Fremantle Stuff > FHS > Fremantle Studies > 9 > Morrison

The Great War

Michelle Morrison

Morrison, Michelle 2017, 'The Great War', Fremantle Studies, 9: 65-74.

That the war had an effect on Fremantle during and after its active progress is, of course, an understatement. When we first contemplate how a town is affected by war, we immediately think of the personal stories of the people involved - and we most often leap, quite naturally, to those most dramatic yet real consequences of war which prominently involve stories of loss and heartache. Explaining how a municipal council responds to an event so entirely out of its own hands and jurisdiction, with which it has no official relationship - not with the battles, strategies, the movement of troops, not even with the politics of war - this is a harder task.

When examining how a municipal council responds to the crisis of war it is useful to use the traditional historian’s tools and break the council’s responses into recorded, measurable units; documented responses might be found in demography, fiscal changes, by-laws, policies, employment and committees, for example. But it is important that the researcher continues further to uncover that that unquantifiable, indefinable aspect of municipal response -the ‘emotional’ responses of the council that signify the connection between a community and its body of elected representatives in a time of crisis such as the Great War.

It is immensely difficult to define that empathetic relationship, even though it drifts between the pages of the archives of the Fremantle Council during the years of war. It is understandable, logical even, that such an emotional connection exists in a small town such as Fremantle - and yet such things are, quite literally, unrecorded. The feelings of the councillors do not make their way to the minute books, they can’t be quoted or exemplified. In other words, what cannot be contained in council records is explicit documentation of the environment in which it makes its decisions. For that, we must read between the lines - we must add the colour and texture of What was happening outside the council walls, in order to understand what decisions were being made within them.

Obviously one can cite decisions made in council and recorded in the minutes. Yet, in reading the minutes of the Fremantle Council between 1914 and 1918, if one was to read them alone with no other contextual material, no previous knowledge of the war, one might be forgiven for thinking that no such ‘great’ war was being fought. Reference in Council minutes to ‘the war’ is negligible; it is restricted almost entirely to incidental things such as welcoming troopships, fund-raising activities and a few administrative requests. But when we step outside the Council minutes, and into the Council correspondence files an altogether different story is revealed. There the true extent of the war can be read, and I dare say, ‘felt' by the historian reading through its pages.

However, let us start at the beginning. In the short few months before the declaration of war in August 1914, day-to-day life in Fremantle was rolling along at its usual pace and within the Council there were no real signs that a World-wide crisis was imminent.

On 20 July 1914 when Mayor Frederick McLaren presided over an ordinary meeting of Council, there was no mention of the coming of War; the minutes actually show that the Councillors discussed ‘orange peel on footpaths’ and other ordinary, mundane council issues. [1] Of this early period of the conflict, then Mayor William Wray would reflect in 1918 that:

When I entered upon the office of Mayor in December 1914, our horizon was clouded by the breaking storm of war. In its earlier stages its effect was little felt by us, living in comparative security and feeling quite sure that we had no cause for alarm. 2

Yet when war was declared in early August 1914, Fremantle was immediately transformed. Within twenty-four hours, the Citizen Reserves had been mobilised to act as a reserve defence force for Fremantle, and the 86th Infantry Regiment was installed on Fremantle Park. The park already accommodated the YMCA who had set up a ‘recreation and writing tent’ for soldiers to write last minute letters to their loved ones. 3 Fremantle Park, being very central to the town, was constantly in use for general recreation as Well as for both summer and winter sports; the town’s children must have been mesmerised, and perhaps a bit dismayed, to see their local park so rapidly transformed into an Army Camp.

Only a month later, a fresh detachment of the citizen forces, the 88th Infantry, was mobilised to take over from the 86th. The 88th, for the sake of providing a picture here, were composed for the greater part of young men of only 18 and 19 years of age, and 550 of them protected Fremantle and a few other coastal areas. 4 It was not long before Fremantle was described as ‘having the appearance of a real live garrison town’. 5

Amidst this whirr of activity, the following stirring words were printed in the Western Mail:

During a world epoch such as exists at the present time, when the war of conflicting nations casts a dark cloud-shadow upon the face of the earth, a great wave of patriotism has overwhelmed all the lesser emotions of mankind. 6

The patriotism the paper described was immediately exemplified at a meeting of the Fremantle Trades Hall Association. Being a harbour town, the Trades Hall membership represented a majority portion of Fremantle’s citizenry.

