Spearwood was largely open pastoral land held by wealthy landowners for most of the 19th century. When these leases were broken into smaller holdings in the 1880s, a real estate developer named the area ‘Spearwood Gardens Estate’ and the name stuck as a market gardening community developed in the areas closer to Fremantle.
Early European landholdings
During the 1850s and 1860s, when convict labour was brought to Western Australia and revitalised a failing colony, all the land that is now Spearwood was taken up as large-scale pastoral leases by absentee landholders. Charles Manning, George Lourey Ellis, and Edward Troode, all had many hundreds of acres covering the Spearwood area, and most of them spent little time on the land.
Troode built a house, Woodlands, on Hamilton Road, which later became William Watson’s home and base for the Watsonia
empire in Spearwood.
In the 1870s John Gilbride, a pensioner guard for convicts at Fremantle, took up 40 acres of land north of Lake Coogee, built a house, and grew a small orchard and vegetable garden. When the early Spearwood blocks went up for sale, it was claimed that the surrounding properties like Gilbride’s had already produced ‘excellent oranges, fruits, potatoes and onions’.
Market gardening for profit had developed on all sides of Spearwood, at Hamilton Hill
, and Jandakot
, but it was not until the very late 1890s that any kind of smaller leaseholders were offered the chance to take land at Spearwood.
The ‘Spearwood Estate’
In 1883, property and stock agent James Morrison acquired Cockburn Sound Location 264, a 200 acre lot of land adjoining the lots of Troode, Manning, Ellis and Gilbride, around the modern Market Garden Swamp area.
He called it ‘The Spearwood Estate’ - the name 'spearwood' was used frequently to describe a bush native to the south-west of Western Australia, and although there is no record of why Morrison chose it for this parcel of land, the bush was strongly linked with swamps and wetlands and was often found in the same places as tea-trees. It can be presumed there was plenty of it to be found on this estate.
Morrison tried for several years to sell this as a single block of land, touting its qualities as prime market gardening and orchard land, and suggesting that it was ‘a most eligible investment and will pay to buy as a whole, and then sell in sub-divisions as suburban lots.’
When this failed and the Robb Jetty
area began to flourish as a stock landing site in the 1890s, he pointed out the Spearwood Estate’s proximity to the jetty and noted that the land would be perfect to hold stock waiting for slaughter.
Neither of these tactics worked, and after over a decade of trying to offload this property Morrison subdivided the land himself, zoning it into 5 acre lots and holding an auction in January 1897 for the ‘Spearwood Gardens Estate’ with each block priced at £25.
Of 38 Spearwood Gardens lots, Morrison sold 21 at the auction, and the rest privately over the next year or two. A major buyer of Spearwood Gardens lots was James Hicks, a prominent landowner in Jandakot with a business in land sales throughout the Perth and Fremantle areas. In 1899 Hicks began selling off some of the Spearwood blocks for £40 apiece, calling them ‘splendid garden land’.
This caused a cascade of similar subdivisions, and by the early 1900s there were several larger blocks being divided up into 5 acre lots and sold as estates for market gardeners.
Becoming a district
In April 1899 the Fremantle Roads Board, precursor to the Cockburn Council, heard the first ever requests from Spearwood settlers: they wanted a road extended into their area. James Hicks, a member of the board, proposed granting £20 to extend Hampton Hill Road, which would become Hamilton Road as it reached the Spearwood area.
The board declared themselves ‘very much in favour of the expenditure of money in this locality’, though they could not afford to actually do so. It took another two years before a group of Spearwood and Bibra Lake settlers would visit the Minister for Lands and ask for a £200 grant to get their roads extended, and another four before the work was fully completed.
While the Jandakot Agricultural Area
had been growing for a decade, and South Coogee
for longer still, Spearwood was a newcomer to the market gardening scene. It would become the preferred place for market gardeners to lease land, not only having the swampy, fertile soil of the Cockburn lake chain, but also being much closer to Fremantle and with rapidly improving road access. Lack of this access to Fremantle was the cause of decline in Cockburn’s other market gardening districts, and it gave Spearwood a decided advantage.
