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The Railway Workshops in Fremantle

David Hutchison

Hutchison, David 2004, 'The railway workshops in Fremantle', Fremantle Studies, 3: 75-87.

The State Railway Workshops were in Fremantle before they were relocated to Midland Junction early in the twentieth century. The proposal to relocate infuriated Fremantle Town Councillors and residents, who claimed that the removal of the workers and their families would seriously affect the town’s community and economy. I will not explore that claim in depth, but there is evidence that the removal of the workshops was a demographic shock for Fremantle; possibly comparable to that caused by the rapid decline of waterside workers during the 1980s. I hope that someone will undertake a comparative study of both. Such a study might contribute to better planning to assess the impact of any future substantial change.

The Perth to Fremantle Railway opened on 1 March 1881. Its construction alienated the town from the river and residents bitterly opposed

the government’s resumption of Fremantle Green, then known as the Recreation Ground, for railway purposes, notably the [first] station at the river end of Cliff Street, which was completed in 1887 [2] ...The Green ...was the recreational and social centre of Fremantle. Originally a marshy area on the river side where the jetty [at the end of Cliff Street] was situated, it had been reclaimed by the voluntary labour of the townspeople in the late 1840s. This was the place to meet passengers from the Perth ferry and to take an evening constitutional when the temperature made it more pleasant outdoors. 3

These developments also affected the commercial area of the city.

From the 1830s, Cliff Street and High Street had been the focus of commercial activity in Fremantle. However, the railway station gave the town a new centre of gravity. The main commercial activity henceforth was in the Phillimore Street area and Cliff Street was gradually deserted. 4 The construction of the inner harbour in Fremantle reinforced the relocation of commerce. The Post Office in Market Street, the present railway station, and the wool stores, hotel and other commercial buildings along Elder Place and Beach Street were built.

The community supported the construction of the railway workshops in Fremantle. because of the boost that they would give to commerce and industry in the town.‘ At the time there was considerable rivalry between Perth and Fremantle, and there had been an unsuccessful bid to locate the workshops in Perth.“ A contemporary riddle reflected the rivalry:

Why is it a financial mistake to put the Railway Works at Fremantle?
Because it withdraws interest from the Capital. 7

Equipment for the workshops was ordered from Messrs Whitworth of Manchester in 1877 and arrived in 1878, and was installed temporarily at the old Commissariat Store (now the Maritime Museum) in Cliff Street.

In January 1881, the machinery was transferred to a newly completed shed at Fremantle Station. During 1886, new buildings for workshops and stores were built facing Bay Street [now Elder Place] about a quarter of a mile east of Fremantle Station, and in proximity to the site of the present Fremantle Station. 8

An article in the West Australian of 19 November 1888, praised the quality of workmanship at these workshops.

A railway carriage has been completed for the Newcastle [Toodyay] and Clackline Railway ... and certainly, when compared with two of the latest specimens of carriages imported from England, which are at present undergoing repairs, the difference between the two is striking, and decidedly in favour of the local manufacture ... The carriage is from the design of Mr Mather, the locomotive superintendent, who deserves every praise for the excellence of his skill and industry. 9

View of the mouth of the Swan River; c 1880-1886. The first Fremantle Railway Station and Workshops can be seen on the far side of Cliff Street.

Courtesy Fremantle Local History Collection, 83

At that time among the carriages under construction were a “new state sleeping saloon for the use of His Excellency the Governor” for use on the Great Southern Railway, and “a Royal Mail van for the postal service between Perth and Albany”. 10

As the railway system expanded — from 203 km in 1885 to 884 km in 1890 — the workshops had to be expanded. In 1890 a new government foundry to recycle scrap metal was under construction near the railway workshops. It was 28 ft (8.53 m) square and clad with corrugated iron. A coke oven was also under construction, and Mr Mather intended to erect a hot blast furnace thought to be the first in Australia.“

In 1891 CY O’Connor took up his post of Engineer-in-Chief and Acting General Manager of Railways. Tony Evans, in his biography of O’Connor, reminds us that this brilliant engineer was soon engaged in herculean labours. 12 While constructing the Inner Harbour and designing the Goldfields Water Scheme, he was also rapidly expanding the railway system as well as being in charge of the running of the railways. Despite his heavy work load he was able to improve the efficiency of the railways within a few years, greatly increasing the proportion of revenue to expenditure. 13

At the suggestion of O’Connor, Allison D Smith, locomotive superintendent of the Victorian Railways, a railway engineer of long experience, was invited to advise on the best possible site for the new workshops and on the cost of relocation. After examining sites at Fremantle, Perth and Canning, he recommended an area at Midland Junction. Criticism of the condition and organisation of the workshops led to the appointment of a Royal Commission in 1893, chaired by G Randell.

