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Shedding light on sheds in transit

David Hutchison

David Hutchison, 'Shedding light on sheds in transit', Fremantle Studies, 1, 1999: 66-76.

This paper is based on research that I carried out for the City of Fremantle in 1990 as a contribution to a heritage assessment of buildings on Victoria Quay. Although my brief was to research the history of the buildings on the Quay, I soon discovered that this could not be done without ranging more widely. I believe that I demonstrated how closely the port, Victoria Quay in particular, meshes with the commercial and social life of Fremantle. Although I will be talking about the history of the construction, and occasional demolition or reconstruction, of the sheds on Victoria Quay, it should not be forgotten that they were the arena for the often heroic struggles of the waterside workers for better conditions of employment: their heritage is social, not just architectural.

The sheds were built to provide protected and secure space for storage and sorting of goods between unloading from a ship and loading to rail or road transport - hence the name 'Transit Sheds'. The sheds also enabled cargo-handling to be considerably more efficient. Before the sheds were built, cargo was unloaded from ships into rail wagons and transported to sheds in the railway yards where it was unloaded for sorting before being reloaded onto rail or road transport.

Originally, the alphabetic designation of the sheds started at the eastern - upstream - end of Victoria Quay. I was at first misled by the change in designation, which was not reported in any of the annual reports of the Fremantle Harbour Trust. However, I was able to find, in the minutes of the Commissioners' meeting in December 1904, the decision to reverse the order of designation so that it would begin at the west end of the Quay. I could find no decision on the date at which this was to take effect; I presume that it occurred early in 1905.

One of the proposed sheds - that originally designated A - was not built. The first three sheds to be built were those originally designated B, C and D (later G, H and I). They were built in 1901/02. Each was 330 feet x 75 feet (100.6 m x 22.9m).

Two further sheds, originally designated E and F (later F and E) were constructed in 1902/03. They were longer and wider than the first three sheds, being 568 feet x 100 feet (173.2m x 30.5m). They were erected on the new higher level of the Quay. All those sheds were constructed of timber and iron. E Shed was completed and handed over to the Port Commissioners in August 1903, and F Shed in September. The new sheds were described as 'splendid structures', suggesting that the Commissioners appreciated them for aesthetic as well as functional reasons. We should bear that in mind when considering the heritage values of the sheds.

At the same time a shed was erected - or rather re-erected - at the west end of the Quay to 'meet the requirements of coastal traffic'. This appears to have been designated, from the time of its reconstruction, A Shed according to the new designation. It measured 120 feet x 30 feet (36.6m x 9.1m). This shed was originally located closer to Arthur Head and was one of the sheds used by the Public Works Department during harbour construction. 2 Further evidence for this comes from The Western Australian Year Book which refers to two large sheds being moved from the Harbour Works Yard to the wharf and adapted for requirements. 3 One was given as measuring 120 feet x 30 feet (36.6m x 9.1m) - which must have been A Shed - and the other as 100 feet x 30 feet (30.4m x 9.1m) - which must have been B Shed under the new designation. As far as I can tell, these were at or close to the present locations of A and B Sheds.

To allow for a loading platform at the rear of the sheds and the unhindered movement across rail tracks, Victoria Quay was raised by three feet (0.9m) over a distance of 1400 feet (426.7m) west from Cliff Street during 1903-5. This resulted in the whole Quay being planked flush with the top of the rails, preventing hindrance to work. Rail lines were laid on the water side of the sheds so that cargo which did not require sorting could be loaded directly into rail wagons and consigned inland, or could be directly off-loaded from wagons to ships. Rail lines were also laid on the land side of the sheds for transport of goods which had required sorting in shed before consignment. This enabled general cargo sorting to take place at a ship's side, doing away with the former inefficient method of landing cargo into wagons and trucking it to railway sheds or yards for sorting. Electric lighting was extended throughout the quay at this time.

By the end of 1904, the Quay had nine sheds, designated - under the new scheme - from A at the west end to I at the east end. During 1906/07, the construction of double-decking of the Quay to rail level from the west side of Cliff Street to the extreme west end, including the floors of A and B Shed, was completed.

