Perth early history

Perth Lies in the south west corner of both Western Australia, and also Australia – and just as the Eastern State Capitals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart were established as Colonies in the British Empire – so too was Perth, named after the city of the same name in Scotland.

Perth however wasn’t the first colony to be set up in Western Australia – this honour goes to the town of Albany, over 400 kilometres south of Perth.

Aboriginal tribal clans have lived in Western Australia for thousands of years, with the first European Explorers to sail to the area being in 1627, when the Dutch Ship, ‘ Guiden Zeepaardt’ (The Golden Seahorse) captained by Francois Thijssen with Pieter Nuyts (1598-1655) came ashore around the Albany coast.

Nuyts had a PhD from Leiden University in Holland, and was at the time working for the Dutch East India Company and he made maps of the New Holland southern coastline from Albany to Ceduna. Other Dutch ships also came to Western Australia shores, but it would be another 164 years later that the English navigator and explorer, George Vancouver (1757-1798) would touch land in Albany in 1791, before sailing on to the North American coastline, with the city of Vancouver later named after him.

Mathew Flinders (1774-1814) who circumnavigated the whole of the Australian continent also came to Albany in 1801 and the Frenchman, Nicolas Baudin (1754-1803) around the same year.

While whalers and sealing ships from America and France no doubt came ashore along the coastline in the early 1800’s, the first settlement at Albany was started on the 25th December 1826, when Major Edmund Lockyer, with his party of 23 convicts, soldiers and crew stepped ashore from the ‘Amity’, naming the settlement Frederickstown, changed to Albany in 1831.Today, there are a number of buildings in Albany that date back to the 1850’s and even the 1830’s, making Albany quite an interesting town to visit. Albany was also the last sight of Australia that World War 1 troops saw when they left to fight in Gallipoli and other battles.

The Swan River area was the home of the Noongar Aboriginal clan and had been explored by the Dutch Captain, Willem de Vlamingh in 1697 and also by French and English explorers too in the early 1800’s, with even a map of the Swan River drawn up by the French in 1801.

It was in 1829 that the English Colonial Office agreed to set up a new Colony with free settlers on the Swan River, and Captain James Stirling (1791-1865), later to become Sir James Stirling stepped ashore in June 1829. He had earlier in 1827 spent two weeks exploring the area around the Swan River as a potential site for new colony, and in May 1839 Captain Charles Howe Fremantle (1800-1869) had also stepped ashore to proclaim all land eastwards to the border with the New South Wales colony to be Crown Land in the name of his Majesty, King George IV. The official foundation stone was however set down in August 1829.

While the new colonists had arrived as free settlers and not convicts, the first tasks were to obtain fresh water, find and grow food, gain shelter and protect themselves from possible attack from the local aboriginal Nyoongar clans.

Captain Stirling had with him a surveyor, John Septimus Roe (1797-1878) who set about establishing the plans for Perth, Guildford and Fremantle. In turn Captain Stirling became the first Governor and held this office until 1832, and again from 1834 to 1838, and John Septimus Roe the Surveyor-General. His role in mapping many parts of the coast, inland exploration and in the layout of Perth, including the creation of Kings Park make interesting reading, and he continued to live in Perth until his death in 1878.

John Septimus Roe mapped out allotments for the new settlers, and gradually the settlement grew, with a rough road cut through the bush from Perth to Fremantle in 1833, and a wooden bridge constructed over the Swan River.

Captain Stirling also had engaged an English Engineer, Henry Willey Reveley (1788-1875), the son of an architect to travel with him to the new Perth Colony, and Reveley was involved in setting up the first rough thatch and reed buildings on Garden Island, and then the more substantial buildings to follow – including a Flour Mill on St George’s Terrace, the Barracks (1866), Commissariat Store (1850’s) now the Shipwrecks Galleries on Cliff Street in Fremantle, First Governor’s House (later demolished) and the Dodecagonal (12 sided) building known as ‘The Round House’.

He may also have been involved, though it is not noted, in the building of the Old Mill – named Shenton’s Mill, named after the man who commissioned its building, William Kernot Shenton. The Old Mill was built in stone in 1835 to mill corn into flour, and was used for this purpose until 1859. It is located on Mill Point Rd in South Perth.

