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 9:
The Mayor and Corporation

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At the first meeting of the Fremantle Municipal Council held after the passing of the amending act of 8 September 1883 1 the following telegram was received from the Mayor of Perth, Mr George Shenton:

The Mayor and Councillors of the City of Perth congratulate the Mayor and Councillors of Fremantle upon the distinction conferred on the Municipality by the elevation of their Chairman to the position of Mayor. 2

The first mayor was Mr Barrington Clarke Wood. He had been a councillor since 1875 and chairman from the beginning of 1883, He continued in office, as provided by the act, without opposition for the following two years, when he resigned and was replaced by Mr D. K. Congdon. Within a few weeks, of the elevation of Mr B. C. Wood to the position of Mayor, the office of Clerk of the Council was changed to Town Clerk, Mr George Bland Humble continuing in that capacity. (For a complete list of those who served on the Fremantle Municipal Council, 1883-1929, see Appendix 7.)

These were in the main titular changes only. The work of the Council continued and foremost amongst its pre-occupations was planning for a Town Hall. When in February 1884 it became clear that there was little likelihood of raising a loan on the London market, preparations were made to borrow £10,000 locally. Of this amount, £6,200 were for new roads and works, the remainder being for the Town Hall. The response to the loan was discouraging, so, fearing they might lose the £2,000 promised by the government, the Council invited the architects, Messrs Grainger and D’Ebro, to send a representative from Melbourne to Fremantle to advise what work

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might be started. Mr D’Ebro came himself and recommended certain minor alterations, whereupon tenders were called. All those submitted by the closing date, 7 November 1884, were rejected as unsuitable, and after further alterations were decided upon, tenders were called a second time. Only one tender was received, that of Mr E. Keane, who submitted four prices ranging from £9,916 for the whole building of stone stuccoed with cement, to £6,200 for what was deemed the essential work to be carried out in the same materials. While the sub-committee appointed to consider these prices recommended the former, the Council decided to proceed only with a portion of the work at the lower price. A loan of £4,500 was duly advertised—£1,500 of which was to be used to supplement cash in hand for the Town Hall building, and £3,000 of which was to be spent on new roads. However, a public meeting of ratepayers held on 4 May 1885 urged the Council to ‘take the necessary steps to erect and complete the Town Hall building in its entirety, in preference to the section as at present arranged for’. 3

The Council thereupon agreed to raise a further loan of £3,500 ‘to complete the New Town Hall in accordance with the expressed wish of the Ratepayers’. 4 This decision was challenged by a demand for a poll, which, when held, resulted in a decision in favour of both loans. The two loans now became one, totalling £8,000—£3,000 for new roads and £5,000 for the Town Hall. On Thursday, 10 September 1885 the foundation stone of the new building was laid by His Excellency, Sir Frederick Napier Broome, K.C.M.G., and a banquet was held in the Oddfellows’ Hall that night, when the Mayor of Perth, members of the Executive Council and Mr E. Keane were among the guests of the Fremantle Council.

During the course of construction it was decided to raise the clock-tower 16 feet and Mr William Hooper of Fremantle successfully tendered a price of £748. 10$. for a clock with Cambridge chimes similar to one which had been recently installed in Liverpool. Mr George Foreman as Clerk of Works supervised the construction, and on completion it was found that the original tender for the entire building had been exceeded by only £875. 12$. 10d.

The opening of the new building took place on 22 June 1887 to coincide with the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. An elaborate programme was drawn up. A procession consisting of

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members of the Hibernian Society, the Sons of Temperance, the Rechabites, the New Swan Lodge and the Good Templars, augmented by school children of ten years and over, led the way to the Town Hall which was opened by the governor. After the opening, sports were held, followed by a ball at night. On the next night there was a children’s fancy dress ball.

