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Rare and important: early photography in Fremantle

John Dowson

Dowson, John 2017, 'Rare and important: early photography in Fremantle', Fremantle Studies, 9: 1-14.

We live in a world saturated with photographic images. Whether it is us recording our lives with cameras on mobile phones, or whether it is them recording us as we walk the streets and drive the roads, we are the most photographed generation ever.

Our computers groan with endless images, yet, the early days of photography in Western Australia, from which few photographs have survived, have been little studied or appreciated, despite the rarity and importance of those images.

This article surveys the early photographic landscape of Western Australia and quite subjectively presents the writer’s personal top ten early Fremantle photographs; those taken in the first decades of photography up to 1871.

But first, the context.

Photography was officially invented just 10 years after Fremantle’s foundation in 1829, but there are almost no surviving images from the first cameras used in Western Australia.

Who had the first cameras in Western Australia?

Seizing the opportunity to pioneer the new technology, 25 year old Robert Hall arrived in Fremantle on a chartered boat from Adelaide in November 1846, and headed for Perth with his camera. He ran large advertisements for daguerreotypes at the same price he charged in Adelaide (one guinea). Although his advertising said he would only be in Western Australia for eight days, he stayed for sixteen. Hall had purchased his camera the previous April and it seems a bold commercial venture to hire a boat and head for the remote and languishing colony of Swan River in the hope of making money from something he had little experience at.

On 27 February 1852 an intriguing advertisement appeared in the Perth Gazette; and three times in the three weeks subsequently. Twenty-two year old artist Ernest E Miller, signing himself ‘EEM’, a ticket of leave man who arrived on 30 January 1852 on the convict ship Marion, wanted a job ‘wages no object’. Among other things, he offered to: ‘give instructions for taking daguerreotype portraits, as practised in London.’ This is a remarkably early hint that Perth had someone with photographic experience, if not a camera.

Samuel Scriven Evans, born in Sumatra in 1824,  arrived from New Bedford USA in January 1853 and set up a studio in Henry Street, Fremantle for just six weeks before relocating to Perth.

Reverend George Purvis Pownall was involved as an amateur in Perth between 1856 and 1858, advertising photographic evenings and promoting photography. It is not known if he was taking photographs himself.

Ex-convict Frederick Herbert, advertising from Howick Street Perth on 21 October 1857, stated that he: ‘having obtained a Photographic apparatus, has the honour to inform the inhabitants of Perth and the colony generally, that on and after 1st of November, he will be prepared to execute portraits, &c., by the beautiful process in the first style of the art, at reasonable charges.’

Sanford Bennett Duryea, of the Duryea Brothers of Adelaide, worked as a photographer in Perth, Toodyay, York, Guildford, and Bunbury between 23 October 1857 and 1859.

Another early photographer was Alfred Perkins Curtis, brother-in-law to Samuel Evans, who garnered positive press comment. The Inquirer stated on 4 August, 1858 that ‘Mr Curtis has succeeded in executing some very good photographic portraits, and also a few views. We have seen one of the Church, which is very well done.’  By 1860, there was increased interest in outdoor views, prices were coming down, and these images became the precursors to postcards:

We have seen some stereoscopic views of portions of Perth City, taken by Mr Curtis, which we can recommend to our readers as excellent specimens of photography. The views embrace— Portion of St. George's Terrace, including Mr Shenton's house and store, the Office of this Journal, Mr Barnett's store, and other buildings as far as Mr Cole's, with the Darling Range in the distance; View of Perth Jetty, with the steamer and mosquito fleet of boats alongside; View of the Government Boys' School, a portion of Mount Eliza in the back-ground; View of portion of King William-street, including Mrs Cousin's store. Mr Dyett's residence, &c. There are, we believe, others besides the views we have named and seen. A very good opportunity now offers for those who wish to present distant friends with representations of Perth, as these views are to be obtained at a moderate price (2s 6d), and will be mounted on thin paper for transmission through post. (The Inquirer 19 September 1860)

But, from all the photographers mentioned so far in this period 1846-1860, the very few images that survive, and they are all Daguerreotype portraits, can not been definitely attributed to any particular photographer.