B Shed

B Shed, c 1914. B Shed, built in 1905/06 and demolished in 1925/26, was replaced with the current B Shed. The building in the foreground may be the shelter for wharf labourers, built in 1906. Courtesy Fremantle Port Authority

As a consequence of increase in size of ships, the mooring lines — which now lay nearly vertical - tended to slip off the original iron bollards on the Quay. During 1909/10, replacement commenced of these bollards - which had been straight and vertical - with curved bollards as used in Manchester.

This work was well under way in 1918/19; it had probably been held up during World War I. The removal of the Immigration and Information Bureau from its site on the Quay to a new position near the north end of Market Street overhead bridge allowed the completion of J Shed in 1912/13; C Shed was extended 150 feet (45.7m) westwards. The extended C Shed was also described as 'a splendid structure' and now measured 480 feet x 70 feet (146.3m x 21.3m). Work was proposed to extend I Shed for about 100 feet (30.5m) easterly to a total length of 340 feet (103.6m). The work was described as 'probably the last important step to be taken on the Quay', which was not a very prescient observation.

During this period, alterations to the eaves and gutters of all sheds were completed and electric lighting along their water sides was improved by the installation of brackets of light angle-iron which extended outward and upwards about three feet (0.9m) from the fascia board. The Commissioners reported that 'the general effect of these brackets is also very good'. Roofing sheets on the sheds had become corroded and were replaced in many places.

In the early years of the war - 1915/16 - the old South Mole wharf was demolished and timber from it was used to replace old planking between the railway lines at the back of G, H and I Sheds.

Since the construction of the Quay, substantial teredo (shipworm) damage required considerable reconstruction of the substructure twice. Engineers had wanted, when this first occurred, to replace timber structures with reinforced concrete. However, at least partly due to lobbying from the timber industry, timber was used. During the second reconstruction - from 1916/17 through to the 1920s - timber was replaced with reinforced concrete. Eventually, the whole substructure of the Quay was replaced with reinforced concrete. This was the first major marine construction in this medium in the State.

If I may diverge from the main theme, I would like to touch on two events that occurred in May 1919. The first was the famous Bloody Sunday. I will not attempt to do more than summarise this. However the tragic battle on that day, between the lumpers on one hand and the police and armed volunteers on the other, resulted in the death of one lumper, Tom Edwards. The heritage of Victoria Quay cannot be assessed properly without taking note of this.

In 1917, the Lumpers Union refused to load flour on a ship to Singapore, believing - and there was some evidence for this - that the flour would be taken on to Germany. State and Commonwealth governments reacted quickly and provocatively. The Commonwealth Government used wartime regulations to force lumpers to work beside the scabs who formed an alternative union, the Fremantle National Waterside Workers Union. They were given preference over the lumpers who were often unemployed. Disputation, and sometimes physical struggle, continued between these two groups during the war.

Soon after the end of the war, a virulent strain of influenza - the 'Spanish Flu” - spread throughout the world. The Fremantle Harbour Trust required ships, on arrival, to be fumigated and then quarantined for seven days in Gage Roads. The SS Dimboola arrived on 10 April 1919, carrying several passengers believed to be suffering the disease. Merchants, waiting urgently for needed cargoes, pressured the Commonwealth Quarantine officials to allow the vessel to berth before the lumpers were satisfied that it was safe to do so.

The lumpers and the scabs for once united in refusing to unload the vessel, but the scabs broke ranks on 12 April and began to unload it. The lumpers forced them off the wharf and then picketed the vessel. The Premier, Hal Colebatch, issued an ultimatum on l May, but the lumpers - supported by a large part of the Fremantle community - held out. On Sunday 4 May, Colebatch travelled down river in launches with armed police and volunteers. Again, l have to summarise: the volunteers started to erect a barricade between B and C Sheds to protect the scabs working on the Dimboola. During the subsequent violent confrontation, a lumper, Tom Edwards, was struck on the head and severely wounded. The Riot Act was read and an order was given to issue live ammunition to the police. The senior police officer in Fremantle, Inspector Sellenger, refused to obey, helping to prevent bloody carnage. 4 The threat of violence was averted by the coolness of Sellenger and Alex McCallum, Secretary of the State Labor Federation. They both stepped out from opposing ranks and arranged a truce.

