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Fremantle's hidden history

Shane Burke

Burke, Shane 2007, 'Fremantle's hidden history', Fremantle Studies, 5: 63-73.

This paper’s primary purpose is to discuss and clarify the significance of the results of six archaeological excavations done in the town of Fremantle between November 2005 and July 2006 (Figure 1). Archaeological work of this magnitude has never been done before in Western Australia, with the small amount of previous research occurring mostly on single sites with specific functions. 1 The recent excavations, the result of increased heritage awareness by the City of Fremantle and the University of Notre Dame who both requested archaeological surveys as part of development conditions, each had different research designs, questions and results, but together form a raft of data suggesting that a previously unrecognised source of information about Fremantle’s heritage exists beneath our feet.


Figure 1: Sites of archaeological excavations in Fremantle 2005 – 2006

In concert with the paper’s primary aim is the emphasis on what archaeology – a comparatively new science in Western Australia in the sphere of European heritage – can give to massively enrich one’s understanding and knowledge of past people’s lives and advance present people’s heritage appreciation of one of Western Australia’s oldest towns. In addition, it shows how archaeology – the study of the physical remains left behind from people’s actions – and history – from writing or the spoken word – do not necessarily correspond when looking at the same event or theme from the past. The paper begins by describing the six archaeological excavations and some of the artefacts found.

High Street West

The November 2005 High Street West excavations in an area between Arthur Head and Cliff Street examined the 1905 built tram depot, the 1852 to c1895 police quarters that flanked both sides of High Street and a locale near the site of the original Round House steps on the present standard gauge railway permanent way. 2 The City of Fremantle wanted results of the work to inform and guide the design of heritage interpretation during future area upgrading.

The tram depot site unearthed from a shallow and reasonably undisturbed deposit a rich collection of material associated with the Fremantle Municipal Tramways (FMT). Found were timber sleepers to support tram rails that curved out into central High Street and at sections in concrete caused by liquid concrete solidifying under the rails. 3 The excavation showed the exact location of one of five tramline ‘roads’ into the depot building.

The police station excavation unearthed distinct stratigraphy (with little disturbance) that allowed a clear interpretation of the area’s use over time. The surface units contained dog spikes, coal, clinker and hard compacted gravel from the area’s railway use. The physical remains of Fremantle’s 1852 to c1895 police station appeared in deeper strata very close to the units containing railway artefacts, with limestone building foundations the remains of High Street West’s northeast police building. 4 The small but informative collection of artefacts dating mostly to the 1850s comprised fragmented black and green bottle glass, fragmented earthenware and pig, sheep and macropod bone. 5

The Round House steps excavation was the least successful of the three High Street west excavations, its partial failure due to heavy ground disturbance for placement of a railway signalling conduit and a sewerage pipe on the railway permanent way. However, the excavation and subsequent analysis of the site’s historical record provided valuable data about the Round House steps’ original location.

Union Stores

The excavations at the rear of the Union Stores on High and Henry Streets were done to determine area function, one pit examining an area at the block’s rear with another investigating room function in a cottage built during the late Victorian period fronting Henry Street. 6

Many artefacts were found, mostly from the excavation at the rear of the block. Material from this area included plates, saucers and teacup fragments of English made underglaze transfer and creamware earthenware and salt glaze stoneware storage containers. Glass fragments from clear, dark green, black and blue bottles were also collected along with glass insulation fuses. Found also was a New Zealand armed forces greatcoat button. The soil’s high pH (10 to 10.5) preserved a small collection of mostly mutton but also beef and bird bone fragments. Two oyster shells were collected. 7

Compared with the excavation at the block’s rear, the cottage excavation unearthed fewer but more personalised artefacts. A single spectacle lens, ceramic fragments and a complete clay smoking pipe bowl were some of the artefacts from this part of the Union Stores excavation. 8

St Joseph’s Convent

The archaeological survey of this site in Adelaide Street occurred between 4-7 April 2006 with about 5300 square metres examined and five 0.5 by 0.5 metre test pits excavated. The site was the location of St Joseph’s Convent between 1864 and 1968 and later Coles and finally Ross’s hardware. During the 104-year period as a school, many children were educated and lived as boarders within the building’s walls.

