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Fremantle’s first historian:
Joseph Keane Hitchcock

Bob Reece

Reece, Bob 2012, 'Fremantle's first historian: Joseph Keane Hitchcock', Fremantle Studies, 7: 33-50.

Joseph Keane Hitchcock was Fremantle’s first historian, his History of Fremantle: The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929 being commissioned by Fremantle Municipal Council in early 1928 and published as part of the celebrations marking the town’s achievement of city status on 3 June 1929. No doubt penned in his distinctive copperplate longhand, the manuscript was typed by Miss West, stenographer and dispatch clerk at J&W Bateman &. Co, who had been educated at Princess May Girls’ School, and printed for the Council in a run of 2250 copies by the SH Lamb Printing House in Fremantle. The book also incorporated a brief History of the Fremantle Harbour: A Romance in Port Building by JWB Stevens, then Secretary of the Fremantle Harbour Trust.

Photographs were provided by CM Nixon whose studio in William St opposite the Town Hall was one of Fremantle’s institutions for many years. Featured as the book's two frontispieces were Admiral Sir Charles H. Fremantle, GCB, and Mayor FE (‘Kissy’) Gibson, JP. The soft cover version sold for half a crown, or 2s.6d. A collector’s item today, it brings as much as $120.00 when a copy can be found. [endnote 1]

Before we look at his History, let us see who Joseph Keane Hitchcock was and how he came to be Fremantle’s first chronicler. Born near Guildford, Middle Swan, in 1855, he was the son of David Hitchcock and his wife Honora nee Keane. David had arrived at Swan River Colony as a seven year old with his father James and step-mother Mary Ann nee Clark, together with his seven siblings, on the Simon Taylor on 20 August 1842. [endnote 2]

James Mary Ann

James Hitchcock and his wife Mary Ann Hitchcock (née Clark)

He had been born at the family home at Waddesdon, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on 26 September 1835, seven years before James and Mary Ann made the momentous decision to try their fortunes in Western Australia. What exactly it was that pushed or pulled them from Buckinghamshire to Swan River Colony has long since been forgotten, but it was no doubt the superior economic prospects that the colony appeared to offer with its large tracts of inexpensive land. It is not known whether James owned land at Waddesdon, but it seems likely that he belonged to that class of landless tenant farmers who were being rapidly displaced by Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the technological changes which dramatically reduced the manpower needed in agriculture. All we know about Mary Ann is that she was a lace-maker who could not read or write.

As it happened, the Hitchcocks arrived at a time when Swan River colony’s fortunes were at a very low ebb, thanks to the economic recession in Britain which severely reduced the vital flow of capital to the Australian colonies and consequently caused a credit crisis. Many of Swan River’s free workers were also being attracted to South Australia newly-developed copper mines where much higher wages were being offered. After working for William Locke Brockman of ‘Herne Hill’, Middle Swan, for a year or two, David’s parents used their small supply of accumulated capital to purchase land at Jane Brook, Middle Swan. Labour was no problem for them: with four daughters and four sons, they supplied their own work force. In the colony, furthermore, Mary Ann was to produce two more sons and two more daughters.

Young David helped his father clear the virgin bush, fencing paddocks and preparing them for cultivation. Lacking a horse and plough, they had to use spades to turn the soil. Indeed, during the early years all farm work had to be done by hand. Hay was mown with a scythe, the mature wheat cut with a sickle and then threshed with a wooden flail. Altogether, it was a simple style of farming that harked back to the Middle Ages. In time, David acquired his own forty acres of land at the foot of the Darling Range, purchasing some of the adjoining land and building a comfortable house with his own hands. Until the farm was self-supporting, he did seasonal work for neighbours to supplement its income. 3

James and Mary Ann were remarkable for their hard-won prosperity and respectability. However, the need for their children to add to the family income in the early years brought its perils when their second daughter, seventeen years old Susan (who, illiterate like her mother), went to work as a maid with a neighbouring family in November 1844 and stole some of her employers’ clothing. She was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, ‘with labour suitable to her sex’, during which time she was said to have had a still-born baby. Also said to have been the first woman to serve a prison term in Western Australia, she redeemed herself by subsequently marrying James Doust and bearing no fewer than thirteen children. 4


