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 6:
Fremantle under the Town Trust

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The earliest picture we have of Fremantle during this period is contained in the diary of a soldier, John Gorman, who arrived on the Minden in October 1851. He found the main street ‘intersected with small streets running from the beach to the banks of the Swan River . . . There are several stores, public houses and butchers’ shops . . . but the whole is complete sand interspersed with hard flinty stones. ’1 That was before the Town Trust had properly begun its road-building programme, but even while Fremantle was in that condition John Gorman anticipated the future with some accuracy and realized at least one of the major obstacles to its progress. He wrote:

I have not the least doubt that in a few years it may be a very flourishing place; that is, if they can possibly improve the anchorage of Gage Roads, which I believe is almost impossible, it being so exposed to the ocean and westerly winds and in winter not at all safe in consequence of the north-west gales. 2

He gives an interesting list of the prices of some commodities: Bread 1s. 2d. a loaf, sugar 4d. lb, tea 2s. 6d. lb, butter 2s. 4d. and 2s. 6d. lb, dripping 7d. lb, eggs 2d. each, tobacco 4s. lb, rum 4d. glass, wine (Cape) 1s. 3d. bottle, cup and saucer 8d., a dinner plate 8d., candles 4d. each, rent of a room 5s. a week, small tub for washing 4s. 6d., men’s boots 12s. and 14s. a pair, shoes to fit Mary Gorman 3s. 6d. a pair, grid-iron 6d., and a four-quart iron tea kettle 12s. 8

Lest the reader in modern times should look wistfully at some of these prices, it may be as well to quote the wages of the day, which Gorman considered were good: ‘a labourer [is] getting 4s. a day and a carpenter 8s. Even a man breaking stones gets 2s. 6d.' 4

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This was the town which was gradually awakening after the doldrums of the forties. With labour more plentiful than previously, the Town Trust as we have seen set about constructing roads. Horses and drays were busy drawing loads of white stone quarried by convicts, while labourers, both free-men and convicts, strove to remove the early impression of ‘complete sand interspersed with hard flinty stones’. 5

Mrs Edward Millett, who visited Fremantle in 1863, wrote:

it is but a small unpretending little town, and one which makes but a slight impression upon a newcomer. In the main street and in the three or four short thoroughfares that connect the sea jetty with the river pier and wharf there are a few handsome and substantial houses belonging to either the Government or to some of the principal inhabitants. In these streets, too, are situated the larger and more important shops, or rather “stores”, of the chief traders of the town. The colonial church is well placed at the point where the main street branches off into two roads at a considerable angle to one another.

On the point of ground between those two diverging streets and facing the very centre of the main street as it leads from the shore stands the church surrounded by a large churchyard. Although the situation of the building is good it cannot lay claim to much beauty either externally or within; it is of fair size and sufficiently commodious in its arrangement, but that is all that can be said of it. The Roman Catholics possess a much prettier and more ecclesiastical-looking building and their convent and clergy-house are neat and tidy looking buildings. 6

Mrs Millett was impressed by the ‘huge convict prison’, or ‘the Establishment’, as it was called ‘by way of flattering the imagination both of those within and without its walls'. 7 From the hill on which this building stood she noticed how the Swan River ‘breaking upon the river bar, throws up a number of rapid eddies, which catch the blazing southern sun and sparkle like diamonds in its light’. 8 ‘The town’, she continues,

bears somewhat of that untidy, unfinished look inseparable from half-completed streets and unpaved footpaths. There are no continuous rows of shops, but all the minor stores and open fruit and fish stalls are scattered about in all directions and do not make nearly as good a show as if collected into a regular and compact street. This gives the town a bare and deserted appearance as if no business were transacted,

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which is not really the case, although the trade is certainly not a lively one. 9

Among the ‘few handsome and substantial houses’ which Mrs Millett noted was no doubt the strange building erected in 1858 by a contractor named Sharp for Mr C. A. Manning at the comer of Pakenham and Short Streets. It had a flat roof and glass facades which gave it the appearance of an enormous hot-house, and earned for it the soubriquet of ‘Manning’s Folly’. An immense amount of money was expended on its erection and in it Mr Manning, who was for nine years chairman of the Town Trust, lived until his death in 1869. 10

Another building Mrs Millett, with her keen interest in churches, could scarcely have failed to notice, although she does not mention it, was the first Congregational church, the building of which began in 1852 and was completed in 1854. It was enlarged in 1857 and the clergyman in charge was the Rev. Joseph Johnston, who earned the respect and affection of Fremantle people among whom he laboured for forty years. In 1855 the Fremantle Boys’ School was opened. Built to the design of the then Colonial Secretary, William Ayshford Sanford, it was regarded at the time of its erection as one of the most handsome pieces of architecture in the colony.

