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Robb Jetty: private and public abattoirs, 1899-1919

At the time of Robb Jetty’s extension, there were no slaughtering facilities on site. Instead, ‘numerous small private slaughterhouses scattered all over the city and suburbs’ served local populations as needed. These included at least 10 piggeries and small slaughterhouses in the Hamilton Hill and Bibra Lake areas, run by local families such as the Dixons and the Baker twins. 

Though there were laws in place to govern the health conditions and practices of slaughtering, the government recognised that this was insufficient to prevent diseases and regulate cleanliness. Many health inspectors visiting these private abattoirs discovered nauseating scenes of animals infected with disease and kept in cruel and unsanitary conditions.

As the state grew rapidly, the supply and safety of meat quickly became a problem. The idea of building public abattoirs with strict health guidelines was proposed, but it would take years before this became a reality. For the moment, the solution lay in the large-scale shipping and butchering of the big Kimberley cattle firms.
Cattle on the beach, Robb Jetty in background, 1911

The Kimberley Meat Ring

In the 1870s Alexander Forrest had surveyed the land in the north that was to become the Kimberley, and had profited handsomely from it. Francis Connor, Michael Durack, and Isadore Samuel Emanuel were amongst the earliest settlers to take up offers of new land there, and all became intimately connected with each other, with the cattle trade, and with Robb Jetty. 

By the end of the 1890s two firms had emerged as Kimberley rivals: Forrest, Emanuel & Co based in the West Kimberley, and Connor, Doherty & Durack operating out of the East. Newspapers at the time had a field day with the increasingly blatant capitalism on display by these companies, and named them 'cattle czars', 'beef buccaneers', and 'meat monopolists'.

As the only cattle port for the Perth metropolitan area, Robb Jetty became the battle ground for these increasingly powerful meat competitors. As steamships became more reliable and cheaper, the cattle kings left behind the practice of overlanding cattle, and began to ship them south in huge quantities. With one landing point, and hardly any facilities, the rapid development of the Robb Jetty area was inevitable.

Tick, tuberculosis, and an embargo on Kimberley meat

In late 1896 the cattle being produced in the Kimberley districts began to show signs of tick-disease and tuberculosis, which was already rampant in Queensland and travelling over the Northern Territory border. The government placed an embargo on East Kimberley cattle for fear of public contamination and illness. Quarantine yards were added to the basic holding facilities at Robb’s Jetty, and meat inspectors were employed to check each animal that stepped off a boat. 

Though the Kimberley companies found ways around it, for some three years most of the Perth metro area’s meat came from interstate or overseas, driving up prices to near-famine levels. With the tentative lapse of this embargo in 1899 came the era of the private abattoir at Robb Jetty. One after another, the cattle kings leapt from suppliers and stock agents to full-scale monopolists with control over every part of the meat industry in WA.

The private abattoir era

Building the slaughterhouses: Connor, Doherty & Durack

Connor, Doherty and Durack built the first slaughterhouse at Robb Jetty. In January 1899, ‘to allay any fears with regard to the spread of tick’ and to ensure a better quality of meat supply, the firm began construction on their own slaughterhouse and yards at the quarantine yards beside Robb Jetty.  Made to the latest designs of abattoirs in the eastern states, the new abattoir consisted of two killing pens, two hanging rooms, two skin drying sheds, two offal tanks, two blood tanks, hide rooms, four crushing pens, and two yards. 

The whole building was constructed of jarrah, the roof of galvanised iron, and the floor of brick and concrete, and it fronted onto the railway siding that had recently been extended to the jetty.

Forrest, Emanuel & Co.

Alexander Forrest's 1879 Kimberley expedition, including Tommy Dower
Forrest, Emanuel & Co soon followed. Their abattoirs at Robb Jetty were operating by September 1901 and their bone-crushing mill was constructed in 1902, though they been operating saleyards there since 1900. In many ways they had benefited from the tick embargo, which had overwhelmingly affected the East Kimberley region, while their own holdings in the West were still allowed to sell to the city. But their swift pursuit of Connor, Doherty and Durack into the slaughtering business demonstrated that they were not going to be left out of any new enterprise their rivals undertook.

Copley & Co.

In 1903 Copley & Co., one of the state's largest wholesale livestock traders, submitted plans for abattoirs to be built on Mandurah Road, beside the Fremantle Smelting Works. The plans included a four-storey slaughterhouse and yards ‘within one chain (20m) of Robb’s Jetty’, at an estimated cost of £12,000. There was a public outcry when this was announced, and a petition signed by 240 South Fremantle residents claimed it would lower their property prices and cause health problems. After consultation and the final abattoir was not opened until late 1905.