And, not one single image up to 1860 features Fremantle.

The pioneering photographers focussed on portraits at what initially seemed high prices. Outdoor views and recording major events came later. The expensive commissioned portraits, until the cheaper cartes de visite of the 1860s, should have survived in greater numbers. The earliest Fremantle related portraits are of the Samson family and of Charles Manning. Both of these images seem to date around 1858, but because they most likely were taken in a studio in Perth, they do not feature in the author’s top ten early Fremantle photographs.

Complaints about the quality of some early photographs didn’t help sales. Outdoor images were more difficult than those taken in the controlled studio. One anonymous newspaper correspondent responded to a complainant:

But I can assure him that taking a likeness in the open air, and an operating room, is quite a different affair. Those taken in the former are exposed to dust, a glaring sun where a person cannot open his or her eyes, and the ladies' dresses adjusted by means of stones to prevent them flying over their heads with the wind. Neither are these the only difficulties the Photographer has to contend against: when the thermometer is frequently ninety or one hundred degrees of heat in the shade, it is next to an impossibility to keep a nitrate bath in order, on which so much depends for a successful picture, which together with your collodium produces blemishes which the uninitiated public attribute to the want of skill in the operator. (Perth Gazette, 8 March, 1867)

Thank goodness for ex convict Stephen Montague Stout who headed to Fremantle with a camera and was a campaigner for photography throughout Western Australia in the 1860s. It was probably he who wrote the comments above because he was keen to see outdoor views taken, and keen to see Western Australia promoted by the use of photographs at inter-colonial and international exhibitions.

In 1856 Stout (1831-1886) had been convicted of forgery in England. The London Times reported the Court Recorder stating that, in passing sentence of fourteen years’ transportation, ‘… the prisoner was a most dangerous man to be allowed to remain in this country, and that it was his duty to remove him from it.’

Aboard the convict ship, Stout edited a weekly paper called Life Boat and gave lectures. His interests in journalism and teaching formed a prominent part of his subsequent life. Despite his lengthy sentence, he was granted a ticket of leave in the year following his arrival, and went to teach in Australind. In about 1861–1863 he ran the Fremantle Academy in High Street, with twenty-five boys, and gave public lectures.

In 1863 he opened a photographic studio in Pakenham Street Fremantle with 61 year old ex-convict Robert Wilson, who had been Stout’s Drawing Master at his Fremantle Academy. By 1864 he had a studio on his own in Henry Street, Fremantle ‘opposite the late Castle Hotel’. Later he moved to High Street. He charged 7s 6d for three cartes-de-visite portraits and also sold ‘coloured photographs on glass by the new process, warranted not to fade.’ From Fremantle he visited Bunbury, Geraldton, or Guildford for a week or so to fulfil commissions.

Stout took his Fremantle photographs in the 1860s, because by 1868 he had returned to Australind to get married and work as a photographer. But, he did take one last photograph in Fremantle in 1871 when he captured the ‘Pioneer’, the traction engine imported by the Rockingham Timber Company. In 1872 he opened a studio in Perth, though by the following year he was back in the classroom. In 1876 he combined his lecturing and photography to give a magic lantern show in the Perth Town Hall and in 1878 he headed north to teach in Geraldton before becoming embroiled in another embezzlement controversy. The 1884 Almanac lists him as a journalist in Fremantle, however it was in Perth in 1886 that he dropped dead while walking past the hospital.

The rapscallion pioneering enthusiast was gone, but his few dozen surviving images are priceless. They cover the principal buildings of Fremantle of the 1860s, though people rarely feature in his small cartes de visite.  His best image is probably the one he took of the Lunatic Asylum (now Arts Centre) which had only just opened when he set up his tripod. The image dramatically shows the best piece of architecture in the town at the time. A search for other early images of this important building reveals nothing - for decades, partly due to the Asylum’s intended isolation from the centre of Fremantle.

