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Old Port, Arthur Head

Gaye Nayton

Nayton, Gaye 2010, 'Old Port, Arthur Head', Fremantle Studies, 6: 105-110.

Old Port, Arthur Head

Gaye Nayton

In 2007 an archaeological conservation plan was prepared for the Old Port Arthur Head. The site is located in the area west and southwest of the Shipwreck Galleries. This area was part of the late 19th century port and was also part of the older early colonial port. A conservation plan is a management document which identifies the heritage elements of an area, assigns a level of significance to them and puts in place policies to manage and protect them. A conservation plan also contains recommendations for interpretation and it was this aspect of the plan which was of particular interest to the City of Fremantle. The conservation plan project was funded by Lotterywest and was managed by the City of Fremantle.

Both documentary and physical evidence are used to identity heritage elements within an area and assign levels of significance. Before the conservation plan project started the impression of this area was one of little use and occupation. The precinct is within the boundaries of the Arthur Head Conservation Plan. This plan views the area as essentially empty with only the former Kerosene Store, a foundation adjacent to it and the sea wall noted. This impression is reinforced by the current presentation of the place as a landscaped and paved recreation area. However, detailed historical research on the area revealed a more accurate picture. As shown in (Figure 1), dated from the 1890s, there is a dense clutter of warehouses, railway lines and port activity.


Start of the old Long Jetty c1896. (Fremantle City Library Local History Collection, Print No 2036B)

The Fremantle port system was in two halves because of the bar at the river mouth which prevented seagoing vessels from entering the Swan River and this essentially created two ports. That is, the sea port at South Bay and Anglesea Point and the river port at the northern end of Cliff Street. The jetties for Fremantle sea port were in South Bay where Fisherman’s Harbour is now located with only the base of the Long Jetty within the conservation plan area. A wooden jetty built in South Bay sometime in the 1840s, was replaced by a stone jetty in the 1850s. These successive South Bay jetties were the focus of the sea port with the conservation plan area used as the cargo handling area. The 1870 photograph shows timber and other goods stacked across the limestone sands of Anglesea Point. All goods coming in or going out of the colony had to pass through the port and they were all on or oil loaded from the port cargo handling area. Goods into the colony were stacked ready for pick up by Fremantle merchants, reloaded onto coastal traders or they were sent down Cliff Street, to be transhipped into river lighters at the river port and taken to Perth.

A part of the study area was therefore used as a very early cargo handling area. The only actual structures were a large boat shed and a timber tramline. The 1870 photograph shows clearly the line of the small limestone cliff which formed Anglesea Point, which is now lost under what was formerly McDonalds. It also shows the line of the cliff north of the point curving through the conservation area creating a division in height and use.

After the Long Jetty was built in 1873 with its base extending along Anglesea Point into the conservation area associated port activity increased. At about the same time the sea wall was built and the area infilled burying both the limestone cliff and the sea bottom east of the wall.

By 1887 plans show a Bond Store lying across a railway line adjacent to the Commissariat Store and another railway line down the side of the Kerosene Store. The Bond Store is treated differently in the plan to known buildings so this may have been a proposal that never happened and the building is not shown on later plans and photographs.


Anglesea Point 1870. (City of Fremantle Local History Collection, Print No 4825)

An 1891 plan does not show a Bond Store. The plan shows several private transit sheds as well as the government buildings. There is even a small private house amongst the sheds which was probably for a caretaker. The picture provided by this plan is of the port near the height of its career with a substantial railway and warehouse system. By 1896 the area was crowded with transit sheds and railway lines and bustling with activity. Off to one side of the Kerosene Store is a new timber structure which was identified by the author of the Arthur Head Conservation Plan as a mortuary.

This earlier bustling activity in the area of the Kerosene Store died down quite abruptly after the new harbour was opened in the Swan River in 1897 after the blasting of the bar and the construction of wharves on both the north and south sides of the river. By 1914 plans show the two jetties being bypassed by railway lines with only one transit shed left. The location of sea baths between the two jetties by that time shows the nature of the area had changed from industrial to recreational.


