History of East Fremantle

Panorama of the Swan River Settlement, c. 1832 by Jan Eliza Currie. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW

Panorama of the Swan River Settlement, c. 1832 by Jan Eliza Currie. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW

What a colourful history has East Fremantle! Many of the stories of local people collected in this website, reflect the huge divide between the rich, elite and often eccentric ‘entrepreneurs’ living in the grand mansions overlooking the river in Richmond and the working class men and women living in the crowded houses of Plympton. Crime and punishment, ‘two up games’, accidents, drownings, back-yard abortions, and the relentless drive of conservative governments to curb the power of the waterside workers (especially the Lumpers Union) affected life in Plympton. The rich and powerful in Richmond however also suffered public shame and there were often divorces and suicides. Over time the two classes interacted, particularly at the edge of the Swan river, with the construction of breweries and ship yards and Rowing clubs. As ‘New Australians’ arrived, the immigrants first stayed in Plympton but gradually made better lives in the surrounding suburbs of Woodside and Palmyra.

East Fremantle also has a unique history involving maternity hospitals, WA’s first woman doctor and many other strong women.

Brush factory, Duke St East Fremantle, Courtesy of the Fremantle History Centre

But our story starts with the original inhabitants- Niergarup or Preston Point on the north of East Fremantle was an important place for the original custodians of this area- the Noongar Beeliar cultural group, led by Midgegooroo and Yagan- who used this area as a ceremonial and camping ground. It was also the place where Aboriginal people had a first sighting of white people, exploring the river.

This Aboriginal group was one of the first in Western Australia to suffer the full impact of European settlement. The invasion was initially peaceful because the Aboriginal people believed the white men were the returning spirits of their own dead relatives, however, cultural conflict developed between the original landowners and the new land occupiers. As Noongar people fought for their land- Rottnest Island began to hold the leaders and young warriors who stood in the way of European development.

Midgegooroo’s first wife Moyran, mother of Yagan, claimed that the white people had brought the smell of death. (Gail Beck, City of Melville website)

In 1830, 2 years after settlement, John Weavell made a jetty at Preston Point and operated a cross river ferry to Rocky Bay. In 1833 he mentioned that he had seen about 80 Aboriginal people fishing and camping in this area and a few years later Yagan was also sighted here.

Early white settlement of the area consisted of large farm holdings, however as the colony prospered during the 1890's gold rush the nature of the settlement altered dramatically, rapidly changing to a residential area. Aboriginal groups from all over the state were documented as still gathering in 1899 in Plympton- in an area known as Pearse’s Paddock an area bounded by George, Glyde and Hubble Sts ( where Glasson Park is now). See article about a death in the camp (reference) but this area was used as a butchery by Baker Bros by 1902. (see Glasson Park)

East Fremantle was created in 1897, when the ‘Éast Ward’ separated from Fremantle and became a separate Municipality. The 3.2 square kilometre area of East Fremantle is bounded to the North by the Swan River and Riverside Road, to the West by East Street and to the South by Marmion Street and to the East - Petra Street - shared with the City of Melville.

Initially there were two sharp divisions; the poor and working class lived in small workers cottages built in the Plympton Ward and the rich and merchant elite who had built large homes on the escarpment overlooking the river in the Richmond Hill area.

The Plympton Ward was established between 1890 and 1910 in an area originally owned by the Pearse brothers, William Silas and George- prominent merchants, ship owners and station owners in the Swan River colony. They owned the area from East to Allen Streets, which included cattle yards and a noxious slaughterhouse right in the centre. They subdivided this area for workers cottages and built many of the streets- which they named after family members.

The water supply for this area came from their reservoir in East Street. After the East Fremantle Council began in 1897 they requested the Council take control of the streets and George Pearse sold the area to the Government and donated five acres to the Council.

One of the first issues for the new Council was the problem of sanitation. Many houses held two families and it was recommended that every tenement in Plympton be provided with a separate closet and that the pan be emptied by the night soil contractors twice a week.

Richmond may have been named for the residence of William Temple Graham (Public Notary, solicitor and publisher of the West Australian Colonial News 1833) or more likely named after the town of Richmond in Surrey England, which had been the home of Walter Easton, one of the biggest landowners in the East Fremantle area and who had emigrated to Australia in 1857 to become schoolmaster to the convicts in Fremantle Gaol. Easton named the land he owned in the eastern part of Richmond (owned 1850s to the 1890s) Windsor and as the suburb was divided by his successors, street names Easton, Walter, Stratford, Gill and Morgan (later changed to Osborne) were named after the Easton family. Frank Easton was an East Fremantle Councillor from 1897-1900. East Fremantle contains one state run primary school- the Richmond Primary School, founded in 1921.

The Woodside Ward was originally land owned by WD Moore extended from Allen Street to Petra Street and bounded by Canning and Marmion. When this big area was subdivided the family names of Dalgety, Fortescue, Oakover, Millenden and Fletcher were given to street names.

During 1941-1942 HMAS Leeuwin (now named Leeuwin Barracks) were constructed on land that had been Gallops farm and State Government Railway land, and after the war the Preston Point area was developed.

The first meeting of the East Fremantle Council was held August 14 1897 in the Plympton Hotel (now the Trade Winds Hotel) where the first Mayor Matthew Moss was sworn in.

Written by Jo Darbyshire, project coordinator, Museum of Perth