Alec Smith, 1999, 'Living in the Fremantle Hotel', Fremantle Studies, 1: 92-110.
My father and mother took over the lease of the Fremantle Hotel on the corner of High and Cliff Streets in 1929, the year I was born. I spent till roughly into my middle age in the same room there. I know a bit about the West End. In reciting my memories of the past, I’m inclined to take a rather flippant view of it because I think there’s enough academics that cover things very well, seriously; and having been brought up in the pub I’m inclined to look on the funny side of it. Members of the family of George Fletcher Moore lived on the site of our old hotel. He was an early settler who became a very prominent colonist. Their home is still there; it nestles in the back of the old shape of the Fremantle Hotel. The Donnybrook stone building you see there today was added in the 1890s. The original cottage of the Moore family had, I think, another storey put on it in the 1860s and if you go round the back of the hotel it is still there. When I was a child some of that part didn’t have electricity, the doors were very low, and the kitchen, which the pub still used in the 1930s, was an old ship’s galley. I don’t know what they’ve done to the interior of it since the America’s Cup because I haven’t been upstairs since the early 1980s. But that was their home, and he became, as I say, quite a prominent colonial citizen.
He wrote in 1834:
Fremantle is a bare, barren looking district; the shrubs are cut for firewood. A few wooden houses among ragged looking tents and contrivances for habitation. One poor hotel, one poor public house into which everybody crowded.‘ The Colonists are a cheerless, dissatisfied people with gloomy looks who plod through sand from hut to hut, to drink grog and grumble out their discontent to each other.‘
They all mention the sand and the limestone, the glare of approaching Fremantle then; it was all sand and limestone, so to English and Irish people, who were used to green fields, it must have been quite a surprise.
The Captain of the Beagle also noticed the sand and the barren landscape. The Beagle was the ship that had carried Charles Darwin on his voyage around the world, when he started formulating his theory of evolution. He wasn’t aboard on this occasion. But the Captain of the Beagle said after looking at Fremantle that there was nothing wrong with the place that you couldn’t pass through an hourglass in a day.
The distinguished British author Anthony Trollope arrived later in the 1870s. He said he didn’t meet anybody in Fremantle worth introducing to the reader. 3 So that was what they thought about Fremantle.
As opposed to them I have a lovely character in my books. In 1941 the Australian coastal vessel Mareba was on the island trade to New Guinea and the Pacific and generally around the Australian coast. Syd Jones was the cook on board, and I was very lucky, some years ago, to find a copy of his book Prisoner of the Kormoran which he wrote whilst in Fremantle in the early 1940s.
“I find I’ve got to hand it to the West Australians for hospitality and kindness. They live in a paradise, free of many of the serpents that infest the eastern states”. (The crew all came from the eastern states.) “They have the art of being happy in a guileless way and they have not yet learnt to look on visitors, even humble seamen, as objects of suspicion and exploitation. And so two weeks in Fremantle and Perth were easy to take, except for the headaches that shore leave is so apt to cause when you make the most of it”. 4 This is a flattering but accurate view of Perth and Fremantle. It was the only one I was able to pick up from seamen visitors of those times.
The worst one I ever found was written by Captain D.B. Shaw of the United States barque Saranak, which visited us in October 1892. It would have gone to the Long Jetty. Extracts from Shaw’s letters to Messrs Simpson and Shaw of New York, owners of the Saranak, show exactly what he thought of us and our weather. He was here in the winter. On the weather:
It is certainly the worst place I or anyone else ever saw. No place to send a ship of this size, I would not come to this port again if they’d made me a present of the vessel. I never get any rest day or night, keeps me all the time fixing something up, fenders drying up as fast as I put them in. I have bought two sets besides the one I have on board. 5
Regarding wharf labourers:
Gentleman I have been in a good many places in my time, but this is the worst damn hole I ever saw. No one will do anything but work against the ship. They are half drunk all the time and don’t care what they do. The ship has to feed them and give them all the money and tobacco they want or they will make trouble. They are a dirty lot. 6
I was never so sick of a place in my life and may the curse of Christ rest upon Fremantle and every son of a bitch in it, God damn them all. I remain Gentlemen, your obedient servant, D.B. Shaw. P.S. Any man that would come to Fremantle or send a ship a second time is a damned ass. 7
Well, that was their view of Fremantle.