< Honora and David Hitchcock

On 7 March 1855 at St Mary’s Anglican Church, Middle Swan, David Hitchcock married a handsome young Irishwoman from Co. Tipperary, Honora Keane, who had arrived on the Travancore on 13 January 185 3 with her sister Mary. They and the 113 other Irish girls on board were intended to work as domestic servants and redress the increasing gender imbalance of the colony, which had been receiving only male convicts since 1850. The Travancore thus became known as one of the four ‘brideships’ of 1853, which provided rich material for that distinguished social historian of early Western Australia, Rica Erickson. 5 While there is a family tradition that Honora’s father was a merchant, this seems highly doubtful. The ‘brideship’ women and girls were recruited mainly from orphanages and poor houses in Dublin and Cork which were only too happy to get them off their hands; some of the Travancore contingent arrived barefooted and ‘most of them wore simple gowns with shawls for headcoverings’, prompting the sobriquet ‘bog Irish’. 6 As Honora was a Catholic and David a Protestant, we can only presume that she had to give up her own religion, although her family name, Keane, was used by successive generations of Hitchcocks. Honora and David were to have nine children themselves, their five daughters all marrying sons of Alfred and Lucy Minchin, the former’s parents having arrived on the Caroline on 12 December 1829. 7 Honora was to die in 1889 but David lived for a further twenty-seven years until 1916.

Joseph Keane Hitchcock, their eldest child, was born at Ashby, Middle Swan, on 17 December 1855. Nothing much is known of his early education, although he attended the public school at Guildford for a time. Farm work accounted for much of his youth, as it had done for his father before him. However, he was sufficiently literate and numerate to apply for a post as office boy with the Fremantle firm of WD Moore & Co, whose founder, William Dalgety Moore, the Western Australian-born nephew of Advocate-General George Fletcher Moore, was from ‘Oakover’, Middle Swan. William, and his father, Samuel Fletcher Moore, no doubt knew James Hitchcock through that connection. Thus it was that the thirteen years old Joseph arrived in Fremantle in the summer of 1868, perched atop a wagon load of hay that was no doubt intended by his father for one of the town’s numerous livery stables. WD Moore & Co, which had been founded in Mouat St only six years earlier, was still a modest operation, having only one other indoor staff member and one outdoor employee, the well-known Tommy Hopkinson.

Joseph Sarah

Joseph Keane Hitchcock and Sarah Hitchcock née Law c. 1911, Photograph by Bartletto Studio, Perth


The Hitchcock family before World War 1

From office boy, Joseph progressed to junior clerk during his five years with WD Moore, going on to work for J & W Bateman & Co for fourteen years, then for Padbury, Loton & Co and then for James Lilly & Co. Lilly was a prominent and highly respected figure in Fremantle’s commercial and public life, becoming known as ‘the father of Western Australian shipping’ because of the excellent coastal service he provided. Hitchcock’s final position from 1905 was as Western Australian manager for James & Alexander Brown, coal merchants and shipowners. 8 It was from his intimate knowledge of the shipping industry over many years that he became an authority on the colony’s maritime history.

Along the way, Hitchcock qualified as an Incorporated Accountant, most likely by correspondence through a British organisation. Altogether, his career was a distinct success story: from junior office boy to office manager in forty years, thanks no doubt to sober and conscientious application to his work. JS Battye’s Cyclopedia of Western Australia of 1912 described him as ‘being of a retiring disposition’, declining public office and spending his leisure hours boating on the river and attending to the flowers and fruit trees in his garden. 9 His only contribution to civic life was as auditor first for East Fremantle Municipal Council and then for North Fremantle Council where he also served as a councillor for some years. Recognition of his outstanding ability and reliability can be seen, however, in his appointment as secretary of the Swan Brewery Co and as auditor of the Fremantle branch of the Western Starr-Bowkett Building Society from its inception in 1892. On 3 June 1876 at the Congregational Chapel in Fremantle, his mentor the Revd Joseph Johnston officiating, he married Sarah Maria Law whom he had probably met through the temperance organisation known as The Good Templars which flourished in Fremantle from the mid-1870s.

