Fremantle Stuff > Fremantle Walks > History

A Brief History

From Fremantle Walks by David Hutchison, 2006, pp. 19-61.

Fremantle City

The Original Inhabitants

Martin Gibb (1988) is the principal reference for this section and should be consulted for a fuller account.

Research has steadily pushed back the estimated date of arrival of Aboriginal people on the continent of Australia to forty thousand-plus years. At the time of settlement of the colony the Aboriginal people in the South-West land division (south and west of a line between Geraldton and Esperance) formed a distinct group with significant cultural differences from those in surrounding districts. Aborigines within this region now refer to themselves as Nyoongar (the people). Within the region there were about thirteen tribal groups, several of whom lived along the Swan coastal plain, concentrated on the major river systems and swamps. These areas were the most fertile and well watered and were, therefore, the land most sought after by white settlers; an inevitable source of conflict.

These closely related groups called themselves Wardarnji (sea people). The people occupying the Swan and its tributaries were the Whadjuck. At the time of settlement they were estimated to number four hundred and fifty, and were subdivided into ‘local groups’ or ‘bands’ of twenty to forty people with distinct territories with which they had recognised usage rights. Their custodianship was cultivated by their cultural practices such as myth, ritual and oral tradition. Even now, in urbanised areas, Nyoongar people may retain links to the spirit of the land.

Aborigines gave the name Walyalup to the land north and south of the Swan River on the coastal plain, part of it being modern Fremantle. The larger coastal strip was called Booyeembara, the name recently chosen for a new park in the east of the city. The Swan River was Derbal Yaragan and the nearby ocean Dubai Nara. The Aboriginal people of this region were the first to feel the full impact of European settlement.

In 1829, what is now the West End of Fremantle consisted of grassed areas with scattered grasstrees (Xanthorrhea), shrubs and trees, crossed by a chain of swamps. Aborigines appear to have exploited this area in early summer and late autumn when they hunted large and small marsupials and reptiles and harvested fish and other freshwater creatures from the swamps and river. They appear not to have harvested food from the sea or coast; the frequent heavy surf created by strong winds they interpreted as an ‘angry sea’. However, they feasted on stranded whales, seals and dolphins. After the establishment of whaling companies by the settlers, Aborigines welcomed the opportunity to take meat from the whale carcasses drawn up on Bathers Beach.

On land they harvested roots, tubers, nuts and fruits. The large nut of the Macrozamia palm had to have a long treatment by leaching, burial and roasting, otherwise it was poisonous, as early white settlers learned to their discomfort. They also practised ‘fire-stick farming’; the use of fire to encourage the regrowth of grass and to drive game from cover.

They had well-established pathways north and south of the river and up and down the coast; the mouth of the Swan being a meeting point. There has been speculation that they crossed the river via the rocky bar across its mouth, where the water would have been only about a metre deep at low tide. However, it was subject to wave action and tidal rips so it is more likely that they crossed what is now the Inner Harbour, at that time narrower, at a point where a long sand spit projected from the south side, at the end of modern Point Street. There would have been a short swim and that may have been difficult for women and children. The white settlers soon began to use the well-defined Aboriginal pathways as their roads; another source of potential conflict.

When the settlers first arrived — how would we react if Martians arrived? — Aborigines believed that the pale- skinned people were returning spirits of dead relatives or djanga. They may have frequented Fremantle more after white settlement because of the new food and this led to a series of minor clashes when they were found attempting to steal flour although ‘they were expressing their traditional rights to take food from their inherited territories’. Their use of fire also brought them into conflict with settlers; their fires sometimes threatened settlers’ lives and properties.

Relations became less amicable after a few years and, in 1833, one settler advocated banning Aborigines from Fremantle and establishing a militia to prevent attacks.

As their lands were increasingly taken up by settlers, Aborigines became fringe dwellers in camps on the outskirts of town. Some found employment. Some died by acts of violence, through the use of alcohol and because they had little resistance to diseases brought by the settlers. More positively, the Irish Anglican minister, the Reverend George King, established a small school for Aboriginal children. It is shown on the 1844 map of the town on the foreshore beyond the southern end of Cliff Street, however, it was thought that the convicts, on arrival in 1851, would be a bad influence and students were transferred to Perth.

By 1857 sixty-five Aborigines were included in a Fremantle census. In 1869 a favourite camping site was in dryandra scrub to the east of St John’s Church. By 1912 there were only fifteen Aborigines in Fremantle and only a hundred and fifty in the metropolitan area. From 1927 to 1947 there was a law preventing access of Aborigines to the metropolitan area unless they were in ‘lawful employment’. However, after the removal of that restriction they began to move back into Fremantle.

Early European Exploration

Given that the Western Australian coast was known by navigators from the early seventeenth century, it may seem strange that the first British settlement was located on the eastern side of the continent, over 3000 kilometres further from Britain. However, most of the early European navigators consistently reported unfavourably on the western side of the island continent.

In the sixteenth century the Portuguese colonised parts of South-East Asia, including Timor, and it seems inconceivable that they would have come so close to Western Australia without sighting it. Some scholars believe that early maps confirm early Portuguese discoveries of Australia, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Spain annexed Portugal in 1580. The Dutch, at war with Spain, conquered the Portuguese colonies in the East Indies. The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 with its headquarters at Batavia (now Jakarta). At first the commanders of the company's vessels followed the Portuguese route, sailing up the east coast of Africa after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, then eastwards south of India. After 1611 they were instructed to follow a new route, sailing eastwards from the Cape, following the westerlies for several thousand kilometres. When they estimated that they were south of Java they turned northwards. Inevitably landfalls on the Western Australian coast followed. The first confirmed landfall is that of Dirk Hartog who, in 1616, left an inscribed pewter plate (now in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands) on Dirk Hartog Island.

In December I696 another Dutchman, Willem de Vlamingh, in command of three ships, anchored off Rottnest Island. On New Year’s Day 1697 a party from the fleet landed near Cottesloe, north of Fremantle, and crossed to the river, which they named the Swan River after the black swans they observed on it. After leaving the Swan River they sailed north to Java, retrieving Hartog’s plate on the way and replacing it with another, which is now on display in the Maritime Museum’s Shipwreck Galleries. Other Dutchmen explored the coast during the next hundred years and several vessels were wrecked there; the stories of these are told in those galleries. The Dutch called the land ‘New Holland’ but did not take possession. They were established in the rich East Indies and were not attracted to a land that was reef girt and apparently relatively barren, offering neither quick profits nor rich options. Nor did William Dampier, the first English mariner to explore the north-western coast — as a buccaneer in 1688 and under Admiralty orders in 1699 — find anything to recommend it.

Captain George Vancouver discovered and named King George Sound in 1791 — three years after the establishment of the colony in New South Wales — during his great circumnavigation of the globe. Two major maritime explorations were despatched from Sydney: Matthew Flinders, who surveyed the south coast while circumnavigating the Australian continent from 1801 to 1803, and Phillip Parker King and John Septimus Roe, who completed a major survey of the west coast in 1822.

Several French expeditions also visited the south-west coast in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: in 1792 Joseph-Antoine D’Entrecasteaux, in command of two vessels; in 1801 Emmanuel Hamelin in Le Naturaliste and Nicolas Baudin in Le Géographe; in 1818 Louis de Freycinet in L'Uranie and, in 1826 Dumont D’Urville in command of three vessels. A party from D’Urville’s expedition explored the Swan River.

French activity roused the suspicions of the British government and the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Ralph Darling, sent two expeditions, one in command of Major Edmund Lockyer, and the other under Captain James Stirling, RN. Lockyer, with a detachment of troops and a small party of convicts, arrived at King George Sound on Christmas Day 1826, raised the British flag and set up a permanent encampment at the present site of Albany. Stirling, in March 1827, explored the area around the Swan River as far inland as the present site of Guildford. He was pleased with what he saw — not realising that the soils close to the river were more fertile than the mainly sandy coastal plain -— and reported:

The richness of the soil, the bright foliage of the shrubs, the majesty of the surrounding trees, the abrupt and red-coloured banks of the river occasionally seen, and the view of the blue summits of the mountains from which we were not too far distant, made the scenery around this spot as beautiful as anything of the kind I had ever witnessed.

More than two hundred years since its first sighting by a European, the west coast of New Holland had a champion. On his return to England, facing retirement on half pay, Stirling campaigned for the establishment of a new colony at Swan River and was successful.

