Fremantle Stuff > Cantonment Hill. See also the separate page for images.

Cantonment Hill and Signal Station

Cantonment Hill (foreground) in use in 1888 - as it should be (and is again now): open to all. Nixon's photo from Hitchcock: 60.

The area is known by the indigenous Whadjuk people as Dwerda Weelardinup, meaning "place of the dingo spirit" and the peak is also referred to as Walyarup, meaning "sea-eagle nest".

My Summary 2017

Cantonment Hill was given in 1892 by the Crown to the people of Fremantle for the purpose of a public garden, and taken away again in 1907. In 124 years we had free access to it for only fifteen, before access was suspended for over a hundred years. It was given back in 2010, and six years later the fence was at last taken down.

The Signal Station was only in use for eight years 1956-64. It's hard to ignore, but it's not really of much heritage significance. The view from ground level is much the same as that from the top. Fremantle Sea Rescue is now in occupation, putting the building back into appropriate use.

The Naval Store is an ugly shed, and the worst possible welcome to Fremantle as you cross the river. It should have been pulled down years ago. Also just my opinion.

The Artillery Barracks, now Army Museum, would serve the community better as an educational institution than as yet another monument to the glorification of war.

Photo from the Fremantle Library Local History Collection 1899 image #1796 of teachers and pupils on Cantonment Hill with the caption: 'The house with the striped awnings later became a private hospital, Salopia. Immediately behind this, in the centre, is Villa Maria, later Torrington House. Sailing ships in the harbour in the background.'


Cantonment Hill was deeded to the City of Fremantle in 1892 'for the purposes of a public garden' (Melissa Parke, in Federal Parliament) but was requisitioned by the Federal Government for Defence purposes before the First World War, in 1907, and was still in the hands of the Department of Defence until 2010, when the undeveloped part, including the Signal Station and 'Tuckfield Oval', was handed back to the City.

Cantonment Hill is so called because there was a cantonment (military barracks) nearby. The road now called Queen Victoria St was formerly Cantonment Road, also indicating the promixity of the barracks. The Artillery Barracks (now Army Museum) in the banner photo above was built 1910-13. The Signal Station in the centre was in use only 1956-64, after which it was superseded by the Fremantle Ports building.

The Cantonment

The Cantonment (military barracks) was established soon after 1829, when the colony was proclaimed. I assume it was near where the Army Museum now is, on the western side of the Hill and adjacent to the southern side of Cantonment Road (which is now called Queen Victoria St) although the standard histories are not explicit. Hitchcock (1929) mentions the road three times, but never the barracks as such. Ewers (1971) mentions the Cantonment only once and only in connexion with the cross-river ferry, referring to it as if everyone knew where it was. He writes that, 'In 1835 the ferry was shifted to the Cantonment ...' (19) which obviously suggests it was close to the river. At that time, Cantonment Road might have been the nearest road thereto — if Beach St had not yet have been made a road. So if the Cantonment was indeed on the southwestern side of the road to which it gave the name, it would have seemed that that point on the riverbank was 'at the Cantonment' — perhaps near the corner of what are now Burt and Queen Victoria Streets.
Kate Caldwell, in 1931, writes this about Cantonment Street:
CANTONMENT—This street appears on Surveyor-General Roe's very earliest map, Cantonment-road being a continuation thereof and leading to the base of what was at first called Cantonment Hill (the hill on which very recently has been built the Signal Station). Owing to confusion, the name of Cantonment-road was changed to Queen Victoria-street. Letters are extant written from the Cantonment, Fremantle, but apparently nobody at present alive knows of the exact situation of the Cantonment. As the streets were surveyed before 1833 right out to the present junction of the Canning-road, it would seem to have been somewhere in that locality. [emphasis added]

Signal Station

The first Signal Station was on Arthur Head, but moved to Cantonment Hill in 1929. The current building was constructed by the Port of Fremantle in 1956. It was superseded by the current signal station on the Fremantle Ports building on Victoria Quay in 1964.

Sunday Times:
The new signal station on the Cantonment Hill is nearing completion and all being well, should be tenanted by the beginning of May. The well designed cabin is of a greater durability than most buildings, and is even bolted to its substantial concrete foundations to defy the severest southerly busters. This site is ideal for the purpose, for the old signal station, owing to the amount of building in the background, had long outlived its usefulness. Sunday Times, Sunday 14 April 1929, p. 3.

West Australian:
After the opening of the Woodman's Point leading light for Gage Roads and the discontinuance of the Arthur Head lighthouse, on August 23, 1902, the attendants at Arthur Head were relieved of their light duties and became signalmen only. At the end of last year the signal station was moved to Cantonment Hill and buried in the foundations of the new signal cabin is a bottle containing facts associated with the construction of the Fremantle harbour and the history of the signal service. That document was prepared by Mr. Stevens, who hoped by his forethought to save future historians long research for the history of the station when its usefulness had passed and it was demolished. The West Australian, Tuesday 13 May 1930, p. 16.


Melissa Parke, the Federal Member for Fremantle, said this in Parliament in December, 2008: 'The City of Fremantle intends to restore the land for public use, in particular to maintain Tuckfield Oval, rehabilitate the signal station for the purpose of making it into an interpretation centre and public lookout, create a safe public park and regenerate the native bushland.' [emphasis added]


Access to the site is still unavailable.