One hundred and sixty-one surface artefacts were collected. Material included plates, saucers and teacup fragments of English and French made underglaze transfer and creamware earthenware, salt glaze stoneware storage containers and salt glaze inkwells. Fragments and complete bottles of clear, dark green, black and blue bottles were collected along with many pieces of slate board used for practising writing. The boards, combined with a few slate pencils, attest to the site’s century long school function. A small collection of mostly mutton but also beef bone fragments were unearthed.

The five 0.5 by 0.5 metre test pits provided stratigraphic data for understanding the site’s potential preservation of subsurface archaeological remains, while the discovery of a limestone feature strongly suggested the preservation of sections of the convent building’s foundations dating to the 1860s. 9

Heard’s Boat Shed

The archaeological excavation of this site at the corner of Henry and Phillimore Street occurred between 27 and 30 July 2006, with about eight cubic metres of soil excavated. The work’s commission occurred because of the University of Notre Dame’s desire for an archaeological assessment of the site before development.

The Swan River’s North Bay encroached into the site for much of its early European history. Pencil and ink drawings of the north end of nearby Pakenham Street dated 1832 suggest a sandy beach bordered North Bay and the Swan River’s left bank in the excavation area, while small boats are seen moored nearby in an 1839 depiction from Arthur Head. 10 In 1844, William Heard and his second wife Eliza owned Fremantle town lots 55 and 56. Heard – a boat builder/sail maker – saw the riverside lots as the ideal location to ply his trade from a shed measuring 58 by 34 links (11.6 by 6.8 metres). 11

The site contained a rich collection of artefacts, with 1385 collected in total. Similar to the St Joseph’s Convent site, material included plates and teacup fragments of English made underglaze transfer and creamware earthenware, salt glaze stoneware storage containers and a few Chinese made artefacts. One earthenware plate had letters of the alphabet as an underglaze pattern. Clay smoking pipe fragments were very common, particularly in layers close to the surface, with copper nails and copper sheathing encountered in lower layers. Glass fragments from clear, dark green, black and blue bottles were collected. 12

A small collection of mostly mutton and beef bone fragments was found, but fish remains in the form of scale and bone were very common. The excavation provided stratigraphic data for understanding the site’s potential preservation of subsurface archaeological remains, while the strike of the layers suggested two periods of site in filling.

Fremantle Hotel

The Fremantle Hotel at the corner of Cliff and High Streets was the venue of two archaeological excavations during 2006. Most of the hotel was built in 1898, but visual analysis of the building’s walls and double staircase suggest that the 1898 work incorporated older buildings, one potentially the home of William Dalgety Moore and family. 13

The first excavation – in the hotel’s main bar area – coincided with the Fremantle Heritage Festival and was requested after the University of Notre Dame, while removing floorboards to install a lift well, encountered a limestone foundation unconnected with the present hotel structure. The excavation of a two by one metre long trench adjacent to the foundation unearthed a surface layer containing objects associated with hotel use like corks, lead bottle seals, newspapers and beer and wine bottle glass. Under this surface layer, the soil darkened considerably, with very dark grey sand occurring. The dark grey sand contained a few artefacts like fragmented ceramics, black bottle glass and an 1887 English penny. No faunal remains were unearthed. The excavation was open to the public, with about 300 people viewing the excavation over three days.