European Settlement

Inevitably a brief history oversimplifies, but the bibliography will enable interested readers to gain a fuller understanding. Eight phases are analysed; the first six are in general agreement with R McK Campbell, whose 1980 report, prepared for K A Adam and Associates, informs this section. His report is a succinct and insightful analysis of the issues involved in the conservation of Fremantle’s heritage and still remains relevant in 2005. The city retains buildings from each of these phases.

Various organisations and many people have contributed to the making of Fremantle and its community. It is possible in a brief review to name only few of them.

1829-1849: Early Settlement

Permanent European occupation of the western part of Australia began on 2 May 1829 when Captain C H Fremantle claimed the west coast as British territory. He reported:

The landing took place in a little bay close to the mouth of the river, to the southward of it, being the only landing in that neighhourhood where boats could go with security, the bar at the entrance to the river generally being impassable.

The bay appears to have been South Bay.

James Stirling was appointed the first governor of the new colony. Therefore, like the earlier colony at Botany Bay, its administration was in the hands of a talented and thoughtful naval officer. He was an able administrator and remained in office until 1858, except for a long visit to England between August 1832 and June 1834 to discuss the colony’s problems with the British government.

During his previous visit, Stirling thought that Gage Roads and Cockburn Sound would provide ample sheltered anchorage, but that visit had been in a benign season, and when he returned with the first settlers on the Parmelia on 2 June 1829, winter storms forced him to anchor in the lee of Garden Island. The settlers camped temporarily on that island. When they moved to the mainland, they erected tents and temporary shelters of brushwood and saplings. They soon stripped the dunes of vegetation, both for building material and firewood.

Stirling decided to site the capital of the colony inland, partly to make it safer from naval attack, although by that time the British navy effectively ruled the seas. It was not, therefore, necessary to fortify Fremantle, unlike earlier British colonial ports around the Indian Ocean, such as Macassar. It is now a relatively intact example of one of these post-Napoleonic British colonial ports.

The first town lots were released in September 1829 and, by the end of the year, fifty had been taken up. However, within months of the arrival of the colonists, the site was desolate. In February 1850 one of the settlers, Mrs Eliza Shaw, wrote that ‘it seems a complete burlesque altogether, not a farce, for they are generally laughable, but all here is really and truly cryable.’

Settlers complained of delays in obtaining land grants, although the surveyor-general, John Septimus Roe, worked heroically to survey town sites and farming locations. In 1830 he planned the town of Fremantle on the isthmus between the sea and the river, boldly bisecting the triangular site with High Street, which connected Arthur Head with Kings Square. Human frailty was recognised early by the erection of a prison, the Round House, on the head in 1831; it still stands as the oldest building in the state. Roe, with other nineteenth-century planners, cannot be blamed for not foreseeing that motor vehicles would dominate the roads by the next century; the site is intrinsically difficult for planning traffic circulation. However, his plan has been described as ‘a sensible compromise between the limitations of the site, the realities of handling goods and passengers, and the desire to create a balanced town-scape.’ Today, the West End departs little from the original plan.

Roe must have recognised the difficulties of the town site, because he made allotments smaller than he had in his plan for Perth, and buildings were allowed on the street line. Reece and Pascoe (1983) comment,

The consequence of this economical space and local limestone was an intimacy of feeling and an organic unity which the nucleus of the town has preserved through all its vicissitudes.

Some of the settlers demonstrated determination and enterprise. By 1830 two merchants, Lionel Samson and John Bateman, established businesses in Cliff Street, and by the middle of the decade, the Fremantle Whaling Company began operations from Bathers Bay and had a tunnel cut under Arthur Head to allow communication with Cliff Street, which linked the small sea jetty to the river at its northern end. By 1851 a visitor found ‘an excellent little Inn  the “Stirling Arms”, at which the comforts were fair and the charges moderate.‘ He added that

Several good Stone and Brick Houses were in progress, the property of respectable settlers, and indeed all classes seemed to be governed by the same praiseworthy spirit of industry and good feeling towards each other.

Captain Fremantle, revisiting the colony in 1832, also reported with cautious optimism that

Perth has not kept pace with Fremantle, as the latter has many pretty tolerable houses and several are in progress, and in spite of its sandy and uncompromising appearance at landing, I have no doubt, if the Colony continues, of it being in time a place of Consequence.

The principal elements of buildings of this period were local limestone, jarrah and sheoak shingles. The name Quarry Street records one of the sites for limestone, another was Arthur Head. Most buildings were simple in form; the larger were Georgian in style.

Roe modified his plan in 1833. Kings Square was moved further east and rotated 45° into its present orientation. Adelaide Street then became the main thoroughfare towards the north. The plan was later extended with a wide strip of lots along the river northwards to Cantonment Hill and another strip south around South Bay. The land grant system was changed from leasehold to conditional purchase.

The settlers found that the sand produced good crops of vegetables and, by 1833, there was ‘scarcely an allotment in Fremantle fenced in and inhabited that had not a well of excellent fresh water’. The timber of one of the eucalypts, jarrah, was found to be good for both house and ship building. A small vessel, Lady Stirling, was launched in l836. Shipbuilding remained an important industry into the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, the early years proved difficult generally; the economy stagnated and settlers chafed at delay in obtaining land grants. In 1834 the attorney-general, George Fletcher Moore, described the town as

A bare, barren-looking district of sandy coast; the shrubs cut down for firewood, the herbage trodden bare, a few wooden houses, many ragged-looking tents and contrivances for habitation ... a few cheerless, dissatisfied people with gloomy looks, plodding their way through the sand from hut to hut to drink grog and grumble out their discontents to each other.

By 1836 a visitor, Lieutenant H W Bunbury, commented that ‘some good houses built in the first days of the Colony  are now rapidly going into decay.’ The town was windy and sandy — although there were shallow lakes at its eastern end — and, by then, many of the trees and shrubs were cleared. Bunbury observed that many of the houses were ‘half buried in loose white sand which drifts with every breeze and smothers the fences and even walls in the town.’ The quartermaster of a naval vessel which visited Fremantle commented famously that ‘You might run it through an hour glass in a day.’ An 1833 regulation required unbuilt allotments to have stone walls of a minimum height of three feet (0.9 metre). Some of these early walls — or fragments of them — survive and are important elements of some streetscapes.

By 1837 about four hundred of nearly five hundred and fifty subdivided lots had been taken up, but only some of them had buildings on them. As early as 1842, working bees of residents reclaimed part of the riverfront, approximately from Cliff Street to Pakenham Street, establishing a recreation area which came to be known as the Fremantle Green.

A map, dated 1844, shows that some ninety lots, in the area bounded by Market and Phillimore Streets and Marine Terrace, had buildings on them; some were substantial houses, some were workshops or stores and some were only sheds. Fremantle had developed more rapidly than Perth at first, however, by 1848, when the colony’s population reached 4622, the population of Perth was 1148 compared to only 426 in Fremantle. In that year, the Fremantle Town Trust was established.

Some of the early settlers moved to eastern colonies and progress in the colony was slow and its survival was questioned. There was a demand for labour and, from 1842 to 1851, 234 boys from the Parkhurst Reformatory on the Isle of Wight were transported to the colony to work as apprentices or labourers. The majority settled successfully and may have weakened opposition to adult convict transportation; the colonists had originally been proud that the colony was founded by free settlers.

Stirling was conciliatory towards Nyoongars; on at least two occasions he referred to the colonists as ‘invaders’. When the first anniversary of the foundation of the colony was celebrated, Nyoongars were invited to participate and demonstrate some of their skills. However, as their lands were increasingly taken up by settlers, conflicts occurred. The Reverend Robert Lyon (1839) wrote,

The settlers having taken possession of their fishing stations and hunting grounds, the fish and game — the two great sources of their lining — were gone. Starving for want of food therefore and unconscious of any moral wrong in helping themselves to the sustenance of human life under such circumstances, wherever they could find it, a number of them attempted one morning to take a little flour from a store in the town of Fremantle to satisfy their cravings of hunger.