Among the later buildings was the Oddfellows’ Hall, opened in July 1867. Originally the Town Trust had met in the Court House, but when in May 1866 the government resident, Mr Charles Simmonds, requested them to find other accommodation, they met for three years in Mr Henderson’s room at the back of the Customs House. In 1869 they removed to the Oddfellows’ Hall which continued as the meeting-place, not only of the Town Trust, but of the Council which succeeded it, until the year 1876.

The New Swan Lodge Manchester Union Independent Order of Oddfellows had been formed in 1851 and was a popular institution in Fremantle. Its annual procession on 18 August, followed by a banquet, was regarded as an event of some importance in the town. Its hall was used for entertainments, both professional and amateur. Spelling bees, literary readings and the propounding of conundrums amused the audiences, when other diversions failed. 11 Another form of entertainment in those days was the band of the Fremantle

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Volunteer Defence Force. Residents gathered on the Barracks Green (where the Oval now stands) to watch moonlit manoeuvres and listen to the music of the band. Founded by Mr C. A. Manning in 1861, the corps was re-organized in the seventies under the command of Captain R. M. Sutherland. The volunteers had to provide their own uniforms and accoutrements, and after twelve-years service they were entitled to the grant of a town allotment, 50 acres of land in the country, or £12. 10s. in cash.

This was a popular body with young men of the town, as also was the Water Police which had been founded in 1851. This organization mainly attracted young seamen, and applicants for positions were selected with great care. It continued as a separate body from the land police, with which it was not amalgamated until the opening of the new harbour.

Harbour facilities in those days were most inadequate to the needs of the colony. Goods had to be unloaded at the comparatively short jetty in South Bay, transported by road to the River jetty at the end of Cliff Street, and then sent up the river to Perth. Not only did this involve great handling costs, it also left visiting ships completely at the mercy of the winter gales. We have seen how John Gorman noted this in 1851. Nine years earlier the pilot, Richard Maxworthy, had recommended the deepening of the passage across the bar at the river mouth. This many Fremantle residents opposed, fearing that it would result in direct sea-going communication with Perth and thus cause Fremantle to lose its importance as a port.

The first serious approach to the improvement of harbour facilities was the creation of a Board in 1865 under the chairmanship of the Surveyor-General, Mr J. S. Roe. Meeting originally to consider the state of the bar, this body extended its enquiry to the condition of the South Jetty. They recommended an extension of the latter to a total length of 456 feet in its existing direction. This would provide 3 feet more depth of water and accommodation for four or five additional vessels, according to their size and draught. It further recommended the construction of a passage for boats at the north end of the bar under Rous Head, with a deep-water channel to North Fremantle.

Both works were shortly taken in hand. The jetty was extended, but the cutting of a deep-water passage through the river-mouth

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proved an impossible task. The Fremantle Herald of 24 October 1868 notes that

at this moment the navigation of the river is all but closed in consequence of the attempt to make a channel on the north side of the bar, which would, if it succeeded, shut out Fremantle altogether and make communication between Perth and the Roadstead direct.

As it is, the paper concludes with evident satisfaction, ‘the attempt is a complete failure'.

Ever since its foundation early in 1867, the Herald, which was published in Fremantle each week by James Pearce and William Beresford, had advocated improvements in harbour facilities. As if to emphasize the need, the winter of 1867 proved exceptionally tempestuous. Shipwrecks were common along the coast. The year started badly with the loss of the Lass of Geraldton on 23 February when but a few hours south of Fremantle en route for Bunbury. Seven lives were lost, including that of its owner, Mr G. Shenton, who had played a prominent part in colonial affairs since the earliest years. 12 It is interesting to note that Mr W. K. Shenton, his cousin, had also been drowned on his way from Fremantle to Bunbury when the Devonshire foundered in 1842.