I’m delighted that my father moved here the year I was born and I grew up here, particularly in the West End. It was a delightful place for a child to grow up in the 30s. We had the Round House to play in, the wharf, the mole, the Esplanade, the dog beach and City Beach [now known as Bathers Beach], and there were other children to play with down here then. Mind you, citizens are moving back into the place now. But in those days the business houses usually had the accountant or the manager living upstairs. They had children so we all had kids to play with. It was a great adventure world.
The hotel I grew up in was on the comer of Cliff and High Streets. As I’ve mentioned, it was built around the home of the Moore family. It was first licensed in the 1870s by a man named Seubert, who licensed quite a few hotels in Fremantle. They were Germans who came here, I think, in the 1860s, and by the 1870s they were selling food and drink in Fremantle. They provided excellent food and drink, and watering for your horse. They evidently did a pretty good job, because the hotel went well. But in the 1890s, with the gold rush, the whole town took off. Fremantle is largely a product of the 1890s and the early turn of the century, the Edwardian period, when most of the buildings we see today were erected.
The Fremantle Hotel had about 30 rooms available for guests. We had long staying guests, because every pub then had its remittance men. There were always remittance men out from England. People used to send them out here. There must have been thousands of them all around Australia. They used to get their registered mail. They were sent out from England for some reason. So we had our obligatory remittance man and other regulars who had held positions on the waterfront. We’d take occasional tourists or people travelling by the P & O Line, but not many because the hotels weren’t geared for tourism in those days. If a couple arrived off the Oronsay or the Strathnaver in those days, my mother and father would quiz them relentlessly to find out if they were really married. They certainly wouldn’t get a room unless they gave adequate proof that they were not living together or had just met on the boat. Once they’d passed that test and been fingerprinted etc., my father would nod to their luggage and say, “if you follow me, I’ll show you the room”. So they would lug their luggage up to the second or third floor and, depending upon which wing they got, if they got the west wing they had a view of the carriers’ rank, and the public conveniences put there by the Council. They could watch all the horse and draymen going to and from the toilet. If they were lucky enough to get over the other side, overlooking the Customs House, they could see the WA Government railway shunting yards. This was very interesting because it was a very busy shunting yards then, and you could sit there all day and watch people shunting. There were hundreds of men in there shunting. I think it was about the biggest shunting yard in Western Australia apart from East Perth. So tourists had a lot to look at - there were the draymen and the shunting yards!
The hotel had a large cellar underneath which was continually flooding because Cliff Street always flooded then, as it was reclaimed land. When the first settlers came here, the Round House or Arthur’s Head, which the Round House is on, stuck up out of the mire which was around it. It wasn’t until you got half way up High Street that you really hit solid land, so they filled it. But it always flooded, and to my knowledge still does if you get a heavy rainfall. So cellars were pretty useless, although you needed them in a pub. The P & O Hotel, which is 200 yards further up from us, was bad. Our cellar had to be constantly pumped, though, it was always half full of water.
There was a passage running down the middle of the Fremantle which divided the Front Bar from the Saloon Bar. That was every bit a social division in those days. Lumpers and railway men, horse and dray drivers, they drank in the Front Bar, occasionally with seamen who they were doing business with, or mates off shifts. The other side was strictly the suited brigade, that is shipping company managers, wool buyers, bank managers, professional men. They stuck very rigidly to those rules. All Front Bars or Public Bars and Saloon Bars in the 1930s operated that way.
Unlike nowadays, when the trend is for barmaids to take their gear off, the barmaids of the 1930s were very well dressed. They wore everything; all their wages must have gone on their dress, their jewellery, their hair styles, their shoes and their perfume. I could tell who was on duty by the smell of the perfume as I came down the stairs. Our leading barmaid stayed with us all her working life. Most of our staff stayed with us for most of their working lives. Our leading barmaid was called the Duchess by the men who fell in love with her. And everybody seemed to fall in love with her. She was married when she was young and divorced but never married again. Occasionally she had favourites but seemed to play them all, and she did it for many, many years. Many sea captains and first mates and wool buyers and other business men fell for our barmaids, including the Duchess, because they were extremely glamorous, and they conducted themselves like ladies. They ruled their bars with a rod of iron. That applied in the Front Bar too. Swearing was out. Bad behaviour was frowned upon, and an apology was required to the barmaids for any infringement of the rules. I’m not saying there weren’t roughies around, there were. But they were sorted out, and they didn’t stay for long in a nice hotel. Nice by those standards. But the Duchess was our most memorable, my most memorable barmaid. They were all good, but the Duchess was unforgettable. Tall and very, very nice looking and able to conduct herself in any company. Ships sailed late because the captains were trying to get a date with the Duchess.
