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The CBH silos, North Quay: weren't they sexy enough?

Kristy Bizzaca

Bizzaca, Kristy 2004, 'The CBH silos, North Quay: weren't they sexy enough?' Fremantle Studies, 3: 53-64.

For many the Cooperative Bulk Handling (CBH) Silos at North Quay did not fit common perceptions of what heritage is and the traditional notion of a historical building, which was one of the most interesting issues raised in the debate about their demolition in 2000.

This paper is divided into two sections: the first looks at the history of the development of the silos and their demolition; and, the second discusses some of the key issues relating to the preservation of industrial heritage.

1. The history of CBH Silos, North Quay

Although the State‘s wheat industry dates from the 1830s. it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that it began to develop rapidly. Up to this time most of the grain required by the State was imported. Its slow development has been attributed to the failure of adapting European farming knowledge to Australian conditions as well as the use of European seeds unsuited to Australia’s soil and climate. 1

The period from 1900 to the 1920s was a time of rapid growth for the wheat industry in both Western Australia and Australia. With the 1901 release of a rust-resistant strain of wheat and the mechanisation of farm production. the wheat industry increased dramatically. The introduction of fertilizers and trace elements also opened more land for production. By the 1920s, wheat rivalled wool as Western Australia’s primary export. 2

The bulk handling of wheat was first considered in Western Australia as early as 1913 when it was recognised that the traditional bagging of wheat was cumbersome and costly. The high costs associated with producing the hessian bags as well as the large spaces required to store the bags forced wheat growers to search for a better system of moving their produce from the farms to the ships. 3

Delayed by the outbreak of World War I, bulk handling was not again considered until 1920 when agitation among wheat growers forced the Commonwealth Government to take action. It entered into an agreement with The Westralian Farmers Ltd to raise £650,000 for the construction of grain silos and elevators in Western Australia. However, the endeavour was abandoned after American and Australian experts determined that this would prove more costly than the bagging of wheat. 4

In 1929, the issue of bulk handling was again raised. The Western Australian Farmers Ltd and the Trustees of the Wheat Pool of Western Australia combined their interests and, after some research, developed a cheap bulk handling scheme. The scheme involved the use of horizontal grain storage instead of the traditional vertical cells and the conversion of bagging machinery to bucket elevators that could travel up and down the sheds. As part of the scheme, the Railway Department's rolling stock was also fitted out with hessian and canvas liners to prevent the wheat from leaking from the sides. 5

To test the new system, five sidings were established in the Wyalkatchem area in 1931 and 1932. It was considered to be a huge success and gained the approval of the wheat growers in that area. By 1933/1934, there were 53 sidings in existence throughout the wheatbelt. 6

The leasing of sites for these new sidings led to the establishment of Co-operative Bulk Handling Limited (CBH). The new company was registered on 5 April 1933 and took over the leases and plants operated by The Western Australian Farmers Ltd and the Trustees of the Wheat Pool of Western Australia. 7

In 1934/1935, the State Government, as a result of pressure from those opposing the bulk handling scheme, stopped the Railway Department from leasing further sites to the company, thus preventing CBH from establishing any more sidings. A Committee of Enquiry into CBH recommended the appointment of a Royal Commission, which was established on 23 January 1935. 8

On 31 July 1935, the Royal Commission advised ‘that Co-operative Bulk Handling Limited be permitted to extend and carry out their proposals for a State-wide scheme relating to the bulk handling of wheat at country sidings’. 9 As a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the Bulk Handling Act 1935 was established, ensuring CBH’s monopoly on the handling of wheat in Western Australia. During the 1936/1937 wheat season the number of bulk handling sidings rose to 102. 10

Soon after the establishment of the first country sidings, it became obvious that the storage facilities at the three major ports of Fremantle, Bunbury and Geraldton did not have the capacity to handle the amount of wheat arriving for shipment. As the centre of the wheat export, the lack of facilities at Fremantle was considered to be the most immediate problem. In 1935, a wool shed located at Leighton Beach was converted for use as a grain terminal after the Fremantle Harbour Trust refused CBH plans for a £200,000 wheat shipping terminal. 11 In 1936, storage capacity was increased at Fremantle with the extension of the shed at Leighton and the conversion of a transit shed at North Quay. 12