Hubert Cecil

Hubert Keane Hitchcock and Cecil Hitchcock

The daughter of Samuel Law and Sarah Law née Willmott of George St, East Fremantle, Sarah bore ten children, three of whom died in infancy. Three daughters and four sons survived, two of whom, Cecil and Hubert, were killed in France on the Western Front. 10

The Hitchcock family evidently lived for some time at 84 Henderson St before moving to ‘Cambridge’, a large house in Elizabeth St, North Fremantle [now Corkhill St]. Sarah Maria died there on 17 September 1921 and in June 1929, when the History was released, Joseph was living with his married daughter, Mrs CL Peake, at ‘Croydon Villa’, also in Elizabeth St, North Fremantle. Sadly, three months later (on 8 August, to be precise) Joseph himself died at the age of seventy-three years after suffering from poor health for some time. His death was noticed by The West Australian 11 and The Western Mail 12, which also published his photograph above the caption ‘Pioneer Historian’. His funeral on 10 August was described by The West Australian as ‘largely attended’, the pall-bearers including JW Bateman, GF Gallop and Councillors Hollis and Turton. 13 Fremantle’s Advertiser, on the other hand, carried a surprisingly brief tribute in its weekly edition of 16 August: surprising because Hitchcock’s historical articles had been one of the newspaper’s main features, making him a well-known figure.

The most that Hitchcock himself ever offered in the way of an assessment of his own life was this typically modest statement in The Fremantle Times in March 1919:

My ancestors for generations past had been farmers, but what was thought to be an easier life was mapped out for me and when the wagon left next morning on its homeward journey the forlorn country lad was left behind to commence life at the bottom of the ladder in the service of what is now one of Fremantle’s leading commercial houses. The lapse of half a century, however, has not seen his ascent of many rungs of the ladder, so that if his fond parents ever indulged in daydreams of his one day becoming a merchant prince, they were doomed to disappointment. Probably it is not in the nature of things that the scion of a long line of farming progenitors should develop much aptitude for mercantile pursuits, unless he happened to be an atavism of some remote ancestry whose leanings were in that direction. Be that as it may, I often think that my devoted parents unwittingly sacrificed the makings of a good farmer to the manufacture of an indifferent man of business. 14

A photographic portrait taken by Bartletto Studio in Perth in about 1911 and used in JS Battye’s Cyclopedia entry shows him as a bearded figure, formally attired in a dark suit and wing-collar: the very embodiment of good, old-fashioned decency and respectability. On the same occasion, portraits were taken of Sarah Maria and of them together with their grown-up family before its tragic reduction in World War One. 15

Hitchcock’s History had its origins at a meeting of the Fremantle Municipal Council on 18 March 1928 when a committee consisting of Mayor Gibson and Councillors GW Shepherd, F Hollis and CD Kerr was appointed, with Councillor Hollis as Convenor, to supervise the production of a history by Mr JK Hitchcock, who was granted an honorarium of £250 for the task. While the committee’s original intention seems to have been to bring in Professor Walter Murdoch of the University of Western Australia to edit the manuscript and write a Preface, 16 the editing work was undertaken instead by a local journalist and Hitchcock himself wrote the Preface. If the committee provided Hitchcock with any guidelines, no evidence of them has survived. Nor is there indication that he was given a word limit, which was probably a mistake. In all probability, he was given free reign in the belief that a man of his undoubted probity, good sense and local knowledge could be relied upon to turn in a worthy piece of work which would suitably commemorate the progress of the port from a collection of ragged tents and stringybark huts to a modern industrial city and communications hub. Hitchcock had been chosen for the commission because, as the Committee noted, ‘there was no other person available who was in possession of the necessary details, Mr Hitchcock having made a hobby of collecting records of bygone days’. 17 He had also read a paper to the newly-formed Historical Society of Western Australia on 26 November 1926, entitled ‘Fremantle 1829-49’, 18 which, together with two series of newspaper articles entitled ‘Early Days of Fremantle' (1919) and ‘Fremantle Reminiscences’ (1921) had laid the basis for a more ambitious history of the port town. The good aldermen were not to be disappointed. His History was to provide a rich chronicle of events and developments over the hundred years.

Nevertheless, Hitchcock was almost self-effacingly modest about his achievement in his Preface, even avoiding the use of the first person:

From the readers of these memoirs the writer asks an indulgent hearing: firstly because he is fully aware of their literary demerits, and secondly because [of] the indifferent state of his health during most of the time he was engaged in their preparation.

