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The Italian fishermen of Fremantle: from blue-collar businessmen to lords of the sea

Sally May

May, Sally 1999, 'The Italian fishermen of Fremantle: from blue-collar businessmen to lords of the sea', Fremantle Studies, 1: 47-65.

In May 1997, as the passing of the twentieth century approached, Western Australia celebrated the centennial of the opening of the Inner Harbour of the Port of Fremantle. The development of the Inner Harbour had a dramatic influence on the town. Shipping that otherwise by-passed began calling, creating new opportunities for trade and commerce and bringing increasing numbers of immigrants from the Old World. Some of these immigrants comprised several hundred Italian fishers who were to pioneer the State's first permanent fishing fleets, based in Fremantle. For the Italian fishers, it was not an easy passage to acceptance or success in Fremantle, which was dominated by an Anglo-Celtic society. In common with the development of the harbour, they had to erode the barriers that impeded communication to the wider community and impeded their access to a secure economic position. July 1997 marks fifty years since the Italians formed the Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative, a commercial enterprise that, for the first time in the history of the fishing industry, gave the fishers control over the sale and distribution of their produce and passage to a secure livelihood. Like the opening of the Inner Harbour, this event in the history of the fishing industry should also be celebrated.

Culturally, neither the language, religion, politics nor lifestyles of the Italian fishers had much in common with the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture. These factors contributed to the inhibition of political power and influence of the fishers who were the backbone of the fishing industry. This paper seeks to provide a glimmer of understanding of their lifestyles in the formative years of the industry by drawing together elements from the works of Charles Gamba and Professor Joseph Gentilli, 2 in combination with oral history interviews by the late Margaret Howroyd (Fremantle City Council Local History Collection) with descendants of these maritime pioneers; and to provide a brief overview of key events that led to the formation of the Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative.

While Western Australia's development was taking place, Italy was undergoing great changes that were to result in an exodus of migrants to a variety of foreign countries. In 1796, the relative tranquillity of the Italian states subject to Austrian and Bourbon despots was shattered by Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion, marking the beginning of a period of internal wars and foreign interference that devastated the region. 3 A growing nationalist movement for independence resulted in the unification of Italy in 1870, but civil disturbances, both industrial and political, prompted assassinations, uprisings and rebellions that were brutally quashed.

The Italian government sapped the southern provinces of financial resources by imposing a variety of taxes and tolls that were invested in developing the northem provinces, leaving the south to languish in severe poverty. 4 A rapid growth in population and deteriorating agricultural production aggravated Italy's plight. 5 Conditions were particularly hard for rural people who worked on landlords' properties or on their own plots by day and retumed to their own villages by night. Within these villages, rural or coastal, tightly knit communities evolved, with bonds that extended beyond those of the immediate family. These bonds are reflected in the pattem of Italian emigration and the communities they formed in New World countries. 6

The fishing communities at Capo d'Orlando in Sicily and Molfetta in Apulia fared a little better since people could, at least, fish for their supper. However, while the local waters were very rich in fish, the technology required to maximise the productivity of the industry did not exist and opportunities for employment were limited. The means of transport were also limited: ‘It meant that if you could not find work in the village, you simply did not work at all'. 7 Without work, families could not be clothed and fed and children could not be educated and trained for work. Single people had dismal prospects of marrying and providing for their own families, when their parents could not provide for them.

Small numbers of Italians, many of whom were highly educated, had been migrating to the Swan River Colony since the first years of settlement. The strong characteristic of these pioneer colonials was that they were individualists, adventurous people who chose to travel and settle in new lands. 8 The lure of New World gold discoveries, particularly those in California in 1849, and the Victorian goldfields boom in the 1850s, were highly influential in attracting these migrants. After 1850 many southerners, particularly those from Sicily, Calabria and the Bascilicata, emigrated in search of countries where their agrarian skills or fishing expertise and willingness to undertake hard physical work would be welcomed. 9 In 1863, Giuseppe Marselli (also spelt Marchelli), a part-time fisher and ship's carpenter, arrived in Fremantle, possibly the first Italian commercial fisher in the State. 10 With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, travel from Europe to Australia became more convenient, regular, safer and faster as steamships began to supersede sailing ships on the route to the New World.