Subsequent to the defeat of a Terminal Grain Elevators Bill in 1937, which proposed to make the State Government responsible for the construction of all wheat facilities at ports, CBH developed plans to build new facilities at Fremantle and Geraldton. Pressure from growers living in the Bunbury zone of the wheatbelt saw these plans changed, resulting in the establishment of the first vertical grain silos at Bunbury in 1937. 13

Although vertical silos were traditionally built to handle grain at farms and sidings, in the early CBH years horizontal grain terminals were used. This was due to the exorbitant cost of constructing the concrete cells, which was three times the cost of building the horizontal sheds. The vertical silos at Bunbury marked a change in storage design; however, it was not until the 1950s to the 1970s that all CBH’s delivery and reception points began to take on this form. 14

By 1939, the bulk handling facilities at Fremantle consisted of horizontal storage units totalling 10 000 tons and two converted bag gantries. Each unit had its own feeder which meant that the handling rate could reach a capacity of 220 tons of wheat per hour. 15

With the outbreak of World War II, shipping schedules to Australia were reduced. Wheat production continued throughout the war and emergency bulkheads had to be constructed by CBH to hold the huge grain surplus. By the end of 1939, two 69 500 ton emergency storage depots were built at Fremantle. These quickly became full and three other depots were soon constructed. (One of these depots eventually became the annexe to Fremantle’s grain terminal.) 16

In 1943, the Australian Wheat Board, which had been established by the Emergency Services Act of 1939, had major concerns that the emergency depots located at Fremantle, Bunbury and Geraldton could become breeding grounds for weevils. In the same year. the Australian Wheat Board, financed by the Federal Government, constructed a ‘hospital’ silo at Fremantle. The silo held 8,500 tons and its purpose was to fumigate the grain before it was exported. 17

In 1943, the Australian Navy's Port War Signal Station was moved from the Fremantle Harbour Trust's signal station at Cantonment Hill to the top of the Australian Wheat Board's ‘hospital‘ silo. Plans to move the signal station were made because of inadequate accommodation and the lack of facilities for the Women's Royal Australian Naval Services who took over the station‘s operations. as well as the ability to communicate from this location with vessels in the Gage Roads, Cockburn Sound and Fremantle Harbour areas. 18


Silo signal station, 1945
Courtesy Fremantle Local History Collection 4511

The Port War Signal Station operated on top of the silo from June 1944 to 1945. It is interesting to note that special precautions were taken at the signal station's new location so that personnel were not poisoned when the wheat was being fumigated. 19

After World War II, the State Government and the Australian Wheat Board constructed a four loader shipping gallery at North Quay. The purpose of the new shipping gallery was to connect the ‘hospital’ silo to the wharf. making the shipping of grain more efficient. In May 1947, CBH took over operation of this shipping gallery and later that year was also given control of the hospital silo and a conveyor system connecting the shipping gallery to the silos. 20

In 1952 a second permanent annexe (No 2) was built at Fremantle and provided three horizontal grain sheds to feed grain to the ‘hospital’ silo. 21

From the mid 1950s, with the rapid increase of wheat grown in Western Australia, CBH instigated a program of expansion of its bulk handling facilities. Plans were made for the construction of a new grain terminal at North Quay. Modernisation of the Fremantle facility was considered to be imperative because of shipping delays caused by the three day fumigation period. In 1957 CBH announced that:

The Company has made progress with the Government and the Fremantle Harbour Trust in regard to additional facilities at the Fremantle North Wharf. It is hoped that a start will be made towards the end of this year and work completed in time for the 1959/60 harvest. The facilities comprise additional cells of l million bushels capacity, a replacement of the existing annexe with high walled horizontal storage with a capacity of 2 3/4 million bushels, and the necessary machinery. The work is expected to cost about £700 000. In planning this new storage. adequate provision has been made for the addition, in years to come, of further groups of cells. 22