As a gentleman amateur with good equipment (wet plate photography having taken over from daguerreotypes), Alfred Hawes Stone (1801–1873) of Perth took superb photographs in the 1860s, but few of Fremantle. Not a blow-in from overseas but a long-term resident, Stone had arrived within months of the colony’s foundation in 1829. Living in St George’s Terrace, Perth, and working as Master of the Supreme Court, he produced the best early photographic record of Perth. Having been at one time Chief of Police for the whole state, his career contrasts markedly with that of Stout, an ex-convict. 

Another amateur photographer active in this decade, George Braithwaite Phillips (born in Perth 1836), also had a career in law, later being commissioner of police. There is something odd in the number of lawmen and ex convicts involved in photography - even Albany’s pioneer resident photographer George Chester was a policeman. In fact the credit for two key historic photographic events goes to Albany.

Readers of the second edition of the author’s book Old Albany (p6) will remember the remarkable discovery that the first effort at making a photograph anywhere in Australia occurred in Albany in April 1841. Convict guard (another lawman) George Egerton Warburton, just 21 years of age, tried, and apparently failed, at making a ‘Photogenic drawing’, a predecessor of the calotype. He mentions this in an April letter to his family in England, asking for more chemicals, so it is possible he had been trying for a while.

This discovery has been met with total silence and indifference from the more populated states of the Commonwealth.

The very first appearance of any mention of photography in a Western Australian newspaper was months after George’s efforts, in 14 July 1841, when the Inquirer ran an article headed ‘New Method of Photogenic Drawing’ extracted from ‘a report of the tenth meeting of the British Association’. In August that year the Inquirer reprinted an English article mentioning photographic likenesses using ‘Walcott’s reflecting apparatus.’ On 5 April 1843 the Inquirer ran an article on photographic portraiture and on 5 July 1845 one on ‘Energiatype a new photographic process’. The first time photography was mentioned in the press relating to Western Australia was the 1846 advertisement by Robert Hall for his daguerreotypes.

The reason early Western Australian photographs are so rare is a result of the low population and the state’s isolation. In 1858, the date of the earliest surviving outdoor photographs of Western Australia, the population of the state was just 14,543, itself an improvement from the 5886 total just 8 years earlier when transportation of convicts began. The 1858 population of Victoria was 496,146 with New South Wales following at 335,990. Even neighbouring South Australia was thriving with 118,665 people.

The second key historic photographic event involving Albany occurred in 1858 with the visit of HMS Herald to Albany.  Several photographers were on board, providing the earliest known existing outdoor images of Western Australia. Amazingly, they remained in a library for 150 years, known but unpublished and unloved. They have now all been published in Old Albany.

The end result of these visiting and new photographers in Western Australia is that Fremantle has just a handful of images to show for it all, until the gold rush of the 1890s brought thousands more people. Mind you, transportation between 1850 and 1868 did bring some 10 000 convicts to Western Australia, all of them men. But once again, even though they all went through Fremantle and many were housed in the Convict Establishment in Fremantle and were evident every day working around the town, there is not a single photograph known of any convict anywhere in Fremantle.

Even rarer than the photographs were women photographers, but there was one - Jane Manning. She advertised the Yeldham Photographic Gallery at Park Cottage, Cantonment Road Fremantle, which opened 31 March 1868 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. After a stint running her brother’s photographic business in Perth in 1869 she reopened her gallery in 1870, this time on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. None of her images are known to have survived.

Photographers moved from indoor portraits to outdoor views, and then to the recording of events. Probably the first event to be photographed in Fremantle was the laying of the foundation stone for the Oddfellow’s Hall in 1866 near the first St John’s Church in the heart of town. Like some other early outdoor views, the quality was such that when the photograph was published in the town’s first history in 1929, it had to be substantially doctored to make it legible.

Increasingly, business and working class people wanted to be photographed; and they stood outside their premises while the photographer captured both. Interior images are frustratingly rare. The Stout image reproduced in this article showing Leach’s store in High Street Fremantle, with probably bootmaker William Leach being the man standing outside, may be the earliest Fremantle photo of this kind. Such commercial pride is rarely seen today.

By 1892 the gold rush to Western Australia was off and running, bringing a proliferation of professional photographers with their large plate cameras. For the first time Fremantle got photographically surveyed as it morphed with its gold boom architecture from a colonial town to a richly decorated city with a new port.

