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 8:
Fremantle in the Seventies

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The initiative in the move towards improved harbourage for vessels at Fremantle came from Governor Weld, who in August 1871 wrote to Mr E. Newman, M.L.C., asking him to get in touch with the other members for Fremantle, Messrs Marmion and Moore, and with the Town Council. 1 He sought a report on the exact nature of the work proposed. Accordingly, a public meeting was held on 28 August when a committee was formed to collect information on the practicability and advisability of carrying out a new jetty into deep water. Its members were Messrs W. Bickley, J. Bateman, E. Newman, W. D. Moore, W. S. Pearse, W. Marmion, R. King, J. J. Harwood, W. Brown and R. Hunt.

The subsequent report is signed by eight of these gentlemen, Messrs Bickley and Hunt not appending their signatures .2 It recommended the construction of a jetty in a south-westerly direction at a total cost, including two sets of rails, of £19,403. 18s. 10d. The report concludes in a way that shows they were under no misapprehension as to the nature of the anchorage to be provided.

The committee does not expect the proposed jetty to be any protection to shipping. All that is expected, wanted or even wished, is that it will afford the same facilities, the same accommodation for vessels of the size usually visiting the port, as the present one does for the craft for which it was constructed, and when a Coaster of 70 tons is able to discharge at the one, a vessel of 700 tons will be able to do so at the other; and if these ends are achieved, of which there cannot be much doubt, the Committee consider the money will be well spent and will not regret any part in promoting its erection.

The new jetty was expected to be used annually by 20,000 tons of incoming and outgoing traffic, which would contribute a gross annual

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revenue of £2,000. Opinions of all sorts were sought in the preparation of this report. Masters of vessels visiting the port were especially solicited to express their views and most of them gave hearty endorsements to the proposal.

The work was well under way when, in November 1872 over twenty ‘merchants, shipowners and residents of Fremantle’ petitioned the governor, proposing that the new jetty should be more to the west-south-west of the one proposed. This, it was claimed, would lead to deeper water, and give increased anchorage as well as more shelter during the rough weather of the winter months. The contractors, Mason & Bird, were willing to undertake any desired alterations providing they were recouped against loss caused by additional expenditure that might be incurred. But general opinion was against the change, the original committee adhered firmly to its recommendations, and the work proceeded. The timber came from the contractors’ mill on the Canning and was brought to Fremantle on a specially constructed tramway.

The Fremantle correspondent of the Inquirer wrote on 22 December 1873:

Our new jetty is just having the finishing stroke put to it. The laying of truck rails is completed, and two or three vessels have already availed themselves of the opportunity of loading and discharging their cargo alongside of our well-constructed jetty.

This was the first section, 1,400 feet. It was further extended in 1881, and again in 1883 to 3,830 feet, bringing into being the famous Long Jetty, as it was known to many newcomers to Western Australia during the gold-rush days of the early nineties. It was at best a makeshift. It could never serve the needs of an up-to-date port. But the time was not yet ripe, the colony not yet sufficiently advanced, nor an engineer of sufficient genius yet at hand to undertake the work required to overcome the obstacles which nature had provided to a harbour in the river-mouth. At any rate, the colonists appear for the time being to have given up wasting money trying to blast the river-bar, and no doubt Fremantle was happy that any danger of its ceasing to be a port was, at least, temporarily removed.

Happy as they were in the possession of a deep-water jetty, they became deeply concerned over the suggestion to build a railway line

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from Perth to Fremantle along the north side of the river. The first definite proposal for a railway had come in 1871 from a Select Committee of the Legislative Council on Public Works. The loan for this work was sanctioned by the Secretary of State for the Colonies in April 1878. But in July of the previous year the Fremantle Town Council was stirred to action by the fear that the proposed route would injure Fremantle as a business centre. An ‘extraordinary meeting’, attended by members of both the Town Council and the District Road Board, prepared and printed a memorial which was signed by over 500 persons. This was presented to the governor on 3 September. Meanwhile an independent survey on the southern side was undertaken for the Council and Road Board jointly by Mr H. E. Victor. The expenses of this survey, which ultimately cost £91. 7s. 6d., were raised with some difficulty by public subscription. Mr Victor proposed a line running in the direction of the Canning Road, but keeping nearer to the river as far as South Perth, and thence across Perth Water on a viaduct to a point near Cole’s Jetty and terminating in Weld Square. An alternative suggestion was made by Mr T. H. J. Browne that the proposed railway should cross the river at Mill Point, going along the south side of Mt Eliza past the Pensioners’ Barracks to Wellington Reserve.

