Lime kilns at Coogee

The Coogee district became a serious limestone producer at the very beginning of the 1900s. As the gold boom brought huge numbers of settlers and prospectors into Western Australia, the need for building stone, mortar, and agricultural lime grew faster than the established lime industry could supply, and limestone merchants began to expand their businesses to keep up.

Second-generation lime districts, 1900

Lime quarries and kilns had been operating in the lime-rich area around Cottesloe, Peppermint Grove, and Claremont since the 1880s, but those supplies were running out, and the areas were becoming popular residential suburbs. Lime merchants began looking further afield to serve a booming building and farming industry.

Coogee was one of these second-generation lime kiln districts. It was located on a well-known limestone ridge beginning in Fremantle and running south along the coastline. The Manning family at Davilak had 
Lime kilns at Coogee Beach
already built ‘valuable lime kilns’ on their property in the late 1880s, so lime quarrying was not unknown in the area.

Apart from a failed pensioner guard settlement on the shores of Lake Coogee in the 1870s and the small number of South Coogee land grants taken up by migrants for market gardening in the 1880s, Coogee was open and spacious. It was a perfect space to set up new quarries and kilns without paying premium land prices or getting in the way of suburban spread. 

Uses for quarried lime

The lime these new merchants quarried and burned was used to spray crops and improve agricultural soils, to refine metals from mine sites, and as building stone and mortar. It was sent all over the state by lime agents working for the quarry owners. 

The location of Coogee close to Robb Jetty was convenient for the merchants, and many of them had offices at Robb Jetty from which they could arrange transport to rural customers. It was also conveniently located for the quarries to receive their all-important dynamite shipments, kept in isolated magazines at Robb Jetty (and later, after a fatal explosion in 1903, at Woodman Point).

Locals and interlopers

Though many merchants operated out of Coogee during the early decades of the 20th century, almost none of the business owners were local people. Lime was a fiercely competitive business, and merchants blew into places like Coogee when the going was good, before abandoning their works when cheaper product could be found elsewhere. The workers at the kilns and quarries were local people, and if they weren’t they usually ended up living nearby for the working week, often staying on in the district after the kilns moved on.

The beginning: Briggs & Rowland and the Coogee Railway

In 1901, the company of Briggs & Rowland, lime merchants with a quarry in Cottesloe and a head office on Wellington Street in Perth, bought a 150-acre site on Rockingham Road and began to quarry stone and burn lime. Almost immediately the problem of transporting their finished product became obvious: there were no train lines or tram tracks as far south as Coogee yet, the closest siding being at Robb Jetty to the north. 
The lime producers were stuck loading their product onto horse and cart and taking it along sand and gravel roads into Fremantle. If only the train line would be extended to Coogee, Briggs & Rowland lamented in July 1901, they could produce and dispatch 100 tons of lime and stone every day. The next year they guaranteed ‘£5000 per annum in freights for a line from Coogee to Fremantle’.

This railway line was completed in early February 1904, by which time Briggs & Rowland had aggressively expanded their business in anticipation. They built new kilns, hired more hands, and took over other lime merchants operating in the area. 

By 1905 theirs had become the major industry in Coogee, where they had ‘carved vast wrinkles into the face of the earth in their search for
Briggs & Rowland, lime merchants of Coogee, 1912
limestone’. They had developed the limestone building industry to the point where ‘Coogee stone’ became a byword for high-quality limestone throughout the Perth area.

Early lime merchants in Coogee

Other lime companies in the area in these early years included Weedon & Sales, Tyler & Walker’s Coogee Lime, W. Oaten’s Davilak Lime, Joseph Tylee, Thomas Bros., W. Triplett & Sons’ Newmarket Lime Kilns, and McLaughlin & Kiesey. 

The Kiesey family were widely known lime merchants in Western Australia, and several members of the family had interests in the Coogee district over this time period. In 1904 Ernest Kiesey built kilns at Coogee and in 1905 entered a partnership with Thomas Brown, who had previously been in the lime business at Subiaco. The partnership won a contract to supply lime to government departments. There would be Kieseys in the area for the next thirty years.