Despite the depression the hotel was busy. All hotels were busy. Many people were suffering abominably. The lumpers weren’t getting regular employment then. I suppose the railway men were, but others were just getting by. But bars were still busy. When we talk about crime and the social problems today, drunkenness was an obvious problem then. Men would collapse in the street and lie in the gutter. That saying is gone now, ‘he lies in the gutter’, but they did. It didn’t happen often, but it wasn’t uncommon to be coming home from school and see a man lying in the gutter, or obviously the worse for drink. You don’t see that now, of course they’re all driving their cars. Drunkedness was a problem, but that was all. I’ve been living in the hotel nearly 50 years, and we were never robbed or attacked. It was a charmed life really.
Fremantle then offered good schooling for kids. My sisters, who were older than me, took us to the Girton College up on the hill, opposite the Monument. Boys could go there till they were six or seven. Miss Scott and Miss Lightly used to run a very strict girls school up there. It had been an Anglican Boys School when it started in the 1870s, but it was surpassed by the other colleges which opened later in Perth and it became a girls school. After seven, I think it was, you had to go to South Terrace State School or Fremantle Boys. So we were well equipped for schooling and as I say, the whole of the West End was a paradise to play in.
I remember the people who lived in the buildings of the West End took a great pride in them. The management lived there, or caretakers, so we always had families about. You don’t see window boxes outside the buildings now, but one of the large buildings down there had window ledges so wide that the accountant who lived there had two or three acres under crop. He was out there all the time. He had the best window boxes in Fremantle. He even had vegies growing in them. He started wearing a big squatter’s hat; he got so carried away with all this. We used to call him ‘the Squatter’ when he walked up the street on Saturdays to do his shopping. They used to work until midday, and then go out to the shops. We used to follow him, pointing at him and calling ‘the Squatter’, because he looked like he’d come from Meekatharra instead of Cliff Street.
When the depression really hit hard, he was, unfortunately, one of the first people sacked. I heard the story that he was out on his window box fiddling with the tomatoes, because he couldn’t tell his wife that they had to leave. Eventually he called to her in the room and said, ‘We’ve got to go, we’re ruined’. She said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I’ve been sacked, we’re finished, I’m ruined.’ She said, ‘Don’t be silly.’ He said, ‘What will we do?’ She said, ‘Just walk off like all the other big squatters do.’ (She called him ‘the Big Squatter’ too.) So he did, forgetting they were three floors up. He became our first casualty of the Great Depression - ‘the Big Squatter’.
The lumpers were great fun, they engendered great humour. When there are so many men who work together and drink together in the bar, the humour is tremendous. This is something we have lost today. I think that affected me greatly, their humour. The wharf was run with a strict hierarchy. The merchant service captains were the stevedore supervisors. They were all Captains and Master Mariners, and it was good job for them to get if they came ashore. They were called Captain. When the phone rang in our bar the Duchess would call ‘Captain!’ and about 20 men would go to the phone. They were all Captains. We had so many Captains it was unbelievable.
But one guy burst through the social barrier, a bloke named Rocky, who was as tough and as hard as nails. He burst through. He went from a lumper, to a foreman, to a supervisor. I don’t think it ever occurred again. When he became supervisor, he treated his own lumpers with great disdain. He was tough. If they argued with him, he would bring them ashore. In our pub, or any pub, he’d come in, call them outside and give them a hiding. They were ‘frightened of him. He was physically strong as well as very able. He was a bully, there was no doubt about it, but he did his job.
The uniform that Captains wore then was a suit, a very conservative . A suit and tie, a hat, and brightly polished shoes. They’d often get their old shipping company tie. Polishing shoes was a big fetish then, because on the waterfront, they were out of the hobnailed boot brigade and had shiny shoes. Rocky’s shoes were absolutely unbelievable, his suits and his waistcoat, bob chain, he was immaculate. He used to be so hard on the lumpers. They used to come and tell us in the bar that he'd just sacked ten men, or he’d sacked five. Sometimes he’d sack six, leaving only three working on the ship which belonged to his company. He was sacking mad and ruthless, but efficient.