Everything went according to plan, but after the conclusion of the children’s ball on 23 June the celebrations were marred by a most unhappy occurrence. Between midnight and 1 a.m., after most of the children had gone home and only the mayor, the councillors, Mr W. S. Pearse, M.L.C., and some other officials remained behind, William Conroy, landlord of the Victoria Hotel, came to the door of the banqueting room and asked for Councillor Snook. He was told to wait and a few minutes later when all were about to leave the building, Councillor Snook came out to him. The two talked for a while near the front entrance when suddenly the others, who were paying no particular attention to the conversation, heard a shot. They rushed to the spot to find Snook bleeding profusely from a bullet wound in the neck. Conroy was seized and locked up pending the arrival of the police. 6

Councillor Snook was 69 years of age and had a record of 17 years as a councillor. For some days his condition caused the doctors grave anxiety. Then he rallied and seemed to have every chance of recovery. On 29 July Conroy was charged with shooting with intent to murder and committed for trial at the next sitting of the Supreme Court. However, in September Councillor Snooks’s condition suddenly worsened and on the 25th of that month he died. Thus when Conroy was brought before the Supreme Court on 6 October he faced a charge of wilful murder. His counsel pleaded insanity. The only reason for shooting the old man was that earlier in the evening Snook had refused Conroy admission because he was drunk. ‘He threw me out’, said Conroy, ‘and now I have put him out.’ The jury returned a verdict of guilty with a strong recommendation to mercy. In passing the sentence of death, the Chief Justice promised to place the jury’s recommendation before the governor in Executive Council. However, reprieve was not granted. Conroy was hanged in the precincts of the Perth gaol on 18 November 1887. This was the last hanging to take place there. The previous year, the Convict

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Establishment at Fremantle had been handed over to the colonial government and when in 1888 the pensioner force was disbanded the last phase of convict administration came to an end. Henceforth the gaol at Fremantle was part of the local prison system.

The Town Hall building immediately became the meeting place of the Municipal Council and was greatly sought after for a wide variety of purposes. The Fremantle Telephone Exchange was soon accommodated in one of its rooms. The first theatrical performance was Betsy, given on 8 November by the Railway Reading Room Committee. On this occasion the hall was granted free of charge to see whether its stage was suitable for a dramatic entertainment. That year, too, a performance of the Messiah was given in the Town Hall to open a fund for the purchase of a grand piano. The instrument was installed in December 1889. Pending the erection of their church in South Terrace in 1890, the Presbyterians rented the Supper Room of the Town Hall for church services and Sunday school from December 1887. In July 1888 the Hall was let ‘for rinking purposes’. It was, of course, the scene of many receptions, lectures, and celebrations which included a grand ball on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. A sign of the approach of modern times was the lease of the Hall in March 1909 by West’s Pictures!

Until comparatively recently the Town Hall was adequate to the needs of the Council and the people of Fremantle, but the rapid development which Fremantle shared with the whole of the state in the 1960s necessitated the provision of additional facilities. These are discussed in a later chapter, but in planning them the Council was mindful of the old building’s history and its architectural dignity. Today it stands in the reconstituted King’s Square, with a modest fountain nearby and, completely renovated, is a tribute to those councillors and citizens who, nearly a hundred years ago, planned wisely for posterity. It continues to be used for the public functions for which it was, in part, originally designed.

Another innovation of the eighties was the Fremantle Volunteer Fire Brigade. It will be remembered that £500 of a previous loan had been set aside for the purchase of a fire engine. This was shipped from London in June 1884, and the first suggestion of a Fire Brigade to man it was made in the following August. At first it was proposed

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to call for volunteers from the Fremantle Rifle Volunteer Corps, but at a public meeting convened by the Council on 2 October 1885 the organization was officially established. Mr R. S. Newbold was elected Captain, and the following were enrolled as members: J. J. Higham, Captain Fenwick, C. B. Hall, W. F. Wald, T. Haley, J. Bebbington, F. George, U. Doust, E. Ley, A. Calhoun, J. G. Davis, J. Baldwin, W. J. Nugent, G. Garvey, R. Birch, G. F. Payne, C. Chamberlain, A. Watkins and E. Fordham.