Accidents, explosions and fires

Dynamite explosions

During the early years at Coogee there were several accidents involving lime kiln workers. Dynamite and gunpowder was used in the quarries to blast stone loose, and it was not uncommon in those unregulated days for these to cause serious injuries to quarry workers. In 1904, 31-year-old James Morton sustained injuries to his arm and face from an explosion, and in 1905 33-year-old Charles Forth, who lived with his wife at South Fremantle, was badly burnt by a fire resulting from an explosion. Both were taken to Fremantle Hospital in serious condition. 

Suicide by dynamite

But in 1903, a man named Louis Frankine, but known to all as Frank Heany, committed suicide with a dynamite blasting cap. Heany was employed at Briggs & Rowland’s kilns in Coogee, and for six days of the week he lived in a tent in the scrub beside the kilns. On Saturdays he would travel back to his home in Cottesloe, where his wife lived all week. 

But one Saturday in February he remained behind after work, and his body was discovered early the next morning on the beach with half of his head blown away. He had put a blasting cap in his mouth and lit the fuse. A friend who lived at Coogee, Frederick Smith, identified the body and told police that Heany had believed he had sunstroke, and that it would ‘drive him mad’. 

Chemical fires

In 1906, a train carriage containing bags of lime bound for the Ivanhoe Gold Mining Company caught alight at Midland Junction. The supplier was the Victoria Lime Company of Coogee, and their foreman John Weedon had to vigorously defend his practices before a court. Lime that had been processed through kilns had a chemical reaction to water, and would heat up enough in three or four minutes once wet that it would cause a fire.

Lime workers and the union movement

The rapid expansion and haphazard work practices of these early days at Coogee meant unsafe work conditions, and the increasing accidents and booming workforces pushed lime employees to unionise and demand eight-hour days and better conditions. 

Forming a union

In 1911 the Fremantle and Districts Lime Operatives Union was formed and took an industrial dispute to court, citing the following companies, nearly all of whom operated kilns at Coogee, as negligent: 
  • Briggs & Rowland
  • McLaughlin & Co
  • W. Oaten
  • J. Tylee
  • W. Bickerdike
  • W. Triplett & Sons, and
  • Kiesey Bros.
The union claimed it had tried to get its requests heard through meetings with the relevant companies, but that they had gotten nowhere. Among their demands were eight-hour work days, with anything over being paid time and a half, double time for any Sunday work, and a schedule of salaries based on the skilled labour required for lime work. Lime work was dangerous and hard on the clothes, lungs, and skin, they said, and employers were not paying a cost of living wage.

Division of lime work 

The work at lime kilns was divided as such: lime workers, paid by the day, whose roles included crushing the stone; sieving and screening the crushed material; building, filling, burning, or emptying the kilns; and burning the kilns at night, which attracted a higher salary; and pieceworkers paid by the quantity of production, which included quarrying stone and bagging. Horsedrivers who carried the raw materials between quarry, kiln, and train were a separate category entirely. After deliberation, most of the demands were agreed to in modified form, and the future of lime workers was unionised for some years to come.  

A thriving lime industry, 1910s

By 1913, Coogee was producing the majority of the metropolitan area’s building and agricultural lime products, according to a report produced by the Assistant Government Geologist. Briggs & Rowland had 24 kilns operating at Coogee, including a new plant opposite Hutton’s Bacon Factory near Robb Jetty, employing a total of around 50 men. 

Asked if he minded paying the new union wages, Mr Briggs said ‘No, I do not complain at high wages, because I thoroughly recognise that in order to get good results you have to pay good wages’. The company donated the building stone for the new Church of England parish hall on Mell Road, Spearwood, which was completed in 1916.