In 1883, the Commercial Treaty between the United Kingdom and Italy was signed (‘giving Italian subjects freedom of entry, travel and residence, and the rights to acquire and own property and to carry on business activities') and adopted by all Australian states except South Australia. 11 The Swan River Colony received a minor but important boost in 1885 when the Yilgarn goldfields were proclaimed, attracting immigrants. By 1885, the timber industry at Rockingham was beginning to flourish, when the Honor called for timber. Several of the ship's crew stayed, setting up a camp at Point Peron, the base for their small fishing enterprise that attracted more of their compatriots from the village of Capo d'Orlando. 12 In 1891, there were still only 36 Italians in the Colony 13 out of a total population of 53,177. In the years 1892 to 1895 Italy experienced below-average temperatures, causing agrarian stress and forcing ‘many young men to leave in order to lighten the burden on the family and the land'. 14 Accordingly, the number of Italians arriving in Australia increased but was still very small compared to those going to America. 15

After the discovery and international proclamations of Western Australia's Eastern Goldfields in 1892 and 1893, many ‘t'othersiders' left the eastern states, where a harsh depression had set in, seeking improved fortunes. Fishers, including the names Pensabene (Sicilian), De Ceglie and Leonardo Porcelli (Molfettese), joined the exodus; 16 and it is likely that there were more fishers who had immigrated to the eastern states before arriving in Western Australia. On the goldfields, prospecting, woodcutting and mining offered employment. Away from the goldfields, there were railways to be built and land to clear, and employment was also available in a variety of industries stimulated by the wealth generated by the production of gold. By 1897 the population of Western Australia had swelled to 160,495.

Wherever the Italians settled they preferred to be in close proximity to other Italians who had originated from the same province or village and with whom they could converse in dialect and share familiar experiences. 17 Kinship ties were strong, resulting in closely-knit communities. 18 By 1898, there were at least 150 Italian fishers fishing in Cockburn Sound, divided into two main community groups sharing a co-operative working relationship. One group comprised about 60 Sicilians, mainly from the village of Capo d'Orlando; the other group comprised about 50 Apulians, nearly all of whom originated from the village of Molfetta. 19 Around the same time there was a community of about 40 Sicilians at Point Peron, south of Fremantle. 20 Some of the names associated with the Point Peron community around this time include: Capo d'Orlandans — Carlo Basile; Francesco Camarda; Cappadona; Salvatore Cicerello; Collica or Cono Glorioso; Calegero, Antonio and Cono Iannello; La Rosa; Lo Presti; Merlino; Steve Minuta; Francesco Miragliotta; Raffa; Salmeri; Santaromita; B. Paparoni (or Paparone); Pensabene; Salvatore; Travia; Vinci; and Molfettese — Rotondella. 21

At Point Peron and Fremantle, first arrivals lived aboard their boats before making a decision to establish accommodation ashore. The first buildings at Point Peron were makeshift frames built of flotsam and jetsam and covered with canvas and iron. 22 Later they built several small sheds of stone and wood. 23 Frank Miragliotta was a young boy when he joined the community and can recall that ‘there were so many fishermen who needed a bed. At one stage we had 18 in a small hut, sleeping on the floor or on bunks.' 24

The men operated an important but informal cooperative enterprise that was variously called the Rockingham Company or The Company. 25 In essence it was just a group of people who worked together and helped one another to get established in the fishing industry. 26 The older men spoke little or no English, 27 relying upon a Company spokesman, Santaromita, to represent them in matters of trade and business. 28 Francesco (Frank) Iannello's father, Calegero Iannello; was one of the many Sicilian fishers who established themselves with the help of the Point Peron community. According to Frank, members pooled their resources to pay for their male compatriots and relatives to join the community to give them ‘a chance in Australia', 29 while saving and sending money home to loved ones.

Antonio Pensabene, like his fellow Capo d'Orlandans, had worked in foreign countries at an early age before he arrived in Fremantle and went to join the Point Peron community. In was not uncommon for boys as young as 12 or 13 to go to Peru, Venezuela and other countries to work alongside their fathers or older siblings. 30 Every few years Antonio returned to Italy, on one occasion marrying Maria Paparone in Capo d'Orlando. Maria's brother Salvatore Paparone was one of the original members of the Point Peron settlers, and it was likely that this connection brought the young couple together. After their marriage, Antonio Pensabene went back to Fremantle on his own, periodically returning to Italy. When his oldest son, Sav (Salvatore), was 13 years old, Antonio paid for him to sail, with other Italians, to Fremantle. 31

The Company helped other Sicilians migrate to Western Australia and to become established in the fishing industry. Typically, a new arrival would work with an established fisher, receiving shares in the proceeds of the catches until the new recruit could afford to purchase a sailing boat, either on his own behalf or, more often, in partnership with another Sicilian. 32 The two partners would work the boat together, sharing their profits and losses. This partnership would be maintained until one member chose to leave the partnership or the community. In the former instance, a member might have chosen to buy the boat outright or, in the case of a falling out, to replace his partner with someone more agreeable. 33 In the latter instance, the partner might have chosen to leave the community—returning to Italy or moving to Fremantle—or find another partner within the community. The Point Peron community, therefore, was a transient one, its membership changing over time as individuals came and went. 34 They were all on their own, some single but many with wives and children left behind in Sicily.