Other shipwrecks occurred along the north-west coast, but what most forcibly underlined the shortcomings of the Fremantle anchorage was a tragic occurrence on the evening of 23 June.

Just before sundown on that day the inhabitants of Fremantle were startled by the booming of the minute-gun of the Strathmore. A crowd quickly gathered on the beach, where it was learned that a little after 4 o'clock the Harbour Master, Captain James Harding, in response to distress signals from the Strathmore, had set out in a Water Police whaleboat with five men—McLean, Dandie, Akers, Price and Paterson. In the heavy seas that were running nothing could be seen of this vessel or its crew and the continued ominous booming of the minute-gun prompted John Tapper to set out in his whaleboat with Messrs Butcher, O’Grady, Hunt, Casey and Jonson. In a short time they returned with the news that Captain Harding had safely reached the Strathmore, had gone aboard, and had just returned to the whaleboat when ‘a tremendous sea broke under the bows of the vessel, swept along its side and swamped the

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whaleboat.’ 13 All lives were lost, except that of Paterson. For his attempted rescue in conditions which imperilled his own life, John Tapper was presented with ‘a handsome and valuable watch’ by grateful and admiring citizens. The Herald reports that ‘Mr Tapper received it in silence far more impressive than any words.’ 14 The chairman of the meeting also presented him with a purse containing £15 for division among the crew of his boat.

Naturally, the Herald lost no time in pointing the moral. It wrote:

We predicted last week, that, for want of proper means to render assistance to vessels in harbour, we should have some day to witness the destruction of both life and property. Never was prediction fulfilled so fatally and speedily.

The Herald continued to press for something to be done, and on 12 September 1868 published the design of Mr Wallace Bickley for what he called a ‘Harbour Dock’. This was an external harbour protected by a breakwater 2,400 feet long, running from Rous Head. The main jetty was to be an extension of the existing one, and provision was made for the construction of other jetties within the area protected. Opposition to this scheme favoured the removal of the bar and deepening the channel so as to admit ships of 500 tons burden going to Perth. This the Herald stigmatized as being ‘about as practicable a project as a railway to the moon’.

Bickley, the designer of the external ‘Harbour Dock*, subsequently wrote:

It matters little whose plan is adopted, whether mine or any other person’s, so long as the plan is effective and economical—only for goodness’ sake let us have no more futile tinkerings at the bar, or any waste of money upon any similar childish mischievousnesses.

And there the matter rested for many years.

This Herald, which quickly became a voice in the community, compared in many respects more than favourably with the other weekly papers published in Perth, the Perth Gazette and the Inquirer. In 1868 a second Fremantle paper came into being. This was the Era which claimed to be ‘the first newspaper that has ever been placed before the reading public of this Colony at the low price of one penny'. It was owned and published by George Barrow,

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who during the daytime was an accountant for the firm of L. Samson & Son. It was printed by the lithographic process and was written first by hand in a flowing free-hand script. It went out of existence in the following year.

Meanwhile, although continuous water transport between the outer harbour and the capital remained a problem, land communications had at last been established. From the earliest years there had been ferries at various points along the river, but in the early sixties the building of the first bridge was commenced opposite Cantonment Hill. Convicts were employed throughout its construction, some in chains and some, because of the difficulty of the work, permitted to labour without chains. When finished, the bridge, including the raised approaches on the northern and southern sides, was 2,078 feet long. It sloped up to a central portion, raised 42 feet above the water level to enable the passage of lighters equipped with sails, and its roadway was 18 feet wide. Originally estimated to cost £2,752, the expenses in 1867 were shown at £2,986. 2s. 5d., and no doubt the final figure was well over £3,000. The press of the day reports on 2 October 1867 that the work had been completed recently and was a credit to the Clerk of Works, Mr James Manning, who supervised its construction. The Inquirer describes it as an achievement

which the colony is proud of, not only on account of the nature and extent of the construction, and the peculiar qualities of the material used in it, but also on account of the notable instance it furnishes of what convict labour is capable of doing, when earnestly and judiciously directed. 15