In April 1835, when some Aborigines were apprehended breaking into a Fremantle store, Domjum, brother of Yagan — a spirited defender of his people — was shot and died. Yagan moved camp inland and exercised his people’s traditional revenge, fatally spearing two settlers. Tragically murders of people of both races ensued and Yagan was eventually shot by two white youths. Unfortunately, these events occurred during Stirling’s absence in England. He might not have condoned the capture and execution — by firing squad — of Midegooroo, a Nyoongar leader, father of Yagan. However, Stirling, after his return, has to be accorded some responsibility for the massacre of Murray River people at Pinjarra in 1834, which was due, possibly, to his failure to clearly define the rules of engagement for a punitive expedition which he led.

The completion of the first Anglican church, St John’s in Kings Square, in 1843, resulted in High Street having a house of redemption at its east end and a house of retribution (the Round House) at the other end.

The following buildings survive from this period: the Round House; part of the original Samson building; part of the Fremantle Hotel; part of No. 42 High Street; and part of the Ajax Store at 49 High and 19 Pakenham Streets. Important places — some of them open spaces — survive from this period. They include Arthur Head and segments of the Eastern Scarp from Cantonment Hill to Clontarf Hill, including Monument Hill and others. Campbell comments that they ‘still form a natural visual enclosure of the City Centre  [and they] define the coastal plain landscape; harsh, windswept and yet comfortably contained.’

1850-1869: Convict Transportation and Consolidation

On 1 June 1850, just twenty-one years from the foundation of the colony, the first shipment of adult convicts arrived with Royal Engineer officers under the command of Captain E Y W Henderson, who was appointed comptroller-general of the Imperial Convict Establishment. They were accompanied by the Enrolled Pensioner Guards, war veterans who were charged with preserving order in the colony during the presence of the convicts. Henderson was an able and humane administrator and remained in charge until 1863 when he returned to England, where he was put in charge of the London Metropolitan Police.

During the next eighteen years, 9668 convicts were brought to the colony. The presence of the Convict Establishment — which doubled the population of the town — provided economic stimulus by increasing demand for food and building materials. Many of the convicts were granted tickets-of-leave and could be employed by settlers. A program of public works started almost at once; these works were concentrated in Fremantle at first and included the building of the prison and associated buildings, as well as roads and bridges.

The first batches of convicts, pending the construction of the prison, were housed in a warehouse rented from Captain Daniel Scott, Fremantle’s harbourmaster, which was on the site of the modern extension to the Esplanade Hotel, near the corner of Marine Terrace and Norfolk Street. The Imperial Convict depot, including the prison, was constructed on a large parcel of land — sixteen hectares — to the east of the town centre, bounded by Henderson, Holdsworth, Hampton and Alma Streets. Segments of its boundary walls survive. It stopped further eastward development of the city for some years. The prison, near the highest point on the site, and other buildings in ‘a military Georgian style’ became dominant features of the town.

The convict period is sometimes romanticised. Bosworth (2004) comments,

The grimness of the past has receded into distant memory, but the city was once a prison town with prisons dominating its western and eastern approaches, prison officers drinking in its paths and convicts shuffling through its streets. Soldiers paraded or lounged around, grubby children ran barefoot along the dusty paths, and horses, goats and cows grazed where there was a patch of green.

Fremantle’s population began to overhaul that of Perth. By 1859, out of a total of 14,837 in the colony, 2762 persons were in Perth and 2392 in Fremantle. By then the convict labour force was more widely distributed to other parts of the colony and the rate of development in Fremantle slowed again.

For construction of buildings, the Convict Establishment continued to use local jarrah and limestone, with some brickwork, and some imported timbers such as oregon (Douglas fir). Shingles — jarrah or sheoak — were commonly used for roofing. The buildings which it designed and built constitute a very important element of Fremantle’s heritage. The Royal Engineers was the most professional army corps at that time and its officers were trained in architecture as well as engineering. Henderson's fellow officers included Lieutenants Henry Wray, Edmund Du Cane and Richard Crossman. Wray planned and carried out work in Fremantle; Du Cane and Crossman were involved in work at country sites. Their work introduced a new scale and standard of design and construction in Fremantle immediately and in Perth and at country sites later. Besides the prison, other buildings that survive are the warders’ cottages in Henderson and Knutsford Streets; ‘The Knowle’, Henderson’s residence (now part of Fremantle Hospital); the Asylum (now the Fremantle Arts Centre and History Museum); and the Commissariat and Old Customs House (now the Shipwreck Galleries of the Maritime Museum) in Cliff Street.

Convict transportation ceased in 1868, although three thousand convicts still had some years to work out their sentences. Although many settlers had made use of assigned labour, and many convicts who had served their time found work — in some cases prospering ; the taint of being a convict colony was believed to be holding up further development. One consequence of transportation was a marked gender imbalance in the population. No female convicts were transported and, by the end of this period, men outnumbered women by about two to one. Although convicts who had been released could send for wives and families, many could not face the long arduous voyage to the colony.

By 1869, the year in which Fremantle and Perth were first linked by a telegraph line, the Governor, Sir Frederick Weld, described the town as being bigger than Perth and in the following year, the auditor-general, W H Knight wrote that

... the allotments were originally laid out on a smaller scale than those in Perth, the buildings are not so scattered as in the city, and the place has assumed much more of a town-like appearance. There are few buildings with any great claim to architectural beauty, though the homes are, generally speaking, substantially constructed.

Other survivors from this period are a flour mill at 15 Essex Street — converted to apartments — and part of another mill and warehouse at 4 Nairn Street; houses at 1-2 Norfolk Street; two warehouses at 36 and 46 Henry Street; two-storey houses at 186 and 193 High Street (east of Kings Square); and Fremantle Boys’ School (now the Film and Television Institute).

Representative Government and Further Consolidation

The colony was granted limited representative government in 1870: a Legislative Council of eighteen members. Three were the principal colonial officials and three were appointed by the governor. The remaining twelve members were elected by property owners. The Fremantle Town Trust was reconstituted as the Town Council in the same year. Therefore, the colonists, during the next two decades, experienced a measure of self- government, which enabled the colony to cope with the rapid expansion of the gold rushes of the 1890s.

In 1871 the English novelist Anthony Trollope wrote disparagingly that

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

Five years later, another visitor, Henry Taunton, described the town as consisting of

... one principal street made up hotels and stores and a few Government buildings, including the Imperial Convict Depot, a lighthouse and a number of private dwellings all glaring in whitewash. Each house had its green verandah blinds and encircling verandas. A few churches made up an apparently sleepy but really flourishing township, which might he described as a city of public houses, flies, sand, limestone, convicts and stacks of sandalwood.

Sandalwood (Santalum spicatus) was an early export. It is a semi-parasitic shrub and its aromatic timber was exported to Asia for the manufacture of joss sticks.

There was steady development during the 1880s and in 1881 the port was linked by rail to Perth and Guildford. The siting of the first railway station, near the north end of Mouat and Cliff Streets, encouraged development of the town in that direction. The Long Jetty was extended in 1881 and 1883. These public works were fortunately completed before the pressures created by the gold boom, otherwise the new prosperity may have led to chaotic development.

Installation of gas street lighting began in 1885. and in that same year, the town was declared a municipality. This encouraged the citizens to erect a handsome Town Hall in Kings Square, which was completed in 1887, giving permanent definition to the centre of the town. According to Campbell (1980),

The Town Hall was way ahead of its time with its slate roofed turrets and highly decorative stuccoed facades borrowing from the French as well as Italian classicism.

The site originally planned for municipal chambers was on the corner of Essex and South Streets. The new site was negotiated with the Church of England, and the original St John’s Church, which stood a little to the north of the Town Hall, was demolished and a new church was built to the north of the original, being completed in 1888. The resiting of St John's Church enabled High Street to be extended across Kings Square, through Queens Square and up the hill eastwards. During the 1880s the town began to extend in this direction.

The development of the city reflected the steadily increasing prosperity of commerce. Patricia Brown (1996) has charted the rise of the ‘merchant princes of Fremantle’, including the following families: Bateman, Diamond, Higham, Lilly, Manning, Marmion, Moore, Pearse and Samson. They included one ‘merchant princess’, Mary Higham who, following the death of her husband in 1853, took charge of the family business and remained active until her death thirty years later. The prosperity of these families is reflected in the substantial mansions they built, mostly on the higher ground to the east of the city; some of these remain as vital elements of the city's built heritage.

Other important buildings of this period were the third courthouse in Marine Terrace (1884) and Scots Presbyterian Church (1888).