Over the same period there was a growing community of Sicilian fishers in Fremantle. Many had started out with the Point Peron community and later moved to rented cottages in Fremantle, close to the sea and their fishing boats. 35 The cottages, shared by three to six compatriots, 36 were located in Fitzgerald Terrace (now Marine Terrace) 37 before Esplanade Park was reclaimed in 1906. The streets that ran off Fitzgerald Terrace (Collie, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Arundel, Howard, Russell and Grey Streets) became a predominantly Sicilian precinct.

Contemporaneous with the growth of the Sicilian community in Fremantle was the growth of the Molfettese community of fishers. By 1912, there were 45 Molfettese (and 60 Sicilian) fishers. 38 Like the first Sicilians at Point Peron, the Molfettese started out living aboard their boats where they washed, cooked, ate and slept. Some lived like this for several years or more, with only a canvas canopy draped over a boom for shelter. 39 For this reason the Sicilians regarded the Molfettese as being inferior. 40 Like the Sicilians, the Molfettese men had come to Fremantle on their own, leaving their families, wives and children in Italy. All their efforts were invested in fishing as a means of earning money to provide for their families. Living by the most frugal means enabled them to save money more quickly. 41

When they could afford to, the Molfettese rented accommodation and boarded together, but in much larger groups than the Sicilians. These living arrangements helped to reduce their expenses. 42 These men invariably chose to rent warehouses or boarding lodgings in and around Cliff Street, which were also close to the sea and their boats. In Cliff Street there were two large groups of Molfettese. 43 As with the Sicilians, returning to Italy was an important part of their life for it was here they were reunited with loved ones and frequently married.

Mouro, Giovanni and Pas De Ceglie worked in Sydney before coming to Fremantle in 1901 when they arranged for their youngest brother Donato to join them. 44 After years as fishers, Donato and Giovanni retumed to Italy to defend their country in the Great War of 1914-18. Giovanni was killed in action. After the war, Donato met and married Nesta (Anastasia) and then retumed to Fremantle alone to rejoin his remaining two brothers. Giovanni De Ceglie was born in Molfetta in 1922 and while he was growing up he rarely saw his father — but can recall that neither he nor his family ever went short of anything while his father sent money home to them in Italy. 45

In 1937 Donato sent for his 15-year-old son to join him and his uncles in Fremantle. Giovanni travelled to Naples with four men, where they boarded the Ford and set sail for Fremantle. 46 On arrival, Donato took his son to a warehouse in Cliff Street, opposite Lionel Samson's business, where 20 fishers boarded. The kitchen and living area were downstairs and the sleeping accommodation, mattresses on the floor, was upstairs. 47

Leisure time was meagre as they usually worked seven days a week, especially during the peak seasons, and went fishing during both the day and night. Occasionally they would play cards, but not for money, and occupied themselves with correspondence to and from their families. 48 As most of these men could neither read nor write Italian, literate compatriots, often with their own children who had received-some education in Italy, assisted them with correspondence and documents. 49 As a single man with no wife or child to think about, Giovanni De Ceglie was lonely. The Del Rosso and Rotondella families were the only two Molfettese families with children living in Fremantle 50 so the number of Italians his age were few. It was a lonely existence for parent and child alike, but like their countrymen they were driven by their ambition to succeed, and there was little time for self-indulgence.

Mouro De Ceg1ie's boat was Anita and Donato's boat, Lupa. The brothers worked together, pooling their money. 51 They rose at three each morning, had a cup of black coffee, then tended their boats for the day's fishing. Sailing to Rottnest, they could fish with lines for dhufish and snapper. Lunch might consist of bread, onion and cheese. 52 At around three or four in the afternoon they would return to the Fremantle Fish Market jetty with the day's catch to sell. In the evening they ate a meal of grilled fish and soup or spaghetti and meat, with a cup of black tea. After their meal they would go out again to net for herring, garfish and mullet. 53

