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Fremantle snapshots

Ron Davidson

Davidson, Ron 2001, 'Fremantle snapshots', Fremantle Studies, 2: 65-76.

Fremantle is a city of snapshots. For me at least. Mention Fremantle and the images spin past. Is this free association or a stream of consciousness? Sigmund
Freud or William James? I don’t think it matters. I’ll just set out some of my
snapshots - personal, seemingly trivial, and largely male and white. But, when
the great social history of Fremantle is written, similar but more diffuse snapshot
collections will have informed the author.

My first Fremantle snapshot has my father driving along Cantonment Street
around knock-off time on Victoria Quay. It is the late 1940s. Dad brakes sharply
to allow a cluster of four or five men to saunter across in front of our car. They
are wearing felt hats and serge pants, with cargo hooks hanging from wide
leather belts. For each, a Gladstone bag and a large billy completes the uniform.
They are heading for the front bar of the nearby Fremantle Hotel.

My father is an impatient man and he’s hurrying back to his job as editor of the
Perth Sunday Times and the Mirror, after taking me aboard a new passenger liner
crowded with migrants. Why does he tolerate this arrogant intrusion across our
path without a characteristic outburst?

‘Give them a honk, Dad,’ I suggest helpfully.

‘You don’t honk Fremantle people,’ he explains. I don’t understand why and I don’t ask. We live in South Perth but I accept that my dad understands the social mores of the Port city. He has spent time there during World War II as the Western Australian Director of the Commonwealth Department of Information. Only later do I get his point. Fremantle is a world apart, with a working culture hostile to the rest of the universe which starts at Mosman Park just four kilometres up the railway line, then extends north and east.

After the brief delay we pass the gold rush extravagance that is the Elder’s building. My dad tells me that the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) intelligence unit was housed there during World War II. And that the RAN took some delight in withholding any worthwhile intelligence from their intelligence officer, Commander John James. The RAN also had their doubts about revealing information to the Director of Information. He was a civilian after all. Had he already passed on too much information to the masses? The Navy mounted an armed raid to search Dad’s desk during his first week on the job. The raiders uncovered a map of Fremantle. They seized it. Was it a spy map? Dad told the raiders he’d bought it at Coles for threepence. They left grumpily and RAN news was difficult to obtain for a while after that.

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Frank and Mavis Davidson, complete with newspaper, caught by street photographer in the 1940s. (courtesy Ron Davidson)

Also, when the glamour cruiser Sydney left Fremantle in November 1941 on routine escort duty - and did not return - there was a feeling that perhaps publicity was a prelude to disaster. My father stops the car. He is no longer in a hurry. He tells me how he used reporters’ tactics to stimulate the information flow. He and Commander James would go to the Fremantle Hotel where, as Alec Smith mentioned in his reminiscences published in the first edition of Fremantle Studies, occupational class boundaries were clearly drawn. Sailors and lumpers drank in the front bar, where those who had just impeded our car were now settling in. Ships’ officers and maritime company managers drank in the saloon bar. (The occasional woman drinker was restricted to the Virgins’ Parlour, which was a small room.)

Our investigative reporters visited the saloon bar where the skippers from neutral ships drank, apparently quite copiously, then told the two spectacular sisters who tended the bar what ships they had seen along the way and where they seemed to be heading. Dad (a non-drinker) tells me that he and James would quiz the barmaids about what they’d heard recently, and the cause of naval intelligence was advanced. Things were different in Fremantle, even in wartime.

Except for the arrival of a grand new ship or a similarly grand relative from Britain or the eastern states, Fremantle remains foreign territory for me. While waiting for a ship to leave - a big night out on Victoria Quay in the forties - a friend of my father tells me that there is in Fremantle a rather disagreeable dislike of authority. I see this for myself while crouching among the tangle of piles and cross beams beneath the wharf decking, together with some robust old men who I now imagine must have been about forty. The unfortunate wharf inspector is strongly abused as he tries firstly to catch us then warn us against fishing from ferry landings.

Fisher: We’re not doing any harm. Just fishing.
Inspector: And I’m just doing my job.
Fisher: Then why don’t you book us on the spot?
Inspector: Alright. What’s your name?
Fisher: Rotten bastard!

I note this antagonism again in the fifties. I am now a seventeen-year-old schoolboy doubling as a Saturday afternoon journalist. My assignment is to report on a Fremantle Derby - between South and East Fremantle football teams - at Fremantle Oval. As with most Derbies this one is close and spirited. South loses. A rare event. They are arguably the best football team in Australia.

