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Whalers Tunnel

Civil engineer Henry Reveley supervised the construction of the Whalers Tunnel (1837-38) which runs underneath the Round House jail, through Arthur Head. It was (as a sign says) the first underground engineering project in the colony and 'convict labour' was used - meaning the labour of convicted men who were imprisoned in the jail, not that of transported convicts, who did not begin to arrive until 1850.

round house

This photo of the Round House on Arthur Head was used by Hitchcock in 1929, so presumably taken at that time, perhaps by Nixon. Note that the stairs on the left are the ones in use; now it is the other way around - and the stairs have been reconfigured to accommodate more railway.

Possibly the earliest photo of the tunnel, from an unknown photographer in 1892. >
Fremantle City Library photo no. 2063A. No sign of any jetty or other former whaling operation. Long Jetty in the distance.

The excavation of the tunnel under Arthur's Head was commenced in 1837. It has often been erroneously stated that the tunnel was the work of convicts, but it was completed long before the first batch of [transported] convicts arrived in 1850, as was also the Round House that stands immediately above it. Another tradition is that the tunnel was cut by whalers to facilitate the transport of barrels of oil, but it is extremely unlikely that the whalers would have carried out such a costly work on Crown property. The more probable story is that the work was done by a detachment of sappers and miners who were stationed at Fremantle at that time, as it was a necessary public undertaking in order to connect the town with the only jetty then existing. (Hitchcock: 25)


This photo of the Round House was taken by George Davidson, an amateur photographer who worked for shipping company McIlwraith McEachern 1910-60. Here the RHS stairs are unblocked: before or after the previous photo? I'm guessing just before as there is a little more vegetation in the top photo. The steps may have been blocked off because they were in such bad repair - as they seem to be in Davidson's photo. Thanks to the Fremantle City Library Local History Collection for photo no. 2390 with this caption:

The Harbour Master's house [formerly the first courthouse] on the left was built 1870/1880s and demolished c1928. The Round House was constructed 1830/1831. The Pilot cottage on the right is No 9, built c1904 as part of the Light House compound. The original Round House steps were built 1836 and rebuilt to straddle the Whaler's Tunnel in 1838. They were truncated in 1966 because of the railway line.

P. Falk photo, 1905
A postcard published by P Falk. The Fremantle Electric Lighting and Tramways Board car barn (1905) is on the left. Construction of the Round House, centre, began 1.09.1830 to the design of the Civil Engineer, Henry W Reveley and was completed 18.01.1831. The tunnel was excavated in August 1837 for the Fremantle Whaling Company so that whale products and merchandise from ships could more easily be brought through to High Street. Taken after 1905. Photo courtesy Fremantle City Library ref. no. 1422.

Cabling for the Fremantle Municipal Tramways and Electric Lighting Board in front of the Whalers Tunnel. Note the wooden treads on the steps. Taken 25 September 1905. Photo courtesy Fremantle City Library ref. 2402, photographer not attributed, but dated 25 September 1905. Possibly G. Rome, as the Library has a different photo of the cable excavation attributed to him taken on the same date.

Edward Keane photo, 1905
Laying cables from Power House, South Mole, through the tunnel to the Tramways Carbarn.
The jarrah blocks were laid in 1898 (dimensions: 7 x 15 x 2cm). They were supplied by the W.A. Timber Company Lockeville. The removal of these blocks in 1905, for the laying of the tramlines and cables, led to problems as the water was trapped underneath and the blocks swelled. They were finally removed from High Street in 1954. On the right is a hut for a railway crossing attendant. Behind this is the Tramways Carbarn. The Union Bank (1889) is on the left, corner of High and cliff Streets. Photo courtesy Fremantle City Library ref. LH001877.

Photo Arthur Saxon, c. 1916
The Round House was erected 1830-1831. The original steps were built by 1836 and re-built in 1838 to straddle the entrance to the Whalers Tunnel. They were truncated in 1966 when the railway line was constructed. At the left is a part of the Harbour Master's house (c1880s-1928) and on the right is Pilot's Cottage Number 9, re-erected c1904. It was originally built as part of the light house compound to house port workers. Photo courtesy Fremantle City Library ref. 1638.

In this photo from 1960, the stairs on both sides of the Whalers Tunnel are still in use. W.F. Samson's house is gone (the vacant block is behind the fence on the left), and neither the Tramways building on the left nor the Samson warehouse on the right have been rebuilt as accommodation.

The tunnel in 1978, before the 1979 School of Mines restoration >
Fremantle City Library photo ref. no. 1301A.

The headland was always in demand by port authorities, and for defences, due to its prominent position and its proximity to the port. Since the Round House ceased functioning as a gaol, there have been numerous proposals to demolish it. The most recent was in the mid 1960s when the Fremantle Harbour Trust suggested rebuilding it on another site. It was during this period that the steps from High Street to the Round House were modified. The construction of the whaler's tunnel in 1837 led to the demolition of steps running up to the headland. A new stairway was built soon after. It had two flights which ran down from landings either side of the tunnel. The flights were removed in the 1960s to provide space for a new railway line. Excerpt from an information sheet compiled by David Wood from reports by Debby Cramer and Jack Kent.

The Arthur Head Collection

The Arthur Head Collection was a project coordinated by the City of Fremantle with funding from a grant available from the Federal Government to celebrate the Bicentennial year in 1988 [resulting in] a huge collection of materials in various formats including documents, reports, photographs, maps, bibliographies etc. to help research the site. ... Pam Harris, Local History Librarian, Fremantle History Centre, May 2018.

The Arthur Head Collection 1990 Report

The City Council in 1990 published a folder containing a summary of the research Pam Harris mentions above, consisting of a page about each of these buildings. This is one of them.

References and Links

de Mouncey, P. E.C. 1930, 'Whaling in the early days', Early Days, vol. 1, part 8: 58-60.

Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.

Oldham, Ray 1967, bio of Henry Reveley in the ADB.

Reece, Bob 2013, 'Henry Willey Reveley: Swan River Colony's first architect', Early Days, Vol. 14, Pt. 2: 19

Webb, David & David Warren 2005, 'Why the Round House has a poetic touch',  Fremantle: Beyond the Round House, Longley, Fremantle; 54-55.

White, John 1976, 'Henry Reveley, architect and engineer', Early Days, Volume 7, Part 8: 24-42.

See also page for the Whaling Complex on Arthur Head.

Wikipedia page

Garry Gillard | New: 7 October, 2017 | Now: 11 March, 2022