Fremantle Terminal under construction, 1962
Courtesy CBH Annual Report

From 1957 to 1961 CBH entered into negotiations with the Fremantle Harbour Trust about the shape and form of the new additions. Problems arose because, at the same time, the Fremantle Harbour Trust was undertaking its own development of the Inner Harbour. This development was concentrated at North Quay, which had become the focus for shipping and cargo handling in the port, and work included the mechanisation and containerisation of the facilities in this area. CBH's plans had to be incorporated into the overall plan for North Quay and, as a result, work on the new grain terminal did not commence until 1961. 33

Heavy winter rains in 1962 and 1963 delayed construction. and the new grain terminal eventually began operations on 18 May 1964. Designed by consulting engineers MacDonald Wagner & Priddle of Sydney. the Fremantle grain terminal was constructed at a cost of £3 250 000 and had the capacity to store 4 million bushels of grain. It also included provision for cleaning. fumigating. aerating. weighing and bagging wheat as well as dust control measures. (This work incorporated the demolition of No 1 annexe and the southernmost horizontal sheds.)


The new terminal, 1964
Courtesy CBH Annual Report

The Fremantle Grain Terminal remained the centre of CBH’s export of wheat up to 1976, when work was completed on the company's huge new grain terminal at Kwinana. The company had begun investigating the possibility of developing a site at Cockburn Sound in 1961, due to the fact that Fremantle’s limited depth of water was unsuited to the larger modern grain ships. Indeed, it was only due to requests from the Fremantle Port Authority that CBH decided to stay at North Quay and, as a result, constructed the 48 vertical cell block in 1964.

In 1969 the first stage of the Kwinana Grain Terminal was completed and began operation. Prior to the completion of shipping facilities at the Kwinana site, grain was still railed to the Fremantle grain terminal for shipment. 25 Construction of stage 2 of the Kwinana terminal began in 1972 and was completed in 1976 at a cost of $72 million. 26

In 1979, it was decided that the operation of both Kwinana and Fremantle was uneconomic. From 1979, Fremantle became a reception point for grain from developing wheat areas north of Perth and for some areas not accessible by railway. From Fremantle, the wheat was railed to Kwinana for shipping. The terminal’s shipping facilities no longer operated from this time. 27 It is during its use as a reception point that various buildings and services were removed from the Fremantle Grain Terminal.

In 1996 CBH instigated a strategic development program and plans were made to build a grain centre at Forrestfield to replace the one at Fremantle. Work was completed on the new centre in time for the 1997/1998 season. As a result, the grain silos at Fremantle became obsolete and the last grain deliveries to the terminal occurred in June 1998. By this time, the demolition and removal of the transfer galleries had already occurred, making way for space for container cargo. 28

In December 1998, CBH transferred their buildings at Fremantle over to the Fremantle Port Authority (FPA - as at 2002 known as Fremantle Ports).

It was also in 1998 that it became publicly known that the demolition of the former CBH Silos was proposed. The number of containers handled at North Quay had increased by 74% since the early 1990s and was predicted to grow further. Strategic plans prepared by the FPA in the 1990s recommended the demolition of the structure to allow the reuse of the land for other port related activities, in particular for much needed container and general cargo storage space. 31

In early 1999, a heritage assessment was prepared for the CBH Silos, North Quay, in order to assess its cultural heritage significance. In May 1999, subsequent to the presentation of the evidence, the Heritage Council of Western Australia recommended to the Minister for Heritage that the place be entered into the State Register of Heritage Places with interim status. It was not until 18 February 2000, and after having received twelve submissions relating to the listing, that the Minister decided against the registration of the CBH Silos, North Quay. 32

With the decision, the FPA let the contract for the demolition of the silos, the tenders for which had closed in the month prior to the Minister’s determination. The removal of the metal clad and steel frame portion of the structure began in March 2000. 31

The start of work resulted in a public campaign to ‘Save the Silos’. The recent campaigns to protect Leighton Beach and Cantonment Hill had produced an effective network of people from diverse backgrounds interested and dedicated to the retention of Fremantle’s heritage. However, there was something very different about the campaign for this particular site from that of the latter two, and this was that the community was significantly divided on the issue of its retention. Opinion expressed in newspapers showed that on the one hand the silos were of cultural heritage significance and warranted the protection of the State Register, but on the other hand the silos were redundant because they had served their purpose. They were also seen as ugly and an eyesore, and their retention was seen as a detriment to the working viability of the port.