The Council voted £125 towards its initial expenses and opened negotiations with the government for the grant of a block of land on which to erect a Fire Station. Finally, a block was secured in Croke Street and in February 1887 the tender of Mr J. Davies of £254 for a Fire Station was accepted. Following the resignation of Mr Newbold in April 1889 Mr W. Farmer became Captain of the Brigade which continued until June 1892, when it was disbanded and a new body formed. Mr J. C. Fraser was the new Superintendent and the Brigade remained a volunteer body until 1905, when it was reorganized and put under the Metropolitan Board. The foundation stone of its present building in Phillimore Street was laid on 19 June 1908.

The question of an adequate water supply for the town exercised the minds of the mayor and councillors for many years. In April 1884 they had a conference with the Hon. J. H. Thomas, Director of Public Works. He favoured a town supply independent of the government, but the mayor considered this was impossible owing to want of funds. Finally, it was decided to seek permission for the Council to connect service pipes with the main from the prison, for residents in the West Ward, principally those residing in High and Cliff Streets.

Mr Thomas thought a sufficient supply could be obtained from this source for present but not for future purposes. He said:

In going to any expenditure for a permanent water supply, it is impossible to consider the probable increase in future years. It is not, however, expected in a new and undeveloped country like this that the population in its towns will follow any regular law. Vicissitudes that cannot be foreseen may at any time increase or diminish the rate. The successful establishment of new industries, or the discovery of rich

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goldfields, might bring an influx of population beyond the present rate.

1 do not see [he concluded] any probability of this myself. 6

Events proved Mr Thomas wrong, and when in the early nineties Fremantle’s population was suddenly increased by an influx of those who came to Western Australia in search of gold, the scheme which was then in existence proved quite inadequate for the needs of the town. It was supplemented by water from wells, and many of these were contaminated by the insanitary conditions prevailing at the time. Disease was rampant, and it was not until well after the turn of the century that Fremantle obtained a satisfactory water supply from the government. Nevertheless, Fremantle was the first town in the state to organize for a water supply of its own, and in 1890 the first year that its scheme operated, the revenue from the sale of water was £1,004.

The sanitary conditions of the town caused the Council concern as early as December 1885, when a sub-committee was appointed to enquire into it. Its report, presented in the following May, pointed to the necessity for enlarged powers by legislation if they were to enforce the adoption of the dry earth system of closets in the West Ward. The coming of responsible government in 1890 made such power possible. Under an Amendment to the Health Act which came into being on 1 April 1892, 7 a new set of by-laws was drawn up and the whole Council constituted itself the Board of Health. Meetings were separate from ordinary Council meetings and a separate set of minutes was kept.

Sanitary conditions at this time were of the most primitive kind. Human excreta and household rubbish were tipped into open cesspits, which were from time to time cleaned out and their contents carted away to a sewage farm, land for which had been granted by the government. When it is considered that near many of these cesspits were open wells from which the inhabitants of Fremantle obtained their drinking water, it is not surprising that the returns of the Medical Officer, Dr Hope, show frequent cases of typhoid and other fevers.

But when Councillor J. J. Higham suggested in. May 1893 that all cesspits in West Ward should be closed, and again in August hat those in South Ward should be done away with, Councillor Wray gave it as his opinion that the bucket system was very un-

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cleanly and unhealthy. Cesspits, he said, were far preferable and should be kept open. They only required care and the use of a little lime. The Mayor, Mr W. F. Samson, said that at a future date the Board would have to consider the advisability of introducing the double bucket system.

Apparently, some buckets were in use in 1894, for the mayor in that year, Mr D. K. Congdon, said that he had thought over the question of removing night-soil by contract and he was of the opinion that it would be a risky business for one man to be entrusted with the sole responsibility of removing night-soil from the whole of the dwelling houses in the district. He added that one nightman said he would tender for one of the wards if he could be furnished with a list showing the number of cesspits and pans therein. Again Councillor Wray expressed his preference for cesspits. He thought the nightman should procure information respecting cesspits and buckets at his own expense.