The hunt for more examples of early Fremantle photographs is worth pursuing. They are truly rare and important.

John Dowson’s Top Ten


Image 1: Panorama up High Street from Arthur Head, 1871 (photographer unknown, perhaps Rae Bros, Battye 100025PD and 100029PD)

This panoramic image gives much to the viewer, though the only buildings still in existence today are the Convict Establishment in the background to the right and the Comptroller General’s house, The Knowle, to the right of that. The panorama sweeps from the Swan River and the 1866 bridge on the left (north) across the colonial limestone buildings, almost to South Bay (south). Much of what can be seen is residential housing, gradually replaced by commercial buildings as the town grew.

The town looks empty, but Queen Victoria’s son, the young Duke of Edinburgh, visited two years before and certainly filled the streets. During that visit, merchant and shipping agent Robert King, whose sign can be seen in the middle of this photograph, put up ‘A very handsome devise ... consisting of the late Prince Consort's Arms with the words. May You follow in His track.’

High Street runs up the middle to the first St John’s Church, which faces down High Street to the town gaol, the Round House, near where the photograph was taken – ‘Heaven at one end facing Hell at the other.’ The town appears deserted - though there are three people at the corner of High and Mouat and one further up High Street near a pair of carts. This could be ‘Paddy,’ the wheelbarrow man, who lived in High Street and moved luggage. The first buildings on both sides of High Street at the bottom of the picture are the police station and constables’ quarters, important in a town where half the adult male population was either convict expirees or ticket-of-leave men requiring surveillance. The large three-storeyed building on the left on the corner of High and Cliff Streets was the residence of Commissary General Eichbaum which was soon to become Mrs Seubert’s boarding house for North-West pearlers and rogues like Louis De Rougemont. The offices of the Fremantle Herald, run by the former Anglican Dean of York, are on the southwest corner of this intersection. Across the road amidst a luxuriant garden, Dr Limon Oliver’s wife ran a ladies’ seminary, while he had a little chemist shop on the street. Up to the corner of Mouat Street can be seen castor oil trees.

This image was important enough to be included in the only photographic album of Western Australia to be sent to the Colonial Office in London (CO1067/625 at the National Archives). It was sent in the early 1870s, and was one of just three images of Fremantle included. The two glass plates that make up the panorama were ‘discovered’ recently in the Battye Library.


Image 2: Panorama over South Bay from Arthur Head, 1871 (photographer unknown, perhaps Rae Bros. Battye 100052PD and 100053PD)

From left to right you can see the limestone walled area on Arthur Head with a long row of warders’ cottages above on South Terrace where the derelict Stan Reilly Centre now sits. Above that is The Knowle, built for Comptroller General of Convicts and to the right of that can be seen the second storey of the Governor’s Fremantle residence where Fremantle Hospital now is. Below that, on the edge of the beach, are two warehouses belonging to Daniel Scott that used to house the convicts in 1850 when they first arrived, the location of today’s Esplanade Hotel. The large two storeyed warehouse is the former Commissariat, a landmark convict built building to accommodate supplies associated with the Convict Establishment.

At the end of nearby South Jetty sits the brig Eliza Blanche. It brought goods for many years from places like Mauritius. Identification of other vessels in this image has led to this image being dated May 1871.


Image 3: Lunatic Asylum c1864, (photographer Stephen Stout, courtesy Chaney family)

Stephen Stout’s evocative image of the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum soon after its completion in 1861, an inspiring design giving credit to authorities for their attitude to mental health. The building survives today as an arts centre with its gables recently reinstated, but it suffers the indignity of a major road now running in front of its front steps.


Image 4: Panorama, c1864 (Stephen Stout, courtesy Chaney family)

This is the earliest known photographic panorama of Fremantle. The scene shows the West End, looking northwest across the town. The white limestone, largely residential, buildings reflect the morning light. The townscape is dominated by the lighthouse, Round House, courthouse and harbour master’s house atop Arthur Head. Arthur Head was progressively and extensively quarried and the only building left on top there now is the 1831 Round House, the oldest public building in the state. To the far left is the large Commissariat store existing today as the Shipwreck Galleries of the Western Australian Museum and below it is evidence of the boat building that flourished along Marine Terrace. The three storeyed building in the middle is the Castle Hotel in Henry Street and to the right, the tallest building of all is Charles Manning’s massive home in Pakenham Street built to house his large family, with an observatory on top.