O’Connor made a submission to the Royal Commission giving a number of reasons for recommending relocation of the Railway Workshops to Midland Junction. He believed that expenditure on altering and extending the existing workshops would be thrown away if, as he expected, the same difficulties would continue to be experienced. The present inefficiencies contributed largely to the excessive cost of the Locomotive Branch. The site was too low and raising the workshop floor levels would cost a considerable sum. Any extension on the existing site would “seriously interfere with the wharfage accommodation contemplated in the harbour works scheme; moreover it would sacrifice land, which for warehouse purposes, will be the most valuable in Fremantle”. The site at Midland was the best available, and of “ultimate advantage to the employees”. 14

In general Smith’s report confirmed O’Connor’s advice but, in a debate in December 1892 in Parliament, a motion to act on the report was defeated; the Premier being amongst those who voted in the negative 15.

The Royal Commission found much room for improvement in the condition and organisation of the workshops: the floor level of the building was too low, which could cause future inconvenience; and there were inefficient and insufficient machinery and appliances. However, Mr Mather, the locomotive superintendent. was praised for his work; the work carried out in the workshops would bear favourable comparison with the same class of work done elsewhere. It was proposed that the workshops should be removed to Midland Junction. 16 Two Fremantle members of the Commission, DK Congdon MLC and WF Samson, in a minority report, supported all the findings except the recommendation to relocate the workshops at Midland. 17 Congdon and Samson claimed that

Since the Engineer-in-Chief obtained the sanction of Parliament to proceed with Harbour Works it became apparent to him that it was necessary to remove the Workshop so that they might not be any obstruction to those works.

This is an eminently sensible view; the criticism of it is untenable. 13 The two dissidents were on stronger ground in noting that

Some twenty men have built houses in and about Fremantle on borrowed money; that if the Workshops are removed these men will have to follow their work, and abandon their present homes, to their great loss and inconvenience ... 19

The Commission’s report

... aroused a storm of protest at the Port. Public meetings were held and there was no doubt of the temper of the people when in November 1893 they declared the removal of the workshops to be ‘not only an unfair menace to the prosperity of the town, but ... opposed to the interests of the public of the Colony on the grounds of economy, convenience and policy. 20

A standing committee, known as the Vigilance Committee, was set up to ascertain the intentions of the government and if necessary draw up a memorial to the new Parliament 21 protesting against the removal, and to search for other sites within the Fremantle district. The Committee subsequently selected and recommended an area at Richmond (now part of East Fremantle). These public meetings further pledged themselves to oppose at the next election any local member of parliament who supported the removal of the workshops.

It is clear from the Evans biography that Alexander Forrest, the Premier’s brother, was a bitter opponent of O’Connor, possibly because, as a substantial capitalist, he opposed the use of day labour on public works. In Parliament he described O’Connor as

an able officer, but an expensive official, and if we went on as we are going, in ten years the colony could then be handed over to that gentleman."

Forrest was a leading shareholder of the newspaper the Inquirer which had consistently opposed O’Connor over this issue. 23

There the matter seems to have rested until 1895. By then

'... the expansion of traffic ... the work demands on the Workshops, as well as space required for additional machinery, had outgrown the existing accommodation to the extent that ... nearly all repairs had to be done in the open. 24

To alleviate this situation the covered area was nearly trebled in 1896 to almost 13 000 m2. 25

The Premier, Sir John Forrest, informed WE Marmion, the member for Fremantle, by letter which was read at the Fremantle Council Meeting on 11 March 1895. Forrest wrote that

It had become impossible to retain [the workshops] any longer in their present position, as the southern foreshore of the river has to be converted into wharves for the shipping which in a short time will be able to enter the river and berth alongside. . .it is now only under compulsion that we have been obliged to authorise their removal ... and the only question that was left for consideration was whether a site nearer Fremantle than Midland Junction could be obtained. 36

Forrest listed the reasons given by O’Connor including that having the workshops near the sea was detrimental to the stock, no doubt due to corrosion. The General Traffic Manager, Mr Davies, had advised that the workshops should be separated from the working railways. He also assured the people of Fremantle, to whom he was ‘personally indebted for long political support’, that ‘nothing but absolute necessity would induce me to do anything to oppose their local interests’. However.

local interests, when they are opposed to the general interests of the colony, must give way, and the Government have to do their duty to the whole community.