On 18 August the large meeting was read a letter from William Henry Carpenter, a member of the association and also Fremantle’s representative on the Legislative Assembly. The letter concerned a resolution which had been carried the previous evening at a meeting of the Trades Hall Association in Perth. At that meeting the Perth members’ resolution had been, ‘that this association appeal to all workers of the world to stand neutral in the present crisis’. 7 William Carpenter's letter to the Fremantle members strongly protested this resolution and in it he appealed to his Fremantle colleagues to vote to rescind the resolution. He wrote:

Dear Comrades:

I can only express my astonishment that a majority of the delegates present supported a resolution so cowardly and unpatriotic. The workers of Fremantle, I feel sure, have not authorized it, nor will they endorse it. I take the earliest opportunity of notifying you that as a Labour member of the Legislative Assembly, I cannot possibly continue to be a delegate to your association while such a resolution remains on its records. My resignation is being forwarded by this mail to the organization which I have had the honour to represent. 8

His letter described the Perth members thus:

If they were not with the Empire they were against it, and they might just as well go over and fight with the enemy. They were cowardly too, because they stood behind the protection of the British flag without contributing one iota to the strength of the Empire. 9

Carpenter then urged the Fremantle tradesmen to resolve ‘that this country affirms its loyalty to Australia and to the British Empire, and urges upon all workers the patriotic duty of defending their country during the present crisis’. 10The workers at the meeting applauded Carpenter’s letter and confirmed his resolution.

As it eventuated, and as the rolls of honour would later sadly reveal, the workers of the Fremantle Trades Hall supported this ideal in body as well as spirit.

A few weeks later, the spirit of patriotism was confirmed in the most profound of ways. On 23 September 1914, the West Australian published over two large pages a feature titled ‘The Expeditionary Force - Personnel of the Western Australian quota’. The paper listed those men, in rank and file, who made up the first Western Australian quota of the expeditionary force. The details gave each man’s regimental number, his name, his age, whether married or single, his trade or calling, and lastly the town, country or state in which he was born. 11 This personal and detailed list, providing very real evidence of the exodus of Fremantle’s men and boys into war must have had a huge emotional impact on the town. How the loss of the town’s men and the prevailing unemployment problems created by the war would affect Fremantle is most immediately seen in the Council’s correspondence related to ‘Distress Relief ’.

Coincidentally with the sending of troops to war, the State government instituted a Central Committee to control War Relief and Distress Fund. Run out of its head office in Perth, the Fund was intended to draw contributions from all the municipalities and then distribute the funds out again. It was quickly identified in Fremantle that this simply would not do. Fremantle had never been on equal footing with Perth and had a history of poor relationships with other central boards and committees that tried to dictate to Fremantle what it should or should not do, as evidenced in the following letter.

In October 1914 the Secretary of the Trades Hall, Robert McCutcheon, wrote in a letter to the Council that ‘it is a well known fact that once the money collected in the Fremantle district reaches Perth, there is very little chance of any of it being returned to Fremantle’. 12 At this time the Council had historically maintained its own ‘Fremantle Municipal Unemployment and Distress Fund’. In addition, the Trades Hall had a Distress Fund for its members. With the increased need for social support presented by the outbreak of war, and with their focus firmly on the relief of local families in distress, these two funds decided to amalgamate.

James Shepherd, the Fremantle Council’s Secretary, produced a letter from the Central Committee that further resolved their decision to have Fremantle’s distress relief exclusively reach the hands of Fremantle people. The letter was from AO Neville dated 3 November 1914 and can be interpreted as nothing short of unabashed blackmail. It reads:

In accordance with the constitution of the fund, the Central Committee is empowered to distribute relief throughout the State, and naturally Fremantle district will receive consideration with others.