It was with considerable difficulty that he undertook the task of compiling a ‘History of Fremantle’, because he recognised that there were others far better qualified to do justice to the theme. 19

While admitting that ‘three-quarters of the facts herein recorded are matters of personal recollection’, he felt bound to acknowledge that ‘there are episodes and facts’ that had to be gleaned from WS Kimberley’s History of Western Australia, Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia, Dr JS Battye’s Western Australia, the Official Year Book of Western Australia, newspaper articles by Julien Strong, records held by JS Flindell, the Fremantle number of The Western Mail, and information supplied by the secretaries of the Fremantle Building Society, the Chamber of Commerce and the Literary Institute. 20 Like so many historians before and after him, he reflected that

the mist that surrounds the hazy past  would have been less dense if early residents, who once possessed old diaries and letters, had realised how greatly such mementoes of the past would have been prized by future generations, [and] had taken pains to preserve them. 21

‘Volumes could be filled with the narratives of pioneers’, Hitchcock went on in his first chapter, ‘but in this retrospect it is proposed to record only the most important points in the story of the growth and progress of the town and the port’. 22 In fact, as the committee’s introductory note makes clear, the text he originally submitted to them had been extensively pruned, not from any desire to censor it, we can be fairly confident, but from practical constraints which no doubt involved printing costs. ‘The Committee have been compelled to reject much valuable material through the lack of space’, they regretted.” Nevertheless, they hoped ‘that the reader will be brought into a sort of personal acquaintance with events recorded’. 24 Here was an ambitious claim for a modest municipal history that invoked the Greek historian Thucydides himself, and indeed all subsequent historians who have attempted, with greater or lesser success, to ‘bring history to life’. Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to Hitchcock’s original manuscript and the extensive source materials that he had collected over the years. Perhaps they went into the backyard bonfire of personal effects that so often followed a death in those days.

The History was designed to form part of the celebrations of Fremantle’s centenary of settlement and the proclamation of its newly-acquired city status by Governor Sir William Campion on 3 June 1929. There was no official launch of the book, but Councillor Kerr presented the convenor of the committee responsible for its commissioning, Councillor Hollis, with a hard-bound copy at the end of proceedings after the toast to ‘The Pioneers’ and accompanying speeches had been given. 25 Hitchcock himself was not a member of the official party, although it was graced by the presence of Western Australia’s State Librarian and de facto State Historian, Dr JS Battye, whose Western Australia: A History from its Discovery to the Inauguration of the Commonwealth had been published by Oxford University Press in 1924. In its Special Supplement. The City of Fremantle, which recorded these events, The Western Mail published substantial excerpts from Hitchcock’s History and from Captain Fremantle’s diary but the book was not subjected to a critical review.

Hitchcock’s History has to be seen as largely a response to the expectations of the worthy councillors who commissioned it, the cuts they made to the original manuscript and the efforts of the anonymous journalist employed to knock it into final shape. Much of the book takes the form of unadorned listings of events and it is only now and again that Hitchcock is able to move into a more graceful story-telling or anecdotal style. Instead of providing a flowing narrative, the chronologically-based chapters are broken up into snippets introduced by sub-headings, doubtless the work of the journalist sub-editor.

As for the subject matter, not surprisingly for that time, Aborigines barely rate a mention beyond their occasional attacks on the settlers during the colony’s early years and their continued camping in the scrubby area east of Parry St which from 1879 was known as ‘Fremantle Park’. Women and children are very much in the background. Altogether, there is very little of what we would today call ‘social history’ with its focus on how people lived. Economics and politics are in the ascendancy and there is a strong general tone of celebrating the port’s material progress. It is only rarely that Hitchcock’s personal attitudes emerge, sometimes in the form of a parochial defensiveness towards ‘t’othersiders’. For example, of the convicts sent to Western Australia he tells us that

the class of men transported to the colony here bore no comparison with the desperadoes who were sent out to New South Wales and Tasmania. Among them were lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers, ex-bankers, ex-clergymen, civil engineers, architects, master mariners, accountants and others whose presence in the community tended to elevate rather than lower the standard of the people. 26

While it is true that there was a small minority of ‘white-collar’ professionals among the 9000 or so men transported to Western Australia between 1849 and 1867, we now know that by the mid 1850s the criminal character of the majority was much more strongly pronounced and that they were far less likely to have been sent out for minor offences than those of the first few shipments. Hitchcock, like many of his fellow Western Australians, was outraged that anyone wishing to visit the eastern colonies had to be in possession of a slip of paper attesting either that they were not, or never had been, ‘bond’. He expressed satisfaction that with the inauguration of responsible government in 1890, all the convict records had been burnt, 27 thus departing from his laudable view that the evidence of the past should be carefully preserved.