1890-1913: Responsible Government and the Goldrush

The colony was granted responsible government in 1890. The state benefited from having the surveyor-explorer Sir John Forrest as its first premier. As a surveyor he was conversant with public works; as an explorer he had visited much of the state, including its remoter areas. The gold rushes of the 1890s brought a rapid increase in population and the capital, as well as the demand, for major public works. Work started on the Inner Harbour in 1892; this involved major reclamation of land to establish Victoria Quay on the south side of the river. The quay was opened to traffic in 1897, and the opening of the port encouraged further development on that side of the city. Buildings on the northern side of the western end of Phillimore Street were built on the newly reclaimed land. Northward development of the city was also stimulated by the construction of a new railway station — the existing one — at the end of Market Street and a new — also existing — post office in 1907.

In 1890 properties in High and Cliff Streets were connected to water from wells below the prison site. Wells in the town had begun to be polluted by seepage from cesspits and a sanitary pan system for sewage was begun in 1896.

In 1895 North Fremantle became a separate municipality (it re-amalgamated with Fremantle in 1961).

At the turn of the century Fremantle had an active cultural life. In 1904 the Gallop family built the King’s Theatre (1904) in South Terrace (now the Metropolis Concert Club). There were many clubs and societies, such as the Freemasons and the Hibernians, which built halls that were used frequently for dances and professional and amateur theatre. The Oddfellows’ Hall (c. 1867) was renovated in 1890 and became the Gaiety Theatre, and later the Bijou. The Palladium Cinema opened in 1912 on the corner of South Terrace and Bannister Street. The Princess Cinema, on the corner of Market and Leake Streets, which operated from 1912 to the 1950s, is now used for commercial purposes. Films were also shown regularly in the Town Hall from 1910 until the introduction of television caused a temporary decline in cinema attendances.

The dominant stimulus to the economy in this period was the goldrush. Western Australia’s population rose from 43,814 in 1888 to 179,967 in 1901. Fremantle benefited from this new prosperity (which led to the reconstruction of much of the West End), but did not develop as rapidly as Perth. However, its population increased rapidly from 3641 in 1881 to 5600 in 1891, and to 14,704 by 1901. Removal of the railway workshops to Midland Junction led to stabilisation of the population by 1914. The Fremantle Tramways opened in 1905, with a powerhouse on the seafront near Arthur Head and a car barn on the corner of High and Cliff Streets. The development of the fishing industry, particularly by an increasing Italian population, and the consequent development of the fishing boat harbour, encouraged southward development.

The central business district was rebuilt considerably. (See John Dowson's book Old Fremantle for photographs of many of the earlier buildings which were lost at this time and later.) The gold rushes brought many architects to Western Australia from Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne at the time was suffering from a severe recession. In 1893 there were only twelve architects practising in the state but by 1897 there were 102. Kerr (1973) believes that this may have been a transitory figure; by 1908 there were far fewer. According to Campbell (1980),

Most of them brought with them Victorian fashions and pattern books; materials were also imported where the local manufacturers could not cope with the rapid expansion of the building industry. Purely decorative elements such as cast iron balustrades and brackets, cast plaster and cement, suddenly became the norm at a time when this style of building was beginning to lose favour in Melbourne and Sydney ... [While styles of facades changed] the total mass, shape and form of the city did not. Original spaces and places were kept intact, and should remain so in the future if the overall character of the place is to continue.

In response to the increased maritime trade, new hotels were built — some replacing older ones of the same name — and survive today: Cleopatra, Commercial, Esplanade, Freemasons, Fremantle, His Majesty's, Newcastle Club, Orient, and P & O. Some have been renamed and some have been acquired by the Notre Dame University and no longer function as hotels.

Dolan (2005) comments that ‘any buildings of any pretensions’ in this period

... were designed to look, and indeed to be, solid, enduring and visually rich. This is an objective fact that helps explain why the best older buildings have interesting design qualities, aura, and lasting cultural value. In contrast, much contemporary architecture is intended to have only a limited lifespan before being replaced after a couple of decades.

Most of the late Victorian and Edwardian buildings in Fremantle have individual — occasionally maverick — designs although some elements are shared: there are neoclassic facades with engaged columns and stucco ornament, and facades with imposing arches (such as the P & Q Building and the Orient Hotel). A number of buildings have similar ornamental motifs — scallop shells, for example — and decorative scroll work. Both the Town Hall and the Railway Station are decorated with the state symbol, the black swan. The sense of unity is achieved by the uniformity of scale of the buildings and the use of similar materials; most of them appear to acknowledge rather than to compete with their neighbours. They have survived due to the chances of history, as will be explained below. Many domestic buildings of this period in the outer suburbs also survive, including Federation-style homes such as Samson House, and smaller limestone or brick workers’ cottages, which are now treasured by a more gentrified community.

As Campbell (1980) comments, ‘Fremantle is not a city which has been razed and rebuilt. Even in the rush of the 18905 it was built onto and built over.’

1914-1945: Two World Wars and the Depression

During this period there was little development in Fremantle, due to World War I, the Depression, a severe drought and World War ll. As a consequence, the built fabric of the city remained relatively intact, although it might have been lost when, in 1925, an Act of Parliament empowered the Municipality of Fremantle to introduce new building lines for future road widening, particularly in the central business district. If a new building was proposed it would have had to be set back to the new alignment, and the land between the new and old building lines would have been vested in Fremantle Council. The Act provided a formula for determining compensation for surrendered land, but no satisfactory outcome to a claim resulted. Owners must, therefore, have been reluctant to erect new buildings on substantially smaller sites. The TAB building at 93 High Street was built on the new building line and demonstrates how, if this line had been adopted, all the now treasured earlier facades would have been demolished. The provisions of this Act were finally removed in the late 1970s.

In 1929, when the state celebrated its centenary, Fremantle became a city. It was predominantly an industrial and mercantile city, with industries including those associated with fishing and maritime trades and others, such as food processors, including the biscuit and cake makers, Mills and Ware’s, and the meat and smallgoods firm, Watsonia. It was also a working-class city, the largest group being the waterside workers. The Lumpers Union had been formed in 1889 with a membership of 136. With the opening of the Inner Harbour, the number of waterside workers increased and the union, which was replaced by the Waterside Workers Federation, was well-known for its militancy. The hard manual labour — particularly in hot weather and in dusty conditions — contributed to the strong sense of solidarity of the lumpers. Lumpers were all employed as casual workers and had no service entitlements such as leave or pensions. As McIntyre (1984) shows, the manner of obtaining work was humiliating and corrupt. Initially the men assembled at a line drawn across the quay end of Cliff Street waiting for the foreman to blow a whistle. At the signal the men raced towards him; only the fittest and fastest would obtain work. Later, compounds (‘bull rings’) were erected. where the men awaited a call ‘with as little dignity as cattle awaiting shipment‘.

The annual Lumpers Picnic was a major event in the calendar, often held in the grounds of the Zoological Gardens in South Perth, when most of the river ferries were engaged to transport the lumpers and their families from Fremantle. The picnics were ‘dry’ and emphasised children and Family activities. Their scale can be seen from the catering list for one of them: 55,000 pieces of fruit, 1,000 gallons (4564 litres) of cordial, 500 dozen bags of sweets, 15,000 ice-creams and iced confections, and 150 gallons (682 litres) of milk.

As the town was also a port, there were rough areas. Connie Ellement (1987) tells of life as a teenager, living in Nairn Street not far from brothels in Bannister Street.

During this period the fishing industry expanded; migrants playing a significant role. The Italian and Portuguese communities contributed to the Mediterranean quality of the city, including a more active street life and many productive backyards planted with vegetables, vines and olives. The Italian community was the larger. By the turn of the century there had been a few hundred Italians in the industry, mainly from Molfetta or Capo d’Orlando in Sicily. In the 1920s, due to more restrictive American immigration laws, more Italian emigrants were diverted to Australia although, from 1930 to 1945, due to the Depression and World War II, the intake declined. Some of the Italian men, including some who had sons serving in the Australian forces, were interned during the war.

Some of their children recall being taunted by being called ‘wogs' or ‘dagoes' on their way to school. However this was a time when Protestant and Catholic Australians also taunted each other, as Gayla Reid (1994) dramatises in a short story:

On the way home from school we exchange insults with the state school kids.

Catholics, Catholics
eat snails and frogs.