This is, of course, on the assumption that your committee intend to work in conjunction with the Central Committee, and forward any collections made in your district to the Fund. Should your committee decide to distribute the funds collected without co-operating with the Central Committee it is probable that my committee would not continue to afford relief to cases within your district.

I shall be glad to learn, therefore, whether such co-operation has been decided upon.

I may add that I have just received a letter from Mr E Whitnoome, of, South Fremantle asking for help from the fund. This will be afforded pending the decision of your committee referred to in the foregoing. 13

By the end of 1915 the war was being felt in earnest in Fremantle. The harsh realities being faced by men hoping to contribute to the war effort and their families can be seen in a letter received from the Acting Secretary of the Fremantle Harbour Trust, Norman Timbury. Mr Timbury wrote to the Commissioners of the Harbour Trust:

Having decided to answer my country is call I respectfully beg to apply for indefinite leave of absence to enable me to place my services at the disposal of the Military Authorities. I can only hope that good health and courage will stand by me to enable me to do my best in the gruesome and repulsive sphere ahead as I have tried to do in the more convivial work of civil life in the past. 14

Norman Timbury received the following letter in reply:

Your application for indefinite leave to enable you to offer your services for the Expeditionary Forces was placed before the Commissioners and granted.

The Commissioners are agreeable, as in other instances where permanent officers of the Trust have taken the same step as yourself, that on your return, providing that you are physically capable of performing the duties similar to those which you have performed in the past, your position will be kept open for you, and they hope that you will return fit and well to continue the good work you have done for the Trust in the past.


Image 3: Crowds farewell troops departing Fremantle, Victoria Quay 1915 (Fremantle History Centre, # 3744)

The Commissioners’ response was the standard response by government departments in these cases. What we must imagine, however, is the shudder of dread that men such as Norman Timbury must have felt on reading that their position would be kept open for them ‘providing that you are physically capable’. That phrasing must have borne particular meaning at a time when wounded soldiers were returning to Fremantle to be cared for in the No 8 Australian Base Hospital right in the heart of town. One of the earliest of the ships carrying wounded soldiers arrived less than a year after the first troopship departed for war. 15


Image 1: The Base Hospital, Fremantle c1916 (Fremantle History Centre, # 1777)

These troopships, carrying the wounded and invalided, arrived steadily over 1915 and 1916. So whilst sending more and more of their men away to war had become a part of life for Fremantle locals, so too it had become commonplace to see them return. The care of these soldiers extended out of the Base Hospital and into the environment of Fremantle, as can be seen in the following request made to the Fremantle Council from the Secretary of the Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Nurses Association:

Would [it] be possible to have more seats put in and around Fremantle for the use of returned soldiers on crutches. At the present time the only place where these men can rest is on the Esplanade, which means, should any of them have to come into town on business and be delayed they either have to stand in the street and wait or else go down to the Esplanade. 16

The letter also pointed out that not only was Fremantle going to be the sole place of repose for the returning wounded, but their number was expected to rise. The association reminded the council that the Base Hospital in Fremantle was the only one available to the soldiers, and with ‘crutches cases increasing daily, the seating accommodation is becoming an urgent necessity. 17 Whilst eager to satisfy this request to support the physical needs of returned soldiers, the Fremantle Council were aware that these men needed a means to reassimilate into society and the best method of achieving this was seen to be through employment opportunities. However, as important as employment was for these soldiers, the salient feature of these early returning men was that the majority of them were carrying injuries that made them, in varying degrees, unable to resume physical labour.

Long-term, stable employment was the normal custom before the war, and the following list of Council employees, 18 which was provided to the Council’s insurers in 1917 can be used as an example. It lists its employees thus:

Percy Jeffery, 31, Clerk, 17 years with Council
Charlie Grieve, 33, Bookkeeper, 7 years
John Willis, 47, Auctioneer, 11 years
William Pilling, 50, Clerk, 18.5 years
Edward Mayne, 5 8, Caretaker, 10 years
Forrest Harper, 38, Inspector, 17 years
Thomas Smith, 47, Chief Health Inspector, 15 years
Charles Parsons, 58, Clerk, 12 years
James Roberts, 53, Accountant, 6.5 years
James Shepherd, 41, Accountant, 16.5 years
HT Haynes, 61, Town Clerk and Engineer, 9.5 years

We can extrapolate from this list how destabilising it must have been to return home and not have, or be able to expect, the security of long-term employment that had previously been assumed. This financial instability had to be dealt with in conjunction various physical problems they had to contend with.