However, beyond having this survey made, nothing further was done. The residents of Fremantle recovered from their apprehensions concerning the northern route, and on 3 June 1879 the first sod was turned by Governor Ord on the site of the present Perth Railway Station.

The railway was opened by the governor. Sir William Robinson, on Tuesday, 1 March 1881, when a special train left Perth for Fremantle shortly after 10 a.m. The vice-regal party on board were welcomed at Fremantle by the Chairman of the Town Council, Mr Elias Solomon. In the course of his reply after being regaled with champagne and biscuits, His Excellency said: ‘The weekly visit which I am in the habit of making to your town will be none the less agreeable in the future from the fact that I can now visit you by rail.’ 3

It is not on record whether the governor continued to use this method of transport, but the vice-regal train returned to Perth and then proceeded to Guildford, the eastern terminus, where His

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Excellency was given another reception by Mr Harper, acting-chairman of the municipality of that town. Once more back at Perth, they were received by the acting-mayor, Dr Scott, after which the vice-regal party and official guests repaired to the Town Hall where they partook of luncheon.

With a deep-sea jetty for its shipping and a railway for its land transport, Fremantle was progressing towards a prosperous future. Among the notable buildings erected during this period was the Masonic Hall, the cornerstone of which was laid by Sir Archibald Paull Burt on 18 April 1878. The Fremantle Lodge, the second in Western Australia, had been opened in 1865 and obtained its grant of land from the government in February 1875. Reference has already been made to the new St John’s Church, the consequent transfer of land to the Council and the beginning of the extension of High Street. The foundation stone of the new building was laid on 28 January 1879, and it was consecrated for service on 4 July 1882. A new Court House was proposed during 1883, replacing the old building on Arthur’s Head where the early Town Trust and for a time the Town Council had held their meetings. By 1879 Fremantle had three banks. The National Bank of Australasia had opened a branch in 1866. Four years later the W.A. Bank opened a deposit agency which it enlarged into a full agency in 1878. In 1879 the Union Bank commenced business at the port. The Fremantle Building and Benefit Society was established in 1875, and from 1877 it rented the office of the Town Council for its weekly meetings, as did also the Fremantle District Road Board.

Visitors’ impressions of Fremantle during this period throw some illumination on the nature of the town, although not all of them are complimentary. Governor Weld commented that it was in 1869 ‘a bigger place than Perth’, and noted that he ‘came in for a great reception’ there.4 In 1870 Mr W. H. Knight, Auditor-General for the Colony, and author of a handbook dealing with its resources, wrote:

The town itself, though small in extent, is compact and regular in its arrangement, and, as the allotments were originally laid out on a smaller scale than those of Perth, the buildings are not so scattered as in the city, and the place has assumed much more of a town-like appearance. There are few buildings with any great claims to architectural

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beauty, though the houses are, generally speaking, substantially constructed. 5

Anthony Trollope, the famous English novelist, visited this state in 1872. His picture of Fremantle is characteristically frank:

Fremantle has certainly no natural beauties to recommend it. It is a hot, white, ugly town, with a very large prison, a lunatic asylum, and a hospital for ancient and worn-out convicts. ... At Fremantle there is hardly a man whom it can be worth the reader’s while to have introduced to him. 6

Lest the reader should imagine here a slight on the estimable citizens of Fremantle, it must be explained that Anthony Trollope’s interest seems to have been in the inmates of the ‘Establishment’ rather than in the free citizens. His comment that there was hardly a man worth meeting there is in contrast to the interesting convicts he encountered in Van Diemen’s Land. That he found this difference, perhaps emphasizes the fact that the system in Western Australia did not, in fact, introduce the same degree of criminality.