Raffaele Minervini was born in 1892 and at the age of 20 arrived in Fremantle. 54 He stayed for a year or two, fishing, before returning to his home in Molfetta. After several years he went back to Fremantle, fishing for several years more before returning to Italy. This was the pattern of his life for the next 20 years, during which time his three younger brothers, Saverio, Domenico and Ignazzio, joined him in the fishing industry at Fremantle. 55 By this time he owned two boats. The first, Benghazi, was purchased in 1926 and worked in partnership with one of his brothers. After Raffaele's other two brothers came to Fremantle, the Doria was built, which he and one of his brothers worked together, while the Benghazi was worked by the other two brothers. Typical of the frugal Molfettese, he and his brothers camped aboard the boats for some years before they made the choice to rent accommodation. At the age of 40, Raffaele married Angela in Molfetta and stayed in Italy for a couple of years. Four months after his son John, was born, Raffaele returned to Fremantle, leaving his wife and son behind. 56

Perhaps as a result of America closing its doors to immigration in the early 1920s, the Sicilians began buying cottages in the area where they were renting accommodation and finally began bringing out their families from Italy to join them in their adopted home. Two Molfettese families arrived at this time, but it was not until around the 1930s that the practice of bringing out families became more widespread. By this time, the Molfettese were able to buy cottages in and around Bellevue Terrace, a street east of and parallel to Hampton Road. The dialects and culture of the Sicilians and Molfettese were distinct and the two groups were as strange to each other as to any other national or cultural group — a fact that most Anglo-Celts did not appreciate, regarding them as a homogeneous group of Italians. 57

There was a ten year lapse between the Sicilians and the Molfettese bringing family out — perhaps because the Sicilians arrived earlier and had a longer time in which to save money. However, it may also reflect the cost-effectiveness of The Company's socio-economic role in the Sicilian community. By working collectively, newcomers could establish themselves and purchase their own boats sooner than if they were on their own. Whatever the case, the possibility of return migration loomed large for both communities. The fact that Sicilian and Molfettese fishers chose to live in small groups rather than with family was an indication of their indecision about long-term settlement in Fremantle. If the financial prospects improved in Italy or deteriorated in Fremantle they could leave at will. And many did leave.

While these cultural groupings fostered and supported the psycho-cultural needs of individuals, they also attracted the disdain of many Anglo-Celts. 58 It was said that there were only three trades in which Fremantle ‘Italians' could be employed — tailoring, boot making or barbering — and that was only because Italians owned and operated some of these businesses and were prepared to employ other Italians. 59 Some said that Italians went fishing ‘for no reason other than that they would not or could not be employed anywhere else' as they were regarded as ‘inferior people in those days' and so ‘had to stick together'. Italians were referred to as ‘Dagoes' — even those who were born in Australia. 60 Many fishers were determined that their sons would do something other than fishing because the sacrifice was not worth while when the rewards were so small and precarious, and won at such a cost.


South Jetty and South Bay, Fremantle 1907 After 1897 when the Inner Harbour was opened, fishing boats used South Jetty for loading and of-loading and South Bay for a mooring area. In 1905-06, South Bay was reclaimed, forming Esplanade Park. Public Works Dept

In the early years, Italian fishers preferred double-ended and transom-sterned sailing boats around 30 feet (9.1 metres) long, capable of carrying around 600 to 900 pounds (272.2 to 408.2 kilograms) of fish. Fishers sold their fish in baskets on the foreshore of South Bay and from jetties in and around the harbour. After South Jetty was re-built in the late 1890s, many preferred to land and sell their fish from this jetty. 61 The fishers and the buyers would barter and settle on a price, which varied from day to day. 62 At this time fishers were selling their catches direct to the public and other clients for cash but were under pressure to sell their fish quickly since methods of refrigeration were limited.

The fishing industry was also characterised by exaggerated fluctuations in the supply of fish depending upon the seasons. The fishing boats were largely limited to a daily fishing routine of one or two fishing trips. Dependant upon the winds, sailing boats frequently had problems getting to and from the fishing grounds. On the days the boats could not go out the daily supply failed. Furthermore, the quantities and species of fish also varied with the seasons. Accordingly, the market in fish was subject to gluts and dearth. Large quantities of fish on the market made the sale price low. When fish was scarce the price was high. As a result, the fishers could never be guaranteed their daily catches would return a profit. 63

After the gold rush the population of the State increased from 64,923 in 1893 to 179,967 in 1900, placing pressure on the food supply. This helped create a demand for fish that was sufficiently strong to support a commercially viable permanent fishing fleet. The spread of commercially manufactured ice extended the preservation of fish up to several weeks, facilitating storage and creating the opportunity for wider distribution. Land transport became an increasingly important means of conveying fish to remote settlements. Fremantle was well served by convict-built roads linking the port to productive rural areas. Fish was packed in ice on horse-drawn carts that travelled on unsealed roads to destinations as far away as the eastern goldfields. 64 While the fish was barely edible on arrival, it fetched higher prices in settlements where food was scarce and irregular. 65 In the south, railways were built linking timber mills with Fremantle Harbour and linking the Murchison mines and the Eastern Goldfields to Perth, providing additional means of distribution of goods and increasing markets.