He also pointed out that the Government intended to make Fremantle the calling place for mail steamers, which would be at the expense of Albany. He wrote that

It is intended that the removal of the workshops shall take place gradually, so as to inconvenience everyone as little as possible, and it will probably take two or three years to complete it, and there will always be running sheds and probably erecting shops at Fremantle.27

Another public meeting was held in Fremantle on 15 March at which six resolutions were adopted. One, moved by DK Congdon, conceded that it might be desirable to relocate the workshops but that

The people of the town and district of Fremantle ... view with alarm and indignation the decision of the Government to locate the workshops at Midland Junction. 23

Congdon reminded the meeting that he and WF Samson had been members of the Committee of Inquiry into the workshops and he had thought that ‘the weight of evidence ... was decidedly against their removal’ and he had not signed the report; he and Mr Samson had written a counter report. He added that he felt that

His disgust and indignation must fall particularly upon the Engineer-in-Chief [O’Connor], who had simply been a block, and one upon which the Premier appeared to have stumbled. 29

In the light of current respect for O’Connor’s work, the opposition to him, sometimes vicious, is difficult to explain. WF Samson seconded the motion and said that only one engineer from outside the colony, Allison Smith, had advised the Government and his ‘severance from the Victorian government was not such as should warrant the Government of this colony in acting on his advice. 3° This is a reference to Smith’s dismissal from Victorian Railways, probably unfairly; Smith was suing the Victorian government for wrongful dismissal. There is no doubt that Smith was well-qualified. There seems to have been a faction that was anti- professional. This is typified by Alexander Forrest’s speech in support of Congdon’s motion. He said that

He would rather take the opinion of men of common sense instead of getting engineering advice. . .he could show many places near Fremantle which would be as suitable as the Midland Junction. They all had large vested interests, and he thought it was the duty of the Government to protect their interests. . .It would be far better for the Government to get rid of the Engineer-in-Chief rather than ruin half of Fremantle. 31

Other resolutions raised specific objections to relocation away from Fremantle. For example, that the move 23 miles (37 km) inland would be ‘detrimental to the best interests of the colony because of extra cost of haulage and extra wear of rolling stock.’ O’Connor later argued that this was not true, as Midland would be closer to the new country railway lines. Mr ML Moss thought that Fremantle might lose 2,000 inhabitants and that 200 houses would be emptied. 32

The fourth resolution asserted that the meeting ardently desired ‘to impress upon the Government the justice and advisability of a site at or near Fremantle’. Three sites were suggested, at Rocky Bay, Richmond or Claremont. The meeting also agreed that the resolutions should be submitted to the Premier by a ‘monster deputation of the public of Fremantle on Wednesday next, the 20th instant, proceeding to Perth by special train’ .33

Perth Town Hall was booked and the Premier invited to receive the deputation there. He telegraphed the Mayor of Fremantle declining to meet a monster deputation. The Town Council’s Standing Committee held two special meetings on 16 and 18 March and it was agreed to send a smaller deputation to meet the Premier at his office.

The deputation, accompanied by about 400 Fremantle residents, marched through Fremantle to the station to board the special train. In Perth they marched up William Street and St George's Terrace to the Premier’s office, where WE Marmion, Member for Fremantle and Minister for Mines, introduced the deputation. Forrest stood his ground and defended O’Connor.

O’Connor himself was on record as stating that although he wanted the workshops removed from their present site, he did not really care, from an engineering point of view where the new workshops were located, so long as there was sufficient space to work in. It was up to the government to choose which site to use. He then defended the Midland Junction site (already purchased by the government) owing to its level character and the considerably lower costs involved there, in comparison to the other sites that had been suggested. 34

As to the alleged injury to Fremantle he said that 349 men were employed in the workshops at a cost of £43 168 per annum and that of these 135 were temporary, so that the usual staff was 214. Out of them 117 would be removed and 97 would remain in Fremantle. As a consequence, Fremantle would lose about £14 652 per annum which would not be ‘such a terrible calamity for the city’. He added, ‘Would they even notice it when they considered the increase in labour in connection with the wharves and dock’. He said that the proposal would be submitted to Parliament and he would abide by its decision. 35