The refurbishment of the Hotel Fremantle by the University of Notre Dame resulted in the hotel’s second excavation during July. The installation of a transformer at the building’s rear near the courtyard unearthed a large assemblage of ceramic, glass and bone. With the help of history students from the University, the archaeological excavation using a two by two metre hole determined the existence of material remains from the lot’s use back to first European settlement. The total number of artefacts was small, but artefact function range and quality was large. Many clay smoking pipes, some dating to the 1830s, were collected, along with a large assortment of faunal remains. Fish remains were abundant. A custom made copper fish hook and a fragmented but complete bone toothbrush added a personal touch to the courtyard’s assemblage. This excavation finished with the exposing of limestone cap rock one metre below the ground’s surface.

The General Picture

What can be gleaned from the six Fremantle excavations? First, all showed very good preservation of archaeological stratigraphy. In other words, there is little layer disturbance, with artefacts in these layers maintaining a youngest on top to oldest on bottom profile. Well-preserved stratigraphy is essential for research questions relating to change in site function over time. In addition, the Hotel Fremantle excavation done near the front bar suggested the maintenance of stratigraphy in contexts supposedly detrimental to artefact and stratigraphic preservation. Excavation results determined that the limestone foundation found after floorboard removal was the remains of the wall of the house that originally faced Cliff Street occupied by the lot’s previous owner William Dalgety Moore. Further research suggests that the wall’s construction occurred in 1885 when Moore extended his residence. 14 The foundations remained preserved despite the demolition of a section of Moore’s house in 1898 and the subsequent erection of the Hotel Fremantle facade along the Cliff and High Street the same year.

The Union Stores, St Joseph’s Convent and Fremantle Police Station results provide further evidence of exceptional preservation. The Union Stores’ excavation purpose was to unearth structural remains of the site’s original store and determine room layout of the Henry Street cottage. Due to limitations, little of the site’s previous structures were found, but excavation among the cottage’s foundations unearthed a circular feature that was either a rubbish pit, cesspit or well. Analysis of historical and other archaeological data suggested a c1899 date for the cottage’s construction 15, but the material in the feature comprised blue underglaze and creamware tableware ceramics and a clay smoking pipe suggesting the pit feature’s disassociation with the cottage period. Clay smoking pipes are excellent artefacts for dating sediments in which they are located because their style changed often during the 19th and early 20th centuries, while their fragility and commonness meant short use before disposal in the archaeological record. The style of pipe bowl unearthed dated the object to an 1830 to 1840 time of manufacture 16, therefore strongly suggesting the pit’s use and in lling sometime shortly after Fremantle’s first settlement. 17 Similar to the Hotel Fremantle case study, an old object – in this case a pit containing 1830s and 1840s objects – remained undamaged despite the construction of a cottage over it during the 1890s.

The limestone feature unearthed in the St Joseph Convent test pits was the footing of the 1864 constructed convent building. Despite a building’s erection on the site in the late 1960s and subsequent demolition in early 2006, this artefact survived, the footing’s preservation occurring most likely due to its deep placement needed to support the triple storey convent building.

Many reasons exist for why stratigraphy and structural remains like those described are preserved in Fremantle. First is the consistent form of most Fremantle buildings over time. The tallest are three storeys and most double requiring trenched footings only. This construction technique meant that often soil and the material contained in it (including the foundation of previous structures) remained undisturbed in areas not dug through for later foundation trenches. By comparison, Perth city before the 1960s contained buildings of a similar period and size as present Fremantle, but demolished many of these during the 1960s and 1970s. Skyscrapers requiring the installation of foundations using different techniques that removed all surrounding earth replaced the 19th century structures, therefore destroying the archaeological evidence of previous site use in much of Perth, particularly in St Georges Terrace. 18

The use of robust materials like limestone and brick for many of Fremantle’s buildings from the earliest days of European settlement further increases the chances of preservation. In 1844, Chauncy’s survey of the town recorded 77 dwellings (including hotels), 62 of which were limestone and the rest timber. 19 In comparison, for the same period the Swan district area from Guildford town to the Upper Swan River had 147 structures, 72 brick and rammed earth and 75 timber. 20 Of these, presently no timber structures exist and only five brick and two rammed earth dwellings survive highlighting that structure construction material affects later period preservation. 21 The high ratio of stone compared to timber buildings continued for the entire 19th century in Fremantle, with 496 dwellings of stone or brick and only 40 of timber in 1870. 22 Fremantle’s use of robust construction materials as seen at the Fremantle police station, Hotel Fremantle and St Josephs Convent sites suggests the strong possibility that the remains of very early Fremantle structures and other archaeological remains still exist under present buildings.