We reply with the esoteric:

Proddies, Proddies
fall off logs.

In this way I learn that one side needs the other, even for the completion of a rhyme.

Richard and Michal Bosworth (1995) describe how the Italian community became absorbed in Fremantle, adapting as they did so and contributing to some change of the city’s culture — an acknowledgement, perhaps, on both sides of the need for rhyme. Emma Ciccotosto (1990) provides a personal perspective. The Italian community provided some of the champion footballers for South Fremantle and East Fremantle and notable community leaders, including, up to Z005, a number of city councillors and two mayors.

Between the wars, the city expanded eastwards to provide housing for the increased population.

1946-1970: Post-War Development

From about the 1950s, as the austerities of the war period began to ease, Western Australia‘s economy experienced several major boosts, which included a high price of wool due to the Korean War, good prices for wheat and a new mineral boom based on the discovery of major iron, nickel and other metal deposits, and of oil and natural gas.

The built fabric of Fremantle was not affected by these booms as much as that of Perth, where many of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings were demolished and replaced by high-rise modern buildings. Because most of the older buildings survived in Fremantle it has now become a repository of works of significant late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western Australian architects, many of whose works were demolished in Perth.

A particular example is F W Burwell, who worked in New Zealand and Melbourne before coming to Western Australia. Some of his buildings in those other places have been lost and Fremantle is now the only place with a substantial assembly of his work.

The survival of so much of Fremantle's heritage fabric is also due to other chances of history; to social, economic and technical changes, and to the council's response to their perception of the effects of these.

In 1947 the city appointed an engineer/planner and commissioned a study by the architect/planner, Harold Boas; the first step towards a comprehensive town plan for the city. Had Boas’s recommendations, in his report of 1950, been followed in full, new developments would have led to the demolition of many sites now listed as heritage sites. However, this was the first attempt to plan rationally and, for the first time, sections of the city were zoned for specific purposes. The town plan based on Boas's report was held in abeyance while consideration was given by the state government to a Metropolitan Regional Plan. It was revised in 1958 and again revised and made more sophisticated in Town Planning Scheme No. 2 of 1970, which was still essentially a management rather than a creative plan.

Changes in the operation of the port have had major consequences. During the 1950s the opening of the Kwinana industrial area south of Fremantle led to the transfer of some port facilities to Cockburn Sound. Before World War II passenger liners called at Fremantle regularly, usually several per week. A new passenger terminal was opened in 1962, but the passenger trade began to decline as airlines developed rapidly. Containerisation of cargo was introduced; the first container ship arriving in 1969. These developments caused a rapid decline in employment on the waterfront. The Waterside Workers Federation, which replaced the original Lumpers Union, had a membership of about two thousand in the 19505, and the lumpers and their families must have formed one-fifth to one-quarter of the population. By 1970 the figure had fallen to 1390.

The nature of the city and its community began to change more rapidly. Some industries contracted or moved away. One that expanded was the fishing industry. In 1947 the fishermen struck in protest against the 10% commission taken by the buyers and the Fishermen’s Co-operative was formed.

Thousands of migrants arrived in Fremantle in the decades after the war. In just two years, 1948-1950, 19,074 ‘displaced persons‘ (war refugees) arrived. From 1966 to 1971 the population of the Perth Metropolitan area increased by about 144,000; 54.1% of this increase was due to international migration. In the 1970s some 70% of the membership of the Fishermen's Co-operative were Italian or of Italian descent. In 1949 the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony was inaugurated and has since become a popular event, held in late October each year.

This colourful ceremony includes a procession of decorated fishing boats around the Fishing Boat Harbour, carrying a statue of Our Lady of the Martyrs — which is earlier carried in procession through the city — followed by a spectacular fireworks display in the evening. The ceremony is based on a twelfth-century Molfetta tradition.

Some changes in the 1950s and 1960s allowed or encouraged by the council, are now considered unfortunate, although the council was naturally concerned with keeping commerce and industry in the city. New commercial buildings were erected in the area immediately north of Kings Square. Some of the earlier terraced houses were lost; such terraces are now treasured. Several undistinguished blocks of high-rise flats were built. The handsome limestone warehouses of Burns Philp, on the site of the present car park and Queensgate building were also demolished.

Most of the buildings in the West End had awnings or verandas, with graceful cast-iron pillars and lace-work, or timber equivalents. They were desirable features in the climate, providing shelter from winter storms and shade from the summer sun. Moreover, they were a means by which the buildings acknowledged and welcomed passers-by. However, the council decided that the verandas were liable to collapse if a vehicle collided with a supporting pillar and that the pillars obstructed the paving, so declared that they should be removed. Many were removed in the 1950s and 1960s, but there is now a movement to restore them in some streets such as High Street.

A significant figure during this period was Sir Frederick Samson, who had been a city councillor from 1956-1951 and had served as mayor from 1951-1972, following Sir Frank Gibson. He was a passionate advocate for Fremantle, once declaring that Fremantle was ‘the city that made Perth possible’. A strong sense of community made it possible for a patrician figure like Samson to be friendly with a figure like Paddy Troy, the passionate leader of the Lumpers and a Communist.

Troy once commented,

... it is a source of unending joy for me to go ... among the people to be received by them with greetings of 'hullo Paddy' ... People come up to you and say, 'Well, you don't know me but I know you' and you feel a part of the whole and this is a terrifically rich experience.

Younger, often professional, people bought houses and cottages and set about restoring them. This was the beginning of a major demographic change in the community. In 1959 John Birch arrived from England to become City Librarian. He and the Lord Mayor, Sir Frederick Samson, were among those who encouraged wider support for heritage conservation. Sir Frederick was instrumental in saving the old Lunatic Asylum from demolition. The conversion of this building in the early 1970s into a history museum — the first state social history museum in Australia — and arts centre encouraged an increasing focus on the city's heritage.

There were other positive developments. The City Council acquired the Fremantle Literary Institute in 1949 to establish the City of Fremantle Library. John Curtin High School was opened in 1958 and Fremantle Boys’ School and Princess May Girls’ School closed, both buildings to find new uses. The Perth Institute of Film and Television -— now the Film and Television Institute — was set up in the Boys’ School in 1974. The Girls’ School is now an education centre.

1971-1987: Recognition of Heritage

Demographic change increased in this period, particularly as a result of accelerated changes in shipping technology, especially cargo handling. The number of waterside workers declined rapidly, as the Following figures show: 1977 - 1155, 1980 - 858,1983 - 673 and 1986 - 440.

In response to the increasing population, largely due to migration, outer suburbs of the city were developed. Of particular note is Hilton, where the State Housing Commission planned a large area of public housing as a ‘garden suburb’. Hilton is now being assessed for heritage conservation.

Some industries — for example, Mills and Ware’s biscuit Factory and Letchford’s Aerated Waters Factory — were bought by larger Australian companies but later closed as the new owners centralised production in other states. Many commercial and industrial firms moved progressively to O’Connor and other new industrial areas, causing some former industrial buildings, such as factories and warehouses — including large woolstores — to be converted into shopping centres or apartments, usually retaining the general form and structure of the original buildings. With the development of electronic bill paying and banking, some businesses and other organisations also closed or down-sized their Fremantle offices.

Shipbuilding has also moved south of Fremantle — the scale of the industry cannot now be accommodated on the city’s waterfront. However, a major boat repair and maintenance facility remains in the Fishing Boat Harbour and trawlers from as far away as Darwin and Cairns are sometimes seen in its yards.

Governments have increasingly centralised their bureaucracies and some government departments no longer have offices in Fremantle, diminishing its role as a regional centre. The development of huge shopping centres in nearby suburbs has drawn trade away from the city, although many residents now treasure their small shopping centres in Fremantle’s suburbs even more because they can enjoy a closer sense of community. Given the current predictions of a severe oil crisis, planners are beginning to reassert the value of smaller suburban communities, with services within walking distance. Older areas of Fremantle, with local shopping centres, may represent the future.

Some technical developments have encouraged smaller industries, such as printing shops and boutique breweries, and there are many more restaurants and cafes so that a larger proportion of the population now works in service industries.

Some argue that the focus on heritage discourages developments. However, during 2004-2005, there were signs of a new wave of commercial development. Two major commercial buildings near Kings Square were redeveloped, and new investments in other projects were announced. One reason given for this new investment was the large increase in accommodation for visitors to the city. One investor commented that Fremantle has ‘a huge future, not only as a tourist destination, but as a cosmopolitan destination.’ The well-conserved heritage of the city is evidently of economic as well as community value.