Tenders have been called for the provisions of facilities on the site. I expect it will be handed to the private sector for exploitation as yet another hospitality venue.


A lease of the Signal Station was granted to Fremantle Sea Rescue.
The building currently has scaffolding around it, so expensive restorations are obviously taking place. It's relevant to point out that the building dates only from 1956 and was only in use for eight years, so to be making a fuss about that is misguided. The real point is the land, which was given to the people in 1892 (!) for a park. We had that use of it for only eleven years, before it was taken away by the state for defence purposes for over a hundred years.


Beginning the year, the 1956-64 Signal Station is still engulfed in scaffolding. I know stuff is happening, but I'm old: I might not last long enough to be able to sit on the hill and enjoy the view when eventually it's opened to the public (assuming it will be). About March, the scaffolding came down.

There was an open day 2 April when the bureaucracy attempted to show its plans for the area on site. The new detailed plans are online: see references below. From what I could make out, the paths leading up to the SS remain, and 'Tuckfield Oval' becomes a garden and playground.

Mid-2016, the top of the hill is no longer surrounded by a high wire fence tho there are still padlocked gates on the road entrance. It's possible to get to the Signal Station by scrambling up one of the rocky tracks: there's one that starts off as a paved path, from the footpath which connects Tuckfield St with the Highway at the foot of the hill.

From the Friends of Cantonment Hill Facebook page

Launched in 2015
The Friends of Cantonment Hill are people who understand the importance of this fantastic site and who care about its future.
Cantonment Hill was originally gifted to the City of Fremantle in 1892 as a crown grant by Queen Victoria for the purposes of a public garden. it was taken over by the Department of Defence in 1907 in the lead-up to WW1.
The community campaign to restore ownership to the people of Fremantle began in 1997, resulting in it being vested in the City of Fremantle in 2007.
A working group comprising Community Representatives working alongside Elected Members, and City staff was set up by Council in 2010 to develop a Master Plan for the future of the site. Coda Studio completed the Master Plan and it was adopted by Council in 2012. A further working group was set up by Council in 2013 and members of the community were reappointed to ensure Community participation in the implementation of the Master Plan.
Despite the fact that implementation has not progressed beyond the preparation of concept plans, the working group is to be disbanded and it seems likely that City Officers will be in control of the implementation of the Master Plan without direct involvement from Community representatives.
The Master Plan was created to restore access to and enjoyment of the Hill for the people of Fremantle. Recent events have demonstrated that adherence to the intent of the Master Plan is not guaranteed. We now hope that people who are concerned about the future of this Fremantle icon will step forward as Friends of Cantonment Hill. This Facebook page has been set up to keep the community informed of ongoing developments and to provide a platform for community members to comment and to volunteer as Friends of Cantonment Hill.

From the Fremantle Herald

22 April 2016. The Mayor: 'For years Cantonment Hill has been dormant as a community space, but it has massive potential to become a striking entry point into Fremantle and a fantastic passive recreation space all West Australians can enjoy.' (article by Steve Grant)

Of course it's been 'dormant': It's had a fence around it! Now the Council's got $9.5m to spend - which will take years - to provide yet another 'vibrant' (read: 'money-making') venue at which consumers can eat and drink and look at their phones instead of their surroundings. Sigh.

Fremantle Sea Rescue:
How incredibly appropriate is it that Fremantle Marine Rescue’s Operations Centre is sited in the area which the Wadjuk Noongar people call “Dwerda Weelardinup” meaning “the hill where the spirit dogs guard the river entrance”. It is likely that this site, more recently called Cantonment Hill, has been a place of lookout for tens of thousands of years. Our use of the hill as a lookout for boats in distress continues that very, very long tradition. It is amazing to think of the length of time that people have lived here. If the distance you walk across the Fremantle Bridge from North to South represents the length of time since the Swan River was settled, you’d have to keep walking to around Mandurah to represent the span of history of the Noongar people watching over this river and sea. Fremantle Marine Rescue supports Reconciliation Week and the move to greater appreciation of the rich history and culture of Australia’s First Nations people. (from Facebook)

References and Links

Ewers, John K. 1971, The Western Gateway: A History of Fremantle, Fremantle City Council, with UWAP, rev. ed. [1st ed. 1948].

Grant, Steve 2015, 'Heartbreak Hill', Fremantle Herald, 28 March.

Grant, Steve 2016, 'Hill Dream Closer', Fremantle Herald, 22 April.

Henderson, Rosie 2015, 'Sea Rescue gets the hill', Fremantle Herald, 29 May.

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

Mitchell, Brian 2015, 'Sea Rescue for Signal Station', Fremantle Herald, 2 February.

Friends of Cantonment Hill Facebook page

Notes in Fremantle, the newsletter of the Fremantle Society: April 1978, and vol. 9 no. 3 1981.

Wikipedia page for Cantonment Hill—from which the banner photo at the top comes.

Photo third from top from the Fremantle City Library Local History Collection 1899 image #1796 of teachers and pupils on Cantonment Hill.

Artillery Barracks history—at the Army Museum site

Fremantle Sea Rescue site

FCC Cantonment Hill Project | Master Plan (PDF)

Notes about the Naval Store building in Fremantle, the newsletter of the Fremantle Society: March 2010September 2010.

Heritage Council page for the artillery complex - providing little information.

See also: Burt Street.

Garry Gillard | New: 6 December, 2009 | Now: 4 June, 2021