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Henry Passmore

Colleena Presnell:
Henry Passmore (1840-1920) was born 29 February 1840 in Raleigh, Pilton. His father John was a lace-maker and by the time Henry was eleven years old he was a machine boy in a lace factory. Henry made his own way through life, joining the British Royal Navy at fourteen where, for ten years, he served as a Boy Second Class, Able Seaman, Assistant Stoker then Petty Officer on a ship fighting in the Crimean war. In 1863 he became a Warden at Dartmoor Prison at the age of twenty-three.

In August 1865 the second-last convict ship, the Racehorse, berthed in Fremantle with three hundred on board: 278 prisoners and 172 pensioner guards and free settlers.   Henry Passmore was a warden in charge of prisoners on that ship and then in the Fremantle Convict Establishment.  He struggled with the fact that innocent men were found guilty and incarcerated for charges deliberately invented.  Some prisoners protested their innocence, in vain and some crimes were not even stated on record.  The trumped-up charges were to supply the colony with cheap labour.  Poaching drew a conviction of seven years hard labour, larceny or burglary sixteen to twenty years.

Henry Passmore was twenty-five when he arrived in the colony while his wife Mary Ellis was thirty years of age, and of their three children George Henry (Harry) was six years old, Annie two, and Minnie just four months old. Mary Ellis gave birth to three more children Charles Christian, born at a road camp in Kojonup in 1870, Mary-Ellen (Nellie) born 1872 and Jessie Georgina born November 1874, died March 1875. Henry married twice more—to Annie Prior, May 1878, and Mary-Ellis Ann Dibb, March 1897, but those marriages did not bear children.

Passmore supervised prisoners on a variety of public works involving road making, telegraph installation, bridge building, quarrying and boring for water and he brought about changes in the prison system by teaching prisoners carpentry and knitting skills.  He was a true polymath; a man with ideas and abilities before his time and beyond his years which, during his lifetime, created many conflicts and challenges for himself due to the adversities of the time.  He went on, however, to achieve much in the history of Western Australia.

Henry Passmore gave 34 years of his life as a servant of the people of Western Australia.  After working for the Fremantle Convict Establishment, he supervised the stabilisation of the sand drift in Princess Royal Harbour in Albany.  It gave Charles Yelverton O’Connor, Engineer-in Chief, the idea of how to remove the sandbar from the mouth of the Swan River when the construction of Fremantle Harbour commenced.  While in Albany, Henry surveyed and supervised the erection of the first country telegraph line, a distance of 50 miles.  His public works duties took him all over the burgeoning Perth area from Guildford and Caversham to Gingin as well as boring for coal in Canning.  Along the way he had many adventures supervising the Fenian prisoners and the infamous bushranger Joseph Johns known as ‘Moondyne Joe’ who escaped many times.

In 1869 a bucket dredge was purchased from England by the Governor to dredge a channel from Fremantle up the Swan River to allow steamers and larger cargo boats through to Pier Street Perth.  However, the dredge was not very effective and subsequently became known as ‘Governor Hampton's Yacht’ or the ‘White Elephant’.

Henry Passmore later assisted CY O’Connor with the development of plans for the massive feat of building Fremantle Harbour.  By 1891 work had begun on the dredging of Fremantle Harbour and the ‘White Elephant’ was resurrected and modified by Henry who reconstructed the design of the bucket used for dredging.  Renamed the ‘Black Swan’ it did many years useful work in Fremantle, on the Canning River and Perth Waters under the supervision of Henry and his son George (Harry).  Due to their efforts large vessels can, to this day, navigate the otherwise shallow waters of the Swan River from Perth to Fremantle.

Henry was for many years a member of the North Fremantle Council and twice a delegate at the Municipal Conferences and appointed Justice of the Peace for North Fremantle.  Although leading a busy life he continued to develop his talent for wood carving with astonishing results.  Although Henry was entirely self-taught, bookcases, sideboards, chairs and tables decorated with carvings executed in a style worthy of any art school are held at the Historical Society in Nedlands and various museums around Perth.

Wool tapestries woven by Henry as well as a painting by one of the convicts working under his supervision on the Black Swan are also held by the Historical Society.  Many of his works are scattered among various family members so unfortunately cannot be appreciated by many who would admire his creative skills.  

