Fremantle Stuff > Fremantle Walks > Walk 2

Walk 2: Arthur Head

From Fremantle Walks by David Hutchison, 2006, pp. 82-86. (See also facsimile version.)

This walk would take half an hour. However, if guides are on duty, allow more time for viewing the Round House.

walk2mapWhen Governor Stirling arrived to establish the Swan River Colony, he described the entrance to the Swan River as ‘flanked by two natural Piers or Heads’. The southern head, named after George Arthur, lieutenant- governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), appeared from the sea to be an island. From 1835 settlers were permitted to quarry limestone from the 25 metre-high limestone outcrop; stone was also quarried during construction of the Inner Harbour. The remaining knoll is only a remnant of the original, although still an important element in the townscape. It provides a pleasant closure to High Street.

Arthur Head has been a place of punishment, a place of recreation and observation, a site for administration of the law and for navigation aids for approaching ships, a fortress and a site for port officers’ residences. Unfortunately the significance of the site for Nyoongars was not recorded. It is probable, however, that such a prominent site — which offered panoramic views in all directions and was close to the lakes where Nyoongars had camped and hunted waterfowl seasonally, must have been significant to them. We do know that they called it Manjaree.

In the early years of the colony, the arrival of every ship was of great interest because it carried, besides goods and passengers, mail and newspapers for settlers anxious for news from the home country. Arrivals of vessels were observed from here and announced. The present signal arm is a reproduction of the original. Settlers resorted to the head to enjoy the sea breeze on hot days and to bathe in the sea at Bathers Beach — men and boys at one end, women and girls at the other.

The Fremantle and Western Australian whaling companies began operations in Cockburn Sound in the 18305, and settlers observed the Whalers pursuing their quarry from the head. Local newspapers published details of the kills, much as, nowadays, they provide sporting results. The Fremantle Company had a jetty at Bathers Beach, a tryworks (for rendering whale oil) and other buildings. It was responsible for cutting the tunnel under the head in 1837 to give access to the whaling station from Cliff Street. T W Mews, the colony’s first shipbuilder, also operated from this beach. Both whaling companies failed by the end of 1838. A new Fremantle company was formed and survived until 1850.


The 1844 map of the town shows that a strip of land in front of the head, stretching from the tunnel entrance towards the river, was walled and set aside as a Government Garden. At its southern end were the stocks, which were used for punishment until 1849. It is almost certain that a tragic event, the hanging of a fifteen-year- old boy, John Gavin, took place a little to the north of the stocks on Easter Saturday. Gavin was one of the Parkhurst Reformatory boys mentioned in the ‘Brief History’. He arrived in the colony on 26 October 1843 and was assigned to work for the Pollard family on a farm on the South Dandalup River near Pinjarra, south of Perth. On Ash Wednesday, 21 February 1844, he murdered George, one of the Pollards’ sons. On 5 April he was tried and found guilty; on the following day, he was sentenced to be hanged and his body to be left hanging in chains. Governor Hutt disallowed the hanging in chains. The execution took place on Easter Saturday, 6 April. Gavin’s legs gave way on his way to the gallows and he was carried by John Schoales, an Anglo-Irish lawyer who had been appointed Guardian of the ‘Juvenile Immigrants’. He had to be lifted to the cart parked beneath the gallows. The cart was drawn from under him by a horse. The sheriff, who organised the execution, believed that the boy was too light for the hanging to be quick, and so he had weights fastened to the boy’s feet when he stood on the cart beneath the gallows.

In 1873, the south side of the head was cut back substantially when stone was quarried for construction of the Long Jetty. A few piles of the Long Jetty can still be seen at low tide, and it is symbolised by the modern timber structure on the beach. The northern side was reduced further during construction of the South Mole in the 1890s.

During the 1980s a Federal Government Australian Bicentennial Grant enabled a major research and conservation program. An historical archaeologist, Dr Michael Pearson, identified sites of seventy-two structures and buildings, most of which have been demolished. Signs on site bear maps showing the placement of significant structures and buildings. Demolished buildings include: the first (1851) and second (1876) lighthouses; the first (1834-35) and second (c. 1840) courthouses; a police station complex (c. 1852); and quarters for the lighthouse keeper, harbourmaster and pilots. From time to time, including during World War II, there were also various defensive structures and gun emplacements.

These investigations exposed remains of the tryworks and foundations of buildings, but these remains were covered again until it is possible to expose them for display; plans to do so were in hand in 2005.


The Round House

Architect: Henry Reveley

The Round House, the first prison in the colony, is the oldest surviving public building in Western Australia. It was designed by Henry Reveley, who lived and practised for some time in Italy, where he befriended the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom he saved from drowning. It is possible that the design of the Round House was influenced by coastal fort buildings in a part of Italy which Reveley would have known. It is built of local limestone. The cells were arranged radially around the central courtyard, in the centre of which was a well. One cell, to the right of the entrance, was used as a kitchen and the one to the left as a warders’ dining room. Two of the cells were fitted for use as privies and one, specially lined with wooden planking, was used for housing refractory prisoners.

Its primary function was taken over by the new prison built for the Imperial Convict Establishment in the 1850s; it was then used as a lockup. The curfew bell was rung at the Round House every night at 9.50pm, when ‘ticket-of leave’ convicts had to return to their lodgings. Any ‘bondsman’ found outside after the curfew was locked up.

The Round House was later used as a women’s prison and, from the late 1860s, as a transit prison for Aboriginal prisoners on their way to incarceration on Rottnest Island. Relatives of incarcerated Aborigines gathered outside it during the night to talk, through the wall, to the prisoners. Colonial officials did not understand the psychological stress experienced by Aborigines separated from their own lands and people.

In 1922 harbour works were planned and demolition of the Round House would have resulted. The harbourmaster argued for its retention as it sheltered his house from strong winds. When this house was demolished in 1928, the Round House was threatened again. Dr J S Battye, the public librarian, was chairman of the 1929 Centenary Committee and, largely due to his efforts, the building was saved again, but began to fall into disrepair.

During 1966 the standard-gauge railway was extended past the end of High Street and the original steps were partly demolished and rebuilt to their present form. In 1975 a grant from the newly established Australian Heritage Commission enabled conservation and restoration work. In 1983, the Round House and its surrounding reserve were transferred from the Fremantle Port Authority (now Fremantle Ports) to the City of Fremantle


Kidogo Arthouse

Builder: J J Harwood

This building, on the shore of Bathers Beach, is a former kerosene store dating from c. 1885. It was the studio and gallery of Joan Campbell, one of Australia's greatest potters with an international reputation. Some of her work was inspired by its seaside setting.

The building now houses an Arthouse, offering courses and exhibitions.

Garry Gillard | New: 9 January, 2019 | Now: 14 November, 2019