Anglesea Point viewed from the Lighthouse, Arthur Head c1891. (City of Fremantle Local History Collection, Print No 1611)

For the second part of the archaeological project all of the historical information was consolidated to form a site plan, which demonstrated an area of crowded activity. Today the area looks empty with little indication of the industrial history of the place. To provide the physical evidence for the conservation plan five archaeological trenches were excavated and all but one encountered extensive layers of industrial hard covers, even in locations outside of known warehouse sites. The extensive layers of hard covers were 30 to 40 cm thick, which, on a different Western Australian site would take the excavator back to first landing. Such extensive layers were unexpected and in particular a thick layer of limestone significantly slowed the excavation down.

This created difficulties with the excavation timetable which was timed by the City of Fremantle to extend over two weekends, both of which happened to have bad winter storms on the Sunday. The first storm called a halt to excavation of trench 1 for the weekend as this trench was across a soft sand dune and the storm conditions created too great a danger of the excavation collapsing and trapping the excavators. Therefore, at the end of the first weekend trench 1, which was out of direct public access was fenced and kept open but trenches 2, 3 and 5 had to be refilled before the depth of archaeological deposits was reached to make the area safe for weekday pedestrian traffic. The storms on the second Sunday were worse and turned the whole of the area into a temporary lake filling up trench 4 in minutes and terminating the excavation.

Trench 1 was excavated on the site of an 1896 building identified by the Arthur Head conservation plan as a mortuary. The site was covered with an overburden of soft dune sand which had to be removed from both sides of the excavation trench to allow the excavators enough control to reach the mortuary floor. The trench excavated across the site from beyond the edge of the verandah to the building floor found evidence of the large timber verandah posts and the timber floors, which had been reduced to stained sand, making the site unsuitable for open air site interpretation.

Artifacts found during the excavation dated the overburden to the 1950s and the artifacts directly associated with the timber building to the turn of the century except for three intrusive modern artifacts. Sixty two percent of the artifacts related to building construction whilst others related to the occupation of the building. Associated with the one metre by 50cm section of verandah was several shards of bottle glass, a shard of drinking glass and a shard of ceramic plate which suggested a rest area. It was also associated with flat lagging material, ceramic tiling, metal sheeting and a pipe fitting which could suggest the presence of a washing stand with a lagged water tank of some sort.

Trench 4 was excavated on the site of a turn of the century transit shed but the excavation extended past the thick hard cover layers associated with the 1890s railway line and warehouse complex to a depth of 70 centimetres in one sondage. A thick relatively modern layer of limestone situated between 20 and 40cm depth was difficult to excavate by hand but served to seal the layers below from disturbance. This protected evidence of a 1890s railway line, a crushed shell path and three layers of sandy deposits overlying a crushed limestone foundation. A small section of the foundation was exposed and excavated recovering a shard of window glass and a wire nail. The wire nail dates this foundation to after 1870 therefore the excavation may or may not have reached the initial level of land fill associated with the mid 1870s construction of the sea wall. It certainly did not reach deposits associated with the early colonial beach which would be at least a metre lower in the sequence.

However, this does not actually matter, as the purpose of the excavation was to determine the presence of archaeological deposits and assess their archaeological significance, not to tear through the site to reach the port deposits at any cost. The excavations and an accompanying metal detector survey proved that most of the later 1890s port activity was intact across the site largely sealed under protecting hard covers like the modern limestone. These deposits were in their turn sealing large areas of the site and protecting older archaeological layers overlying the 1870s fill. This fill in its turn will be sealing and protecting the layers associated with the 1829-1873 colonial port. This deep and layered sequence over Western Australia’s main port has exceptional archaeological significance.

The information gained is invaluable for management guidelines to allow changes to landscaping and other management tasks without impacting on its buried heritage. The extent of hard covers, and the extent and depth of remains under the top 40cm of hard cover also opens up interesting possibilities for creative interpretation.

Most colonial sites in WA lie between 30 and 50cm depth. Very few sites offer the sort of depth that would allow a visitor to be immersed in a site by walking through it, rather than over it, giving a sense of ‘walking back through time’. The port area offers that sort of possibility and interpretation based along these lines and was suggested as part of the management of this area in particular, and the West End in general.

Long term interpretation aimed at linking other deeply buried port related sites such as the Cliff/Phillimore Street river port and the block of port housing and industry lying under Pioneer Park has been suggested in one interpretation trail. This would offer a series of deep ‘walk back in time’ experiences which would allow visitors to walk across colonial land surfaces and view ruins, structures and artifacts as they were left. Techniques now exist to enhance such an experience not only with text or audio tapes but by added smells, sounds and holographic ‘ghosts’ of colonists past.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2008

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