My snapshot focuses on a girl among the large group of antagonistic South supporters throwing orange peel at the umpire, the immaculate and infuriatingly aloof Ray Montgomery. He is a Midland Railway Workshops carpenter-turned art teacher. That alone is cause for suspicion in Fremantle. Monty is hit as he makes for the umpires’ change rooms beneath the rather shabby Victoria Pavilion. There is no protective netting. He pauses and turns towards the girl: ‘Some day you’ll grow up to be a lady. You might start now.’

A second snapshot. The comment attracts another missile, an intact orange this time, thrown by the girl’s boyfriend. Squelch! It has connected at close range. Orange juice spreads through Ray Montgomery’s whiter-than-white shirt. Two young police officers arrive on the run. They appear to have trapped the offender against the old perimeter fence. The fence is topped with rusty barbed wire. There is no escape. Then the crowd closes protectively about the orange-thrower while legs are thrust across the path of the police-on-the-run. A man’s boot brings down the first cop, a woman’s shoe the second. The youth is hoisted over the fence and escapes, to some applause, into the long gloomy bars of the nearby Oddfellows Hotel (now the Norfolk). The police pick themselves up, bleeding from multiple grazes. They trudge back to the station. ‘We’re from Fremantle too,’ one of them grumbles. There is no visible pity for them.

This may be a somewhat misleading story, linking as it does Fremantle with aggression. John Todd, the South wonder boy of the fifties whose dazzle was dimmed by a tragic knee injury, is standing where Ray Montgomery stood forty years before. He is now the South Fremantle coach and his team is in difficulty. He laments:

‘We don’t have any mongrel in us. That’s our problem. East Fremantle’s always had plenty of mongrel.’

For many years my visits to Fremantle remain occasional. I don’t feel I belong there but I go to football matches as part of my work and buy Benny’s handmade cassata as part of my pleasure. I know Fremantle is where the Gaol is. Its spirit pervades my consciousness. My copy often has footy players kicking gaols instead of goals.

Eventually, in the mid-seventies, I come to live in Fremantle. Houses are cheap there. The Italians are moving from their solid limestone cottages, with tiled madonnas protecting the front doors, to suburban Spearwood where cement lions serve a similar function. Fremantle looks sad. It is tipped to become an industrial centre. A slum, say some. ‘We’re finished as a residential area ... We are going industrial ...’ the Mayor of Fremantle, Sir Fred Samson, has proudly decreed during an interview with the Sunday Times. The new residents don’t want this to happen.

Soon I am standing outside Victoria Hall. The handsome hall has entertained Fremantle for more than seventy years but is being auctioned, with subsequent demolition likely. There is a plan to widen High Street and replace the wonderful facades with tall office buildings. Just like Perth. There is an apparently successful bid for the building. Then Bob Olson, a Builders Labourers Federation organiser and Fremantle Society committee member, steps forward. He is a shambling silver-haired man with a face that contractors on building sites like to punch.

There is a green ban on this building, he announces solemnly. What he doesn’t need to say is that it will be difficult to erect a replacement building there. The crowd understands. The Fremantle Society, the residents’ heritage action group headed by doughty campaigner Les Lauder, has a few members hanging around to savour the moment. Others, possibly from more respectable suburbs, have gone home, alarmed by this display of resident muscle.

To keep the preservation movement rolling in the mid-seventies, it becomes essential to get elected to the Fremantle City Council more community members rather than businessmen with houses in Applecross. I am campaigning for one of these local residents in Bellevue Terrace on election day. At house after house kids say: ‘Dad’s out fishing.’ That’s a nice way to spend a Saturday morning, I tell myself. Only when I walk into a craypot rope getting its pre-season stretch between power poles in Fothergill Street, do I realise that this is serious fishing. Fishing for a living. I have a lot to learn.

1986 and I am still learning. I’m standing at level seven of Fremantle Hospital with Connie Ellement, a persistent, noisy and frequently cranky woman in her mid-seventies. We are writing The Divided Kingdom, her autobiography focusing on a childhood spent on the Goldfields; playing precariously under the wharf in Fremantle; in the Salvation Army children’s home in Cottesloe; then, in the mid-twenties when Connie is old enough to work in her mother’s boarding house, back in Fremantle. Connie has a particular talent for reproducing the rich pictorial scenes from her life on the Goldfields and in the children’s home. But her Fremantle memories have mostly faded.