One day, six men in the hold of a ship that was being supervised by Rocky were told that he’d gone ashore, home to Beaconsfield to have morning tea with his wife. He rarely did this, but it must have been her birthday or something. So they decided to have a cup of tea, which they were normally never game to do on his boats. They were too frightened of him. So they were having their cup of tea, and all of a sudden there was a movement at the top of the hatch. They could tell by the shoes that it was him. They were the best shoes Pearse Bros had - no lumper could afford those. They scattered to hide behind the bails as Rocky’s voice called down, “Don’t move, any of you, stay where you are!” One guy got far enough to remain concealed. Rocky came down and lined them up, as was his wont. He called them out; “507 Wagner sacked, 805 Byfield sacked, 505 Peyton sacked.” He called out all the names and the numbers and told them to get off. Sacking then was a big thing. Losing that money was a big blow to them. Rocky put his book away. As they were all going up the ladder, he noticed that he’d got five numbers and there was a sixth cup sitting to one side. To the last pair of boots that were disappearing through the hatch he yelled, “Hey, whose tea is that?” Back came the lumper, “Liptons.” He said, “Well, tell him when he gets back he’s sacked too!” They could tell good jokes about each other, they really could.
In the Front Bar chits, or lending, was the thing. There was a fellow who worked here in this building, the administrator of the Government Stores who lived off chits. I don’t know what happened to his pay, but he would come in once a month and he would get out his chits. He went other places for various things, and out came all his chits. I suppose it’s like having a card now. There wasn’t a lot of cash; chits were the big thing. That made it rather hard for my parents at times to juggle what should have been a cash business, because the brewery was ruthless. If you didn’t pay on the job, you didn’t get your beer and you were out of business. You always had to have the money there. Sometimes the staff had a problem getting their money.
By and large my brothers and sisters and I found it quite an enjoyable life in the thirties. As I said, there weren’t many pests. Fighting was a problem then. There were a few known troublemakers, who with a few beers in them would journey up and down the High Street looking for problems with people in other pubs. We were out playing cricket in High Street. Playing cricket in High Street sounds silly now, but there were very few cars and after six o’clock at night all the traffic virtually ceased except for the trams. The trammies would get off when they were turning the tram and they had to switch the wires over. They’d get off and have a bowl with us. One night we heard a commotion coming form the P & O Hotel, so we ran up there knowing there was a fight. As we got near, two constables came running down High Street with their pith helmets on and their pillbox collars and puffing from running in the heat. As they went in the front door this bad man came running out of the Front Bar, the Mouat Street door. He took off down Mouat Street suitably pursued by the two policemen plus our cricket team and the trammies. Of course he was a bad bugger. I thought it's going to be interesting to see what happened to him, because he was really trouble. Anyway as he turned the comer into Phillimore Street, he looked back and saw the policemen were about to grab him. Realising he was about to be done, he dived into the horse trough which stood there. As the constables leaned over to grab him, they were thoroughly drenched. He reared up and said, “You blokes can’t touch me now, I’m a job for the water police”. Some of them were quite funny.
Every pub had its bookmaker. On every corner of High Street and every street around Australia there was a bookmaker who ran an SP book betting business, with runners and all his staff. Every day there was a race on, they were all there. Like this containment policy with prostitution now, they were controlled by licensing police, who were supposed to watch the hotels as well. There was always a running battle between the bookmakers and the police. Because the police didn’t have a car, it was always on foot or on bikes. They’d chase them up and down laneways, but the bookies had lookouts watching who would see them coming. There were two terrible policemen in Fremantle, named Ayling and Arndt. They were famous from Mosman Park to Rockingham. They were ruthless. As plain clothes men they dressed immaculately, like they had just come from Savile Row. All their pay must have gone on their clothes. Anyway, they used to terrorise bookmakers. We had one bookmaker, a lovable character named Jock Laurie, who had our comer for about 30 years. He’d played football for East Fremantle and had become a famous wingman for them. He was so successful that he acquired a car, a 1918 American car, I don’t know what make it was but it had no top on it and it used to go up and down High Street, chugging. Everybody would yell out, “Good day Jock! Good day Jock!” He was so proud of this car. He was the only person in High Street that wasn’t on a bike or on the tram. Ayling and Arndt were always trying to catch him but Jock had lots of people watching out - cockatoos I think they used to call them. They really could never catch him taking his bets.
