil, yielding four tuns. There was some disagreement as to whom this whale belonged. According to the generally recognised laws of whaling the first thrower of the harpoon has the first right to the prey. But the Fremantle boat captured it. The proceeds were divided by the contending parties. 7

A little jetty had been built by prison labour for the Fremantle Whaling Company early in 1837. In June of that year the company approached the government with the request that a tunnel should be cut from the jetty in Bathers’ Bay through the rocky promontory of Arthur’s Head and under the existing gaol to communicate with High Street. In return the company undertook to construct a breakwater to protect ships up to 150 tons for the discharge of cargo. Governor Stirling, together with Messrs J. S. Roe, G. F. Moore and H. W. Reveley, visited Fremantle, and subsequently His Excellency

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presented the company with the freehold land on Arthur’s Head adjoining their jetty. This was part of Sir James’s own property. When the governor intimated that the tunnel could not be undertaken at the public expense, the company began the work in August under the direction of Mr Reveley, the civil engineer. It was completed five months later.

As a result of this new enterprise 71 tuns of oil, valued at £1,420, and 4.5 tons of whalebone worth £360 were exported from Fremantle in 1837.8 This was not as much as had been expected and the years that followed were even less satisfactory.

In 1838 neither company made a profit and the Perth concern wound up its affairs. In 1839 the Fremantle company again worked at a loss and was made over to L. Samson and Son, merchants, to whom it was heavily indebted. Thereafter the industry continued by fits and starts. True, whale oil and whale bone were important items of export in the years that followed, but most of these were probably disposed of by private bartering to American and French whaling vessels that visited these shores. For example, between February 1837 and April 1839 no fewer than sixteen American whalers called at Fremantle. In 1848 the local fleet was operated by Patrick Marmion, but it was not until the fifties and sixties that whaling was conducted from Fremantle with any degree of profit. In those years John Bateman and Joshua J. Harwood directed operations. The Bateman family, earlier mentioned in connection with the Fremantle Post Office, had established in 1857 the commercial house of J. & W. Bateman. Like the pioneer firm of Lionel Samson & Son, it is still in existence.

From the earliest days boat-building had been undertaken at the port, but it was not until May 1836 that a sea-going vessel was launched, the first of its kind to be constructed entirely of local timbers. It was named the Lady Stirling after the governor’s wife, but should not be confused with the paddle-steamer of the same name which ran a regular service between Perth and Fremantle from 1857 until the seventies. It was built by Mr Edwards for Captain Daniel Scott, but shordy afterwards came into the possession of Mr Anthony Curtis, a picturesque figure during the first twenty years of the colony, to which he had come after serving with the British Navy. Before embarking as a trader and ship-builder,

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Meanwhile, Governor Stirling intimated in June 1838 that he would retire within a few months. For nine years he had guided the affairs of the colony, sharing the difficulties of the colonists with courage and perseverance. His administration ended on the last day of December and two days later his successor, Mr John Hutt, arrived at Fremantle. The two men spent some time together before Mr Hutt proceeded to Perth on 3 January. The following night the new governor returned to Fremantle with the members of the Council and a number of private citizens to bid farewell to Sir James and Lady Stirling at a dinner and a ball. On 5 January they assembled on the small Fremantle jetty to watch the departure of the colony’s first governor. They ‘raised their voices in cheers’, and ‘Sir James was visibly affected.’ 11

And well he might be. He had initiated an enterprise and steered it through its first difficult years. None could tell what the future might hold, but whatever prosperity time might bring to it, would be in no small measure due to the kindly administration of Sir James and the loyal support given to him by Lady Stirling.


1 For further information see C. Bryan & F. I. Bray, ‘Peter Nicholas Brown, first Colonial Secretary of Western Australia, 1829-1846’, W.A.H.S.J.P. ii, pt xviii (1935). See for details of the increased civil establishment and regulations Perth Gazette, SO Aug. 1834.

2 Colonial Secretary to Government Resident, 25 March 1839, C.S.O. 1839, B.L.

3 Lord John Russell to Governor Hutt, 19 March 1840, C.S.O. 1840, B.L.

4 Lt H. W. Bunbury, Early Days in Western Australia, ed. Lt-Col W, St. Pierre Bunbury & W. P. Morrell (London: O.U.P., 1930), p. 25.

5 J. Lort Stokes, Discoveries in Australia (London: T. & W. Boone, 1836), i, p. 50.

6 Extracts from the Letters of James Backhouse (London, 1839), pt v, p. 27.

7 W. B. Kimberly, History of West Australia, p. 105.

8 Government Blue Book 1837, B.L.

9 Swan River News (London), Jan. 1846.

10 I Vict. No. 2, An Act to provide for the Management of Roads, Streets and other Internal Communications, within the settlement of Western Australia, 15 June 1838.

11 G. F. Moore, Diary ... of an Early Settler in Western Australia, diary entry 5 Jan. 1838.

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