Trollope thought the Establishment would soon become useless, but the superintendent scouted the idea. He

declared, apparently with pride, that the colony would always supply a sufficiency of convicts to keep it going. I suggested that 850 men under sentence would be a very great number—that even half that number would be a very great number—In a population of 25,000 souls; and the more so, as the enormous distances in the colony made it necessary that other prisons and penitentiaries should be maintained. But he was still hopeful. The population would increase and with the population, crime .7

In 1876 Henry Taunton visited Western Australia and his impressions were recorded in a book called Australind, published many years later. He writes:

Fremantle consisted of one principal street made up of hotels and stores and a few Government buildings, including the Imperial convict depot, a lighthouse and a number of private dwellings all glaring in whitewash. Each house had its green verandah blinds and encircling verandahs. A few churches made up an apparently sleepy but really

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flourishing township, which might be described as a city of public houses, flies, sand, limestone, convicts, and stacks of sandalwood. 8

Lady Barker, who afterwards became Lady Broome, wife of the governor of the colony from 1883 to 1890, describes a typical reception to a newly-arrived vice-regal party—one of the many such arranged by the Town Council during these years.

After a little we landed and walked through lanes of pleasant-looking civil people until we got to a place made gay with flags and flowers and red cloth; then came speeches of welcome and some champagne and everybody drank everybody else’s health, and so on to the railway station and into a special train in waiting (which had been made bright with boughs and bouquets) and up to Perth in less than on hour. 9

Her picture of the town is perhaps a little more intimate and friendly than most of the others:

Just outside Fremantle there is a long, steep and narrow bridge across the wide mouth of the “Swan”, and then we drive through some very pretty suburbs of neat, nice little houses, standing in gay gardens, until we get to the town itself. Not a very large one, but growing every day, and it has already capital shops. A little Government Cottage perches on a cliff by the seashore, and I often have tea in its summer parlour, while Louis enjoys a scramble on the rocks. I hope some day we may have a fine harbour and that I may see lots of big steamers in the beautiful bay, just below the cottage window. 10

Quite the most exciting event in the colony during the seventies was the escape of six Fenian prisoners. Although the event did not leave a ripple in the minutes of the Fremantle Town Council, it did stir the inhabitants of the port and, indeed, of the entire province. Conceived in detail by Irish sympathizers in America and executed with audacity, it provoked much controversy and might have precipitated a mild international crisis. The newspapers of the day give many details, but the most coherent story is that subsequently published in a New York paper by the man who was responsible for the affair, John J. Breslin. His account was reprinted in full in the Fremantle Herald on 16 November 1876, some months after the tumult and the shouting had died.

Breslin arrived in Fremantle in November 1875, where he assumed the name of Captain J. Collins. He put up at the Emerald

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Isle Hotel, and through a Fenian ex-prisoner, William Foley, made contact with James Wilson, another Fenian still serving his sentence.

The vehicle of escape was to be the American whaling vessel, Catalpa, but as there was no word of its likely arrival at Bunbury, Breslin, to avoid suspicion, made a trip inland through Perth to Guildford and York. At the end of March the American whaler Canton put in to Bunbury whither Breslin went, only to find that the Canton knew nothing of the Catalpa’s whereabouts. He was beginning to get anxious now, but shortly after his return to Fremantle was relieved to learn that the Catalpa had arrived at Bunbury on 29 March. Back to Bunbury he hurried by mail-coach, met Captain Anthony of the Catalpa and persuaded him to come to Fremantle by the Georgette so that he could inspect the locality near Rockingham where it was expected the Catalpa’s whaleboat would later pick up the escapees.

From the bridge of the Georgette, Captain Anthony surveyed the landmarks of the appointed spot, but was somewhat dismayed to find the British gun-boat Conflict in port when he arrived at Fremantle. On 6 April Anthony returned to Bunbury, Breslin arranging to let him know when and in which direction the Conflict had sailed.