One day I saw Ayling and Arndt coming down the street and I knew Jock Laurie was out in our back yard doing his business. We had wash houses out in the back yard where they were writing bets. They used to go in next to the copper. There would be watchers watching the doorways and alleyways. I knew they hadn’t seen Ayling and Arndt coming down the street, and they realised they hadn’t been observed also. It was a week day; it must have been an Eastern States meeting. They looked in the back of “Leaping Lena” (Jock’s car) and then they knew Jock was on the premises. I saw them pull a long rope out of the car and tie it to his bumper, and then they tied it on to a lamp pole. Then, kidding and laughing to themselves, they went down the passageway. I was only about six or seven, but I knew this was not good for Jock. Shortly later I hear a commotion going on out the back, and running up Cliff Street comes Jock. I was going to try and tell him, but he brushed me aside. He got his crank and started up “Leaping Lena”, and he leapt in. I was standing by the passage, and I saw Ayling and Arndt come running down it to stop at the front door and watch. Jock got in, threw the car into gear and took off up High Street. Well, when the rope reached the end, the car took off and went right up in the air. It was a testimony to the workmanship of those days that the bumper didn’t come off. The pole didn’t come down, the rope didn’t snap, and he didn’t go through the windscreen. He hit his head and was stunned, but the car came bouncing back onto the road next to two very, very overjoyed and amused policemen. When he got out of the car he started abusing them, but they said, “Look, hold off, hold off!” They didn’t take him away; at least they had a bit of a sense of humour. I could never tell that story about him until he died, because he did not like that at all.
Alec Maru and George Foley were also SP bookies. There were a lot of them. Every comer had them. They were all characters, all known by everybody. They were a bit Damon Runyonish, but that’s how they lived, they lived by their wits. But that was the crime on the comer of Cliff and High in those days, SP betting and kids playing cricket in the street. I can’t think of anything else really that covers that social aspect.
One thing that does linger in my mind from the thirties was the free entertainment. There was the Princess, the Majestic and the Hoyts Theatres, or Hoyts came later, which had sixpenny shows for kids on a Saturday. The Majestic was where Coles is now. There were also a lot of parades then. There were organised events which people used to come to town for. They’d walk all the way in from East Fremantle or from South Beach in their best clothes for something like the Foundation Day parade which was a big one then. In Cliff St was the Naval Reserve Depot, which was housed in what was then the Post Office. It was a beautiful building which was demolished to put that ugly brick wall there. It disappeared overnight. I was tearful when I saw it had gone. The Navy would lead the Foundation Day Parade with the sailors in their high gaiters and fixed bayonets, the officers with frock coats and swords, and the people loved it. They’d applaud. They were demonstrative then with the parade because it was good entertainment. There was also the Anzac Day parade. The Garrison Artillery stationed at the barracks in Burt Street would lead the Anzac Day parade, always with their white pith helmets and brass knobs and high pillbox collars. They looked immaculate. The Garrison manned the two six inch guns at Port Arthur’s Head up behind the Round House. They and the others always put on a marvellous show for Anzac Day. Then there was May Day, when all the workers would parade with their floats and horse and drays, with moving dramatic scenes of the oppressor oppressing the oppressed. They really hated the bosses then, I suppose in many cases with good reason. Firms used to participate, giving things away. Mills and Wares would give away biscuits. Weeties would throw out little packets of Weeties to the kids, things like that. Those parades were a very important part of the town then.
The most famous one I remember was the firemen, who would come to town from all over the State. Five hundred firemen would hit Fremantle every Easter. The hotels would put them up. Some would put up two brigades. They would have their competitions on the oval for the champion Fire Brigade. I believe they still go to North Fremantle, but they don’t do any of the things they used to do. On a Saturday night they’d have the Firemen’s Ball at the Town Hall and the five hundred firemen would march through the town with their brass helmets with the big high scales, silver buttons, the red stripe down their pants, big boots, their firemen’s axes strapped to their belts and big brass buckles. They all carried lighted torches which every now and then they’d swap over and you would see the five hundred firemen all go with their torches waving, it was quite good. A lot of girls used to go to the ball afterwards and tell the firemen they were in distress. I think some of them ended up in distress after the firemen had gone. But the firemen put on a great show.
Cliff Street was then the main commercial street before commerce moved. Everything was done in Cliff Street. All the parades would fall in here down on The Esplanade, and they’d move up Cliff Street and then wheel right into High Street up past the Town Hall where some Vice Regal or very important citizen would always take the salute of the participants in the parade. They were always led by the pipers of the Royal Fremantle Highland Pipe Band, playing Scotland the Brave. To show you how much Fremantle has changed since those days, they still hold some of those parades and they still fall in on the Esplanade, and they’re still led by the pipers of the Royal Fremantle Highland Pipe Band, but now they go up Essex Street and they’re routed left into South Terrace where Papa Luigi takes the salute. The gallant Highlanders are playing Arrivederci Roma! That’s an example of the change that this poor street, Cliff Street, has had to undergo. It’s been downgraded considerably from its status as the leading commercial street in the town. When the Long Jetty went and the wharf spread up that way, the banks and everybody were falling over each other to follow them up to the other end of town. All those buildings down in Cliff Street and the west end of High Street were banks. One by one they all left. They were filled by other people until the 1950s came when they started leaving again because they were horse and dray buildings not suitable for post war business. Again the exodus started which culminated in the sixties I think, with half this end of the town being derelict, understaffed and generally deteriorating. It’s changed now because residents are coming back, but that was the way it was then.
