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Fremantle 1919 – A Slice of Policing Life   .....  By Peter Conole

Many families have assorted household keepsakes, often dating back several decades. Some are inherited items, others the result of impulse purchases in antiquarian shops or at garage sales. One such piece, of unknown origin, is in the possession of serving officer Alan Berry No.9055. It is a nicely made 102-page booklet called ‘Fremantle To-day’, published by the Fremantle Businessmen’s Association soon after June 1919.

We can be sure of the date within just a few weeks, as it refers at one point to the recently ended financial year 1918-1919 and at another to an exactly dated event that was a very big deal in WA. I am referring to the start of an Australian tour by the British Empire’s most senior naval officer, Admiral Lord Jellicoe, who received “a hearty Fremantle Welcome” on May 19, 1919.

A good photo on page 29 shows the admiral just after disembarking. He is seated in an open motor vehicle, with a Royal Australian Navy Band nearby, and a man in front raising his arm to call for three cheers - or to conduct the crowd in a rendition of ‘God Save the King’. I suspect he was the WA Premier of the day. Regrettably, the photograph simply cannot be reproduced in anything close to visual clarity.

On the far right is a tall, isolated police sergeant, standing to attention. He is the only gentleman wearing blue within sight. In that very different era there was not much desire or need for massive security arrangements, even with such a large crowd. There was turmoil in Europe - but not down under. The policeman was Sergeant Louis Vincent Simpson, officer in charge of Fremantle Police Station from 1911-1921. Officer Simpson won promotion to inspector in his last Fremantle year and spent the rest of his career in charge of the Geraldton District.

In those times a notable character of early 20th Century WA policing history was in overall command of the Fremantle Police District. William Sellenger & Sons c. 1919I am referring to Inspector William Charles Sellenger, who led the port police from 1913 until 1920. Attached is a famous and much admired photograph of Inspector Sellenger – it shows him in full dress uniform, with his sons around him in ‘junior police’ uniforms made for the occasion. I suspect the idea for the group portrait - and the money for the little suits - may have come from the Fremantle business folk.

At the time the port was a thriving, expanding and prosperous community and it seems to have been standard policy to send very high profile officers with a lot of personal prestige west to Old Freo. The famous Inspector John Stanton McKenna served there for twelve years before Sellenger, who in his turn was succeeded by the frontier chieftain, Inspector Michael Harvey Brophy.

There is an information gem about the Fremantle Police on page 69 and it is worth quoting in full:

“The Fremantle Police District, which extends to far-away Dwellingup, is in charge of Inspector W.C. Sellenger. For the Fremantle sub-district, there are 41 uniformed and plain clothes constables in charge of Sergeant Simpson. The Police Station is situated in Henderson-street, being fronted by the Court House, containing Court offices, also Police and Local Courts. The Water Police number six. Fremantle also possesses two women police, who are doing good work. The detective staff is composed of Detective-Sergeant Dungey, with two detectives. Sergeant Foulkes is in charge of the North Fremantle Police Station, Senior Constable Hughes of Beaconsfield and Senior Constable Thompson of East Fremantle”.

This is valuable data, a fairly complete picture of the organisational structure of policing in Fremantle.The police had only moved to Henderson Street in 1916, having been stuck in fairly sub-standard premises under Arthur Head and the Round House since the early 1850s. North Fremantle station opened in Victoria Avenue in 1889 and closed in 1969 – it is now a heritage building. Beaconsfield station and quarters had a similar shelf life, extending from 1894-1969, and also made it on to the heritage list. East Fremantle became operational as Plympton station in 1898 and later relocated to the Canning Highway under the better known name. It seems that developers of the disgusting WA Inc. period (1983-1993) had their way after the place closed in the 1980s. The fine Harbour Master’s mansion down near the river disappeared around the same time.

In regard to other police officers mentioned on page 69, the booklet is at times a bit confused about their exact ranks. For example, no such position as Senior Constable existed – that was simply an informal expression used for men who became 1st Class Constables. Joseph Foulkes of North Fremantle held that rank (not sergeant) and resigned in the 1920s.

Detective Sergeant Frank Dungey died tragically young – at 48, due to various bouts of influenza, typhoid and a tubercular bone disease acquired during hard service all over the State. Constable William Hughes of Beaconsfield also ‘died in harness’, as did Inspector Michael Harvey – both worn down by service in the turbulent years following major gold discoveries. Constable David Thompson of East Fremantle resigned in his 50s - I would wager health issues also underpinned his decision to quit.

Apart from brief and important insights into policing of the age, ‘Fremantle To-day’ paints a wonderful picture of a truly great port city – one of the most important in the world from the late 1800s until well after World War II. The numerous illustrations tell their own story – Fremantle was a glorious looking town, near the very height of its prosperity, with a host of jaw-dropping Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Age public and private buildings on display. Local manufacturing industries flourished and it was a vital transport hub, with trains always on the move and many steam ships and picturesque sailing vessels moving in and out of the harbour.

The port town became a fine cultural and recreation centre, with a thriving civic life to match. South Beach was known as the ‘Brighton of the South’ and crowded beach and carnival scenes with pavilions, promenades, orchestra rotundas, gazebos and jetties create quite an impression. In short, Fremantle was a kind of playground for the people of WA and remained one until World War II.

One local port drama does not even rate a vague mention. A nasty and vindictive dispute among waterfront unions escalated into violence in early 1919. On May 4 - less than a month before Admiral Jellicoe’s visit - the Fremantle police were required to restore the public peace. A bloody series of clashes on the wharves resulted in the death of one man, while scores of police officers and waterside workers were injured.

The editors of ‘Fremantle To-Day’ may have been reluctant to give coverage to the business. After all, it was an abnormal event and not one for any community to be proud of. But then, by the end of May the local press had forgotten about it as well and a couple of later WA historians tended to be dismissive about the affair. Since the 1960s and 1970s, political trends in historical writing have resulted in the event being given considerable symbolic and partisan prominence, rather than being depicted as a squalid ‘turf war’. Conversely, more positive aspects of the decade from 1919, which deserves attention as a possible Golden Age for Fremantle, do not seem to be even a blip on collective memory.


Peter Conole
WA Police Historian

peter.conole@police.wa.gov.au