The Member of Parliament for Fremantle invited the Premier, O’Connor, the Railways General Traffic Manager Davies, and six members of parliament to inspect the three sites near Fremantle on 19 August 1895. O’Connor was able to explain the limitations of each site; none had adequate area and all had problems of levels and gradients. Someone in the Fremantle contingent said ‘There was no arguing with Mr O’Connor. He carried too many strings to his bow. He had professional knowledge and the gift of expression.’ 36

O’Connor said that 100 acres would be needed. When asked if he had not previously said 20 acres, he replied

I think what I said was that the people had a very much lower idea of the possibilities of Fremantle if they would allow the shipping which was likely to be in the Bay to be divided from the town by twenty acres of smoking chimneys. I was not then asked, nor did I volunteer the information, as to the area which would be required for the workshops. I had not then the data by me of the workshops in other colonies. And even if I had said 20 acres, as I was wrong there would be no reason for me to stick to it. 37

The smoking chimneys probably refer to the foundry, coke oven and blast furnace mentioned above. O’Connor commented on plans for the Richmond site, prepared by RW Young, an engineer who claimed that the workshops could be adapted to the site. He added:

It is a principle in building workshops that you should get the shops to suit the land and not the land to suit the shops. I do not say that the land could not be made suitable but I would not agree to the new plans. . .38

A motion to relocate the workshops in Midland was moved in Parliament on 4 September 1895 by the Minister for Public Works, WH Venn, who enumerated objections to the Fremantle site: it was almost at sea level, with the result that tidal variations affected the wash-out pits, it was subject to inclement weather; it was too near the heart of town; and it was too restricted. 39

Then the members for Fremantle (Marmion) and North Fremantle (Moss) opposed the move on the grounds that the transfer of the workshops staff, now about 350, would affect Fremantle’s commerce. Marmion proposed an alternative site in Richmond (now part of East Fremantle). Marmion and Moss took offence when Venn, the Commissioner of Railways, said

I will not advocate as a reason for the removal of the workshops, that the vicinity of the town is at all times an objectionable element, or that it is against the proper discipline and organisation of large bodies of men. That fact is one that goes without saying. 40

Moss replied

I think that he will find that probably the people of Fremantle are equally as moral as other people in any part of the colony are, and they do not wish to be taken into the wilds of the bush for the purpose of allowing the honourable gentlemen to moralise to them. 41

Marmion thundered, with mixed metaphors, that Venn had

Suggested that the influences in and around Fremantle are of a bad kind, and that the poor men in the workshops are likely to be affected to such a deplorable extent that there is no alternative left for the Honourable Commissioner but to appear as their protecting Aegis, to take them under his cloak for safety, and to remove them to the rural simplicity and solitude of the bush so that they will be free from the contaminating influence of that dreadful place Fremantle. 42

Venn moved formally for the removal of the workshops to Midland Junction, even though

The supporters of Fremantle argued that it ‘would be a great blow to Fremantle which had a quarter of the State’s population, and thus to the state itself'. 43

The motion was passed on 5 September 1895. DK Congdon moved on 18 September in the Legislative Council that it was not desirable that the Railway Workshops be removed to the Midland Junction. The motion was lost 12 votes to 544; however work on removal did not begin for some time. In September 1900, Mr J Ewing, a member of the opposition and member for Swan, moved ‘That, in the opinion of the House, the erection of the workshops at Midland Junction should be proceeded with forthwith.’ The proposed site was, of course, in Ewing’s electorate. The Fremantle members were equally protective of their electorates. The debate was bitter.

The vested interests of Fremantle were known and acknowledged, since the existence of the workshops in that area had led over 250 workers to establish homes there. The vested interests of Midland Junction were more of a speculative nature. There were many suggestions that, since the government’s intentions had been known for five years, there had been land deals in preparation for the removal. When the motion was finally put, it was carried by nineteen votes to eight

Fremantle Railway Workshops, c 1903 Courtesy The West Australian

The transfer finally began in earnest in 190145, following another Committee of Inquiry which reported in December of that year. By then

rolling stock maintenance work was grossly in arrears in spite of resort to private contracts for locomotive repairs. It was not unusual for there to be 300 to 400 wagons awaiting repairs, creating a crippling state of congestion. 46

However, buildings on the new site were not ready for occupation until the beginning of 1904. During the first half of that year, five officers and 314 men were moved to Midland, but staff and machinery were not finally relocated until January 1905. Delays were possibly because government funds and the resources of the Public Works Department were committed heavily to the construction of the inner harbour. As soon as the transfer was complete the workshops in Fremantle were demolished to make way for the new Fremantle station (the existing one), which was opened on 1 July 1907.47