The discovery of well-preserved remains from Fremantle’s early colonial period erodes the myth about the fragility of archaeological remnants. A general perception – fortified by excellent but highly edited television shows about archaeology – is that it is unlikely that archaeology from the past preserves. An encounter with a member of the general-public during the St Josephs Convent survey highlights this view. When asked what a colleague and I were doing, I replied that we were undertaking an archaeology survey speci cally to find remains of the site’s education function. After an automatic “Oh you won’t find anything here”, I showed the person to their amazement the many salt-glaze inkwells, graphite pencils and slate writing boards in our sample bags. Highlighting the robustness of the town’s archaeology is a major result from Fremantle’s six archaeological excavations.

A major characteristic of archaeology is supplying details about aspects of the past that the written or spoken word does not record. This component is pivotal in prehistoric archaeology, but is also an important element of historical period archaeology because not all people – particularly in the early and late colonial period – were literate. In addition, not all literate people left written records, and even if they did, they were written often by men and contain bias that cloud interpretation. 23 The building foundations of the police station building were exceptionally well-preserved, but are not the original 1852 structure but a later addition built between the early 1860s and early 1880s. There is nothing written about additions to the police station building in primary historical documents, and only the examination of incidental data (survey notes and photographs) brought to light the building’s extension. Photographs and survey eld book information support this claim. Photographs of the building taken in the early 1860s show one chimney, but later photographs show a larger structure with two chimneys. 24 In addition, the chimneys are styled differently suggesting different construction dates. Furthermore, in 1853 the building’s east wall was 315 links (63.3 metres) from High and Cliff Street’s northwest corner but in 1894 this measured 291 links (58.5 metres) suggesting a five metre extension toward Cliff Street .25

The police station excavation supplied details of room arrangement, building plan and construction techniques, while the discovery of very small moveable artefacts suggests floorboards in this part of the structure because only small artefacts move through floorboard gaps into the under floor cavity. A flat area exposed in the foundations was most likely a doorstep from a room into the building’s verandah area facing High Street, while recesses in the foundations are the location of timber doorframes indicating a door connected two rooms. Only archaeology could supply data associated with the location of interior doors and construction techniques.

The archaeological finds from the six excavations also provide evidence of Fremantle people’s ways of life that are not traditionally contained in historical documents. The child’s plate containing letters of the alphabet unearthed at the Heard’s boatshed site is a rare and significant artefact, for it suggests a degree of literacy and home based education (or at least the reinforcing of school education in a home environment). The artefact’s presence also suggests children lived on the site, while the few other artefacts associated with children – particularly children’s recreation – found at other sites suggest area use for children’s play; yet aspects of how children spent their growing years during the 19th century are not well covered in Western Australian historical documents. Unfortunately, the range and number of children’s artefacts in Fremantle sites are less than other Western Australia sites. Children’s items like toys and clothing items comprised significant components of archaeological assemblages from Guildford gaol, South Perth mill and from the rear of Cooper’s house in Stirling Terrace, Albany. 26 The lower artefact numbers at Fremantle sites could be a result of excavation location, sample size or that some Fremantle sites were not necessarily occupied by families with children. In addition, most sites with many children’s items like South Perth mill and Cooper’s house at Albany date to the late 1890s and early 20th century, suggesting that the items children used to occupy their time may have changed from the early colonial period to the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.