Their difficulty is exemplified in the following letter received by the Fremantle Council in December 1916. The plight of these two soldiers, the earliest in the records of Council, would soon be repeated over and over again. The letter reads:

We the undersigned returned soldiers, late of the Tenth Light Horse AIF respectfully apply for permission to have a stall for the purpose of selling fruit, outside the entrance of the Fremantle Railway station.

We are natural born Australians, of Australian parentage, and have received injuries on Active Service in Gallipoli which renders us incapable of doing any hard work. 19

A note is written beneath that ‘both above men are original members of the 109‘ Light Horse and served in Egypt and Gallipoli. They both have excellent character and clean discharges, and are in every way respectable reputable citizens’. The note is signed by the Officer in Charge, Light Horse Reinforcement. 20

Providing employment for these returning soldiers became a priority for the Fremantle Municipal Council. One of the best available ways of assisting these men was to grant them licenses for barrows for the sale of fruit, coffee or refreshment stalls. Over the next few years the streets of the West End became populated by a variety of these stalls. The Council also offered the returned soldiers a reduced rate; most barrow licenses were 25 shillings per month but returned soldiers were generally only charged 10 shillings. 21

These men that returned from war were unalterably changes as were their lifestyles. The same can be said for the many Women now widowed. Much can be learnt from the letters and barrow license requests sent to the Council after the war. A letter received from F Roots, Watkins Street, on 21 October 1918, explained that he was a soldier who:

went away from here with 32"“ Battalion, I was away three years and six months. Owing to a knock I was sent home, I was in hospital 3 or 4 months having to go under an operation. I have done and been through some of it in Egypt and France and I am not able as I when I left here, when I could pick and choose my work, I am trying to battle a living [sic.]. 22

On 5 December 1916 a fruit stand license was issued to Mr John Pratley for a position opposite Fremantle Railway Station ‘subject to your being a returned discharged soldier of good reputation. 23 On May 10 1918 RM Lennon, a discharged soldier having enlisted from Fremantle and served 2 years, 27 days active service, applied to have the stand at the corner of Market and Leake Streets as a pie and coffee stall. 24 Eva Cookson was to write to the Town Clerk on 14 May 1918:

Having lost the lease of the Railway Bookstall, I ask your Council’s permission to place my bookstall in the ground situated near the weighbridge and Cliff street, in my opinion it would pay me and would heighten that spot as the stall is of good appearance. . .as you know my husband is doing his little bit in the old country and I am trying to keep things going during his absence. 25

From 29 Point Street, Joseph Hart wrote to Council on 6 November 1918 asking to run a portable coffee stall outside of the Railway Station:

l am a returned Soldier carrying a good discharge and have a Wife and Family to support, and...l am seeking employment. I can supply you with references as to my integrity and character and if you, Gentlemen, will favourably consider this application, you will be doing good to one who has served his Country and is anxious to earn an honest livelihood? 26

On 5 May a Sergeant S Thomas, a returned soldier of South Street, was granted a license to run a pie stand in Cantonment Street at ‘pawn shop corner - from say, 7 o’clock in the evenings until midnight, six nights a week’. The Town Clerk made a note on this application that ‘Sergeant Thomas is a very quiet and respectable young man and assures me that he will not allow any rowdiness about the stall’. 27

The Council did what it could for these ‘quiet and respectable young men’. And all among them must have been grateful to help where they could for those men that had given so much.