Although the population of Fremantle continued to increase during these years, the transfer of the workshops meant that

several hundred families had to leave Fremantle, bringing a serious slump in housing and retailing. It was not until the arrival of numbers of British immigrants under the assisted passage scheme instituted by the State government in 1903 that commercial life began to recover. 43

Believed to be the staff of the Railway Workshops at the time of the transfer to Midland Junction, c 1904 Courtesy Fremantle Local History Collection, 938

Some of the workers remained living in Fremantle, catching the early train (‘the Rattler’) to Midland each day. However, possibly as a consequence of the relocation, the population of Fremantle fell by 20349 between 1901 and 1911.

A footnote

One of the workers who moved his family to Bassendean was Dick McDonald, who had been an active member of the South Fremantle Football Club. He later became Chairman of the Bassendean Road Board. In 1925, the Midland Football Club which had lost its membership of the Western Australian Football League tried to rejoin the League. However, their ground was not up to standard and they were not readmitted. At that time there were three Fremantle teams in the League: East, South and North. North Fremantle was dropped and it was decided to admit two other teams. As Chairman of the Road Board, McDonald initiated the upgrade of the Bassendean Oval, starting in 1929. The first grandstand (the Walker Stand) was built in 1932 and the Bassendean team played in the amateur association in 1933, doing very well. In 1934, as the Swan Districts team it was admitted to the League. A new stand, erected in 1936, was named the McDonald stand in honour of Dick McDonald. 50

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
27 October 2007

1 The peak membership of the Waterside Workers’ Federation during the 1950s was about  2,000. By 1970 the figure had fallen to 1390. The decline then accelerated so that, by 1986, membership had fallen to just 440.

2 Reece, R & Pascoe, R A place of consequence: a pictorial history of Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1983, pp 42-43.

3 ibid, pp 25-26.

4 ibid, p 43.

5 Inquirer; 24 Sept 1880.

6 Minchin, RS & Higham, GJ Robb’s Railway: Fremantle to Guildford railway centenary, 1881-1981. Australian Railway Historical Society, Bassendean, 1981, p 25.

7. ibid, p 26.

8 The West Australian, 4 June 1880.

9 The West Australian, 19 Nov 1888, p 3d.

10 The West Australian, 17 Dec 1888, p 3c.

11 Inquirer and Commercial News, 11 April, 1890.

12 Evans, AG CY O'Connor: his life and legacy. University of Western Australia Press, Crawley. 2001.

13 ibid, p 123.

14 ibid, p 9.

15 ibid, p 140.

16 Report of the Commission appointed to inquire into the condition and organisation of the Railway Workshops in Fremantle. Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1893. Printed Paper A26, p 96ff

17 ibid.

18 ibid, p 12.

19 ibid, p13.

20 Ewers, John K The Western Gateway a history of Fremantle (1971). Fremantle City Council. pp 111-112; Minutes of public meeting. Minutes of Fremantle Municipal Council, 3 Nov 1893.

21 Western Australia was granted responsible government in 1890.

22 Evans, CY O’Connor, p 148.

23 ibid.

24 Minchin & Higham, Robb’s Railway, pp 25-26.

25 ibid.

26 Minutes of the Fremantle Municipal Council, 11 March 1895.

27 ibid.

28 ibid.

29 The West Australian, 16 March 1895

30 ibid.

31 ibid.

32 ibid.

33 ibid.

34 Evans, CY O’Connor, p 152.

35 The West Australian, 21 March 1895.

36 Evans, CY O’Connor, p 153.

37 The West Australian, 20 August 1895, p 5.

38 The West Australian, 21 March 1895.

39 Parliamentary Debates, 4 Sept 1895, p 884.

40 ibid.

41 ibid.

42 ibid, p 831.

43 Butcher, LJ Western Australian Government Railway Workshops 1880-1930, Graylands  Teachers College thesis (typescript), nd, p 11.

44 Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council, 1895, vol 1, p 78.

45 Evans, CY O’Connor, p 154.

46 Minchin & Higham, Robb’s Railway, p 26.

47 ibid.

43 Reece and Pascoe, A place of consequence, p 56.

49 The figure 203 may only refer to adults.

50 Personal communication, Ross McDonald (his grandson) and Stan Moses of the Swan Districts Football Club.


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