Image 5. Traction Engine, 1871 (Stephen Stout, courtesy West Australian Newspapers Ltd Hist 198)

Stout’s last photograph taken in Fremantle is of Thomson’s traction engine ‘Pioneer’ imported by the Rockingham Timber Company. When it arrived this smoke breathing machine was driven around Fremantle several times, astonishing the locals 30 years before the appearance of the first motor vehicle. It was also driven to Perth towing dignitaries in one of A. De Leech’s carriages in what turned out to be a rough journey. The three-wheeled beast with india rubber on its two driving wheels could be used as a stationary engine at a saw mill or used to haul wagons. Its six ton muscle could replace eight horses.

The image survives in a degraded copy, much like the rundown Fremantle buildings behind. Despite the damage, the image is important as a scientific document of dramatic mechanical progress and as a social document of a large and diverse crowd attracted to this new arrival. The crowd of schoolboys, probably from Fremantle Boys School, workers, and well dressed locals are all keenly focussed on the photographer as he captures a mid winter event, the result of which made the photographer ecstatic. Stout sold hundreds of copies of this photograph, advertising them for one shilling each including postage. Rival photographer Alfred Chopin upped the ante, advertising that he had sold ‘thousands’ and that his image was ‘brilliant and distinct without smoke’. But, it is only Stout’s smoky scene that seems to have survived.


Image 6. High Street Fremantle, c1866 (Stephen Stout, courtesy the Chaney family)

The photograph can be dated by the Working Man’s Association sign on the side of the greengrocer’s shop highlighting the barque Norman under the heading ‘For the Mauritius’. The Norman only operated from Fremantle between 1865 and 1867. Standing outside Leach’s store to the left of the doorway is probably William Leach, bootmaker, with his daughter. On the right of the doorway are two of the twelve bootmakers he advertised for. Leach offered a discount to those who bought six pairs of boots.

Around the time the above image was taken, another photographer arrived in Fremantle. On 1 August 1865 Arthur Richard Hamilton stepped ashore from Geraldton subsequent to an epic 50 day voyage from Adam Bay (Northern Territory) to Champion Bay (Geraldton) in an open boat with  six others. Hamilton is thought to be the first person to photograph the Northern Territory and he stopped in Geraldton for a few weeks to photograph that town. It is not known if he photographed Fremantle. Jefferson Pickman Stow, also on the voyage noted: ‘Fremantle is compact, with good substantial buildings, without much pretension to architectural beauty. The people seem dreadfully addicted to stucco. One can see at a glance that the best buildings belong to the Government, and are the result of Imperial Expenditure. The town is painfully quiet.’ ( Voyage of the Forlorn Hope 1865) (Photo courtesy Chaney family).


Image 7.   Fremantle Bridge, c1870 (photographer unknown, courtesy National Archives UK CO1069-626(4))

This beautiful and languid panorama shows workmen in front of the 1866 bridge just a couple of years after the cessation of convict transportation to Western Australia in 1868. Pushed along by the brutal Governor Hampton using gangs of 200 convicts, the bridge was nicknamed ‘Governor Hampton’s Folly’ and the ‘Bridge of Styx.’  Though derided by many it had its supporters: ‘I rather like it because it certainly is a most extraordinary looking affair, something quite different to anything I have seen in any part of the world and I think therefore that it bids fair to become one of the wonders of the world.’ So wrote ‘Nemo’ in the Perth Gazette on August 24, 1866.

The bridge not only linked Fremantle to North Fremantle but it saved the Swan River for future generations. Devastating damage would have occurred if boats had been able to go upriver following the removal of the limestone bar across the river mouth in the 1890s. Plans were repeatedly put forward to build docks further up the river, but the expense of removing this bridge and the later railway bridge nearby killed those ideas and also saved Fremantle from a possible loss of trade.