There were others who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country. Among the correspondence files of the Council a heartbreaking number of condolence letters can be found. In May 1918 the Mayor himself wrote the following letter to one of his own Councillors, John Higham:

At a meeting of the Fremantle Municipal Council held on Monday last, reference was made to the death of your Son, Earnest, who, after a period of three years on active service gave his life for the country of which he proved himself so worthy a Son. The Council trusts that in your grief you may find comfort in the thought that he, like many others of our brave lads, died a hero’s death whilst nobly defending his own and other Nations against the ravages of a brutal and tyrannical foe. 28

It was a much brighter note for the Council in 1918 with the return of four Council employees among other returned soldiers. The Town Clerk wrote to the Secretary of the War Council, ‘there are four of the Council’s own employees who have returned from the front and these will be employed as soon as they are able after discharge'. 29 The joy of their return was to be shared by the nation soon after.

Six days after the declaration of peace on 11 November 1918 the Sunday Times published a wonderful description of the feeling in Fremantle as the first troopship full of Anzacs pulled into the harbour:

Not all the rejoicing during the week over the signing of the armistice and the wonderful deeds of the Allies that ended in victory, nor the intense demonstrations of thanksgiving and gratitude to the army of Australia, had exhausted the great treasure house of pride for the Boys of the Old Brigade. There was still an abundant reserve with which to greet the original Anzacs - the boys who fought through the Gallipoli campaign and when that terminated went on to France and Flanders to hold the Hun dragon in check. These men had been in the great conflict for nearly four years, and must have fought in many battles. As we looked at them still undaunted, browned and burnt, with the strain of four years of war on their tanned faces, the thought was insistent - “How often they must have ‘hopped over’ in the face of a hail of lead and iron! To come through it all, to be alive - what a miracle!” 30

The paper pointed out, with some emotion, that it was merely happy coincidence that these men should come home now to such a great moment. As members of the Original Force, they had been intended simply for furlough.

It was Fremantle’s good fortune to be able to welcome these first-returning soldiers, and all the hearts that were so open to receiving them must have also been turning to those yet to return, and those that never would. Nevertheless, the occasion was one of great celebration. The Sunday Times described it thus:

On Friday morning bronzed veterans were paraded ashore at Fremantle and marched to the local Oval through crowds of cheering people. There was a contingent of 100 WA men on board but they were so anxious to meet and embrace their relatives that they were allowed to escape the public welcomes, and their desire can be well appreciated by all who have ever wandered afar and for long. They were soon spirited away to their homes. On the Oval the people of Fremantle gave the returned men a royal welcome that made them feel that once more they were amongst their own kin. The Mayor made a happy speech, in which he welcomed them back to the land of their birth or adoption. They were regaled and feted and cheered and pelted with confetti. 31


Image 2: Returning soldiers being welcomed by crowd outside the Town Hall, Fremantle 1919 (Fremantle History Centre, # 205 8)

This rejoicing and celebration was obviously Wonderful and welcome. It is fitting that Mayor William Wray, who had seen the municipality through the war, should now ‘lay down his robes’ and make his final address at this momentous time. He deserves to have some of that address repeated here, not only to recognise his achievement, but due to the poetry of his thoughts in this triumphant time:

Fellow Citizens,

When l entered upon the office of Mayor on the 1st December 1914 we rejoiced at the spirit in which our men sailed bravely from our shore to join in the fight against Australia’s and the Empires foe, and then, as the news of that dashing landing on the Gallipoli shore reached us, we were thrilled with feelings of pride; but later, when the news reached us that so many of our brave lads had fallen and our wounded began to return, the dread seriousness of the enterprise of war for a moment stunned us; but it also awakened in us a spirit of grim determination and although as each year passed slowly by and the end seemed still far when the joy of victory should be ours, we never lost confidence. Even in our darkest hour we knew that ultimately a stand would be made, and so it was. The enemy's blow had spent its force, broken like the angry wave on the everlasting rock and dashed to pieces in the recoil. So, on the 11th of this month the victory we had fought for and which we knew must come to us because our case was right and just, was heralded throughout the civilized world. 32

Wray’s words have a strange resonance now, in this political climate with ‘terrorism’ the watchword that hangs over us; however, let us keep it in its context.