The state government closed the Perth-Fremantle rail service in 1979 although, with a change of government, it was reopened two years later.

This period was marked by an increasing consciousness of communities and of governments at all levels of the need to be more creative and prescriptive in planning to conserve heritage places. In 1975 the Whitlam Government accepted the recommendations of the Piggot Committee (1972) and established the Australian Heritage Commission, with responsibility to register those places considered worthy to be part of what was to become known as the ‘National Estate’. Federal government grants became available to restore and conserve heritage buildings. Some had already been classified by the National Trust (Western Australia), which had, for some years, worked diligently to protect the disappearing built heritage of the state. The need to list heritage sites was also recognised as well as the need to list ‘precincts and areas in which the conservation strategy is a primary imperative’.

In Fremantle, the demolition of some buildings provoked campaigns against further demolition and high-rise replacements. The Fremantle Society was founded in 1972 to campaign for conservation of the city’s older buildings. It remains active in defence of the fabric of the city. In 1983 the city achieved international recognition by the awarding of a Pacific Area Travel Association citation as a major element of the National Estate.

Fremantle City Council demonstrated its increased consciousness of the city’s heritage by commissioning Town Planning Scheme No. 3. The completion of this document owes much to the commitment and skills of the then City Manager, Stan Parks, Director of Planning, Jeremy Dawkins, and the City Architect, Agnieshka Kiera, as well as to wide consultation with architects, planners and the community. Its adoption, in 1985, marked a significant change in town planning from management to creative policies. It sought to ‘enhance the usefulness of the physical endowments and patterns of use’ and to ‘create the conditions which ensure their relevance to present needs and future, balanced growth.’

For the first time there were policies to conserve heritage by encouraging ‘continued use/modification/re-use of existing buildings.’ It was the first town planning scheme in the state to define demolition of a building as a development, requiring council approval. It also introduced incentives to encourage heritage restoration and conservation. At the time there was no State Heritage Act, but when legislation was enacted it included similar provisions.

When Fremantle began to prepare for the defence of the America's Cup, some concerns were expressed about the potential effects of the consequent pressure for increased tourist facilities and the council and state and federal governments began to plan in detail. Government grants were made available for upgrading old infrastructure — a considerable benefit to the city — and for special restoration and conservation programs, especially for the Town Hall, W D Moore Building and the Union Stores. Commonwealth departmental offices were relocated in a substantial reconstruction of the Falk Building, on the corner of Henry and Phillimore Streets, and adjacent buildings through to Pakenham Street. The Customs House on the north side of Phillimore Street was vacated. Some aspects of the reconstruction are controversial. For example only the facades of buildings along Pakenham Street were retained and they now stand, somewhat like a film set, linked by steel girders to the new building behind. Many buildings were renovated by private owners, in most cases sensitively, although some stuccoed facades, such as that on the Fremantle Hotel, were smothered with a too thick coating. Some of the old limestone facades with brick quoins were painted, so that the contrast between the two materials was lost.

A large new marina, Challenger Harbour, was built alongside the Fishing Boat Harbour to accommodate the yachts competing for the Americas Cup; this required substantial new reclamation of land on which are now located fishing industries, accommodation and new restaurants, cafes and a successful boutique brewery.

As an event, the defence of the America’s Cup was a success, attracting thousands of visitors and making Fremantle better known to overseas visitors; in another sense, it was a disappointment; Australia did not retain the Cup.

1987 to Today: After the America's Cup

Preparations for the America’s Cup brought many benefits for the city and increased the focus on tourism. However, there were some losses. Rising rents in some inner city areas led to the closure of some businesses in Market Street and South Terrace; in some cases these have been replaced by tourist-orientated shops. The city has a policy of welcoming tourists to share its heritage and culture with its citizens, but consequent changes need to be managed sensitively so that the intrinsic qualities of the city, which are its main attraction, are not impaired.

In 1992 Notre Dame University was established in the West End and has progressively acquired buildings in that part of the city. These buildings have been restored and conserved to a very high standard under the supervision of architect Marcus Collins. There has, however, been some community unease about further expansion, for example, the use by the university of some former popular hotels. It is too early to gauge the impact on the city and the community, although some benefits are obvious. The presence of the university may encourage new, innovative industries — such as information technologies — to locate in the city.

In 2005 Fremantle Ports planned to develop a large area of Victoria Quay as a commercial and retail precinct, but final details were not available at the time of writing. This could also affect the city considerably and, perhaps, in unexpected ways. However, an efficiently working and busy harbour is an essential element of the city’s heritage as well as its economy, and it is hoped that developments on the quay will not affect the views through to the harbour. It is a pleasure, when walking down High Street, to glance down cross streets and see shipping in the harbour, reminding us of the intimate association of port and city.

In 1991 Fremantle Prison was decommissioned. It was reopened the following year as a cultural tourism and major heritage site.

Maritime history has been a dominant theme of the period. In 1986 a sail-training vessel, STS Leeuwin II, was launched. A replica of James Cook’s barque Endeavour was constructed in Fremantle and, with its launch in 1993, demonstrated the abilities of local craftspeople to build excellent replicas of early vessels. This encouraged a group to raise funds to build a replica of the vessel Duyfken, in which the Dutch mariner William Jansz explored the east coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606, so confirming that there was a large land mass to the south of Java. It was launched in 1995. The new Maritime Museum was opened on Victoria Quay in 2002.

Cultural life has also flourished, with many artists setting up studios in old industrial buildings, including J Shed, which was moved from Victoria Quay to a site near Arthur Head. In 1989, the Perth Institute of Film and Television became the Film and Television Institute, promoting a local film industry including, as a new venture, an animated film industry. The City of Fremantle purchased Victoria Hall, which, in 2005, was undergoing further conservation and restoration for continued use as a theatre.

As a sign of renewed interest in the city’s history, the Fremantle History Society was founded in 1994 and, among its activities, holds an annual Studies Day in late October, at which the results of new research are offered. During 1997, the centenaries of the Fremantle Hospital, Fremantle Port Authority and Victoria Pavilion were celebrated.

In 2000 the first stage of Booyeembara Park, inland from the city centre, was opened. This large park features lakes and lawns surrounded by densely planted gardens containing shrubs and trees indigenous to Fremantle.

Despite some losses and changes, the built fabric of Fremantle is more intact than that of many other Australian cities. There are challenges when new buildings are proposed in a heritage precinct. Some recent developments have respected and enhanced a precinct; others have not. Imitation of old styles is not the solution; new buildings need to reflect their own times, but they should also respect their heritage context, especially the scale and bulk of existing buildings. In some high-value heritage precincts new buildings may be undesirable; for example in the spaces within the prison walls, which are part of the very essence of that site.

There is sometimes passionate opposition to developments, mostly over questions of scale — density or height. Some of the matters at issue involve aesthetics and value judgements, although aesthetics is only one factor in determining heritage value. Such issues often have no simple solution, however, subtle interaction of fabric and community can be fostered by cooperation of the community with the professional skills of a responsive administration. The debate will continue; it is to be hoped that it will be a civil conversation marked by the geniality that May Vivienne detected in the community in 1901.

phillimore chambers door

Entrance to Phillimore Chambers (see page 105).

The Port

Earlier Port Facilities

A fuller account of the development of the Inner Harbour is provided by Hutchison (1991) and Tull (1985).

In the early years of the colony vessels had to anchor off the coast until passengers and cargoes had been landed by lighters. The only port facility up to 1837 was a stone pier, at Anglesea Point south of Arthur Head. In 1839, the South Jetty was built out from the site of this pier. At low water, the depth at the head was only 1.8 metres, so many vessels would have had to stand out to sea still.

In 1851, a visitor, John Gorman, commented,

I have not the least doubt that in a few years [Fremantle] may be a very flourishing place; that is if they can possibly improve the anchorage of Gage Roads, which I believe is almost impossible, it being so exposed to the ocean and westerly winds and in winter not safe at all in consequence of the north-west gales.

From the earliest days, many proposals were made for a safer harbour — too many to describe in this brief account. The river mouth, then, had a rocky bar, which prevented large vessels from entering. Proposals included cutting through the bar or cutting a canal from the sea to the river.