My greatest memory of course was the outbreak of the war, because I was only ten when that started. I was very interested because we used to play down at the wharf. The Navy immediately took over the top floor of our pub. They couldn‘t get out our leading remittance man, Claude Campbell, who’d been there for years, because he’d been there for so long and had nowhere else to go. So they made him an air raid warden. He was Fremantle’s first air raid warden, and he hadn't worked for thirty years. He was a ship’s officer who’d fallen in love with a ticket girl at the Princess Theatre during the First World War. He proposed to her on about his third trip and she knocked him back. He took it so badly, he moved into our hotel on the top floor and never worked again. He was an absolute snob. He would walk up the street and only talk to people he thought were his equals, which were very. very few. He’d never go beyond Market Street. He’d stand in Market Street outside the National Hotel with his hat on, pulled down. He received a registered letter from England once a month, which paid his meagre bills. Nobody saw him eat or drink, he had tins in his room and could make himself a cup of tea but that was all. He was grossly overweight and he went downhill but he still maintained his pride. The girl had obviously hurt him very badly, because he put up with that sort of life for about forty years. He was there long before us and he died there in the mid fifties.
Even the war couldn’t shift him. Because he knew the whole area so well, they made him an air raid warden. They gave him a steel helmet and a whistle, and was he officious as an air raid warden! Somehow he got a gas mask which nobody else had. There was no stopping him then. He ruled this end of town right throughout the war with a rule of iron. Sometimes he put the gas mask on. He was not an attractive man, and in the dark in the blackout you couldn’t tell whether he was wearing it or not. He was frightening in the daytime, let alone during the black out! He frightened me as a child. I was terrified of him, all the kids were. Anyway he came to fame with the war. The war altered the fortunes, I’ve got to say it, of all the publicans and business people in Fremantle. For those who were struggling and just eking out an existence, you know, getting your kids to school and paying the bills and fighting to keep going, all of a sudden the whole ball game changed. It changed for everybody who could earn a living or was now needed. Most people found they were needed, because Elders down on the comer of Phillimore and Cliff became Naval headquarters. All the old ship's captains and ships officers who hadn’t had a job for fifteen years were re-employed. They all had Naval Reserve uniforms on, they all had money again, and the pubs filled up with blokes who were drinking pink gins, dry sherries and martinis, the sort of things we hadn’t served for years, not since the Boer War. And the Duchess was being pursued by Lieutenants and Lieutenant Commanders instead of wool buyers or some Chief Officer off a P&O boat. They were in the money, and so we were in the money, everybody in town was in the money. It was starting to look pretty good. Not so good for those who had to go away of course, or those who wanted to go away.
I remember some of our customers were in the Light Horse. A lot of people were in the militia. The Ryan family (Jack and Syd Ryan owned Ryan & Ryan Hire Cars in Petra St, East Fremantle) were all in the Light Horse, which was sent down to Naval Base as soon as the war broke out. A camp was established there and we used to take beer down to them. The bloke who was commanding the Light Horse then had been in charge of the butter counter at Boans. He had only just been promoted to command this detachment of the Light Horse when the war broke out. He didn’t know the words of command. None of them knew much but he knew nothing. When they came down High Street to turn into Market Street to go down to Naval Base, he didn’t know what to say. So he pulled out his sword and he said, “Tenth Light Horse, around the comer!” and everybody burst out laughing, but fortunately they all heard him and they went in the right direction.
Shortly after that the convoys started coming through. Fremantle saw the best vessels they had ever seen, like the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the Aquitania and the Ile de France. I found it terribly exciting as a boy. Our bar, like all bars, was filled day and night. The Duchess and our other barmaids were pursued by higher ranks all the time as they became more and more in demand, and there were more officers and people with money pursuing women. They were getting flowers and their stock of perfumes increased. I couldn’t tell who was on duty now because everything from Paris seemed to be in the bar all the time.