Image 4: ‘HMT Main’ returning with troops 1919 (Fremantle History Centre,# 4708)

Fremantle was celebrating a great personal triumph, the return of their menfolk, the imminent reopening of the wharves and the hope of peace and posterity. Fremantle’s road to recovery is best described in the Sunday Times on November 1919:

The Port is quiet. Shipping eased off a bit during the week, but that was only the usual experience, and within the next week nine vessels are listed to arrive in the harbour. One of these will bring a general cargo of 8000 tons and will load up with wheat. Of course, the business of the Port has not yet resumed anything like the normal state and will not until more steamers are built. The Governments are still controlling a lot of tonnage which is employed in demobilization and other post-war services, but when all this is cleaned up we shall begin to see the good old times again. As showing the demand for ships, the P and O Company are not dispatching any more liners for Australia until after the New Year. Still our wharves are fairly busy and the lumpers are looking more satisfied with the world than they have done for four years past. 33

Would it be trite to say if the lumpers are happy, Fremantle is happy? It is enough to say that the war was over, the harbour was busy again and, if the Fremantle Businessmen’s Association had its way, ‘all good roads [would] lead to Fremantle’.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2014


1 West Australian, 23 July 1914, p8.

2 Fremantle Municipal Council Files S.R.O. Cons 1377 AN 217/3 Box 57 Item 4

3 Daily News, 8 August 1914, p5.

4 Western Mail 25 September 1914, p19.

5 Sunday Times, 12 September 1915, p15.

6 Western Mail, 6 November 1914, p31.

7 West Australian, 19 August 1914, p7.

8 West Australian, 19 August 1914, p7.

9 West Australian, 19 August 1914, p7.

10 West Australian, 19 August 1914, p7.

11 West Australian, 23 September 1914, pl.

12 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files S.R.O. 1917-1919 S.R.O. Box 55 Item 14

13 Fremantle Harbour Trust files S.R.O Cons: 3466 Was 86 Item 127/14 3 November, 1914 from A.O Neville, Organising Secretary of the War and Unemployment Distress Relief Fund, Barrack St, Perth to Secretary, Fremantle Distress Fund, Town Hall, Fremantle

14 9 September, 1915 letter from Norman Timbury to the Acting Secretary, FHT Fremantle Harbour Trust files S.R.O Cons: 3466 Was 86 Item 127/ 14

15 The Argus (Melbourne), 19 August 1915, p7.

16 5 December, 1918 from Ernest Parker to Town Clerk Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S.R.O Acc: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 59 Item 1

17 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S.R.O Ace: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 59 Item 1

18 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S.R.O Acc: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 56 Item 1

19 Fremantle Municipal Council S.R.O Cons 1377 AN 217/3 1915 BOX 39 Item 30

20 Fremantle Municipal Council S.R.O Cons 1377 AN 217/3 1915 BOX 39 Item 30

21 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S.R.O Acc: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 55 Item 2

22 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence files S.R.O Acc: 1377 An 217/3 Box 55 item 4

23 Fremantle Municipal Council files S.R.O Cons 1377 AN 217/3 Box 39 Item 30

24 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S.R.O Acc: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 56 Item 1

25 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S. R.O Acc: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 56 Item 1

26 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files S.R.O Acc: 1377 An 217/3 Box 55 Item 2

27 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence Files 1917-1919 S.R.O Ace: 1377 AN 217/2 Box 55 Item 18

28 Fremantle Municipal Correspondence Files Acc 1377 AN 217/2 Box 57 Item 1 On 28 May, 1918 John] Higham returned a thank you letter and made reference to his son, Lieutenant Ernest Higham and ‘his death on the Battlefield in France'. ibid.

29 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence files S.R.O Acc: 1377 An 217/3 Box 57 Item 10

30 Sunday Times 17 November, 1918 p2

31 Sunday Times 17 November, 1918 p2

32 Fremantle Municipal Council Correspondence files S.R.() Acc: 1377 An 217/3 Box 57 Item 4

33 Sunday Times, 26 October 1919, p2.

Garry Gillard | New: 23 June, 2018 | Now: 16 December, 2018