‘The Round House’ also still exists (10 Arthurs Head Rd, Fremantle) and it was completed in January 1831, and then a 64 metre long tunnel carved out of the limestone hill built under it and completed in January 1832. ‘The Round House’ consisted of 8 cells for prisoners and a residence for the Gaoler. The tunnel was used by whalers making their way from the beach to the town.

Reveley was also designed and completed the engineering for the Courthouse in Perth– with the building completed in 1837, and used initially as a church and schoolhouse, as well as criminal trials. This small building still exists, and is located behind the Western Australian Supreme Court and is now called the Francis Burt Law Education Centre and Museum. What is perhaps most significant is that this was where the decision was made in 1849 to seek to have English Convicts to be transported to the Perth Colony. At the time, Perth had a population of around 1900 and Fremantle about the same. Over the next eighteen years over 9720 convicts would be sent to Perth on 43 ships – an average of 226 convicts per ship arrival.

It is interesting to note that the first substantial building to be built in Perth/Fremantle was ‘The Round House’ as a gaol, just two years after the settlement was first established – a sign of times and the rough justice that was handed out to those considered to have broken the law.

Aboriginals also came under the new English Settlers Laws of the land, and in 1833 there were confrontations during which two of the Aboriginal warrior leaders, Yangan and Calyute were killed and no doubt many others. This was followed in 1834 by the “Battle of Pinjarra” between the Aboriginal Clansmen and the new settlers, but the spears were no match to the settler’s guns.

By 1838, the first ten aboriginal prisoners were taken to Rottnest Island, the first of many to follow. From 1838 to 1904 but onwards to 1931 some 3700 Aboriginals were imprisoned on the Island, during which time a number of buildings were constructed using their labour, under the direction of the Gaol superintendent Henry Vincent (1796-1869), including the old mill and hay Store (1857), a salt store (1868), seawall, lighthouses, pilots station and the gaol itself – what became known as the Quod at Thompson Bay.

The Bathurst Point and Wadjemup Lighthouses , 1859 Pilot Station, Quod, salt Store and old mill and haystore are still standing – the Old Mill and Hay Store now forming part of the Rottnest Island Museum. Some 13 ships have been wrecked off Rottnest Island.

The Convict Era (1850-1868) brought a new labour force to Perth and Fremantle and 1856 Perth was proclaimed a City by Queen Victoria.

Convict labour was used to build Perth Gaol in the 1850’s and the Fremantle Prison buildings (Convict Establishment) completed in 1859 (now a museum), Perth’s Town Hall (1868-70), the new Government House built in 1861-64, the Cloisters School in Perth (1858)on St George Terrace, the Old Perth Boys School, the Warders Cottages in Henderson St in Fremantle, the Fremantle Asylum (now the Arts Centre on Ord Street), The Swan River Mechanics Institute, ‘The Knowle’ house (still in the Hospital Grounds at Fremantle Hospital)and a number of roads, walls and other work. Much of this work was done under the supervision and direction of the 20th Company Royal Engineers, led by Captain Edmund Henderson (The Comptroller-General of Convicts) and Lieutenant Henry Wray (1826-1900).

Another architect that made a huge contribution to the development of Perth was Richard Roach Jewell (1810-1891) who as the Superintendent of Public Works is credited as the architect of Perth Town Hall, the new Government House (1861-1864) and gardens, the Wesley Church, Public Trust Building, the Treasury, the Cloisters and the Pensioners Barracks.

Government House had progressed from a canvas tent, to a timber building to a Georgian style building built in 1837 (demolished around 1880), and then to Government House as we know it today, built using convict labour between 1861 and 1864.

The Pensioners Barracks were built in 1866 to house former soldiers and their families (what was called the Enrolled Pensioner Force) who served in the British Military Forces and had travelled as guards on the convict ships, on the basis of obtaining freehold title to a land allotment if they leased the allotted land for seven years. It is thought that around 2000 Pensioners including the families arrived on that basis, and the Pensioners Barracks were constructed to house some of them. The Barracks was a three storey building with 120 living quarters (rooms), as well as a cookhouse, wash house, store room, stables, and a magazine (Gun Room) and firing range. The Enrolled Pensioner Force was disbanded in 1880, and the main Barracks Building demolished in 1966 to make way for the Mitchell Freeway, but the brick Barracks Arch was saved. The Arch, that looks a bit like a castle entrance can be seen today on the corner of Malcolm and Elder Streets, but is not open to the public. The original Barracks were on each side of the archway, fanning outwards, like sides of a triangle the archway as the apex.