Then followed a series of telegraphic messages, the words of which concealed their real meaning and failed to arouse anyone’s suspicions. Finally, it became clear to Breslin that everything would be in readiness for the escape on Monday 17 April. He had made a practice of hiring wagonettes and traps and driving himself round the environs of Fremantle, so that no sinister purpose was associated with his appearance in the streets at an early hour that morning. At a quarter to eight two vehicles passed the prison yard where the men were beginning to form up for their parade. Ten minutes later, three of the Fenians were overtaken by a trap driven by an accomplice, Desmond, as they were on their way to their day’s labours. They were Wilson, Cranston and Harrington. The other three, Darragh, Hogan and Hassett, were collected in the second vehicle soon afterwards, and both parties set off towards Rockingham. Neither group had any difficulty in making the arranged rendezvous, for all six prisoners had by good conduct won the confidence of their warders.

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A resident of Rockingham, named Bell, subsequently reported to the police that his curiosity was aroused by the arrival of a whaleboat at about 9 a.m. with six coloured men and another man ‘of Yankee look’. The whaleboat tied up at the landing place of the Rockingham Jarrah Timber Company. Some two hours later, a man on horseback followed by eight or ten men in traps arrived and at once went on board and prepared to put out to sea. When Bell asked what was to be done with the traps, one of the men replied, ‘Let them go to hell’, and gave him a sovereign. This unwonted generosity aroused Bell’s suspicions, and he lost no time in driving to Fremantle which he reached at about one o’clock.

The whaleboat was about two miles off-shore when they saw mounted police ride to the spot where they had embarked. Breslin then remembered a letter he had written to the governor. He tied it to a piece of wood and posted it by ‘the ocean mail’. There is no record that the letter reached its destination, but Breslin’s narrative preserves its contents:

This is to certify that I have this day released from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., six Irishmen, condemned to imprisonment for life by the enlightened and magnanimous Government of Great Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and unpardonable crimes known to the enlightened portion of mankind as ‘love of country’ and ‘hatred of tyranny’; for this atrocious act of Irish assurance my birth and blood being sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that

In taking my leave now, I’ve only to say,
A few cells I’ve emptied (a sell in a way);
I’ve the honour and pleasure to bid you good day,
From all future acquaintance excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,

John J. Breslin

For the next twenty-four hours, the zest with which he had posted that audacious missile by ‘the ocean mail’ was somewhat dampened by sea-spray, and his wish that he would be excused from all future acquaintance was very nearly not fulfilled. It was not until 5.30 p.m. that they sighted the Catalpa about fifteen miles distant. An hour later she was quite plain to the escapees, but the weather was gloomy with rain squalls and, although the whaleboat made good headway

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under sail, they could not overtake the mother-ship. At 7 p.m. a squall carried away the mast, and by the time they had erected another the Catalpa was completely lost in the darkness. There was nothing for it but to make themselves as comfortable as they could in their drenched clothes and await the dawn.

At 6.45 a.m. next day they again sighted the Catalpa, but beyond her they saw the smoke of a vessel, which they took to be the Georgette. She was too far out of her course to be making her scheduled trip to Albany, so they took down their sails and lay low, hoping they would not be seen.

As a matter of fact, the Georgette it was. But not the busy little coastal steamer on which Breslin and Captain Anthony had sailed up from Bunbury. On the previous day she had been commissioned by the government and placed under the command of Mr John Stone of the Water Police. On board was a detachment of the Enrolled Pensioner Force, commanded by Major Finnerty, and a body of police in the charge of Sergeant O’Grady.