Leavening the staple diet of names, dates and statistics that he provides, Hitchcock occasionally favours us with colourful anecdotes, such as the visit to Fremantle of the notorious Pacific Islands ‘blackbirder’ (labour recruiter), ‘Bully’ Hayes, and the brief residence in the mid-1870s of the extraordinary confidence man, Louis de Rougemont, at Mrs Charlotte Seubert’s boarding house on the corner of High St and Cliff St where Hitchcock himself was a lodger at the time. He also provides a nice vignette of the Catalpa escape of 1876. When he is allowed to get into his stride, he excels as a story-teller with a sophisticated and erudite writing style that reflects a lifetime of reading.

In his conclusion, Hitchcock provides his own ideas about the usefulness of history, not so much as a source of lessons to be learnt and applied to current situations but as moral inspiration:

Those of us who are in the sere and yellow leaf are perhaps too prone to dwell in the shadows of what has been, but to those of the younger generation the question of what is to be of is of vital importance at this juncture and demands all the thought they can bestow upon the perplexing problems that confront them. Nevertheless a little retrospect will remind them of the difficulties their forebears met and surmounted when blazing the trail and will inspire them with courage to face the future with the same resolute spirit as that which animated those who have gone before. 28

Much more entertaining than the History of Fremantle were the two series of historical feature articles, published some years earlier, which focused on the town and its people and the unique ambience they had created. The first of these, entitled ‘Early Days of Fremantle: Mr. Hitchcock’s Reminiscences’, published in the short-lived Fremantle Times between 21 March and 20 June 1919, represent his sustained effort to re-create from memory the town as he knew it during his early years from the summer of 1868. No doubt he was encouraged in this project by the youthful editor of this lively newspaper, Cecil Jeffrey, whose untimely death in August 1919 during the Spanish influenza epidemic cost the town one of its ablest citizens.

What Hitchcock provides for us is an exhaustive ‘walking-tour’ of Fremantle's down-town streets, describing each building, its occupants and sometimes their virtues and eccentricities. 29 If there is a vacant allotment, he is likely to tell us that it is growing a fine crop of castor oil or burberry bushes. Only someone who had lived in Fremantle for forty years, had walked its streets countless times and could put a name to every face they encountered could have managed a mental feat on this scale. That his memory was extraordinarily accurate is attested to by the fact that only one correspondent, ‘Old Timer’, was sufficiently moved to write to The Fremantle Times correcting him on a point of fact: old Benny Summerfield’s lolly shop was not on Adelaide St near where FE Temple’s auctioneering offices were now located, but in William St where the Federal Hotel was now located. 30

While Hitchcock’s account is not, of course, a perfect snapshot of any one moment frozen in time, and necessarily reflects some changes, it does provide us with a vivid impression of the Fremantle that was, the sleepy maritime town before the dramatic influx of people during the gold rushes of the early 1890s and the subsequent development of the river port and ancillary industries. These gave the place an entirely new and different character, about which Hitchcock clearly felt somewhat ambivalent despite the increasing prosperity that they reflected. He was not, as he wrote in his History, one of those who thought that it ‘was a matter for great rejoicing to see ancient landmarks disappear under the Juggernaut of progress’. 31 Indeed, at the very time that his book was published, Manning Hall, better known as ‘Manning’s Folly’, the huge limestone and glass edifice on the corner of Pakenham and Short Sts, was being demolished and the Council had before it a petition from rate-payers to demolish the old Round House and ‘beautify’ Arthur Head. 32 Hitchcock’s heart was still with the ‘dreamy town’ which for six decades before the 1890s had ‘slumbered peacefully by the placid waters of the Indian Ocean, “the world forgetting and by the world forgot”’. 33 On the other hand, he was a shrewd businessman whose head told him that Fremantle’s material progress since the gold rushes was a good thing.