In 1891 Henry purchased five lots of land in North Fremantle and developed what could be best described as a unique small village reminiscent of his birthplace in Raleigh, Barnstaple, England.  He built a family home and other houses for his children.  The street was then called Raleigh Avenue but was later renamed and to this day is known as Passmore Avenue.  The street was designed with flowing gardens and, at the front, stood a number of decorative arches which spanned the street.  There were seven wooden cottages, orchards, stables, vegetable gardens, fowlyards and a well at the rear of the street.  Together these features reflected an English village atmosphere.  Some of the cottages remain today as a testimony to one of Western Australia’s great pioneering individuals.

On the 6th March 1920, Henry Passmore died at his residence in Raleigh Avenue North Fremantle.  The casket was mounted on a gun carriage and draped with the Union Jack and moved from Raleigh Avenue, proceeding to the Anglican portion of Karrakatta Cemetery where his remains were interred with full military honours.  Henry was survived by a widow, three sons and four daughters, 47 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren.  Today there are thousands of proud descendants throughout Australia.

Henry has been described as an ‘English Pioneer’ a ‘Renaissance Man’ a ‘Man with a Passion’ a ‘Man with Distinction’ and ‘A True Polymath.’  At his funeral, Governor Broome spoke in praise of Henry Passmore’s efforts saying, ‘He has been an active man who has left the mark of progress in this state.’

Garry Gillard:

Arguably, the most important single thing Passmore ever did was to take C.Y. O'Connor out in his rowing boat and show him that the riverbed did not silt up. That was a crucial datum contributing to O'Connor's decision to remove the rocky bar to allow the harbour to be in the rivermouth. See John Dowson's Fremantle Port: 20-29, esp. p. 29 (as below).

Dowson, John 2011, 'Passmore's Fremantle', from his book Fremantle Port

Over the page [across page opening 22-23] can be seen the detailed and accurate embroidery Henry Passmore produced c. 1890 of the river with which he was so closely involved. A ... Crimean War Royal Navy veteran, he arrived in Western Australia in 1865.
By 1872 he was in charge of convicts on public works, including 20 convicts working Western Australia's first dredge nicknamed Governor Hampton's Yacht. The Colonial Secretary Malcolm Fraser quipped: "You will be able to say you commanded the first ship the Western Australian Government owned." Reconstructed by 1888 she became known as Black Swan and worked at the mouth of the river until C.Y. O'Connor arrived in 1891 and refused to allow convict labour in the building of the new port.
Passmore lived in John Street, North Fremantle.
[I haven't tried to include an image of the tapestry, as it goes right across a two-page opening in the book.]
The embroidery looks from North Fremantle across the river. Passmore's dredge Black Swan is in the lower left with the Priestman grab dredge to the right in front of the pilings intended to keep the dredged channels open. Over the river, the buildings shown are accurately placed. The 1880 railway station with its sheds that obliterated the Fremantle Green is in the centre, to the left of the North or River Jetty. Arthur Head has its 1878 lighthouse and signal mast, with ships at the Long Jetty behind. The limestone bar at the mouth of the river is clearly shown, with a narrow passage either side. Why Passmore chose embroidery is interesting, but he did work in a lace factory in Tiverton. This well-preserved artefact is a superb reminder of the Swan River at its mouth just before harbour works commenced in 1892. [The tapestry is in the WA Museum, at WAM PH-8604-046.] Dowson 2011: 21.