Later in the day, after another mass meeting on the Esplanade, the lumpers and their supporters marched to the wharf in a procession headed by hundreds of returned soldiers, many of them in uniform. On reaching the wharf, the demonstrators smashed the barricades and dumped them in the harbour.

Tom Edwards died on the evening of 7 May. The dramatic events and the tragic death diverted attention from another event that underscored the day with irony. Sir John Forrest - elevated to the Peerage as Baron Forrest - had sailed for London in August 1918 to take up his seat in the House of Lords. He died aboard ship while it was anchored off Sierra Leone on 3 September. The remains of this once robust explorer and masterful politician, whose vision had helped to bring about the construction of Fremantle Harbour as the State's principal port, arrived on the SS City of Poona while the battle raged on Victoria Quay. He was buried at Karrakatta on the day that Tom Edwards died. It is possible, however, that Tom Edwards' funeral was attended by a larger crowd than attended Forrest's. One lumper who witnessed the former as an eight-year old, said that the line of mourners stretched from the city of Fremantle to the cemetery in Carrington Streets

Late in the same month. the harbour - and, indeed, the city - came close to destruction. The SS Palgowan berthed at North Wharf with a load of explosives. After most the crew had gone ashore, a fire broke out in the ship's hold. The Third Mate, Ralph Henry James, although aware of the acute danger, donned an asbestos suit and went below to flight the fire while the ship's Engineer, Fielding, pumped oxygen to him. If these two officers had waited until the Fire Brigade arrived it is probable that the fire would have taken hold. It was reported that there was enough TNT on board the vessel to blow up Fremantle. James was awarded a silver Sea Gallantry Medal, and Fielding a bronze medal. 6

After the war the economy recovered slowly. One economic historian has written:

During the thirty years following 1913, the Western Australian economy, which had just experienced two decades of unparalleled prosperity, was subjected to a series of the most severe external shocks [of its first 150 years]. These included the two World Wars, an international depression, and a major drought. The main, in fact startling, consequence of these difficult years of consolidation and readjustment was that the 1913 level of real per capita income was not exceeded until 1950...on average, a generation of Western Australians, who had come to expect marked advances in real income, had to adjust to the idea of static average living standards in the long term, and the possibility of their deterioration in the short term. 7

It is, therefore, to be expected that public works programmes were not pursued with so much vigour and optimism in this period. On Victoria Quay, work on the Sheds mainly took the form of maintenance or alterations. In 1921, D Shed was partly re- roofed with a 'patent timber roofing' produced experimentally by the State Saw Mills. 8 Three years later, this roofing was reported to be 'not entirely successful, owing to shrinkage of boards and filling of the weather stops with coal dust, etc.', which resulted in a number of small leaks. I do not know if any of this patent roofing survived when D Shed was subsequently rebuilt; this would require detailed architectural assessment.

In 1924, fruit shippers requested modification of one shed to provide cooler storage for fruit awaiting shipment. The Commissioners rejected the proposal as 'at most a costly experiment with no hope of achieving the object aimed at'. 9 The Trust was not prepared to tie up the use of one of the general purpose sheds for long periods. A deputation of the fruit shippers explained that there was no need to insulate the shed; all that was required was increased ventilation to allow for cooling of fruit 'after a heated run from the country in a rail wagon' and to allow carbonic acid, given off by the fruit, to be dispersed. The Commissioners agreed to ventilate one shed with 'specially constructed wire netting shutters in all door openings and exhausting cowls in the roofs'. 10 These modifications were so successful it was decided to incorporate them in the design of the new A and B Sheds proposed to be constructed at the west end of the Quay. Oddly, I could find no reference to construction of new A and B Sheds in the Commissioners' annual reports. However, there are PWD contract drawings“ for the construction of A Shed which are dated 1925, and this shed appears to have been constructed in that year, or in 1926, and B Shed soon afterwards.