What people ate is also rarely recorded accurately in written records. The well- preserved faunal remains suggest that mutton was the main animal meat eaten, with small percentages of beef. However, fish, of marine and freshwater varieties (and mullet alternating between the two), was very common and most likely comprised a major part of Fremantle residents’ diet. In addition, lead-fishing sinkers and a copper fishhook found at Heard’s boatshed and the courtyard behind the Fremantle Hotel respectively suggest people were catching fish and not necessarily only buying from fishmongers.


Between November 2005 and July 2006, Fremantle saw six archaeological excavations within its boundaries. Analysis of the many artefacts unearthed and examination of the excavations’ stratigraphy suggests that material remains of the town’s first European occupants still exist in the soil. In addition, the excavations determined that the town’s archaeological record provides rich data complimenting but also questioning the historical record that has previously provided the only data allowing interpretation about how Fremantle people lived. These results, particularly their robustness, have important rami cations regarding town development because the digging of trenches for road works or building construction will most likely encounter further remains. Efforts must be made to identify by the historical record sites with potential of containing physical remains from the town’s earliest history so that further information about Fremantle’s rich and important history can be preserved.


The information in this paper would have been impossible to gather without the help of Agnieshka Kiera, Councillor John Dowson, Councillor Jon Strachan, Ian James and Vanessa Collins of the City of Fremantle, and Terry Craig and Dr Deborah Gare from the University of Notre Dame. My appreciation also to Grant Allen, Brett Boys, the Australian Broadcasting Commission and particularly Jenny D’Anger from the Fremantle Herald. Members of the Fremantle Society (in particular Cathy Hall) and Fremantle History Society (particularly Wendy Markmann) provided invaluable support. In addition, the excavations would have been impossible without help from Jarad Barnett, Michael Baldwin, Matthew Clarke, Lynette Correia, Jade Doering, Michael Dove, Fiona Dyason, Patrick Gardner, Helena Glinski, Cheryl Greaves, Patricia Green, Jade Johnson, Rory Lang, Bob Lunn, Judy Lynn, Michael McKrill, Christine Mattner, Simon Meath, Rhett Mitchell, Daniel Monks, Deborah Morley, Odhran O’Brien, Susie Allia, Bronwyn Smit, Phil Shiner, Megan Tehnas, Matthew Thickett and Julia Wedlock.

Fremantle Studies Day, October 2006


1 M Gibbs, ‘The historical archaeology of shore based whaling in Western Australia 1836-1879’, unpublished PhD, 1995, held at the Centre for Archaeology, University of Western Australia, Crawley; J McIlroy, ‘Bathers Bay whaling station, Fremantle, Western Australia’, Australian Historical Archaeology, v4, 1986, pp 43 – 87. Some of the rare regional archaeological perspectives are M Gibbs, ‘Landscapes of meaning - Joseph Lucas Horrocks and the Gwalla Estate, Northampton, Western Australia’, Historical Traces: Studies in Western Australian History, v17, 1997 & S Burke ‘The material basis of the settlement process: the historical archaeology of the Swan district, Western Australia, 1827 to 1860’, unpublished PhD 2004, Discipline of Archaeology, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia, Crawley.

2 S Burke, ‘A report on archaeological excavations on sites in High Street west Fremantle, providing recommendations for the site’s preservation, interpretation and display’, unpublished report, 2006, prepared for the City of Fremantle; Robert Austin, Field Book no5, containing survey in the districts of Avon, Cockburn Sound, State Records Of ce of Western Australia (hereafter SRO), Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Aus/5, 1853: 152; Public Works Department of Western Australia (hereafter PWD) 1886, 110, A Richardson, Destination Subiaco, a pictorial review of Western Australian tramcars, Australian Electric Traction Association, 1968, pp 26-7; J Chalmers, A Ticket to Ride - A history of the Fremantle Municipal Tramways, Whiteman Park Print Shop. 1997, p 16.