The increase in population and wealth as a result of the gold boom helped further diversify fish markets as a number of hotels, restaurants and retail shops became important buyers. 66 These markets required regular, dependable supplies and deliveries.

The increase and diversification of the market for fish and the growing complexity of its distribution also provided opportunities for middlemen to liaise between the fishers and consumers and commercial clients, and to make arrangements for transport. 67 Such negotiations and arrangements would have been difficult for the fishers who were absent at sea and who had a limited understanding of English. The presence of wholesalers in the fishing industry should have offered fishers a mutually agreeable, symbiotic financial relationship, but this was not to be the case.

By clubbing together, wholesalers formed rings to manipulate the market by setting a price that favoured their interests. By eliminating competitive bidding, they maintained the upper hand over the fishers. Having to sell off or loan their fish in a short time frame made fishers vulnerable in the marketplace. 68 Similarly, the wholesalers were also able to manipulate the retailers who, to maintain their customers' goodwill, depended upon regular supplies of fish. To be assured of regular supplies they had to pay a high price. These rings thwarted the efforts of independent wholesalers by forcing the price of fish beyond what was reasonable and by intimidating fishers into not selling to newcomers. 69 In this way, newcomers could not access supplies and left the fishing industry seeking better financial prospects.

In 1904, the Fremantle Fisheries Inspector noted that ‘The number of licences issued has been 354 men and 124 boats, about 10 boats being engaged chiefly in cray fishing. I regret to say that the industry is chiefly in the hands of the Greeks and Italians, both afloat and ashore. These prefer the small class of boats and work together in batches and send their fish to market by the same boat'. 70 In the same year, the Nor'West Company's Whaler and the coastal trader, Julia Percy, were landing large but irregular quantities of fish from Geraldton and Shark Bay, respectively, at Fremantle. 71 These large supplies exaggerated the glut and dearth syndrome of the fish market, the fishers receiving low prices when there was a glut. The following year, in 1905, the first of the iceboats entered the industry. These large former sailing yachts, like Era Iduna, Magnolia and Wanderer, spent up to three weeks at sea, working with smaller catcher boats. Soon these boats were also landing up to 6,000 pounds (2721.6 kilograms) of fish at Fremantle, 72 exaggerating the fluctuations in the supply of fish. 73

With no specified landing place, fish were not being inspected and Fisheries felt that a formalised market in Fremantle would help to regulate the industry, provide more effective distribution and reduce the price that consumers had to pay. The Municipal Institutions Bill was subsequently drafted, giving requisite powers to various municipalities to control and regulate the wholesale disposal and distribution of fish. The Chief Inspector of Fisheries, CF Gale, hoped that this legislation would ‘wake the Municipalities from the lethargy into which they have fallen' in enforcing health regulations and in respect of their lack of initiative in establishing fish markets for the auctioning and wider distribution of fish. 74 While the municipalities were empowered to establish markets, the Fremantle Municipal Council did not attempt to do so. The issue of auctions became sufficiently important for the State Public Works Department to build a weatherboard shed on South Jetty in 1908 which they leased to the Fremantle Municipal Council. 75 Thereafter, South Jetty became variously known as Fish Market Jetty and Fishermen's Jetty. Colloquially the site was also called ‘Dago's Jetty', and shortened to ‘Dage's Jetty', 76 indicative that the predominance of Italians in the industry was resented by Anglo-Celtics, whose commitment to professional fishing waxed and waned depending on the availability of more agreeable employment in other industries. These names for the jetty remained, even after the market building was removed in the 1920s and placed on the foreshore, where the Sicilian Restaurant stands today. [in 2017 the Bathers Beach House building]


The Fremantle Fish Market

In 1908 a weatherboard shed, the Fremantle Fish Market, was built on the end of South Jetty where it stayed until the 1930s.
Public Works Dept

The State Government's intention was for the market to be managed on a cost recovery basis and for that reason it leased the South Jetty market shed to the Fremantle Council for a peppercorn rental. Contrary to this intention, the Council operated the markets as a profit-making concern to offset general municipal operations. 77 Firstly, they appointed their own auctioneer, excluding any competing auctioneers, thereby creating a monopoly on the sale of fish. 78 Secondly, they introduced by-laws making it compulsory to land fish caught within fifteen miles of Fremantle at the Fish Market Jetty. 79 Thirdly, a levy of six and a quarter per cent was charged on all fish sold through the market, grossing an annual profit of £400 or more per annum. 80 For forty years the efforts of Fisheries and the State Government to induce the Council to manage the Markets in a more equitable and reasonable manner failed, principally because government legislation restricted management of markets to municipal councils. This meant a State Government department, like Fisheries or Public Works, could not manage it in the manner that they had originally intended.