What makes all of the early buildings in Perth so attractive and also distinctive to the early buildings in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart and Melbourne is their use of Limestone as the stone being used in their construction, and sometimes in combination with brickwork. Limestone has a light, creamy colour and reflects light very well in the day, and also when lit up at night. Many of the buildings also used bricks made from local clay and if you go to Queens Gardens in East Perth you will see a number of ponds. These ponds were created in the old clay pits where the early brickworks were located.

In the early days of the settlement, Fremantle was used as a port, but it was also dangerous for ships to enter due to the limestone reef bar and sand shoals that lay at the entrance to the Swan River. These had long proved dangerous to ships and boats, and a number of ships would either anchor off shore, or head south to Albany and its harbour.

As the port developed and more trade occurred, the need for a safer harbour became more and more necessary. Western Australia’s first Premier, John Forrest (later Sir John Forrest 1847-1918)was determined to develop Western Australia, and appointed an Irishman, Charles Yelveston O’Connor better known as C.Y. O’Connor (1843-1902) who had been working in New Zealand as the Engineer-in-chief in 1892, with his first major task being to determine the best way to create a safer harbour for shipping. This led to the proposal and construction of Fremantle Port, much as we know it today – with the limestone reef bar blasted and a deeper shipping channel dredged out, quays and wharves built on some of the reclaimed land, and two breakwaters (Moles) built in stone extended outwards into the ocean. It took until 1897 for the Fremantle Port project to be completed, a major public works.

In 1892 gold was discovered in Coolgardie and 1894 at Kalgoorlie – both over 500 kilometres west of Perth, and both places with little water.

C.Y. O’Connor also proposed building a new weir in the hills near Perth and a pipeline with eight pumping stations along the way to carry 5 million gallons of water each day from a reservoir to be built near Perth, with the pipeline to run westwards to the towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie. It was an ambitious scheme, and subject to a lot of criticism, both for its ambition and also cost but was finally completed in 1903, with Mundaring Weir built as the reservoir on the Perth End on the Helena River. The C.Y. O’Connor Museum is located in Mundaring.

One year before its completion, C.Y. O’Connor committed suicide, riding his horse into the ocean at North Coogee beach, just south of Fremantle and shooting himself. His legacy lives on, and in 1912 a statue of C.Y. O’Connor was erected in Fremantle in front of the Fremantle Port Authority Building, and in 1999 a bronze horse and rider was created by Perth artist/sculptor Tony Jones and erected 20 metres off the coastline at North Coogee Beach where C.Y. O’Connor had taken his own life.

The Western Australian Gold rush that began in Coolgardie and the Kalgoorlie in the 1890’s brought more people and also wealth to Western Australia, and also led to a boom in building too. So much gold was discovered that Britain’s Royal Mint established a branch of the Royal Mint in Perth, refining gold and producing coins.

The Mint was designed by George Temple-Poole (1856-1927) and is located at 310 Hay St in East Perth, and was built in 1899 using creamy white limestone from Rottnest Island and a darker limestone from Cottesloe Beach. The Mint is open to the public most days. See www.perthmint.com.au
With the Gold Rushes, Perth’s population grew from 8447 in 1891 to 27,553 in 1901, by which time Electricity Power had been generated (1893); Fremantle Port works had been completed and ships were able to berth in Fremantle (1897); Fremantle Markets opened (1897); Perth Zoo had opened (1898); the first electric trams were running in Perth (1899) and in 1901 Western Australia became part of the Federation of Australian states, with Perth as its state capital.

Today, Perth is a vibrant city with high rise city buildings, and a great deal of wealth built from the mining of iron ore, gold and other riches. Its isolation from the other state capitals has created perhaps a greater reliance on its own strengths and given it a more maverick independent spirit than other mainland Australian cities and its closeness to Asia has allowed it to prosper economically, socially and culturally too.

Its colonial past is still visible in some of its architecture, particularly around Fremantle, and Perth has now developed a great deal of pride in its Colonial architecture and also in its food, wine and lifestyle.

Perth is a great city to visit, and we hope that Perth’s Colonial History also has spurred your interest in its early history too.

Happy Travelling!
Geoff Stuart

Happy Traveller

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