Our fortunes continued to increase when the Americans arrived. They took over most of the downstairs of the pub. The Australian Navy had now moved into the two top floors, and the local Defence Forces had taken over the dining room and turned it into the No 1 casualty clearing station for the war. They had a full operating theatre with about fifty beds, completely redesigning that half of the ground floor. When they had their practices, all the leading specialists who were in this voluntary home defence medical unit would turn up in their cars or run or bike or however they could get there. Because they used to put on shows and have bangs out in the street, they built a brick wall running down Cliff Street, from the comer of Cliff and High down almost to Phillimore, to protect the windows against the blast. They had all these exercises. We had specialists running around the place, and they’d be ducking into the bar to have a drink in between operations, because fortunately there were no casualties.
It wasn’t all fun and games. The boys off the Sydney used to drink in the front bar. The Petty Officers only used to drink in the Saloon Bar. As everybody knows, they sailed out of Fremantle one day, never to be seen again. That was a terribly sad day for everybody in Fremantle and for everybody in Australia really, when they went. Not many people remember, but only within a couple of months America’s first air craft carrier pulled in here, the Langley. It was a converted collier, and it was racing planes up to Java to defend Java against the Japanese. It sailed out of Fremantle and was never seen again. Everybody felt then that the war was getting close to Fremantle. In fact my father took the Duchess down to the cellar for a stocktake, and my mother, in a fit of quite unwarranted jealousy, flooded the cellar. She didn’t get the Duchess, but she got a German U boat Commander and two Italian frogmen. So the war was here, let there be no doubt about it, we were in danger at that time.
We had people from all over the world here - the Free French were here, the New Zealand Navy was here, the Indian Navy visited us. The biggest group, of course, were the Americans, who made the biggest impression in Fremantle at that time. They made a huge impression. They made a big impression upon me because by this time I was 14 and wearing a khaki school uniform, which all the boys used to wear then with long khaki socks. I came home one afternoon and started to bound up the stairs to go up to my room, but I didn’t know there’d been an American sailor drinking in the bar all day who was telling everybody he was James Cagney’s brother. I’ve since read that James Cagney did have a brother in the Navy who served in the Pacific, and he looked like him, so I have no reason to doubt that he was James Cagney’s brother. However, he turned out to be a thoroughly dislikeable, disagreeable person. Eventually the Duchess refused to serve him because he was too objectionable. He threw his cap down and challenged any man in the bar to fight him, and as they were mostly elderly wool buyers or captains or bank managers, nobody took him on. Then he spied me running down the passage way. He bounded up the stairs after me and caught me on the first landing of the very steep staircase, and threw me up against the wall and started to hit me. I got a hell of a shock. That was the first time I’d been assaulted. I didn’t know what to do. I was completely at his mercy (this is true). All of a sudden I noticed an Australian sailor at the foot of the stairs who was very drunk. His photograph had been in the West Australian only that morning or the previous morning because he was the tallest young man to ever be taken into the Royal Australian Navy. He was about six foot six and about ten stone. He was 18 and very drunk. Well, he came up the stairs and tried to separate me from the American. We were swaying on this landing and the American still kept on hitting me, but the drunken sailor could do nothing about it. All he was doing was distracting him. Down below a crowd had gathered at the foot of the stairs, because we didn’t usually get this sort of thing in our pub. I noticed there was a girl there with a lady. They must have come to use the phone or go to the toilet or something. Ladies didn’t come into the bars then. There was a virgins’ parlour, but not many ladies used it. They were discouraged then from using hotels, except for places that had really proper lounges like the Palace and the Adelphi in Perth. Anyway, eventually this drunken sailor overbalanced and he dragged us all down, about twenty steps. We landed on the welcome mat with me on top of the little girl. I had flattened her completely. I didn’t have time to apologise because I was up on my feet and up those stairs into our private lounge where I hid behind the couch for two years. Years later when the US navy was in port I was watching a large protest march led by a local female politician and antinuclear peace campaigner proceed down Market St. They were chanting “Yankee go home” and other anti American slogans. A retired Lumper standing by me said, “Hey, Smithy! Remember when that American sailor threw you down the stairs of your old man’s pub and you landed on that little girl?” “How could I forget,” I replied. “Well, you know who she is, don’t you?" he continued. “No, I don’t — thank God!” I answered. “Well, that’s her!" he said pointing to Jo Vallentine leading the Yankees Go Home procession through Fremantle.
