Fremantle

Fremantle, originally a port township, has become a suburb of metropolitan Perth. It is on the south east side of the entrance to the Swan River, and is also a municipality. East Fremantle is a separate municipality on the same side of the river. Fremantle is about 15 km. south-west of central Perth.

On 2 May, 1829, Captain Charles Fremantle took formal possession of the west coast of Australia on the south head of the Swan River. He was slightly ahead pf the first settlers in vessels commanded by Captain James Stirling. A few months later Stirling named sites for two towns, one being Fremantle at the river mouth. By the following year a village had taken shape at the site of Fremantle and in 1831 the town was surveyed. A more extended survey took place in 1836.

Until the 1840s there was no road between Fremantle and Perth, and a rocky bar across the entrance to Swan River prevented boats from reaching Perth from the ocean. Fremantle consequently developed a strong role as a port and as a site of the colonial jail, the Round House (1831). Whaling and fishing companies were established in 1836 and a jetty built in 1837. Churches were established in the 1840s – Anglican (1843), Catholic (1845) and Wesleyan (1842). Fremantle’s first association with local government was the Town Trust (1848 – 1871). In 1851 the Fremantle Literary Institute was established and the Fremantle Boys’ School in 1852. Harbour facilities were hampered by the bar across the river mouth, resulting in much labour to carry cargo overland from the ocean jetty to the river jetty. A concern that removal of the bar might allow vessels to bypass Fremantle kept the bar unaltered until 1892, but the ocean jetty was extended to deeper water in 1868. A Harbour Board was created in 1865. Road transport was facilitated by a bridge over the river in 1866.

On 10 March 1871 a town council replaced the trust. It paved streets and undertook the construction of a protective sea wall. The Australian Handbook in 1875 described Fremantle as –

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The Perth to Fremantle railway was opened in 1881. A town hall was built in 1887 and a town water supply was organised in 1890. A larger work was the construction of a harbour inside the river mouth, which had been delayed by the supposition that construction works would cause coastal sand drift to block the river mouth. Several engineers, including the eminent British harbour designer Sir John Coode, accepted this view, until Western Australia’s engineer-in-chief Charles Y. O’Connor rejected it. O’Connor’s plan for an inner harbour was successfully completed in 1897. In 1904 there was a setback when the Fremantle railway workshops, employing 200 workmen, were closed and transferred to Midland Junction east of Perth. A new railway station was erected east of the old one, following the eastward expansion of Fremantle. In 1904 The Australian Handbook described Fremantle as –

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By then there were three council for the Fremantle area: Fremantle (population 14,714). Fremantle North (population 3,246, established 1895) and Fremantle East (population 2,494, established 1897). District identities had been strengthened by Australian Rules Football Clubs.

In 1905 tram services were begun, serving the High Street shopping area and, eastwards, travelling past the cemetery to the present suburb of O’Connor. Fremantle port received Asian and European seamen and had strong craft-centred unions. A Trades Hall was opened in 1904, and May Day and Eight Hours Day processions were well attended. However, British immigrants were favoured over others, and Italian entry into fishing and market gardening was resented.

During the first world war Fremantle was a place of embarkation for troops and the No. 8 General Australian Hospital was established for returned personnel. The pneumonic influenza epidemic came in 1918 requiring isolation facilities at the Fremantle public hospital. The war had stimulated manufacturing and unions had strong memberships. When wheat lumpers refused to unload a ship which they thought had not been properly quarantined for the influenza epidemic an affray followed between union and scab labour. A unionist was fatally injured when police intervened. He received a martyr’s funeral in 10 May, 1919, and the longest procession in Fremantle’s history.

The 1920s saw the replacement of dilapidated sea-bathing facilities with the Hydrodrome at Long Jetty and a baths in central Fremantle. Motorcars and day-trip buses came from Perth, attracted to Fremantle’s beach and pleasure ground planted with lawn and Norfolk Island Pine trees. Outdoor picture screens gave welcome evening entertainment and relief from summer heat. On 3 June, 1929, the centenary of settlement, Fremantle was made a City, close to the onset of the 1930s depression. Unemployment in Fremantle was offset by continuing activity on the wharves and by frozen lamb exports which began in 1935. The labour force became less blue collar and more white collar.