What makes this series of articles so readable is the way in which he brings to life some of the more colourful and interesting ‘characters’ who might have been encountered in the streets in those days. Prominent among them were veterans of the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, such as ‘Happy Dick’, who claimed to have served under Nelson at Trafalgar and ‘Bill’ Adams who had served at Waterloo and was popularly attributed with winning the battle. John Gray and Henry Naylor were survivors of the rout made famous by Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ at Balaclava in the Crimea, while Lieutenant Croke, the Harbour Master, had served on board HMS Galatea with the Duke of Edinburgh. He also gives us pen-portraits of the Russian Jewish forger Rosenberg, the Irish ‘doctor’ known as ‘Mick the Barber’, the town’s midwife ‘Granny’ Elizabeth Adams, the Italian grave-digger ‘Johnnie Ga-Ga’ and his own workmate Tommy Hopkins who served as the town crier. Hitchcock commemorates some of his own favourite haunts, such as Isaac Senior’s little pie shop on the corner of High and Henry Sts, as well as less salubrious places like the Old Establishment Yard (now the Esplanade Hotel site) where the convicts had originally been housed, ‘Soapsuds Alley’ and the ‘Widows Home’.

All this goes to explain the lines he quoted at the end of his ‘walking-tour’:

The good old times! the grand old times!
They may be thought too slow,
But give to me the good old days
Of fifty years ago!

The second series of eleven feature articles under the titles ‘Fremantle Recollections’ and ‘Fremantle Reminiscences’ was published in the Fremantle Times and its successor, The Advertiser, during 1921. 34 Ranging from the sinking of the SS Georgette to the history of the first Grand Templar lodges in Fremantle, Hitchcock once again drew on his exceptional memory to recreate episodes that would have been remembered by only the most senior of his readers. One of the most vivid scenes he conjured up was the dining table at Mrs Seubert’s high-class boarding house in the mid-1870s where a fascinating assortment of personalities sat down to eat and argue about all manner of things. 35 Among the guests at that time were the confidence man and fantasist Louis de Rougemont (then known as Louis Grin), the strapping young JM Finnerty (later to serve as first warden on the Goldfields and Fremantle magistrate), the future journalist and newspaper proprietor Horace Stirling, James Roe (leader-writer for the Herald), Elias Solomon (Fremantle’s future parliamentarian), James Brewer (an entomologist and author), David B Francisco (Comptroller of Stores at the Prison and Mrs Seubert’s father) and a handful of Cossack pearling masters in town for the annual ‘lay-up’. Hitchcock tells the amusing story of the dashing De Rougemont’s seduction of the young wife of a wealthy old gentleman whom he persuaded to finance his North-West pearling venture.

Well aware of the sensitivities of people descended from convicts, Hitchcock took care to tell the stories of only those whom he believed to have died without issue. ‘Moondyne Joe’ (Joseph Bolytho Johns), whom he knew personally, featured among these, but whether the poem attributed to Joe was really his seems highly dubious. Then there were the high-living commercial swindler, Leopold Redpath, and Fremantle’s first qualified medical practitioner, Dr William Lemon Oliver. Another eminent convict whose identity Hitchcock attempted to conceal by calling him ‘Lyon Worth’, was the former Liverpool ship-owner and agent, Lionel Holdsworth, who had been sentenced in London’s Central Criminal Court in January 1866 to twenty years’ imprisonment for his part in a conspiracy to scupper a merchant ship for the insurance. Receiving a ticket-of-leave in 1876 and returning to the shipping business, Holdsworth became a wealthy local property-owner and part-owner of two pearling luggers on the north-west coast so that after his death in 1900 Fremantle’s Municipal Councillors re-named a street in his honour. 36 These and other ‘white collar’ criminals formed what Hitchcock called ‘the aristocracy of convictism’. 37

Lacking a formal education, Hitchcock nevertheless managed to school himself in literature, history and general knowledge as well as accounting. In this he was greatly assisted by the various organisations set up by the Protestant churches to cater to the interests and energies of the town’s young people, turning them towards self-improvement and away from the self-indulgence offered by its taverns, billiard saloons and brothels. He wrote with sincere appreciation of the work of the Revd Joseph Johnston (better known to him as ‘Father Johnston’), the Congregational preacher who arrived in Fremantle in 1853 after conducting mission work in Tahiti and became a temperance campaigner, organising a highly successful Young Men’s Association. Johnston and the Anglican Revd GJ Bostock, who later formed another young men’s club, exercised the kind of leadership and moral influence over young people that Hitchcock greatly regretted was no longer being attempted by clergymen in the more free-and-easy, post-World War One Fremantle. These young men’s clubs, together with the mixed-sexes Good Templars, 38 offered a range of improving activities such as public lectures, debates, quizzes, spelling bees and supervised outings from which Hitchcock and his friends derived great personal benefit in the absence of any form of higher formal education. The clubs were their universities while The Good Templars provided their principal means of meeting marriageable young women.