In 1927, it was decided that C, D, E and F Sheds should be widened and, in the following year, the Harbour Trust Commissioners recommended that all the Sheds be increased to an average length of about 450 feet (137.2m), which was to be achieved by altering the grouping of the Sheds during the reconstruction of the Quay and by the elimination of two of the existing sheds, portions of which would be 'annexed to adjacent sheds'. 12

F Shed

F Shed, c 1926. The harbour was under reconstruction from late 1923 until 1929. F Shed, the one shown, was originally built in 1902/04, under the original designation of E Shed. It was demolished in 1928/29 to make way for the existing E Shed, which was moved to its new location in the late 1990s. Courtesy the Fremantle Port Authority

In 1928/29, D Shed was widened by addition of a back bay 30 feet (9.14m) wide to a total width of 100 feet (30.5m). The three sheds D, E and F were being 'regrouped' into two larger sheds because of the increased length of vessels. The minutes of the Commissioners' meeting of 22 June 1928 considered PWD Plan WA 25579, which was said to illustrate 'the final arrangement of Sheds D-E, E-F and G-H.' These composite sheds would be designated D, E and F. It appears that I Shed should have been mentioned as well, as the minutes of the meeting of 4 January 1929 refer to reconstruction of G, H and I Sheds. This work appears to have included substantial demolition before reconstruction because the minutes of 4 January state that

As originally constructed these sheds were of a three bay design which was not followed in building the subsequent sheds on Victoria Quay; the waterside and landside bays were low in height, while the centre bay was kept well up, and the [Engineer-in-Chief] recommended that in their reconstruction the two low bays would be raised to the level of the centre bay.

The Commissioners agreed. However, it is not clear, without further research, whether D, E and F Sheds were totally demolished before being 'regrouped' or whether parts of E were simply added to D and F. The minutes of 25 October 1929 refer to 'the reconstruction of F Shed [the new F Shed] to be composed of present G Shed with a portion of H Shed'. The same minutes refer to the 'already reconstructed Sheds A, B, C and D'. There are no further references to this work in subsequent minutes.

There is also a possibility that the reconstruction of two new Sheds, F and G - from the old G, H and (probably) I - was not completed. When the Mitchell Government came to power on 23 April 1930, in the early stages of the Depression, it was claimed that the previous government had already spent loan funds - budgetary 'black holes' are apparently not new - and reconstruction and reorganisation of the Quay was about to be brought to a halt because of lack of public funds. However, the original J Shed was at some time redesignated H Shed, suggesting that the work on the new F and G must have been well advanced. This is now a matter of only academic interest as, in 1960/62, the new F and G Sheds were demolished to make way for the Passenger Terminal.

The Commissioners may have been complacent when they quoted the report of their Wharf Manager in 1929: 'the wharves and sheds have cargo-handling facilities which, in my opinion, leave nothing to be desired for the efficient handling of cargo ...' 13

There were no major building works on the Quay during the Depression, the late 1930s and World War II. By the mid 1950s, there were considerable arrears of maintenance. Work commenced to make up these arrears in 1955/56, starting at C Shed and proceeding easterly to F Shed over several years.

In its annual report for 1946, the Public Works Department announced the engagement of a consulting engineer, F.W.E. Tydeman, to work on development of Fremantle Harbour. His report was released in March 1949. Tydeman was appointed General Manager of the Fremantle Harbour Trust in 1950 and held that position with distinction until 1963. He began immediately a programme of mechanisation, including the purchase of two forklift trucks.

