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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Early Fremantle Hotels walking tour

A beautiful sunny Saturday summer’s day is the perfect time to take a 2 hour guided tour walk. Recently I took part with 6 others, in a hotel tour of Fremantle, or Freo as the locals call it. This is not a drinking pub crawl tour, instead, it is hosted by Al, a Freo local, and gives a history of the hotels in Freo from as early as 1831.

Alan set the scene of the early days in Freo by reading out many colourful quotes from historical sources that were relevant to the topic and gave a better picture of the trade in bygone days. In relation to one quiet establishment a quote reads: “There is about as much life in the place at present as in the froth of yesterday’s beer.”

In an 1873 newspaper, Freo was described as having “No natural beauty to recommend it. A jail, a lunatic asylum and a hospital for old worn out convicts.” And the patrons as “Those who are in jail, and those who should be!”

Marcus Clarke, novelist, is quoted in 1879, from his essay The Curse of the Country, about Australians: “They are not a nation of snobs like the English, or the extravagant boasters like the Americans, or the reckless degenerates like the French. They are simply a nation of drunkards!”

“Glaring Immorality!” “Ribald Performances!” “Women without Virtue!” are some of the quotes that referred to the patrons of these early Freo establishments.

Now that we had a colourful example of what it would have been like in the 1800s, our walk started at The Orient Hotel. Originally known as the Emerald Isle it was rebuilt in 1904 and was a popular drinking establishment of the Irish in Fremantle. It is currently undergoing mass renovations again.

Perth was established in 1829 and there were 7 hotel licenses given out, 4 of these in Fremantle. The first hotel was a hut constructed of bark and logs.

The Stirling Hotel was opened in 1831 and is no longer standing. It is situated where the Navy Club is now.

The American Whaling ships had a big impact on the hotel trade in Fremantle from 1837. Each whaler spent about 50 pounds on land, equivalent in today’s money of $5,500. A hefty sum of money into the local economy.

In 1855 Governor Kennedy arrived in Western Australia. He declared that there were “Too many hotels!” He wanted the number of hotels licences restricted and in 1856 proposed banning of female publicans, which fortunately did not get passed through parliament.

The Federal Hotel originally opened in 1887 and cost the equivalent of $1 million dollars today. At the time it was the flashiest hotel in Western Australia. “Far beyond the requirement of the times” the newspapers quoted.

In comparison, in the same year the Oddfellows hotel was opened (now the Norfolk Hotel). It cost half the price of the Federal to build. The Federal is still a grand hotel.

The Federal Hotel was the half way mark in our tour and a chance to sit and enjoy a light refreshment whilst Al kept us entertained with more local stories.

From 1888 ornate architecture was introduced to a lot of the buildings, in the late Victorian, Early Edwardian style. Many Fremantle buildings still retain these features.

Another big impact on the trade in Freo hotels was the Gold Rush, when the population of Western Australia swelled from 49,000 in 1891 to 184,000 by 1901. The Gold Rush started around 1885 and grew enormously when gold was discovered in 1892 at Coolgardie and 1893 in Kalgoorlie. With the increased gold wealth many of the renovations date from the early 1900s.

When a lot of the hotels were no longer trading, they sat empty for years. The University of Notre Dame has since repurposed them for their use. Unlike one large campus, the University has buildings all around Fremantle. A great use for abandoned hotels. Two of these are the P&O Hotel built in 1898 and the Hotel Fremantle built in 1889. During World War 2 Hotel Fremantle was used as a hospital with operating theatres.

The Sail and Anchor Hotel, originally the Freemasons which opened in 1857. In 1903 a second story was built onto it. This building too has been refurbished and kept a lot of its original charms. The staircase from the ground to the first floor is a majestic wide old wooden thoroughfare. Right next to the Fremantle markets, this pub is constantly a favourite with locals and visitors alike.

Just down the block from the Sail and Anchor is the Newport Hotel which dates from 1887. The ornate scroll work on the balcony overlook South Terrace (better known as the Cappuccino Strip).

In 1917 returning troops from World War 1 were banned from coming into the pubs, as were Aboriginals. They could however, drink on the street.

Opposite Esplanade Park on the foreshore is the Esplanade Hotel. The first building on this site was a warehouse built by Daniel Scott, the Harbourmaster. The restaurant here is named the Harbourmaster in his honour. In 1850 the first 75 convicts came from Great Britain. They were housed here while they built the Fremantle Prison. (Between 1850 and 1969 a total of 9,700 convicts came to Western Australia.) The first hotel opened on this in 1856 and has undergone many extensive renovations.

Another homage to the past at The Esplanade Hotel is that one of the bars is called The Ball and Chain to show that convicts resided here. Just outside the Ball and Chain are three red wooden benches. They have been restored by Fremantle City Council in 1992. Originally, in 1940, these benches were used as seating under the verandah for labourers waiting to be chosen for casual labour on the wharf.

In 1924 a lot of the hotels were delicensed.

The Terminus Hotel, once the favoured establishment for pearl workers (and known as The Pearler) now sits empty and disused. The lack of trade resulted in the licence being transferred to the Booragoon hotel in 1972.

Formerly known as The Welsh Harp Hotel or the Collie Hotel, The Oceanic Hotel is now in use as a private residences. The owners have kept the glass named front door and leadlight panels on each side with the words Saloon still visible. The year 1898 is visible in the stucco on the corner of the building.

Another old hotel that is no longer trading is His Majesty’s Hotel, erected in 1890.

Originally a house, then a boarding house, in 1895 this following building became the Victorian Coffee Palace established by the temperance movement in a strategy to build a hotel with accommodation that did not sell alcohol. In 2002 it was used as backpacker accommodation, and as at 2020 currently available for lease.

Our 2 hour tour ended at The National Hotel. A gloriously renovated pub it hosts guests on two levels and has a rooftop bar with fantastic views over Freo. Originally built as a shop in 1868, it became the National Bank in the early 1880s. From 1886 it was then used as a hotel. It now has live music 7 days a week. Here we had a delicious meal together to end off our tour.

Freo is a city that moves forward, yet pays homage to the past. Allen is part of this, educating people both on the historical and current uses in a friendly and entertaining way.

The photo booklets he shares on the tour showcase the different renovations of venues over the past two centuries.

The walk is paced at just the right speed for guests to learn and take their own photos without being left behind. Alan covered 19 of the early hotels. An excellent way to learn about history while having fun.

Allen is available on facebook @Fremantle History Walking Tour or

Happy Travels!

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