I am teaching psychology at the University of Western Australia. Researchers have become interested in anecdotal memory rather than the sterile learning of list upon list of nonsense syllables. I leave Connie with a pen and notebook, hoping the view across the rusting rooftops will reactivate her Fremantle stories. It seems to. She tells me about the restaurants with sixpenny meals; coal-dusted lumpers travelling in the rear of trams so they won’t dirty the other passengers; Italian fishermen and their families with, as Connie’s mother put it, ‘no carpets and no butter in their houses’. The Italians in Connie’s memories are poor and crowd into rented inner-city cottages which, two generations later, they will own.

Connie generates powerful images. Their focus is a small stone cottage in the city centre, 28 Nairn Street. Here her mother ran a boarding house and assisted the (illegal) SP bookie wagering in the side lane. When Connie’s hipbone has knitted we walk to her old home now number 20. The current owner, Fred Watson, invites us in. Connie strolls around. She recalls her mother’s boarders sitting around the kitchen table. There is a butcher, and a candlestick maker from Burford’s soap factory in North Fremantle, which inspired the expression ‘not worth a bar of Burfords’. But there are a number of lumpers instead of the baker from the nursery rhyme.

She remembers lumpers chatting, then their picaresque solidarity. She recalls her uncle Len explaining to her what it meant to be a lumper. This seemed like a religion based on the values of Bloody Sunday, the 1919 Fremantle wharf riot in which they participated, apparently with relish. She remembers thinking how their approach to life contrasted with the philosophy of sin and redemption she’d brought back from the Salvationists.

At the back of 20 Nairn Street Connie notes where the cocky’s cage swung. Cocky Wright was a large white cockatoo who carried the family name of Connie’s mother. The memory of his favourite vocalisations returns to Connie: Cocky Wright mimicking the sound he heard most mornings as the neighbours vomited after a few too many the night before.

We walk on - along a lane and into Bannister Street. It’s the path taken by Connie sixty years earlier, attracted by the familiar sound of a Salvation Army brass band marching with a purpose down the next street. She knew they liked to play where sin was strongest but, at thirteen, she couldn’t imagine what sins were being committed in this street crowded with sailors. She remembers feeling uncomfortable and drifting back into the shadows. Later she discovered the band was playing outside a celebrated brothel known as the Palms.

Fifteen years later the Palms is where Fremantle folklore has Ron Warren queuing outside. Warren will become a city father but, at 14, he is generating some pocket money. He has just taken over the family business, Warren’s Menswear, with his father being called up early in World War II. To gather the pocket money he waits outside, moving forward every ten minutes or so until he is close enough to the doorway to smell a distinctive melding of sea air, Dettol and cheap perfume wafting out the doorway. Then he trades his place with an eager American serviceman bearing American dollars. There was never any shortage of Americans who wouldn’t wait.

I leave Connie, wanting to know more about Fremantle and its lumpers. I complain there isn’t much to read. ‘Go see Jimmy (Dix) in South Street,’ I’m told.

His father was a lumper who died when Jim was a boy; his brother was a lumper; Jim was a lumper. He sends me to Fremantle Cemetery. He tells me the row and number of the graves of his father and his brother. I go to the cemetery and look around. The Lumpers Union buries its dead. Row after row of headstones - a small marble plaque enclosed by an iron rail or later a granite surround. Most are the same, except for a few whose families have chipped in for something just a little grander. But the grandest headstone is for Tom Edwards who, on Bloody Sunday, ‘gave his life to the successful endeavour to free his fellow men from the pangs of hunger on the wharves of Fremantle’. What will happen when the plots have to be renewed in 2012 and there are only a few hundred rather than thousands working on the wharf? I wonder.

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Some are more equal ... Tom Edwards’ gravestone towers over a field of the graves of other members of the lumpers union, Fremantle Cemetery. (Courtesy Ron Davidson)

I encounter my next Fremantle snapshots in the Battye Library in Rest-of-the-World-perth. I am writing High Jinks at the Hot Pool on the life and times of the Mirror, a weekly paper designed to titillate males and massage their small-town prejudices. Fremantle is, a Mirror of the twenties tells me, a place where ‘blowflies use the rows of apples in the Market Street windows of Greek fruit shops as aerodromes’, but concedes that when they ‘cooka da schnap’ they’re OK.