Throughout this time, wholesalers were opposed to fish being sold at auction, where anyone could bid for it — but they were still able to form rings to hold their monopoly over purchasing supplies. The levy on fish also increased the price of fish. For the fishers' part, the regulations were a source of deep resentment as the levy reduced their profits in what was already a precarious industry. The wholesalers and the fishers subsequently entered into a more mutually agreeable practice of the fish being sold for cash before it went to auction, if it went to auction at all. 81 Accordingly, a black market cash economy was born and so widely practiced that it became the lingua franca of the industry, without which fishers could not compete on a profitable basis. 82 The black market was so entrenched and enduring that government regulation only served to exacerbate the problems.

In the 1920s the Fremantle Council sub-leased the Markets to a private auctioneer, Langford, who maintained the monopoly on auctioning fish. 83 Langford was in the habit of auctioning fish on a preferential basis, leaving till last those fish belonging to people he did not prefer. This was of great concern to the Italian fishers and they formed a pact to not give him their fish to sell. Cono Congeni and Alberto Chicsa of the Italian Club, Market Street, Fremantle, wrote to the Chief Inspector for Fisheries, protesting that Langford, who held a lease on the Fish Market in Perth, had obtained a monopoly on the Fremantle Fish Markets.

As it was always understood that the market was built by the government not with the object of making profits, but for the benefit of the fishermen, the public and the industry, [and] we feel that this action on the part of the Fremantle Council is very much opposed to this primary object. The letter was signed by 74 members. 84

The Italians also formed the Western Australian Fishermen's Association to lobby against the monopoly and charges. They approached politicians and Fisheries staff with a proposal to lease the Fish Market to the Association. Fisheries opposed the concept, concerned that it would be a conflict of interest and cause ever more problems within the industry. The Italian fishers then lobbied for a lease on the auction tables to reduce the charges they paid for their use. This too was denied. 85


The Fremantle Fish Market, 1930s

In the 1930s with South Jetty, now called Fish Market Jetty, rotting, the Fish Market was relocated to the foreshore, a site now occupied by the Sicilian Restaurant and McDonalds. [in 2020 the Bathers Beach House building] The southern end of the jetty was later removed.
Public Works Dept

However, the disruption in the industry over this period was sufficient to result in a Select Committee of the Legislative Council to inquire into the fishing industry and the operations of the Fremantle Fish Markets. 86 Chaired by F.A. Baglin, MLA and unionist, the inquiry was damning of the Fremantle Council and the wholesalers, but resulted in only few minor changes. Langford's lease was disallowed and the Fish Market was sub-leased to Willis and Grieve, who the fishers preferred as the lesser of two evils. Council continued to manage the Market for profit, the fishers paying an excessive commission on the auction of their fish.

Despite fisheries' earlier opposition to the fishers having control over the sale of their produce, this was precisely what the industry needed-—free and open competition to break the grip of the wholesalers. It was the Italian fishers themselves who achieved this after World War II. In the latter years of the war the price of fish had risen, and as demand exceeded supply competition for the purchase of fish was keen. 87 To try to reduce the price consumers were paying for fish, the government reintroduced a price ceiling, a maximum price for which fishers could sell their fish. This worked against the interests of the fishers, who could not get more than the set price when fish was scarce. 88 As a consequence, wholesalers paid fishers in cash, above the set price, and less fish went through the Fish Market where commissions and charges prevailed. 89 The government schedule of prices further aggravated the black market. Wholesalers sold the fish at a set price, receiving a receipt from the client who then paid an additional sum in cash for which no receipt was issued. 90 Clients who did not comply were denied supplies of fish. At the end of the line, the black market prices were passed on to the consumer. The price schedule had made an auction system redundant and the auctioneer rarely opened the building for this purpose.