The first public work authorised by the Legislative Council, established in 1870, was construction of the Long Jetty from the south end of Bathers Beach. It was completed in 1875 and extended in 1881 and 1883 to a total length of 1168 metres, nearly three times its original length. Vessels drawing up to 3.66 metres could berth in fair weather, but larger vessels had to stay out in Gage Roads, to await servicing by lighters. Vessels moored to the jetty were exposed to winter gales. In 1892 Captain D B Shaw, master of the Saranach, wrote to his principals in New York:

... it is certainly the worst place I or anyone else saw. No place to send a ship of this size. If I get clear without any more damage I will be in luck ... Five of my crew have run away and I am sick, so you see I have not many to work the cargo. Have to hire considerable labour. I do not know what I can do for sailors. Everyone goes to the gold diggings ... It is now 8 days since I finished discharging at the Pier and I have ever since been trying to get settled but I have not wound up yet ... Gentlemen I have been to many places in my time but this is the worst damned hole I ever saw ... I was never so sick of a place in my life and may the curse of Christ rest on Fremantle and every son of a bitch in it. God damn them all!  P.S. Any man that would come or send a ship a second time is a damned ass.

After the opening of the Inner Harbour, shipping no longer used the jetty. An entrepreneur erected a hall at the end of it for concerts and other entertainments, but it was not well patronised. The hall was moved to South Beach where it became known as the Hydrodrome. It remained there until rendered unsafe by wind damage.

The Long Jetty also deteriorated and it was demolished in 1921.

Development of the Inner Harbour

In the early years, until roads and railways were developed, goods were transported by river and Fremantle, Perth and Guildford were river ports. In 1853 construction of the river jetty began in North Bay, near the end of Cliff Street.

With the coming of the Imperial Convict Establishment, new proposals were made for a safe harbour but not carried out. The first bridge across the river linking Fremantle and North Fremantle was constructed by convict labour and completed in 1862. It imposed upstream limits on any future inner harbour. The bridge, which had a high, arched central section to allow the passage of lighters under sail, was constructed of so many timber members it became known as the ‘Bridge of Sticks’. It is said that this was corrupted to the ‘Bridge of Styx’, possibly a mordant comment by a disgruntled settler. (A reference to a river of the lower world — in Classical mythology — over which Charon ferried the souls of the dead.) The bridge survived, with considerable modification, into the 1930s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, there were more proposals, some for moles or breakwaters out from either or both the heads. It was asserted that two factors would prevent Inner Harbour developments: the relatively sluggish flow of the river would cause the harbour to silt up and the mouth of the harbour would be affected by littoral sand drift due to prevailing winds, northwards in the summer and southwards in the winter. For most of this time, the resources of the colony were inadequate for major works.

In 1869 the governor engaged an engineer, T W Doyne, to assess all proposals, a clear statement that Fremantle was being considered as the major port for the colony, although Albany had the potentially better sheltered waters of King George Sound and Princess Royal Harbour. Development of steamers and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 favoured Fremantle; Albany had, until then, been favoured by vessels which had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.

Doyne also found that a ‘fatal objection’ to any inner harbour proposal was ‘the tendency to form sand bars across their mouths, and shoals inside them’ and concluded that the idea of concentrating the principal traffic of the colony at Fremantle must be abandoned in view of the numerous natural difficulties to be contended with, and the consequent great cost and uncertainty of works undertaken for such a purpose.

To service the timber industry he proposed a jetty at Rockingham, at the southern end of Cockburn Sound. The first jetty was constructed there in 1872, and a second ten years later. In the period 1873-1908 well over five hundred vessels loaded at these jetties. The opening of the Perth-Bunbury railway in 1893 led to the latter becoming the principal timber port.

By this time, some one hundred vessels visited Fremantle each year. More proposals for a harbour were discussed and, in 1872, Governor Weld appointed the surveyor-general, Malcolm Fraser, to preside over a Harbour Improvement Board. The Board recommended, in the following year, that the advice of ‘some eminent engineer’ be obtained. Three Victorian engineers were engaged. They, without visiting the site, recommended siting the harbour in Cockburn Sound.

Within three years the government must have been confused by a plethora of reports and proposals. It decided to invite the eminent English marine engineer, Sir John Coode, to advise it. Coode asked for all available information and, without visiting the site, cited the danger of silting up in an inner harbour and of any projections from the shore. He proposed breakwaters north and south of the river mouth, connected to the shore by viaducts. He was unable to visit the colony until 1885 when he found no reasons to change his opinion materially.

No further developments occurred before 1890 when the colony achieved Responsible Government. The gold rushes soon Followed. The first premier, Sir John Forrest, selected an Irish marine engineer, C Y O’Connor as engineer-in-chief. O’Connor, who had worked from 1865-91 in New Zealand, was skilled and confident. He faced a daunting task to establish a Public Works Department, to design, build and manage the railways, to develop a plan for the construction of an inner harbour, and to plan the water pipeline to Kalgoorlie. He convinced the government that he could build an inner harbour, protected by north and south moles, which would not silt up. In the event, he has been proved correct. His scheme was adopted in February 1892.

Construction of the North Mole began in November that year and was completed by January 1895. It was constructed from stone quarried at Rocky Bay, in the river at North Fremantle. Work on the South Mole began in August 1894, some stone quarried from Arthur Head being used. Simultaneously, blasting and dredging of the bar at the mouth of the river began. Dredging of blasted rock commenced in October 1896 and a sand dredge began to excavate to deepen the harbour. Over seven million cubic metres of rock and sand were blasted and dredged. This was the first large-scale use of tipped rock construction in Australia.

Most of the spoil was deposited behind an embankment built to define the line of the south quay, which would become known as Victoria Quay. Victoria Quay was substantially finished during 1897 and the entrance channel had been sufficiently excavated for vessels to enter. The Inner Harbour was effectively opened to traffic on 4 May 1897 When the SS Sultan, a steamer operated by the Western Australian Steam Navigation Company, berthed on return from Singapore. Construction of wharfage and other facilities continued. The Inner Harbour has been declared a National Engineering Landmark by the Institution of Engineers Australia.

May Vivienne, a visitor in 1901. wrote lyrically about the new harbour:

In the distance, the dark blue Indian Ocean rolled in all its majestic splendour; North Fremantle was in sight, and so was the month of the Swan River. We approached the bridge to cross it, and saw an effect even more beautiful. From the bridge on which we stopped a few minutes in order to gaze on this gorgeous scene we saw many fine ships lying at anchor on the broad ocean; up the river many small boats and steamers were moored; in the distance were white cliffs and pretty houses; the magnificent German steamer, the Friedrich der Grosse, was just going out to sea — and altogether the scene was a grand one  When the new harbour is finished Fremantle will he, as Sir John Forrest puts it, the Brindisi of Australia. Fremantle is rapidly increasing in size and population, and the social social life not so divided as in Perth; there seems to be more geniality and not so much stiffness about the people.

The reference to Brindisi can be explained. When steamers began to ply from England to Australia via Suez, passengers could travel overland to that southern Italian port and join a vessel there, so saving time, as well as avoiding the often rough passage of the Bay of Biscay. Mail and urgent cargo could also be sent overland to that port. On return the reverse could apply. Forrest envisaged Fremantle becoming the principal terminus for the steamer trade, with passengers and goods being carried to the rest of Australia by rail. This was one of the reasons why, when he joined the federal government after 1901, he advocated the trans-Australian railway line. This idea has resurfaced from time to time.

Although the harbour was extended upstream after World War II, it remains essentially as O’Connor designed it, and it is a tribute to his foresight that the harbour can accommodate today’s much larger vessels.

‘Bloody Sunday’

The solidarity and militancy of the waterside workers was demonstrated dramatically and tragically on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 4 May 1919. Tension had been building during the two previous years by the enforced use of non-union labour on the wharves during the war. When the SS Dimboola arrived in April, it should have remained in Gage Roads under quarantine because of the Spanish influenza, which was rampant following World War I. Local merchants were impatient to have merchandise unloaded and the ship was allowed to moor at Victoria Quay. Unionists refused to unload it and non-union labour was directed to do so, however, they were forced off the quay by the unionists. A stand-off lasting three weeks reached crisis point on 4 May when the premier, H P Colebatch, came down the river by launch with a party of armed police and volunteer strikebreakers to supervise the police on the wharf who were manning barricades to stop the unionists trying to prevent the unloading by the ‘scab labour’. A crowd assembled on the traffic bridge and missiles were hurled at the launch as it passed underneath, causing damage to it but no injuries to the occupants. Whether injuries or an assassination — as has been claimed — were intended has not been demonstrated.