World War II Fremantle also generates a fantasy for the newspaper to boost its rocketing readership. I read as a breathless Mirror tells its readers of the exotic Fremantle women:

‘They swept across the port as the sun went down and joined sailors in orgies in ships, landing barges, cargo sheds and under the wharf itself’. An allied (code for American) serviceman is quoted: ‘I can’t make them (Fremantle women) out. They never ask for money. They don’t even want cigarettes. I can only think they must be sex maniacs’. And all of this is based on a story of two women being gaoled for being idle and disorderly. Idle? Unlikely.

Mabel Troy is the wife of Paddy, the Fremantle working class hero and she responds the following week. These are not Fremantle women. Fremantle women work and look after families. The ones sweeping across the port - if such there be - must be from somewhere else.

Dad guides me through more old Mirrors. He introduces me to Ernest ‘Shiner’ Ryan, another Fremantle hero. In 1914 Shiner became Australia’s first armed hold-up man to use a car. Then for twenty-five years he refined the more gentle skills of a burglar. He could open a shop padlock with his hands behind his back, not looking at all suspicious. But he still spent most of his time in goal, mainly Fremantle Gaol.

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Kate Leigh on her husband 'Shiner' Ryan: 'His brains were in his fingertips ...' (Courtesy Ron Davidson)

Fremantle of the forties and fifties came to love Shiner. My father’s newspaper stories assured that. Shiner fixed kids’ toys, painted allegorical scenes with titles like ‘The Black Sheep’ (Shiner of course), kept the prison clock on time while he was doing time, used old radio parts to make battery jiggers for local horse trainers, silver soldered brass instruments used in the Salvation Army band, and poured counterfeit coins in the gaol workshops. The Superintendent passed them across the bars of Fremantle hotels.

Shiner carried a police bullet in his bum. It was painful but the prison surgeon wouldn’t remove the bullet, saying it would provide evidence of an encounter which would put Shiner back behind bars.

The Mirror has an idiosyncratic view of the important. It reports Shiner’s every move around Fremantle, particularly his marriage to Sydney’s Queen of the Underworld, Kate Leigh, at St John’s Church. When Shiner dies in Fremantle in 1957, Dad rings Kate in Sydney. ‘His brains were in his fingertips. He could open any lock with a coat-hanger,’ Kate says, referring to an incident from the Shiner legend when he opened a sports equipment locker at South Terrace Primary School (opposite his home) after a teacher lost the key. Kate has provided Shiner with a perfect and uncharacteristically literate epitaph. I am impressed. It becomes part of the extensive Shiner mythology.

‘I bet Grandpa invented that,’ says my daughter Emma later. And he probably did. But it’s still a great line.

Another brilliant pair of snapshots: Bill Latter, unionist-city councillor-historian-celebrity, displays one of them. It’s a snapshot of a Fremantle building, 77 Pakenham Street, once the Victoria Coffee Palace. It is now a backpackers’ hostel. Bill tells me this is where a number of members of the Industrial Workers of the World lived during World War I. Authorities saw them as subversive and anti-war. This attracted Government spooks, who watched the post box opposite and took away for vetting any letters posted by IWW members.

Bill tells me that when the war ended many in the IWW contingent shifted to small farms in White Gum Valley. They were convinced that capitalism would collapse and turmoil would follow, or that they would be squeezed out of any work because of their earlier radicalism. The result would be the same. Now at least they would be able to feed themselves. And others. Each week they came to a cottage in Russell Street bearing meat, eggs and vegetables for Sarah Jane Edwards, widow of the ‘working class martyr’.

For John Troy, seaman, medical practitioner, briefly the Labor member for Fremantle who provides a conspiratorial presence complete with black beret, 77 Pakenham Street produces other resonances. We stand outside and he tells me that this is where Mum met Dad. Paddy Troy was in port on the Geraldton dredge, the Sir William Matthews, when it came for its biennial refit. He’d come to number 77 and paid his nine-pence for dinner. Mabel Nielson was the waitress at her mother’s boarding house. This was Depression time. There weren’t enough nine-pences to go around and Mrs Nielson went broke after giving away too many free meals.

John tells me how the bailiff placed a large padlock on the door and the furniture was garnisheed. That night a team of helpers with a long ladder rescued the furniture by lowering it from an upstairs window. We walk on. Around the corner is the Workers’ Club where Paddy’s application for membership was blackballed because of a union tiff about Paddy’s communism.