Clearing the blocks of land of their native scrub and bushland took some time, and by 1903 there were only 12 farms operating in the Spearwood district, including an already prize-winning poultry farm run by Alex Trouchet and Philip Hawkes.
Like many others, Trouchet had a job in Fremantle and supplemented his income and his leisure time with farming.
Other early Spearwood settlers were Irish migrants John and Sarah Dowse, Danish migrants Niels and Frederikke Thorsager, Italian migrants Joseph and Maria Malacari, John Barker Mell (who had bought Woodlands from Edward Troode), and George and Catherine Smart.
These settlers were already active in the civic life of the district, attending meetings of the Fremantle and Jandakot Roads Boards
and advocating for their district.
1905 saw the Fremantle-Jandakot railway built through the area, with a siding put in for Spearwood residents.In 1906 the district boasted enough farmers to join with Coogee for the ‘Coogee-Spearwood Agricultural Show’, which for eight years prior had been simply the Coogee Agricultural Show. A group of community-minded residents formed the Spearwood Progress Association in 1908 and arranged district picnics and sports days in the summers.
The district was taking off by 1910. More of the older pastoral estates were being subdivided and snapped up by new purchasers eager to join the successful district, and unlike many such subdivisions the majority of purchasers were individual market gardeners instead of property speculators.
William Watson had bought the old Woodlands homestead from Mell in 1909 and begun to establish his bacon and butter empire, Watsonia
, with the help of some extra plots of land bought in these subdivisions.
Watson would become an important figure to Spearwood, always willing to donate money, land, or time to local causes. In 1913 he became the first chairman of the Fremantle District Fruitgrowers and Market
Gardeners Association (FG&MG), which would later drop the ‘Fremantle District’ for ‘Spearwood’. 1914 saw the Spearwood State School opened, and in 1916 the Church of England hall
on Mell Road.
War and post-war
After the First World War, the district had another boom from returning soldiers and new migrants moving onto the land in search of a new life. Settlers like George Aberle, Nicholas Marich (a Yugoslavian migrant who had lived in Kalgoorlie and served in the Australian army), and many more all bought themselves blocks of land at Spearwood and settled down to the serious business of market gardening for profit. Spearwood became a centre of migration for Yugoslavs (at the time Yugoslavia was the preferred name) leaving war-torn Europe in search of a better future, and in the coming decades the area would become one of Perth’s Croatian enclaves.
The Spearwood Agricultural Hall was built in 1927 from the old surgical ward of the Fremantle Hospital. The FG&MG raised funds and took a loan from the government to build it, but were always in arrears with their payments. As the Depression hit and money grew scarce, many gardeners could no longer make their land pay, and the FG&MG struggled to make enough money from memberships to survive.
By the time the Second World War erupted, Spearwood was a firmly established market gardening area, and many residents were exempted from military service
in order to continue the important work of feeding the army and the nation. National service volunteers
were sent to Spearwood to assist where the gardeners could not manage the workload with reduced employees.
After the Second World War Spearwood remained largely market garden land, with the populations at Hamilton Hill
developing into the first suburbs of Cockburn
. It was only in the late 1960s that the suburban landscape began to move south into Spearwood, and only then to the north of the railway line.
Some industries moved into Spearwood after the war, most notably the Spearwood Gas Company in 1953, located just south of the railway line on today’s Vela-luka Park. It was demolished in the mid-1970s and eventually built over with houses. But most industries were built to the east of Spearwood in Bibra Lake, which was zoned for industrial development, and Spearwood remained largely agricultural and residential.
In the 1970s the Shire of Cockburn moved their offices from Hamilton Hill to the new civic buildings at Spearwood, built on the land of the old Spearwood Agricultural Hall
and given to the Shire by the old FG&MG Association.
Suburbs slowly encroached their way further south in the early 1980s, and those original five-acre blocks of land between Rockingham and Hamilton Roads eventually began to give way to housing in the mid-1990s. The blocks around Watsonia
, where Hamilton Road met the railway line, were not developed until 2015, when the Eliza Ponds estate was built on the old Watsonia land after the factories closed in 2009.