In 1938 Fremantle’s trams began to be replaced by buses, a process completed fourteen years later. The second world war stimulated manufacturing and business, with extensive installations for American service personnel. American, British and Dutch submarines were berthed at Fremantle, and carried out patrols from 1942 to 1945 in the Indian Ocean. There were flourishing local industries in prostitution and black-market goods. At war’s end Fremantle was the returning servicemen’s first port of call. In 1949 The Australian Blue Book described Fremantle City of 14.5 sq. km. as –

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(For the municipalities of East Fremantle and North Fremantle, see the entries under their names.)

The postwar changes to Fremantle were mixed. Motor car traffic over the Fremantle bridge more than doubled between 1948 and 1954. Municipal modernisation included the removal of verandah posts, but the process was arrested by a mayor, Sir Frederick Samson, who favoured preservation of notable buildings. Industrialisation was located eastwards at O’Connor, beginning in 1949, which provided employment. More employment came when the Kwinara heavy-industry complex began in the 1960s, attracting immigrant workers, including a second wave of Italians who moved from fishing and harbour addresses to addresses offering cottages for refurbishment. An Italian Blessing of the Fleet had begun in 1948, when the Fremantle Fishermen’s Cooperative society was formed.

During the 1950s and 1960s residential suburbs were created south and east of central Fremantle. Hilton Park and Winterfold are two examples. The late 1960s saw rapid growth in flats construction. North Fremantle was united with Fremantle Council on 1 November, 1961.

The inner city’s Fremantle Park of 9 ha., several adjacent schools, the Museum, Arts Centre, the aquatic centre and other recreational facilities constitute a notable cultural and recreational complex. The Museum and Arts Centre are in the former asylum built 1858-61. The annual Fremantle Arts Festival is held in October and November. Fremantle has the private University of Notre Dame. Fremantle’s sporting culture gives prominence to Australian Rules football, with both East Fremantle and Fremantle clubs being dominant competitors. The Fremantle Dockers entered the national AFL competition in April, 1995.

Fremantle’s maritime role was exemplified in 1986-7 when it hosted the challenge for the Americas Cup Yacht Race. Many older buildings were restored and redecorated. The town hall, built in 1887, was substantially refurbished. It had been entered on the Register of the National Estate in 1978.

In addition to the inner harbour, Fremantle has an outer harbour consisting of three anchorages with depths of up to 19 metres. The southerly anchorage, Cockburn Sound, is the largest and most protected, serving the Kwinana industrial area. All are administered by the Fremantle Port Authority.

Sir Paul Hasluck, historian, poet, Commonwealth Parliamentarian and Governor General was born in Fremantle in 1905. The Federal seat of Fremantle has been held by Prime Minister John Curtin (1928-31, 1934-45) and by Kim Beazley (1945-1977, and father of Kim Beazley the leader of the Australian Labour Party from 1996).

The census populations of Fremantle (previously comprising North Fremantle and Fremantle municipalities and the Fremantle Road District), have been 18,564 (1911), 22, 327 (1933), 30,732 (1954) and 23,834 (1991).

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Postcard, c.1910.

Further Reading:

  • Ewers, John K., “The Western Gateway: A History of Fremantle”, University of Western Australia Press, 1971.
  • Hungerford, T.A.G., “Fremantle Landscapes and People”, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979.
  • Reece, R. and Pascoe, R., “A Place of Consequence: A Pictorial History of Fremantle”, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1983.

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One thought on “Fremantle”

  1. Can you tell me anything about Gustavson Clinic which was near Fremantle Prison in the 1930s and the Handicapped Children’s Centre – a Matron (sounds like) Belonshea. I am doing memoirs of Kalamunda.

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