One of Hitchcock’s most interesting articles traces the rise and fall of the now long-forgotten Good Templar lodges. Devised in the United States in 1861 and copying the Masonic Lodge’s system of secret passwords and handshakes to solemnize membership, the Good Templars were a temperance organisation which also served to bring together young people in improving entertainments and raise money for charity. Hitchcock could write with some authority on this subject as he had served as Grand Master of a new lodge which broke away from its parent when the latter’s members began to insist on a greater degree of social exclusivity than Hitchcock and his friends thought was appropriate. Sociologically, the history of the Good Templars in Fremantle provides an interesting story that will be recognized by many people who have been members of clubs and other social organizations at some time in their lives.

Hitchcock does not offer us detailed accounts of organisations of which he had no personal knowledge. The Mechanics’ Institute and the Working Man’s Association, for example, were established along the lines of the Mechanics’ Institutes that had sprung up in Britain in the early nineteenth century and were imitated in the eastern Australian colonies. These were self-improvement societies designed to provide reading matter and edifying public lectures for men whose formal education was limited but who now wished to better themselves. However, the coming of the convicts in 1851 created something of a social divide between ‘bond’ and free, so that ticket-of-leavers and expirees were not encouraged to join and had to wait until 1864 for the formation of the more authentically working-class Working Man’s Association. A merger was engineered in 1868 by James Pearce, convict expiree and co-founder of the Fremantle Herald, to form The Fremantle Literary Institute which had rooms in a building on the corner of Cliff St and Croke Lane. It was from its often unsupervised library that Hitchcock borrowed books, simply entering his loans in a book left for the purpose.

Hitchcock’s relative lack of interest in theatre and music (although he was evidently keen on singing) meant that he did not write about the Fremantle Dramatic Troupe (in which Pearce was a leading light), or the various musical bodies. A good question, however, is whether he was responsible for some of the locally-authored poems that appeared in the Fremantle Herald during its hey-day when William de la Poer Beresford was literary editor. He was certainly aware of the cruel trick played on the Herald early in its career when a poem published in good faith was found to incorporate an obscene acrostic message. 39

Fremantle before the gold rushes of the early 1890s was a sharply class-structured community in which the so-called ‘Merchant Princes’ played the leading part, dominating the wholesale and retail trades as well as the town’s political and social life. 40 Social status was signalled by dress: men of the commercial elite wearing dark three-piece suits and top hats and their wives and daughters wearing dresses of dark and heavy material. Light-coloured clothing and soft hats were a sure sign of working class or artisan status, group office photographs from the time making it clear where their subjects fitted into the social hierarchy. More difficult to classify were the pearling masters whose free-spending style during their annual forays during the ‘lay-off’ season often concealed dubious origins. The fact that some of these individuals, such as Captain Biddles, chose to retire in comfort in Fremantle suggests nevertheless that money could always triumph over class.

Hitchcock made an important contribution to the maritime history of Western Australia with his account of the establishment of the Western Australian Shipping Association by his old employer, JW Bateman, and Captain William Marden in 1884. This co-operative venture finally broke the monopoly of the maritime cargo trade previously exercised by a wealthy cartel of London shipping brokers, which had been a constant source of complaint in the Fremantle Herald. He provided detailed descriptions of dramatic sinkings and shipwrecks such as the Gem off Rottnest in May 1876 and the SS Georgette off Margaret River in December of the same year, together with accounts of spectacular maritime frauds of the kind perpetrated by Lionel Holdsworth and his fellow-conspirators. Hitchcock must have known Holdsworth personally through the shipping business and perhaps even discussed with him his celebrated coup. The ‘piratical’ seizure of the Ferret at Glasgow in October 1880 and its subsequent attempted purchase by the good citizens of Albany must be one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of Australian shipping.

We can only be grateful that Hitchcock used the years of what he called ‘the sere and yellow leaf’ to collect historical sources, to yarn with ‘old-timers’ and to pen in graceful prose what might otherwise have been the lost and forgotten history of Fremantle before its transformation into an industrial port city with a predominantly working class population and culture.