If the colony was proud of this achievement, it certainly did not display its pride in any ostentatious manner. Actually, when the above was written, the bridge had been in use for the better part of a year. The Inquirer records that His Excellency the Governor had driven across it in his carriage on his way to Fremantle as early as Wednesday, 14 November 1866, when the bridge was expected to be ‘declared open in a few days, probably before the Governor’s return from Champion Bay’. No ceremony appears to have been attached to the actual opening, which took place one week later. The only reference in the press is that of the Perth Gazette, which says:

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‘The Fremantle Bridge was thrown open at noon on Wednesday for general traffic, and the ferry boat has been removed.' That was Wednesday, 21 November 1866. However, on the following night a quaint unofficial ceremony took place. It is best described in the words of the Fremantle correspondent of the Inquirer, 28 November 1866:

On Thursday evening last, [that is, the night after the bridge was “thrown open” for general traffic] our Volunteer corps assembled on its parade ground at 8 p.m. for a moonlight march. The strains of the Band, as they marched through the town, soon attracted a numerous concourse of our inhabitants, who accompanied them on their march to the North Fremantle Bridge, and having crossed it, they, on their return, halted in the centre, when Captain Manning gave a short address, the purport of which I believe was that the bridge was a great boon to the colony, and that its want had been felt for many years; at the same time he expressed regret that it being the most important work yet accomplished by convict labour, and one in which so much interest had been taken by the inhabitants of Perth and Fremantle, no public rejoicings had announced its being opened. The corps then gave three cheers for His Excellency, and marched off in a cloud of dust, raised by the juveniles who preceded them. 16

It is certainly strange that such a structure should have been allowed to be opened in such a casual manner. Perhaps the absence of the governor at Champion Bay was the reason for the lack of any formal ceremony. That it was an important road link between port and capital there can be no doubt. A touch of romance has been added to its ‘opening' by the claim of Moondyne Joe to have been the first man to have crossed it, making use of it on the occasion of one of his famous gaol-breaking escapades. 17 The truth of this claim is probably known only to Moondyne Joe.

In its time Fremantle has entertained many people both famous and notorious. In the latter category may be mentioned the colourful freebooter Bully Hayes, whose visit in 1857 occasioned nearly as many heart-burnings as that of the equally colourful Louis de Rougemont in 1874. But quite the most celebrated visitor during this period was His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, who arrived in the H.M.S. Galatea on 4 February 1869. It was a gala day for Fremantle, even though the minds of many of its citizens were

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saddened by the fact that the death had occurred of Mr C. A. Manning. In order that members of the Volunteer Force, which he had founded, could pay their respects at the graveside as well as form a guard of honour to the royal visitor, the funeral took place at dawn. However, Fremantle decked itself in honour of the Duke and the day saw a constant stream of people making pleasure trips in all sorts of craft to the Galatea lying at anchor in the harbour.

In June 1869 the first telegraph line between Perth and Fremantle was opened. Built by private enterprise, its first operator was W. Holman and its first messenger W. T. John. The Fremantle office was in charge of Horace Stirling, one of the builders of the line, which two years later was taken over by the government.


1 John Gorman’s Logbook, 1851 (entry 25 Oct.), B.L.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Edward Millett (Mrs), An Australian Parsonage (London: Ed. Stanford, 1872), p. 15.

7 Ibid. p. 11.

8 Ibid. p. 17.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. p. 15.

11 For further information on social life see E. D. Cowan, ‘Early Social Life & Fashion’, WAHSJP, i, pt iii (1928), pp. 1-17.

12 Fremantle Herald, 30 March 1867.

13 Ibid. 29 June 1867.

14 Ibid. 6 July 1867.

15 Inquirer, 2 Oct. 1867.

16 Ibid. 28 Nov. 1866.

17 For further information concerning Joseph Johns alias Moondyne Joe see C. Treadgold, ‘Bushrangers in Western Australia: incidents of 1867', Early Days: being Journal and Proceedings of the W.A.H.S., Series I (1939), ii, p. 49.

Go to Chapter 7: The Town Council, 1871-1883.

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