3 S Burke, ‘A report on archaeological excavations on sites in High Street west’.

4 The Fremantle police station was a complex of four buildings on both sides of High Street.

5 S Burke, ‘A report on archaeological excavations on sites in High Street west’.

6 S Burke, ‘A report on an archaeological excavation of the rear of the Union Stores, Fremantle’, unpublished report, 2006, prepared for the City of Fremantle.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 S Burke, ‘A report on an archaeological survey of the St. Joseph’s Convent site, Adelaide Street, Fremantle’, unpublished report, 2006, for Bollig Design Group & Greg Rowe and Associates & commissioned by Hocking Planning & Architecture.

10 M Pitt Morison, ‘Settlement and development - the historical context’, in M Pitt Morison & J White (ed), Western Towns and Buildings, UWA Press, 1979; N Ogle, The Colony of Western Australia. A manual for emigrants, James Fraser, Regent Street London, 1839.

11 P L S Chauncy, Field Book 8 containing surveys in Fremantle. SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Chau/8, 1844.

12 S Burke, ‘From North Bay to Phillimore street: a report on an archaeological excavation of William Heard’s boatshed, Henry and Phillimore streets, Fremantle’, unpublished report, 2006, for the University of Notre Dame.

13 D Hutchison, Fremantle Walks, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2006; PWD, Fremantle railway station, SRO Cons 1647, WAS 399, Item 07548, 1892.

14 City of Fremantle rate books 1886, City of Fremantle Library.

15 City of Fremantle rate books 1900, City of Fremantle Library.

16 C S Bradley, ‘Smoking pipes for the archaeologist’, in K Karklins (ed), Studies in material culture, The Society for Historical Archaeology, 2000.

17 The feature’s removal reaching fresh water 2.03 metres below present ground surface suggests a well as its original function. In 1830, Mary Ann Friend, the wife of a Royal Navy commander visiting Fremantle, recorded the dif culty she and a colleague had in reaching their tent somewhere in present Fremantle city due to the number of small wells dug in the area.

18 One wonders at the amount of archaeological data now lost with the construction of Perth’s William Street section of the Perth to Mandurah railway. Structures on William Street’s east side demolished for the underground railway were of a similar size and age to many Fremantle structures like the Fremantle Hotel.

19 Chauncy eld book 8.

20 P L S Chauncy, Field Book 14 containing surveys in the district Swan, SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Chau/14, 1841; P L S Chauncy, Field Book 16 containing surveys in the district Swan, SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Chau/16, 1841; P L S Chauncy, Field Book 15 containing surveys in Guildford, SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Chau/15, 1842; P L S Chauncy, Field Book 18 containing surveys in the district Swan, SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Chau/18, 1842; P L S Chauncy, Field Book 20 containing surveys in the district Swan, SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32, Item Chau/20, 1843.

21 S Burke, ‘The material basis of the settlement process’, p 144.

22 Census of Western Australia, Government Printer Perth, 1870.

23 W Raymond Wood, ‘Ethnohistory and historical method’, in M Schiffer (ed), Archaeological method and theory: volume 2, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1990.

24 Royal Western Australian Historical Society pictorial collection 2225.

25 Austin eld book 5, p 152; G Leeming, Field Book 26 containing Surveys in the districts Fremantle, p 13, SRO Cons 3401, WAS 32 Item Leem/26, 1894.

26 C Allen, ‘Gender in the archaeological record at Guildford gaol and police station’, unpublished honours dissertation, 2002, held at the Centre for Archaeology, University of Western Australia, Crawley; S Burke, ‘Report of an archaeological excavation at South Perth Mill’, unpublished report, 2003, prepared for the City of South Perth; S Burke ‘Report of archaeological monitoring of Albany town lot 43 (Kooka’s Restaurant)’, unpublished report, 2004, prepared for Albany Demolition.

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