Tydeman had proposed seaward expansion of the port, a proposal which would have consumed the Esplanade and, it appears, the remainder of Arthur Head including the Round House. He appears not to have considered the impact of increased traffic through the West End. (Alex McCallum—one of the heroes of Bloody Sunday—had opposed a somewhat similar proposal by Stileman in 1927/28 because he was concerned about the effects on the town and the loss of Bathers Beach.) The government engaged other engineering consultants who supported Tydeman, but the government still favoured extension of the harbour upstream. The Member for Fremantle, J .B. Sleeman, opposed this, saying

we should not destroy our beautiful Swan River. We have a wonderful heritage in that river and we have the right to hand it on to posterity in the manner in which we received it and as it is today. 14

He was also opposed to upstream extension because of the requirement of land resumption in the surrounding township and commercial areas. The government did not alter its decision to extend upriver. However, subsequent developments of the Kwinana Oil Refinery and the berths in Cockburn Sound eventually limited the extent of upriver extension.

The First Stage of the new Passenger Terminal - a two storey building at F Berth - was commenced in 1957/58 and required the demolition of F Shed. Stage II of the Terminal - involving demolition of G Shed - was commissioned on 11 May 1962, and - for the first time - two vessels berthed simultaneously at the Terminal.

Now only four Transit Sheds remain in situ: A to D. Of these, C is the oldest, being fairly substantially as it was when erected 93 years ago. Both E and J (temporarily designated H) Sheds have been relocated. I am uneasy about the relocation of important heritage buildings and I hope that no more of these sheds will be relocated. Incidentally, despite the claims in an advertisement for E Shed Markets, E Shed is not 100 years old, only 68 years.

The physical form as well as the social, commercial and industrial nature of Fremantle has been strongly affected, if not fully determined, by the development of the port, especially the Inner Harbour. Decisions about port facilities at Fremantle—the siting of the early jetties, the siting and construction of the Inner Harbour, the re-location of the railway workshops to Midland, and subsequent harbour developments—have not always been based on consideration of their impacts on the city. All future decisions should be. Victoria Quay, in particular, has an intimate association with the West End and it has been the arena for a rich social history involving lumpers, sailors, the departure and return of servicemen and servicewomen, businessmen, ship-owners and thousands of travellers and migrants. Unforeseen trends, such as the rapid decline of the passenger trade, have also had marked effects on the life and commerce of the city. Before any changes to Victoria Quay are even considered, more detailed impact studies must be undertaken. Substantial changes to the operations on the Quay could have marked effects on the city and the community.

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day 22 June 1997, Fremantle Maritime Centre


Pre 1905 Designation of sheds from east to west. A not built. B, C, D, E, F, G and H built in 1901/04

1905/06 New designation from west to east. Old designations in parentheses; A, B, C (H), D (G), E (F), F (E), G (D), H (C), I (B)

1912/13 J Shed built

1925/26 New A and B Sheds

1928/29 D, E and F 'regrouped' to form new D and new E G, H, and I 'regrouped' to form new F and G J redesignated H

1960/62 F and G demolished to make way for Passenger Terminal

Recent years H (original J) redesignated J and moved to Arthur Head.
E shed relocated.


1 'Victoria Quay and its Architecture: Its History & Assessment of Cultural Significance', City of Fremantle, 1991, typescript

2 PWD Plan WA 9421 (revised 16 02 02), State Records Office

3 Western Australian Year Book, 1902-04, p 1089

4 Bill Latter informed me that he had discovered that Sellenger had refused to obey the order

5 Bryn Griffiths, Wharfies: a celebration of 100 years on the Fremantle waterfront 1889-1989, Platypus Press, Perth, 1989, p 36

6 Information from the History Department of the Western Australian Museum which has James' medal in its collection

7 GD Snooks, 'Development in Adversity 1913 to 1946', in CT Stannage (ed.), A New History of Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1981, p 237

8 FHT Annual Report, 1921, p 15

9 FHT Annual Report, 1924, p 11

10 FHT Annual Report, 1925, p 11

11 PWD Plan WA 23895, 1925

12 FHT Annual Report, 1928, p 9

13 FHT Annual Report, 1929, p 9

14 WA Parliamentary Debates, 5 & 9, 1951

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