In 1947 a variety of issues developed into a watershed. On 1 July the fishers went on strike for three days to draw attention to the injustice of the govemment's price schedule. During this time they met and agreed to form a co-operative, similar to those formed by market gardeners and wheat growers for the purpose of selling their produce co-operatively and cost-effectively. 91 The guiding force was Paddy Troy, a communist and the Secretary of Fremantle Trades Hall. An energetic and zealous champion of the disadvantaged people, Troy was the hero of Fremantle's working class and the anti-hero of capitalist employers. The fishers held their meetings at Fremantle's Trades Hall, where Troy acted as independent arbitrator. 92 A strong arbitrator was required to bring the various factions within the industry together. The various ethnic and cultural factions and the divisions between different types of fishers had impeded industry unity. Troy was able to foster common objectives and unity of action. Acquisition of the market and the right to sell their own produce became the common objective of fishers. However, negotiations with the Fremantle Municipal Council and State Government departments were protracted and not encouraging.

With the Fish Market closed and the prospect of the Government revoking the price schedule, fishers became anxious that the old market monopoly would be re- established. At the end of the three day strike, the fishers returned to fishing. Returning to Fremantle, the closed Fish Market building represented both a threat and an opportunity. Frank Del Rosso called on two of his colleagues, Sergio Cappellutti and Frank Iannello to go with him to see the auctioneer to try to get him to sell the lease to the fishers. Willis, who was by now an invalid, offered to sell the lease at a price that was beyond the reach of the fishers. Determined that they should have control over the sale of their produce, the three men broke into the Fish Market and Del Rosso began to auction the fishers' catches. 93 Although technically in breach of the law, occupation became nine-tenths of the law. Unofficially encouraged by the Fisheries Department, investigations into the situation were protracted, leaving the fishers free to continue conducting their own auctions. From then on they maintained control over the auctioning of their fish, breaking the Council's monopoly on auctioning and the wholesalers' monopoly on bidding. The inaugural management committee of the Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative, comprising Frank Iannello, Sergio Cappellutti, Ugo Mandich, Frank Sidoti Senior, L. Sparks, Peter Casserley, Frank Brozevich and a Fisheries representative, Ben Saville, held its first official meeting as a legally incorporated co-operative on 9 August 1947. 94

At the outset the Co-operative sought representation of Italian, Croatian and British interests on the management committee and thereby enlisted the support of the fishers within these groups. The Co-operative's first task was to acquire the lease on the Fremantle Fish Market. Although they were never granted a long-term lease, the Co-operative's occupation of the Fish Market was secure. Members of the Co-operative purchased shares in the company and were encouraged to sell their fish through the Co-operative's Fish Market, where members contributed a penny for every pound of fish or crayfish sold. 95 After several years' struggling to cultivate the loyalty of the fishers and build up its finances, the Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative enjoyed a meteoric rise in fame and fortune. Thirty years later, the Co-operative was turning over $32 million per annum, 96 and in the 1980s was winning Asian export awards for the company's high standards and efficiency. The benefits of the Co-operative were also enjoyed by the fishers, who had risen from blue-collar businessmen to ‘Lords of the Sea'. 97

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
22 June 1997, Fremantle Maritime Centre


Lords of the Sea, by photographer Brent Sumner, is a commemorative book commissioned by the Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative in 1997

2 Gamba, Charles, 1952 The Italian Fishermen of Fremantle: A Preliminary Study in Sociology and Economics, University of WA Press; (an Honours thesis in Geography completed in 1948 and published in 1952)
Gentilli, Joseph et al (1982), ‘Italian Migration to Western Australia 1829-1946' in Geowest; No.19; October 1982, An occasional publication of the Department of Geography of the University of Western Australia.

3 Gamba (1952), p 13

4 Ibid

5 Gentilli, p 11

6 Ibid, p 23

7 Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle City Council Local History Collection, Oral History Collection

8 Gentilli, op. cit., p 3

9 Gamba (1948) p 15

10 Gentilli, op. cit., p 9

11 Ibid, p 10

12 Gentilli, J. (1984, 229-230) ‘I Pescatori Italiani Nell'Australia Occidentale: Mito e realta' in Studi Emigrazione, Anno XXI Giugno No. 74, pp 229-239).

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid, p 1 1

15 Gamba (1948) pp 15-16

16 Porcelli, the son of a master mariner, started as a fisherman and later opened an importing business in Pakenham Street; his son, Pietro Porcelli, was an accomplished sculptor
Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews
De Ceglie, Giovanni (1989) oral history interview by Larraine Stevens, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews.
Keane, SB, Rev Br (1981) ‘Pietro Porcelli, 1872-1943' in Early Days, Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society; Vol 8; Part 5; pp 9-28

17 Gentilli, Joseph et al (1981) ‘A Review of the First Century of Italian Migration to Western Australia' in Early Days," Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society;' Vol 8, Part 18 pp 29-37

18 Gentilli et al (1981) p 35

19 Gentilli (1982) p 13

20 Based on oral testimony, Gamba (1952, 5) has suggested that in the 1880s there was a small group of Italian fishermen at Point Peron. However, Gentilli (1982) cautions that there are no written records confirming this and provides information indicating the community was formed around 1885.