The men in the whaleboat watched the Georgette steam alongside the Catalpa, remain there about ten minutes, then steam away. Deeming it now safe, they hoisted sail and set off after the Catalpa, which unfortunately for them was also under full sail and widening the distance between them with every puff of wind. Meanwhile, they kept a weather eye on the Georgette which was obviously searching for them. On one occasion she came so close that Breslin says, ‘We could distinguish men on her deck and a look-out man at her masthead.’ However, she did not see them and as soon as she had passed on they made way after the Catalpa, which, at about two o'clock, stood round and approached them. Just when they felt certain they had been observed, they suddenly became aware of another boat under sail making towards the Catalpa and about equally distant from the land side as they were to seaward. This boat they recognized as the police cutter, and it now became a desperate race to see which would reach the ship first. At about 3 p.m. they ran up under the weather-side of the Catalpa and scrambled aboard, with the police-boat close on the lee quarter. The moment they were on board, the Catalpa hoisted the whaleboat and, with stars and stripes flying, stood out to sea. Breslin says he stepped to the side and kissed his hand to the police-boat—‘the gentlemen who had lost the race’.

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But it was not all over yet. They changed out of their wet clothes and following a glass of rum and hot coffee were glad to seek the comfort of their bunks after the trying twenty-eight hours they had spent in the open boat. When Breslin came on deck at five o'clock next morning, he found they were off Fremantle, and half an hour later the look-out reported a ship on the lee bow. This was the Georgette again, only this time she had a twelve-pound howitzer on board. The governor had himself ridden down to Fremantle to issue instructions and a fatigue party had been busy throughout the night re-fuelling the vessel. She was a full man-of-war ship with an admiral's flag flying.

The Catalpa set sail before the wind, but her speed was no match for Georgette which by half past eight had overhauled her. Accounts of what happened in the next half-hour vary, but Breslin says that he advised Captain Anthony to ‘Hold on and don't take any notice of them yet.' About three minutes later he suggested:

‘Ask him what he wants'
The reply was an order to ‘Heave to!'
‘What am I to heave to for?', shouted Captain Anthony.
‘Have you any convict prisoners aboard?'
‘No prisoners here, no prisoners that I know of.'
‘I give you fifteen minutes to consider and you must take the consequences. I have the means to do it and if you don't heave to I'll blow the masts out of you!'
‘That's the American flag', replied Captain Anthony, ‘I am on the high seas. My flag protects me. If you fire on my ship you fire on the American flag.'

It was a tense moment. Upon Breslin's suggestions, logs were brought up on deck to sink any boarding party that might attempt to approach. Then they realized that they were drifting perilously close to British waters and orders were given to change course so that they bore directly down on the Georgette, forcing her to shift out of their way. This, says Breslin, seemed to disconcert them. ‘As the Georgette steamed slowly across our stern, I looked for a raking shot among our masts. She did not fire and as she ranged alongside again I knew that the game of bluff was played out.'

There were further exchanges, Mr Stone asking permission to come on board. This was firmly but courteously refused, and after

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keeping the Catalpa company until 9.30, the Georgette swung slowly off and steamed back to Fremantle, without, as Breslin remarks, having the good grace ‘to wish us bon voyage!’

It must have been exciting while it lasted and it is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the Georgette fired on the American flag. But apparently Mr Stone was under orders not to take undue risks, and beyond causing the colonists in Western Australia and elsewhere for many months to come to smell Fenian plots everywhere, the incident passed into history, and the Catalpa sailed over the horizon to New Bedford and freedom for her Fenian cargo.


1 Governor Weld to Mr E. Newman, Aug. 1871, M.F.T.T., B.L.

2 ‘Report of the Harbour Improvement Board, 3 June 1873’, Legislative Council Minutes of Proceedings, 1873.

3 West Australian, 4 March 1881.

4 Governor Weld to Earl Granville, Sept. 1869, C.S.O., B.L.

5 W. H. Knight, Western Australia, its History, Progress, Conditions and Prospects (Perth: J. Mitchell, 1870), p. 57.

6 A. Trollope, Australia and New Zealand (London: Chapman & Hall, 1873), p. 582.

7 Ibid. p. 585.

8 H. Taunton, Australind, Wanderings in Western Australia and the Malay East (London: Ed. Arnold, 1903), p. 3.

9 Lady Barker, Letters to Guy (London: Macmillan, 1885), p. 33.

10 Ibid. p. 113.

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