I had a complete uniform, off the Yanks who used to work in the pub. My brother Gary also had a complete uniform. I have another brother, Peter, who has retired as a very successful banker with Westpac Bank. He was always business inclined, unlike Gary and me. Peter was a business man from day one, and when all these troop ships were going through Peter could see opportunities. The paper kids on the comers found that all of a sudden their role had changed. They were supplying the soldiers and sailors with everything. Whatever someone wants they would run and get it for him, and they were making big money. Sailors would give them two bob for a paper, for a tuppenny paper. They’d get them a bag of lollies and were given ten bob. So Peter was soon in on that.
The sailors and soldiers, particularly Australians and New Zealanders, souvenired everything removable around Fremantle. “No Parking” signs, free standing signs outside tobacconists, everything went. Soon there was nothing left. They took any memento of Fremantle that they could take - the glasses, the pots with “Fremantle Hotel” on them, everything. They even took our cocky. Anything! There was a kangaroo in the First and Last Shop down on the wharf, where the passenger terminal is now. The First and Last shop in Australia. It had a famous kangaroo, a giant stuffed kangaroo. They took that.
Peter was about six then, and he was soon in business. He and his friends would sell souvenirs. The soldiers and sailors didn’t have to go looking for things and stealing them. Peter and his friends would provide them with anything they wanted. But eventually there were so many troops going through they ran out of souvenirs to sell. So Peter had Warwick, my youngest brother who was about 4 (there were six of us), marching for the soldiers. Warwick had a toy tin hat and a local carpenter had cut him a wooden rifle and he had gumboots on and Peter taught him to march. Peter had a tin hat on too, and they would give Peter a penny or sixpence and tell the boy to about turn, stand easy. Warwick would do the whole thing and earn money. So Peter was on his way at six.
One day they were down alongside the railway line, and the soldiers said they wanted a souvenir or something, and Peter said, “We haven’t got anything.” “Got any magazines?” “No, no magazines.” So one soldier said, “What about him?” pointing at Warwick. Peter said “Sixpence.” Warwick went up on his shoulder, and they marched off with him. Fortunately a railway man coming out of the railway gates saw this and told my father, who galloped down to the wharf. By this time they’d gone through the gates where civilians couldn’t go. There was hell to pay. The water police and everybody were down there. They had to search the Mauritania to get Warwick back. He was four years old, and on his way to war! They got him back eventually, and the soldiers got told off, but they didn’t get their sixpence back off Peter. Years later when General Rommel complained about the ferocity of Australian soldiers when they were in the Middle East, I realised it was because they’d just passed through Peter’s hands. He was a great one for our war effort.
He went on to become quite an established banker. In fact he was the first to realise that being born in Fremantle then wasn’t an advantage. It wasn’t trendy or anything like it is now, in fact it was a distinct disadvantage. I remember Gerry Bahen from the P&O Hotel and me going to dances when we were 16 or 17 and taking girls home to Nedlands or somewhere similar. If their parents asked, “Where do the boys come from?” and they said “Fremantle”, they would say “Oh, God, where did you get them from?” Boys started saying they came from the Fremantle/Mosman Park area. You stretched the suburbs. Fremantle was not a good address. There were a lot of nice people in Fremantle, but it just wasn’t in. Peter joined the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac), which was just up the road from us. He wasn’t there five minutes when he realised that this stigma (this was just after the war) didn’t help you. All the managers lived in Peppermint Grove or Dalkeith. He came home to my mother one day and said that he was going for that exam at the bank. And she said, “That’s great.” But he told her that the bank solicitor says there’s something wrong with our birth certificates. Mum said, “What’s wrong, we were married, your father and I, there’s nothing wrong there”. He said, “It’s only a minor thing, but it could affect us all in later life when we’re applying for jobs”. She said, “Right, what do you want to do?” He said, “He’ll do it for nothing for us”. So he took our birth certificates away and I couldn’t help but notice when they came back we’d all been born in Dalkeith! Within two years he had his first country branch. If he kept on telling them he was born in Fremantle, he reckoned he was going to be a cleaner. Fremantle wasn’t the desirable place to be then, but it’s certainly changed now. In fact I can’t even get back in here.
Presented at Fremantle History Society General Meeting
25 June 1996
1 The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council, 1929
4 Syd Jones, Prisoner of the Karmoran, 1943
5 The archives of Cyn Elder Shipping Agent, Fremantle
8 Walter H Ayling left the police force. His son became an Inspector. Arndt went on to become a very senior Inspector in the 1950s.
9 The No 1 casualty clearing station was a temporary hospital to which wounded from an attack on Victoria Quay would be evacuated for treatment.
10 A bang was a simulated noise to represent a bomb blast.
Garry Gillard | New: 11 August, 2017 | Now: 11 August, 2017