In the mid-nineties I resume the Connie technique. I make a number of visits to the old Beaconsfield Primary School with Ron Hart who was there in the early thirties. My tape recorder is switched on. Ron is a retired Australian Tax Office inspector who feels a little uncomfortable in Fremantle. Is it appropriate for an old Beaconsfield boy to be a tax inspector? He lives in Cottesloe.

Ron starts with his first day at school. He describes arriving there in linen pants, white silk socks and a hat. The boys in melange pants gave him hell. His hat was thrown on the school roof. ‘Go up and get that,’ a big kid commanded one of Ron’s tormentors — who did as directed. Next morning on his way to school, Ron was again met by the big kid.

‘Don’t wear clothes like that to this school’, ordered Frank ‘Scranno’ Jenkins. Scranno produced an appropriately ragged pair of melange pants. They hid the linen shorts, the white socks and the shoes and the hat in a garden, then both went to school barefoot. Scranno would protect the new boy. When the kids decided Ron had just the physique to drape inside a truck tyre and roll down King William Street he still felt secure. Scranno would be at the intersection to catch him.

Why the nickname Scranno? Scranno loved football and would play whenever he could. His mother wanted him to come home for a good lunch so wouldn’t give him sandwiches to eat at lunch time. He was always hungry by then but he stayed to play football. You can complete the story - given that scran is - or was - slang for food.

On our way down Lefroy Road, Ron and I pause outside what used to be the local butcher’s shop. In the snapshot Jack ‘Corp’ Reilly from Christ the King convent on the hill is sitting outside a large plate glass window. Beside him is a pile of stones, just the right size for throwing. He has a free throw at the State School kids, protected from return fire by the fear of breaking an irascible butcher’s window.

Scranno became a football hero with South Fremantle. Jack Reilly likewise. ‘Corp was like a crayfish. His bones were all on the outside. You couldn’t hurt him,’ notes Ron Hart, who played a few games with him.

We are now standing on the beach at South Fremantle. Ron recalls the dreadful moment in 1932 when he stood on the same spot and learned that Ron Doig, captain-coach of South Fremantle Football Club, and a god to local kids, had died of wounds received in a football battle the previous afternoon. As Ron Hart remembers it, he was with Scranno and Corp and Jack (Murray). Each traced a rough circle with a big toe. What did that mean? They didn’t know. They said nothing. Then each headed off in a different direction. The Day Ron Doig Died — it sounds like a good film title. Ron Hart dies of cancer in 1997, before I can ask any more questions.

I bump into Len Lewington, small like the footballer Lewingtons but much more noisy and generally aggressive. He was born in 1913 in Walker Street, where South Fremantle meets the dunes. I ask him about John Curtin. He leads me into his tiny weatherboard cottage where he has lived since 1918 (when he was five). Almost nothing has changed. The racing bicycle on which his brother won many titles in the thirties is still parked in the passage. We sit at the old pine kitchen table. Len starts talking. He leaves no spaces into which I may intrude. This table is where John Curtin came to plan his election campaigns for the federal seat of Fremantle with ‘Old Tommy’ Lewington, the oldest surviving ALP member in Western Australia. Idiosyncratically Len always calls the wartime PM Johnnie rather than Jack or John.

Len tells many stories leading up to the dreadful night when Curtin lost his seat in the 1931 poll. Old Tom was devastated and eventually very drunk He staggered to the brick dunny at the back of the yard (it’s still there.) He vomited. And vomited. And lost his dentures. Next morning Old Tom inspected the toilet bowl; then sent someone to check the outlet pipe into Cockburn Sound. No luck: no teeth.

But the Fremantle story will be informed by more than snapshots of football players, and criminals, and lumpers, and a MHR for Fremantle who became Prime Minister. I meet Bob Hewitt, an international economic geologist, who runs an art bookshop and gallery. Strange things can happen when you move to Fremantle. He’s worried. He is curating an exhibition called ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ featuring ceramics from Australia’s finest potters. Only a day till the opening and nothing has arrived from Joan Campbell, Fremantle’s finest. He mentions it to Joan. She’ll see what she can do.

Next evening the opening is under way when Joan arrives carrying something large and apparently very hot, and wrapped in a couple of protective blankets. Her piece is not long out of the kiln. It is unwrapped carefully. It’s beautiful, says the crowd which gathers around. Bright yellow scattered across a sculptured surface. The price? It’s POA (Price On Application). The crowd backs off. It would have to be expensive, really expensive. Then someone asks how much, almost as a joke. It’s Joan’s joke. The dish is the cheapest in the exhibition.

Funny place Fremantle.

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
21 November 1999


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