Fremantle Studies Day 2009


1 Scanned copies can, however, now be purchased via the Internet from

2 R Erickson (comp), The Biographical Dictionary of Western Australians, v11, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1988, p 1490.

3 The information in this paragraph has been drawn from an undated newspaper article entitled ‘The Late David Hitchcock: A Link with the Past’, and another entitled ‘Death of an old Colonist’ and dated 9 February 1916.

4 State Record Office of Western Australia, consignment 3422, item 1; consignment 3472, item 65, case no 327; Ron Davidson, Fremantle Impressions, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2007, p 23; Hitchcock family genealogy, Fremantle City Library, Local History Collection, file B/ HIT Miscellany.

5 R Erickson, The Bride Ships: Experiences of Immigrants Arriving in Western Australia, 1849-1889, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, 1992.

6 ibid, pp 38-39.

7 R Erickson, (comp.), The Biographical Dictionary of Western Australians, v III, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1988, p 2174. The story of the Minchin family was apparently recorded by the late Tony Harrop, a descendant, in an unpublished booklet. Hitchcock-Minchin family reunions took place at Middle Swan in 1979 and Northam in 1992, the latter seeing the appearance of genealogist Jan Goodacre’s unpublished compilation ‘From: Warmstone Waddesdon To: Western Australia: “A Humble Beginning”. The 1992 gathering marked the 150th anniversary of the Hitchcock family’s arrival on the Simon Taylor.

8 JS Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, Illustrated... , 2 vols, Cyclopedia Co, Perth, 1912-13, pp 664-5.

9 ibid.

10 Cecil Edward Hitchcock, 11th Battalion, 1st AIF, aged 23 years, was killed in France on 28 May 1916. Hubert Keane Hitchcock, 51st Battalion, 1st AIF, aged 23 years and six months, was also killed in France on 24 April 1918.

11 West Australian, 9 August 1929.

12 Western Mail, 15 August 1929.

13 West Australian, 12 August 1929.

14 JK Hitchcock, ‘Early Days in Fremantle’, The Fremantle Times, 21 March 1919.

15 l would like to thank Betty Anderson of Spearwood, Ian Smith of Como, June Hitchcock of Hamilton Hill and Margaret Stanners of Coolbellup (all Hitchcock descendants) for lending me the originals of these photographs.

16 Undated newspaper cutting, Fremantle City Library, Local History Collection, File B/HIT Miscellany.

17 ibid.

18 Historical Society of Western Australia, Journal and Proceedings, v1, pt 1, pp 1124.

19 Hitchcock, History of Fremantle, p 7.

20 ibid.

21 ibid.

22 ibid., p 9.

23 ibid., p 5.

24 ibid.

25 The Western Mail, 6 June 1929.

26 Hitchcock, History of Fremantle, p 35.

27 ibid

28 Hitchcock, History of Fremantle, p 109.

29 For an up-to-date walking-tour guide, see David E. Hutchison, Fremantle Walks, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2006.

30 Fremantle Times, 20 June 1919.

31 Hitchcock, History of Fremantle, p 9.

32 Fremantle Advocate, 20 June 1929.

33 Hitchcock, History of Fremantle, p 9.

34 The transition had been made necessary by the untimely death of Cecil Jeffrey, the youthful founder and editor of The Fremantle Times, from Spanish ’flu on 8 August 1919.

35 George Andrew Seubert (originally Schubert) was a German-born ship’s captain and pioneer pearler who later owned the Albert (better known as Seubert's) Hotel in Fremantle. He married Charlotte Francisco in 1869 and died in 1885. For his obituary, see The West Australian, 14 July 1885.

36 It was Doonan St that was re-named.

37 Hitchcock, ‘Convicts Who Made Good’, Fremantle Times, 28 January 1921.

38 ibid.

39 For an account of this scandal and an outline of the Herald’s history, see Bob Reece, ‘Fremantle's First Voice: The Herald (1867-1886)’, Fremantle Studies, v6, pp 43-62.

40 For a comprehensive account, see Patricia M. Brown, The Merchant Princes of Fremantle: The Rise and Decline of a Colonial Elite 1870-1900, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1996

Garry Gillard | New: 30 August, 2017 | Now: 7 August, 2022