In the midst of this, the Fremantle City Council took the unprecedented step of beginning legal action to test the validity of the Heritage Minister’s decision, specifically whether it was valid of him to take into account advice other than that received from the Heritage Council. 32 In June 20()0, the state full court ruled that the Minister had wrongly taken into account economic and social considerations in his decision not to register the CBH Silos, North Quay, which did not follow the processes laid out in the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990. As a result of the ruling, the Minister was forced to review his decision. 33

The Heritage Minister took action to appeal the ruling. But still later, on 4 July, he announced that he again found that there was insufficient evidence to support the values of cultural heritage significance of the CBH Silos, North Quay, and thus did not support their entry into the State Register. 34

By this time, the 1964 concrete cell of silos had been largely demolished and work had already begun on the removal of the ‘hospital silos’. For many the preservation of the hospital silos was seen as the ‘compromise’ between retention and demolition. However, this suggestion was met with flat refusal by the FPA and the 1943 section was also lost. 35

2. Issues relating to Industrial Heritage [36]

The second part of this paper is not an assessment of the strategic planning of the harbour which was instrumental to the outcome of the silos, nor is it an analytical look at why the previous Heritage Minister made a decision on the heritage listing of the place based on economic reasons rather than its cultural heritage significance. Instead, it is a discussion of the main issues impacting Western Australia's industrial heritage sites. and issues also raised in the debate about the demolition versus retention of the CBH Silos at North Quay.

The first point is location. In urban areas, industrial heritage sites are invariably located on valuable land where redevelopment is the economically viable option, or are located in remote rural areas where they are often subject to vandalism and neglect. For those places situated on valuable property - or in other words where redevelopment would maximise the potential of the land such as in the case of the silos - demolition often outweighs retention due to the financial return. As a result. heritage practitioners are constantly challenged to defend preservation and the cost involved in adaptive reuse.


CBH Silos, 2000
Courtesy K Bizzaca

This leads to the second point of reuse and associated factors. One of these is the condition of the place and the cost involved in conservation. Many industrial heritage sites have been affected by many years of both lack of maintenance and neglect and by the hard working life of the building. that is, by the very nature of the purpose for which it was built and used.

It is also generally the case that past use involved industrial processes which have resulted in the contamination of different elements and areas within the site. In addressing reuse of such places the issue of remediation must be dealt with taking into consideration not only aspects of the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990 but also that of the Environment Protection Agency, thus making the decision making process even more complex.

Accessibility is also sometimes an issue. This was true in the case of the silos, where they were located in a central position in a working port and in an area of high safety risk. Public accessibility to the heritage site, should the place have been retained, was a real concern as it could not have occurred without impacting on the normal operations of the port and would also have been subject to legal issues such as public liability.

The subject of reuse itself is an issue of trying to identify an appropriate and compatible use for industrial sites so that this reuse does not impact on the integrity of the place, that is, its cultural heritage significance. In some instances there is also the difficulty of identifying a viable reuse for quite unique industrial structures such as the silos.

The third and last point is the issue of ‘sexiness’. Industrial heritage challenges people’s notions of what an historic site worthy of preservation should look like or be. The silos, like other industrial structures, did not fit the common perception of a ‘heritage’ place, such as a pretty and quaint limestone homestead located in a picturesque farmland setting. Indeed, the CBH Silos at North Quay could at best have been described as a clump of concrete stalks in a field of steel containers. Heritage places are emotive objects. At the very extreme, people often either feel attracted to or repulsed by them, whether for aesthetic reasons or for reasons related to their history. Thus in the debate surrounding the demolition of the silos they were described either as an eyesore or as a landmark.