21 Names compiled from the following sources: Gentilli. et al (1981. 3l), Kerr (1985, 217—see reference below). Pensabene (1992). The Sunday Independent. 8 July 1979

22 Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection. Oral History Interviews.

23 Gamba (1952) p 3

24 Miragliotta, Frank (1979) in the Sunday Independent 8 July 1979

25 Gamba, Charles (1952), The Italian Fishermen of Fremantle - A preliminary Study in Sociology and Economics, University of Western Australia Press p 34

26 Iannello, Frank (1983) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle City Council Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

27 Ibid.

28 Gentilli (1932) p 13

29 Iannello, Frank (1983) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

30 Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

31 Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

32 Gamba (1952) p 34

33 Ibid.

34 Gamba (1952) p 4

35 Ibid, p 47

36 Ibid, p 5

37 Ibid, p 47

38 Public Works Department File 689.7133, 24 September 1912, State Records Office

39 Fremantle Gazette, 2 April 1991

40 Gamba (1952) p 5

41 Ibid, p 41

42 Ibid, pp 96-7

43 De Ceglie, Giovanni (1989) oral history interview by Larraine Stevens, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 1151a.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Minervini, John (1989) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid. Raffaele's vessel, Doria, is now in the Western Australia Maritime Museum collection  of historic watercraft, Maritime History Department

57 Gamba (1952) p 45

58 Gentilli et al (1981) p 35

59 Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local  History Collection, Oral History Interviews

60 Ibid.

61 Gamba (1952) p 6

62 Ibid.

63 Baglin, Fred et al (1922) Report on the Select Committee of the Legislative Council Appointed to Inquire into the Fishing Industry and the Operations of the Fremantle Fish Markets, Tabled December 19, 1922; By Authority: Fred Wm Simpson, Govemment Printer, Perth, p 7

64 Sunday Independent 8 July 1979

65 Baglin (1922) pp 7-12

66 Ibid.

67 Ibid.

68 Gamba (1952) p 6

69 Ibid.

70 Gale, CF (1905), The Chief Inspector of Fisheries, WA (1905) Report on the Pearling and Turtle Industry, Government Printer, Perth

71 Ibid.

72 Kerr, GJ (1985) Craft and Craftsmen of Australian Fishing 1870-1970: An Illustrated Oral History. Mains'l Books, Victoria, p 216

73 Baglin (1922) pp 7-12

74 Gale (1905)

75 Public Work Department File 6897,33 - 5 June 1908, State Records Office

76 Pensabene, Vince (1982) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

77 Baglin (1922) pp 21-15

78 Op. cit., p. 10 and 14

79 Fisheries File An 108.1, Acc 477, Item 101.23, 6 July 1908, State Records Office

80 Baglin (1922) p. 10 and p. 14. An equivalent value in today's terms is difficult to provide but some concept of value may be drawn from the relative cost of housing: in the 1930s a Fremantle cottage cost around £300 which today [1999] costs around $300,000.

81 Gamba, (1952) pp 20-1

82 Baglin, (1922) p 45

83 Public Works Department File 689; 7;3733, 7 May 1921, State Records Office

84 Public Works Department File 689; 7;3733, 7 May 1921, State Records Office

85 Public Works Department File 689; 7;3733; 28 September 1921, State Records Office

86 Baglin (1922) p 45

87 Gamba (1952) p 20

87 Ibid, p 11

88 Ibid,p 21

90 Department for Industrial Development File 961; 183.14;3; 12 May 1948, State Records Office

91 Fremantle Gazette, 16 July 1991, p 31

92 Personal communication (1997) with Bill Latter, South Fremantle, and John Minervini, Bicton.

91 Fremantle Gazette, 4 June 1991

92 Minutes, Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative Incorporated, 9 August 1947

95 Pupazzoni, J.P. (1962) speech delivered by the General Manager of the Fremantle Fishermen's Co-operative, Mr Pupazzoni; Minutes and Report of the 42nd Annual Conference of the Co-operative Federation of WA, May 1962; held by the Fremantle City Council Local History Library File 639.2.

96 Minervini, John (1989) oral history interview by Margaret Howroyd, Fremantle Local History Collection, Oral History Interviews

97 Sumner, B (1997)

Garry Gillard | New: 13 August, 2017 | Now: 11 November, 2023