A mild stir was caused early in 1894 when two cases of typhoid were reported from the vicinity of the Lunatic Asylum, where night-soil was deposited for garden purposes. This was strictly contrary to the Health Act, and the Board of Health ruled that such deposits should cease. In the Council this matter was dealt with at great length. Dr Barnett, the Colonial Surgeon, wrote that such deposits could not possibly do any harm, and that to deny the inmates the use of night-soil for gardening purposes would lead to a serious shortage of fresh vegetables at the Asylum. However, the Council stood firm on this point. 8

Matters did not improve and during the year feeling ran high on the respective merits of the two forms of sanitation. Finally, with the election of Mr G. A. Davies as Mayor, the Council settled down to a policy of laissez-faire. Only Councillor Higham continued to protest. He told the Board in February 1895 that the only solution was for the Board itself to take over the sanitary arrangements for the town.

A local paper, the Messenger, on 15 November 1895 wrote:

Within almost a stone’s throw of the Messenger office exists and has existed for months what can be described as nothing but an open cesspit. Imagine a hole, 10 feet by 4 feet, several feet deep, overflowing

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with an accumulation of reeking garbage of every sort and kind, the refuse of about half a dozen cottages, the inhabitants of which continually empty their kitchen slush and slops of the baser sort into the mixture just to keep it fermenting, and then wonder why the locality has been a hotbed of typhoid for the last nine months.

It then threatened that, unless this were cleaned up by the Inspector of Nuisances, it would publish next week ‘a list of owners who are responsible and the precise localities which it is under the circumstances absolutely necessary to label dangerous’. 9

The Messenger did not fulfil its threat, but in its next issue the writer said he was looking forward to the advent of Mr Solomon as Mayor, who, ‘I am happy to say joins with me in insisting that the town shall be kept clean and healthy.’ 10 A week later, it complained that Fremantle was still waiting for the removal of a condition of things ‘which is a scandal and an iniquity because certain petty officials think they are backed up in their sluggish methods by a small but dangerous clique in the town’. 11

To make matters worse, newcomers to Western Australia had formed canvas-town settlements at Willis’s Point, Monument Hill, and on the Fremantle Park. At the first-named place there were in March 1895, 100 tents occupied by 175 men, women and children, and sanitary arrangements were entirely lacking. Efforts were made to have these people move on, but with very little result. The Fremantle Times of 21 March 1896 was scathing in its indictment of these tent-dwellers:

First, they plant themselves on land belonging to anyone but themselves; next, they turn the locality into a species of Pandemonium, particularly at night, utterly disregarding such minor details as cleanliness and ordinary morality; finally, after rendering their surroundings an eyesore to passers-by and a menace to their own health, they have the audacity to ask the Board of Health to clear away the mire in which they have wallowed. 12

To add further to the annoyance of the townsfolk, camels were unloaded from incoming vessels and passed through the town on their way to depasture on Fremantle Park or elsewhere. On one occasion they caused a horse to take fright and an accident to ensue. Finally, the government was asked to see that camels should be

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gazetted as wild animals and that like wild cattle they should be landed at Owen Anchorage, and not at the town jetty. The Council subsequently compromised on this point, agreeing that camels and wild cattle might be landed at the jetty, but only between the hours of 12 midnight and 5 a.m.

Apparently, Mayor Solomon moved swiftly after assuming office. The Fremantle Times of 17 March 1896 attributes to him most of the credit for cleaning up ‘the filthy conditions of certain back premises in the town’, and for being ‘mainly responsible for the new by-laws relating to sanitary affairs recently adopted by the local Board of Health’. Throughout that year the Board was actively concerned with sanitary matters. The system in operation in Perth was examined. In February, when Councillor Stubbs thought more night-men should be appointed, the mayor said he believed the whole system needed altering. Councillor Higham thereupon moved that tenders be invited for the carrying out of the sanitary work under the covered pan system. This was carried and a committee, consisting of the Mayor, Councillors Jarvis, Stubbs, Davies and Higham, was appointed to make a report. This did not preclude Councillor F. Jones from rising to oppose the pan system. The health of the town was better, he said, when cesspits were allowed.