A similar example of an industrial site that challenges perceptions of the notion of a ‘heritage’ place is the Eastern Goldfields Water Supply Pipeline. There were a number of people who did - and probably still do - question the value and the cost involved in the preservation of a line of pipe stretching out into the middle of nowhere. But the retention, conservation and interpretation of the pipeline has increased awareness of a unique part of Western Australia’s past and shown that such industrial heritage sites are not only of interest to a small group of technical experts but to the wider community.

To address these issues it is absolutely necessary to develop broad approaches to industrial heritage through discussion and compromise between stakeholder groups such as heritage organisations, the State Government and community representatives. This needs to happen before more sites are lost to either demolition like the silos or decay because a decision cannot be made about what to do with them or indeed who should be responsible for them. Places such as the East Perth Power Station, the South Fremantle Power Station and Bristile Kilns in Ascot are some of the sites that have been subject to this dilemma.

There is only one answer to the question of why preserve a line of pipe, or a kiln, or a chimney, or a bridge, or a power station, or a cell block of grain silos and that is why would you not - especially when that place is a physical reminder of the development of not only industry but towns and communities within Western Australia.

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
27 October 2002


1 Cox. J ‘A co-operative enterprise’, Thesis. Graylands Teachers College. Perth. undated. pp 1- 6, 8; CBH Ltd, ‘CBH: A Profile’. Perth. undated. p 2. held in the Battye Library (BL).

2 Cox. J ‘A co-operative enterprise‘, pp 5 & 6, 8; ‘CBH: A Profile‘. p 2.

3 ‘CBH: A Profile‘, p 2.

4 Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd. ‘A Co-operative Enterprise: A progressive history of Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd to 31st December 1942‘. undated (1943). p 1. held in the BL.

5 ibid. pp 1-5.

6 ibid. p 13.

7 ibid. pp 6 & 7.

8 ibid. p 7.

9 ibid.

10 ibid. p 13.

11 Report of the Directors of CBH Ltd, 1934.

12 Report of the Directors of CBH Ltd, 1936.

13 Cox. J ‘A co-operative enterprise‘, p 8; South Western Times, 29 January 1938.

14 Harcourt, G ‘History of Co-operative Bulk Handling‘, unpublished, 1998, p 16. held in the Fremantle Local History Collection. The use of vertical silos for storage had to do with the modernisation of the wheat industry as a whole, the need for high quality and varieties of grain and accommodation for fumigation.

15 ‘CBH: A Profile‘, p 3.

16 Ibid.

17 ibid. The weevil outbreak did not occur, but the hospital silo became the core of the Fremantle grain terminal.

18 Glyde. RK ‘Coastal defences of Western Australia 1826-1963’. unpublished. p 16, copy in possession of K Bizacca.

19 ibid.

20 Harcourt, ‘History of Cooperative Bulk Handling‘. p 16; Report of the Directors of CBH Ltd. 1948.

21 Harcourt, ‘History of Co-operative Bulk Handling’. p 17.

22 CBH Ltd Annual Report and Accounts. 1957.

23 CBH Ltd Annual Report and Accounts. 1957 - 1961.

24 CBH Ltd Annual Report and Accounts. 1964: CBH Ltd. Souvenir Brochure: Opening at Fremantle Grain Terminal. 1964.

25 CBH: A Profile‘. p 5.

26 CBH Ltd Annual Report and Accounts. 1976.

27 CBH: A Profile‘. p 5.

28 CBH Ltd Annual Report. 1997.

29 The West Australian. 30 June 1998.

30 The West Australian, 19 February 2000.

31 ibid; The West Australian, 2 June 2000; The West Australian. 5 June 2000.

32 City of Fremantle, Freo, April 2000.

33 The West Australian, 2 June 2000; The West Australian. 5 June 2000; Fremantle News. July 2000.

34 Fremantle News, July 2000.

35 ibid.

36 This section is based on the author's own experiences and observations working in the Western Australian heritage industry. together with points raised in: Baxter, I. ‘Redundant industrial heritage: the challenges and solutions!'. in Institution of Engineers, Australia, Transaction of multi- disciplinary engineering - heritage: linking the past and the future, V GE26, 2002, pp 12-23.

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