Dowson, John 2011, C.Y. O'Connor: Building the Port

When C.Y. O'Connor arrived in 1891 to take up his appointment as Engineer-in-Chief, he soon decided that the new harbour should be inside the Swan River. He did not agree that such a choice would cause problems with sand drift, as raised by engineers like Sir John Coode. He had met, among others, Henry Passmore, who later wrote: "I was camped at Rous Head when Mr. O'Connor was considering the different schemes. In conversation he mentioned this fact of sand travel, which was denied by me. He said: 'Have you not read Sir John's report?' I replied, 'Yes I have, and notwithstanding this report there is no sand travel.
The day being very calm and the water like glass, I said 'Come I will prove to you there is no sand travel. I will show you the rocky bottom, the holes in the rocks, the seaweed growing in these holes, the limpets on the rocks also. If there was any sand travel you would see nothing of the kind.' He went with me in a boat. I asked him to fix his eye on the bottom, and he would be able to see what I said. The boat was pulled slowly, so as not to disturb the surface of the water. I am convinced he could see the bottom to 20 or 30 feet. On lifting his head he said, 'Where were you when Sir John Coode visited the State?' I replied, 'At Albany. Who gave him his information I could not say.' Mr. O'Connor was quite convinced there was no 'sand travel.' On the next day he brought Sir John Forrest that I might show him what I had shown Mr. O'Connor the day before." (The West Australian, Oct. 15,1912)
In a report dated December 21,1891, O'Connor dismissed another in-river option of a channel through the narrow neck of land opposite Rocky Bay because: "If the railway had not to be crossed twice, and the main road also twice, the state of the case would be materially different."
In early 1892 Parliament approved O'Connor's plan for opening the bar and constructing a harbour at the mouth of the river. It was estimated that £800,000 would be needed for a basic harbour. All along O'Connor received fierce support for his river plan from his Minister, Harry Whittall Venn, the State's first Director of Public Works and Commissioner of Railways. Until Venn was sacked in 1896 when phenomenal growth resulted in railway blockages, they achieved a great deal together, not only with Fremantle Harbour, but in the development of railways that fed the port. Providentially, the gold rush boom, and the financial independence of Responsible Government in 1890, allowed further allocation of large sums of money for the projects as they progressed.
The north and south moles were constructed of limestone from Arthur Head and Rocky Bay until the deteriorating quality led to supplies being sourced from Boya. Reclamation of some 20 acres on the north of the river and 54 on the south proceeded with the building of a retaining bank from end to end, 10 feet above the water level and 20 feet wide. By August 1896 the government issued orders to commence wharf construction, leading to 1,500 feet of quay being available for vessels by June 30,1897. But the depth of water alongside was only 20 feet. A wharf was built on each mole in 1897 to meet demand, the tough jarrah piles being driven straight into the limestone moles. In 1900 a jetty projecting into the harbour from the north quay was designed to attract mail-boats, as it was feared they may not get away fast enough from the south quay during high winds. In the end, the mailboats, the greyhounds of the sea, berthed at South Quay, later Victoria Quay.
Additional works included a slipway, breakwind, and lighthouses. The slipway at the base of North Mole was a timber structure (see overleaf), especially useful for repairing the four dredges, which otherwise would have had a voyage to Melbourne. The wooden picket breakwind of 2,200 feet east from the base of North Mole provided protection from north-west gales. Two lighthouses were erected on Rottnest, with a third at Woodman's Point. The 1878 Arthur Head lighthouse was gone by 1905, but South Mole had a lighthouse erected in 1903 and North Mole in 1906, with a temporary wooden one there from 1901 (see page 67). Dowson 2011: 29.

PASSMORE, Henry, b. 29.2.1840 (Eng). d. 6.3.1920 (Frem), son of John, arr. 15.8.1865 per Racehorse as a warder in charge of convicts, m. 1856/60 Mary ELLIS b. 1838/40 (Eng) d. 26. 4.1877, dtr. of George & Mary. Chd. George Henry b. 1859 (Eng), Annie b. 1863, Minnie b. 1865, Rosalind, John Philip, Charles Christian b. 1870, Mary Ellen b. 1872, Jessie G. b. c.1874 d. 1875. Formerly in Royal Navy 1854-1862 serving in Baltic & Crimea. Appointed in Imperial Service at Dartmoor Prison (Eng). In WA was in charge of convict public works, roads, river dredging etc. Farmed at Swan district 1868. Employed 3 T/L men (wood­ cutters 1869 & a road worker 1880 at Guildford). Retired 1899. Residence John St. North Fremantle. Member of local Town Council. Was buried with full military honours. Lit. C/E.

References Links and Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Colleena Presnell who has kindly made available some of the introductory text to her book about her ancestor Henry Passmore – which forms the top half of this page (edited).

See: Diane Oldman's narrative of the life of Henry Passmore, 'The Lace-maker's Son'. See also her reference page for Henry Passmore on her archived Crimean War Veterans site.

Dowson, John 2011, Fremantle Port, Chart and Map Shop, Fremantle: 21, 22-23, 29.

Presnell, Colleena 2019, Lash Me Fair: Henry Passmore, Renaissance Man (novel).

Garry Gillard | New: 20 January, 2016 | Now: 12 March, 2024