And he was not far wrong, either. The number of cases of typhoid fever continued to increase, even after in November 1896 the tenders for the sanitary contract submitted by Messrs Laudehr and Gillespie were accepted. Indeed, in 1897 they reached a new high. In April there were 31 cases; in May 33. The following year was worse. April of 1898 produced 32 and in May there were 41 local cases and 9 imported, making a total of 50. There is every reason to believe that the early operations of the contractors were by no means satisfactory. In July 1898, when Messrs Laudehr and Gillespie applied for a £15 honorarium for carrying out the work efficiently for the past eighteen months, the Council rejected their application. In fact, they imposed fines for breaches of the contract. Typhoid was prevalent in 1899, and in September of that year a new contract was drawn up involving the use of the double pan system.

There were, of course, many other factors militating against the health of the town. The water system was far from satisfactory. There were still newcomers to the state camped on vacant

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allotments in unsanitary conditions. Moreover, public ignorance and prejudice were not easy obstacles to overcome.

All this turmoil throughout the nineties pointed to the need for proper hospital facilities in Fremantle. In 1887 a wing of the Immigration Department in the Barracks was in use, and in 1888 the mayor and Dr Barnett recommended the housing of a casualty ward or cottage hospital in the Police Quarters. But these were at best makeshifts. When the Rev. A. T. Boas of Adelaide visited Fremantle in 1891, he offered to give a lecture in the Town Hall on ‘Proverbs and Sayings, Ancient and Modern’, the proceeds of which were to be used towards the building of a hospital. For this very good cause the Council granted him free use of the Town Hall and the sum of £15 was raised. Thereafter, it was resolved to open a fund for the building of a hospital for Fremantle, although there is little evidence that this was more than a pious resolution.

In March 1893 a public meeting was held to consider the advisability of applying to the government for more suitable hospital accommodation for Fremantle. The premier told a deputation which waited on him that he would set apart a further portion of the old Barracks in South Terrace as a casualty ward. The Colonial Surgeon, Dr Barnett, did not favour this proposal, but the Council pressed for it, at the same time urging that a sum be placed on the estimates for the erection of a cottage hospital. In February 1894 the Undersecretary wrote that ‘if possible the sum of £1,500 will be provided in the next Annual Estimates for a Cottage Hospital—to be erected on a site hereafter determined on’. 18

A year later, Dr J. W. Hope, Medical Officer at Fremantle, suggested that the two-storey building known as ‘The Knowle’ might be suitable. This was originally the residence of Captain Henderson, comptroller of convicts. For a time in 1892 it had been made a branch of the Lunatic Asylum, a step to which the Council had taken strong exception. They now supported Dr Hope’s suggestion, and in March 1895 were told that the government were prepared to make it available and that as soon as possible the necessary additions and repairs would be effected. However, it was not until January 1897 that it was opened for use. Almost immediately additional accommodation was required and steps were taken to extend the building.

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Its management was vested in a board nominated by the government. The first Board was appointed on 25 October 1897, and consisted of the following: The Hons. H. Briggs, A. B. Kidson, D. K. Congdon; Messrs E. Solomon, J. Lilly, J. ]. Higham, W. T. John; Doctors Hope, White, Birmingham and Wheeler.

Naturally, a ‘cottage-hospital’ was soon to prove inadequate to the needs of the community. Some subsequent developments of the Fremantle Hospital are noted in a later chapter of this history, but for a progressive account of its growth readers are referred to Medical Background, by J. H. Stubbe. 14


1 47 Vict. No. 19, cl. V, Act to amend ‘The Municipal Institutions Further Amendment Act, 1882'.

2 M.F.M.C. 13 Sept. 1883, F.T.H.

3 Ibid. 4 May 1885.

4 Ibid. 5 May 1885.

5 Inquirer and Commercial News, 29 June 1887.

6 Report of Mr Thomas, M.F.M.C. 23 Apr. 1884, F.T.H.

7 55 Vict. No. 22, An Act to Amend ‘The Public Health Act 1886' (50 Vict. No. 19) .

8 M.F.M.C. 18 Dec. 1884, F.T.H.

9 The Messenger, 15 Nov. 1885.

10 Ibid. 22 Nov. 1895.

11 Ibid. 29 Nov. 1895.

12 Fremantle Times, 21 March 1896.

13 Letter from the Under-Secretary, M.F.M.C. 6 Feb. 1894.

14 Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 1969.

Go to Chapter 10: The Fremantle Harbour.

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