Workers’ train service

The industry employed enough men to warrant a special workers’ train service, with about 200 travelling on it each day, probably a combination of lime workers and men for the abattoirs and other industries at Robb Jetty.

It ran along the Coogee Branch Line from Fremantle daily in 1913, stopping at Briggs & Rowland's siding and going on to Coogee proper before turning around. It ran morning and afternoon to coincide with the workers’ schedules, and ran at lunchtime on Saturdays to account for half-day work. In the days prior to regulated state public transport, workers trains like this were common in prosperous times.

Naval Base prosperity

The prosperity of the Coogee area in this period was bound up with the proposed naval base to be built to the south of Woodman Point. Beginning in 1913, the Coogee district saw land prices skyrocket as real estate prospectors took chances on the future of settlement in the area. 

For some years every new venture proceeded on the assumption that the naval base would bring a large community of workers and consumers, and it was only towards the end of the First World War that it became obvious that the base would never be completed. With large swathes of Coogee land resumed by the Commonwealth Government, the slump that followed was heavy.
 
Briggs & Rowland's lime kilns at Coogee, 1905 [picture]

Trailing off: the 1920s decline

By the end of the decade the trade seemed to be slowing. Newer, larger lime districts like Wanneroo and Yanchep were offering tempting prospects to the big lime companies, who began to fold up their Coogee operations accordingly. Just as they had breezed into the Coogee district with the opening of the century, so they moved on to greener pastures two decades later.

Briggs & Rowland’s railway siding was disused by 1919 and they were no longer paying rates to the Fremantle Road Board by 1923.  

Delicensing the Coogee Hotel

By 1927, when the Coogee Hotel was fighting a losing battle for its license and trying to demonstrate its usefulness for the local community, the defence presented the fact that ‘there were a number of lime kilns in the vicinity of the Coogee Hotel employing between 50 and 60 men.'  

Though this is still a significant number, Briggs and Rowland’s alone had employed 50 men at the height of their prosperity, and this seems indicative of the overall decline in the industry. The thought of thirsty lime workers did not sway the Licenses Reduction Board, however, which cancelled the hotel’s license at the end of the year.

Although a walking guide in 1929 remarks on the ‘extensive lime-burning kilns’ to be seen in the area around Woodman Point, Coogee’s boom was over.

Local entrepreneurs

The decline of the major lime merchants in Coogee made space for some local businessmen to take up the trade. Ivan Ivicevich was a major landowner in Spearwood, Coogee and Beaconsfield, and when he died in 1935 his holdings were significant and included quarries, kilns, and market gardens.  

Joseph Tylee, a lime merchant since the early 1900s with kilns in Bullsbrook and Rockingham as well as Coogee, moved from Beaconsfield to Spearwood to oversee his kilns. He was still operating them in 1937.

Cutting up the lime estates

The 1930s saw many larger estates in the Coogee area parcelled up and sold off as smaller lots. Among these were several lime kiln properties, including those of Ivan Ivicevich and Robert Morton, the latter of whom had declared bankruptcy because his Spearwood-Coogee lime business was failing. 

Charles Kiesey ran the Kiesey Bros. kilns in the later part of the 20s, and was still successful enough to employ almost 60 men. When he died in 1934, his estate included 2 acres at Beaconsfield and 24 acres at Coogee, both advertised as containing lime.

Cockburn’s lime legacy

Through the 1940s and early 50s there were lime kilns and quarries still
Lime Kilns in Cockburn Road, Coogee
in operation, more often further inland at Spearwood, though Coogee was still nominally in use. In 1955, Cockburn Cement began operating at what was still called South Coogee (now Munster), ushering a new era of big industry for the Cockburn district. They quarried lime on the corner of Mayor and Cockburn Roads near the Coogee Primary School from the 1950s through to the 1980s, until the Coogee district began to be built up into suburban lots.

The company rehabilitated a group of lime kilns on Cockburn Road in the 1980s, which are still standing today, and give a good impression of what much of the Coogee district would have looked like in the early days.

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