Unionists and supporters from outside Fremantle hurried to the port. About fifty mounted policemen faced the Cliff Street approach where some two hundred lumpers were congregated and eighty foot police faced eastwards. The lumpers’ president, W Renton, suggested that his men withdraw, but the arrival of Colebatch and his party aroused the crowd waiting on the footbridge over the railway and they surged past the police armed with sticks, stones, pieces of iron and chain, aiming to tear down barricades erected by the police between B and C Sheds. The struggle surged back and forth. The police were ordered to fix bayonets and one lumper was bayoneted; he was rumoured to be a returned soldier and this infuriated the crowd. The lumpers waiting at Cliff Street broke onto the wharf to aid their comrades. The police, armed with rifles, bayonets and batons, stopped them at the end of C Shed. The police charged and Renton's horse was dragged from under him. When he tried to rise he was clubbed to the ground. Another lumper, Tom Edwards, stood astride him to protect him, but was allegedly felled with a blow to the head by a policeman’s rifle butt. It has been claimed that he was killed by a stray bullet fired at random from the union ranks. However, his death certificate states that the coroner found that death was due to ‘fracture of the skull caused by a wound received on the wharf at Fremantle on the 4th May 1919’. A blow to the head, therefore, is a more likely cause of his death.

A justice of the peace read the Riot Act and an order was given to issue live ammunition to the police. The senior Fremantle police officer, Inspector Sellenger, refused to obey this order and further violence was averted by his coolness and that of Alex McCallum, secretary of the State Labor Federation. They stepped out from the opposing ranks and arranged a truce. It is a pity that all parties to the dispute had not come together in this way earlier.

Colebatch has been unfairly demonised. The Commonwealth government had created the alternative wharf labour force and still had control over shipping. Colebatch received no support from the relevant minister. However, his action in taking armed strikebreakers to the scene may have been unnecessarily provocative.

Tom Edwards died on 7 May. On that day the ‘scab’ workers were withdrawn, making the death even more pointless. Also on that day, the body of Sir john Forrest, who had died on board ship en route to London to take up a seat in the House of Lords, was given a state funeral. The vessel bearing his body had arrived in the harbour on Bloody Sunday.

Connie Ellement (1987) recalled that for her uncle and father

... it was obvious that the battle of the wharf and Tom Edwards' funeral with mourners stretching the whole two miles from Fremantle Trades Hall to the Fremantle Cemetery provided them with much more powerful images than any they had taken from Anzac Cove.

The memorial to Edwards, originally near the old Trades Hall, is now in Kings Square (see p. 176).

Later Developments

In 1911 it was discovered that a marine worm had badly damaged the piles in the harbour and the whole of Victoria Quay had to be re-piled and re-decked, at the same time the eastern end was extended. Unfortunately, infested stumps of the original piles were left in situ and, in 1922, it became necessary to replace the piles again, this time with reinforced concrete. This work began late in 1923 and, by 1929, 812.9 metres of the quay had been reconstructed, but work stopped in 1930 when the Depression caused a cutback in expenditure; the work was completed after the war.

At least two plans for major redevelopment were not adopted because of the outbreak of World War II. One would have seen new sea berths constructed at Bathers Beach. Alex McCallum, one of the peacemakers on Bloody Sunday, now Minister for Works, opposed the latter as it would utterly spoil Fremantle as a seaside resort. Under the scheme Fremantle would be without any seafront at all, a mere mass of wharves and boats. Its attraction as a seaside resort would then be absolutely gone.

World War II

There were some works during the War, largely for defence purposes, including the construction of a new slipway at Arthur Head to handle vessels of up to 2000 tonnes. It was completed in September 1941. A boom defence system was erected across the entrance, and buildings, which still exist, were erected at the West end of the quay for the naval unit operating the boom and for maintenance of it and its machinery.

In mid January 1940 the first Australian and New Zealand troop convoy called at Fremantle, consisting of passenger liners which had been frequent visitors in peacetime. It was followed, on 10 May, by a convoy of nearly all the world's greatest liners, including the Queen Mary.

The first convoy of American troops arrived on 18 February 1942 and, in March, following the fall of Singapore, accommodation in the harbour was taxed by the arrival of vessels crammed with refugees from South-East Asia, fleeing ahead of the rapid Japanese advances. A US Navy depot was established at Fremantle and the port was soon a base for Australian, British, American and Dutch submarines. David Creed, in his history of the base, states that ‘submarines based at Fremantle achieved successes out of all proportion to the number of boats engaged ... [They] sank a substantially higher oil tanker tonnage than all the other submarines from all other bases combined.’

During the war, Australian-built corvettes also operated out of Fremantle.

Post- War Developments

In 1946 the Public Works Department engaged an engineer, F W E Tydeman, to work on development of the harbour. His report was released in March 1949, and most of the issues raised in it have recurred throughout the history of the harbour. He was appointed General Manager of the Fremantle Harbour Trust in 1950 and held that position until 1965. He set to work immediately on a program of mechanisation of cargo handling and development works. He decided against Outer Harbour developments. In 1950 the government engaged Sir Alexander Gibb and Partner as consultants. In general they agreed with Tydeman who, in the meantime, had gone ahead with the development of North Quay for the handling of general cargo. At about this time proposals were announced for an oil refinery and steel rolling mill at Kwinana, south of the city, which would involve deepening channels through banks in the Sound and the development of port facilities at Kwinana. The political decision was made to add upriver berths to the Inner Harbour as far as the existing road bridge.

There was controversy during the late 1990s when the Fremantle Port Authority announced that it would demolish the two wheat silos on North Quay to make way for other developments. The first silo was constructed in 1943 and the Royal Australian Navy’s Port War Signal Station was moved to the top of it from the signal station at Cantonment Hill. The second silo was constructed in 1963-64. A new grain terminal had been constructed at Kwinana, south of Fremantle, during 1963-69. Community groups, especially the Fremantle Society, tried to save the buildings, which they judged to have industrial heritage significance. The Heritage Council of Western Australia recommended, in 1999, that the ‘place’ be entered on their Register of Heritage Places with interim status; the minister decided against this in 2000 and the two buildings were demolished.

In 2005 the railway lines into North Wharf were being re-laid to make transport to and from the wharf more efficient. The establishment of a wind farm to generate electricity was proposed for Rous Head, the northern head. It is estimated that the Inner Harbour will reach capacity around 2015 to 2017.


Fremantle Harbour from the South Mole

The City of Fremantle


Fremantle is at the mouth of the Swan River, with the greater part of its area -— nineteen square kilometres — lying to the south of the river. Its geographical location is 32.03° S, 115.45° E, and its climate is Mediterranean with most of the rain falling in the Winter months of June to August. During the summer, December to February, the maximum temperature can sometimes rise as high as 40°C, but on most days the south-westerly sea breeze (known as ‘the Fremantle Doctor’) keeps it in the low to mid thirties.

It has been, since the construction of the Inner Harbour at the mouth of the Swan River, the principal port of Western Australia in terms of general cargo. Although northern ports — Port Hedland (iron ore export) and Dampier (liquefied natural gas export) — handle larger tonnages per annum, the value of trade in Fremantle is higher. By 2004 the Inner and Outer Harbours handled 91% by value of seaborne imports and 51% by value of seaborne exports.

The first governor, James Stirling, decided to site the capital, Perth, upstream for several reasons, including being sheltered from hostile navies by its inland position and by nestling behind the bluff of Mount Eliza. Although Fremantle is only twenty kilometres from Perth and is part of the greater metropolitan area, it has maintained a distinct identity, although this may be weakening. The fabric of the town is relatively intact; there are reasons for this and these are elucidated in the Brief History above.

Besides being the main port, the city is a major regional centre for cultural and economic activity, having retained its traditional base as an operating port and a centre for fishing and marine activity. It is also a centre for education, research, retailing, the arts, entertainment and tourist industries.


Fremantle City and Port, from Monument Hill

Garry Gillard | New: 8 January, 2019 | Now: 14 November, 2019