The workmen in the photograph do not seem feverishly busy and the scene is littered with many deserted wheelbarrows. Unaided by technology they are levelling what now is Beach Street and shipping the limestone rubble away in the barge at the end of the plank. Across the river North Fremantle seems almost untouched by civilisation.


Image 8. View of Shenton’s House, c,1868 (Alfred Hawes Stone, courtesy Battye Library 6909B/15)

Perth’s pioneer photographer, Alfred Hawes Stone, took this photograph of a group of buildings facing Cliff Street circa 1862. The centrepiece is the summer house of his friend George Shenton. Stone was a very competent photographer but the pity is he took few pictures of Fremantle.

Looking west, the view is a rare one across the Recreation Ground, something the locals lost when the railways arrived in the 1880s. With its unusual pillars, Shenton’s house stood on lot 3a Fremantle, which marks the corner of Cliff and Phillimore Streets. Later the Adelaide Steamship Company used the building before moving to Mouat Street in 1901. The house and the stables to the right were demolished at this time and replaced by the Elder Building, which still stands.

Charlotte Elizabeth Vigors Lochee was born in 1855 and married Edward Shenton, George’s son, in 1876. About the time this photograph was taken she was a regular visitor to the Shentons’ summer house. She reminisced about her visit in 1869 when she was fourteen: ‘I was staying with Mrs Shenton and her daughters in their summer home; they went to Fremantle for all the summer months. In the evenings Mrs Shenton and her great friend Mrs Helmish would take us to sit on the river jetty to listen to the band playing on the green. On a cool, still, moonlight night it was like looking into Fairyland to sit on the edges of that river jetty and look down into the pale green water and see the moon and stars reflected in it; also fish and crabs swimming and floating about, and jelly fish and different coloured sea-weed, also small rowing and sailing boats floating gently on the water. In the afternoon we often went on the green to watch the cricketers practising. They had a beautiful cricket pitch and large grounds … The Shentons’ house was a large two-storied one with large rooms and very thick walls made of stone, which kept it beautifully cool.’


Image 9. Arthur Head c1864 (Stephen Stout, courtesy Chaney family)

Stout fills his dynamic image with the important buildings on and around Arthur Head, the limestone promontory named after a Tasmanian governor and the site where Captain Charles Fremantle claimed Western Australia for the British in 1829. The steps either side of the gaping hole of the 1837 whalers’ tunnel leading up to the 1831 eight cell gaol Round House were removed when the railways arrived. Police buildings and stables dominate the area at the bottom of those steps. The town’s curfew bell can be seen to the right of the Round House. It was rung each night at 9.50pm to give ticket-of-leave men ten minutes warning to get home. Behind the bell can be seen Fremantle’s 1850 lighthouse, unusually built with funds from public subscription.

The Round House is flanked by (left) the first official Fremantle courthouse (later converted to the harbourmaster’s house) and (right) by the second courthouse.

For someone who had so much trouble with the law, it is ironic that one of his best images is crowded with structures of the judicial system.


Image 10. Oddfellows Hall, 1866 (Photographer unknown, courtesy Battye Library 335B)

At first glance this dark image makes little connection with the modern viewer. It shows the laying of the foundation stone at 3pm on 21 August 1866 for the Oddfellows Hall in William Street Fremantle. The guard of honour is provided by Captain Charles Manning and the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers. A small dog in the foreground taking in the event only remains long enough to show as a dull blur. The large crowd in the afternoon sun is marking the start of an important venture. The hall was a valuable community asset years before the 1887 Town Hall which was built directly behind this scene after St John's Church seen here was demolished and rebuilt further back in 1882.

Greater connection with this image would come with an understanding of the role of the Oddfellows at this time in providing important community facilities and assistance to working class families before the advent of government help. This image is also highly significant as the earliest known existing Fremantle photograph of a public event.

John Dowson May 2015
Credits: Marcel Safier and Irma Walter for their help with early photographers.

Garry Gillard | New: 13 August, 2017 | Now: 26 November, 2019