Hutton's Bacon Factory

In 1906, Messrs. Hutton opened their bacon factory to the south of Robb’s Jetty, three miles from Fremantle. The Hutton company had several other bacon factories in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. Designed by architect Munro of Sydney at a cost of £14,000, the factory was opened to great fanfare by the Premier and various politicians and dignitaries. Great things were predicted for the factory, but it would be out of business within five years.
 
Sale yards at Copley's siding, South Fremantle near Robb Jetty, 1911

Beaconsfield and South Fremantle slaughterhouses

Slightly to the north of the Robb Jetty area, South Fremantle and Beaconsfield were straddling the boundary between suburban lots and industrial zone. Though several industries built in the area now known as South Beach, the area was growing increasingly suburban, and odour complaints became common. 

Holmes Bros. & Co.

Holmes Bros. & Co. built a slaughterhouse on a smaller scale at South Fremantle around 1898. Holmes Bros were well-known butchers with headquarters in Fremantle and outlets all over the Perth metropolitan area. Around the same time as their slaughterhouse they also established a model farm at Thomson’s Lake, growing potatoes, vegetables and poultry for export and local sales. 

They were notable amongst the early slaughterhouse-owners at Robb Jetty for not being directly involved in the cattle trade, preserving their independence from the meat monopolists, though some years later it was alleged that they were 'virtually a branch of Messrs. Forrest, Emanuel & Co.' Their premises were later taken over by Joseph and Levi Baker, a Hamilton Hill butchering family.

All the new slaughterhouses and factories benefited from proximity to the jetty, the government quarantine yards, private saleyards, and most importantly, to the newly built railway line that extended south from Fremantle.

Extending the railway

Since the jetty’s extension in 1894 the Government had been resisting public and business pressure to extend the Fremantle railway line south to Robb Jetty. It took nearly four years of advocating by businessmen and local politicians before Premier John Forrest released the funds to build this highly important line.

Congestion in the main harbour at Fremantle and dangerous practices of walking cattle through the busy town to load them onto rail cars finally pushed them into finding the funds.

The line was completed in early 1898. It extended along the Esplanade south to Robb Jetty, covering a distance of 2 ½ miles, and included a siding to the Fremantle Smelting Works, which had relocated its proposed site from North Fremantle to take advantage of this new rail line. 

As each abattoir complex was completed, it had its own siding built off the main line, so that they were all directly connected with Fremantle and transporting stock and meat was as easy as stepping out the door.

Public abattoirs

The increasingly objectionable meat monopoly was not only financially scandalous, but also difficult to regulate for public health. There were not enough government Inspectors available to strictly oversee slaughtering in private abattoirs, and plans for a public slaughterhouse and freezing works had been dithered over for 15 years. Most parties agreed that Robb Jetty, or the South Fremantle area, was the ideal place for any government abattoirs and freezers, since the entire state's cattle and sheep supply was already processed through the area. 

Failed attempt on explosives site

In 1904 tenders were called to build a public abattoir on the site of the old Robb Jetty Explosives Magazine, which had been moved south to Woodman Point after the suspicious explosion causing Thomas Whelan's death in 1903. But this was prevented because the site was too close to the Fremantle Smelting Works: naysayers in the government thought the noxious fumes so close to a public meat processing plant would be bad for public health. The fact that most of Perth's meat was already processed in the same place was apparently good enough for private enterprise, however. The public abattoir was not built, and the meat monopoly carried on.

Royal Commission, 1908

By 1908, the monopoly had caused such a sharp rise in the cost of meat to the public that a Royal Commission was called to investigate the entire concern.  After several months of interviewing butchers, drovers, businessmen, the meat monopolists themselves, politicians, and consumers, the major recommendation of the Commission was to establish public abattoirs in the metropolitan area and to close down private slaughterhouses. In 1909 the Public Abattoir Act came into effect, giving the government the right to close down all private abattoirs as they saw fit.

Despite many questions about the future of the Robb Jetty site, the government still extended the jetty another 300 feet, widened it by 20 feet, and raised its height, at a cost of £7000.

Scaddan Labor government, 1911

For the first couple of years after passing the Abattoirs Act, most butchering went on as before. But in 1911, John Scaddan’s Labor government was elected in a landslide, and the new premier began to bring several industries under State control. The meat monopolists at Robb Jetty were dealt a blow: Scaddan's government were vehemently anti-Kimberley beef, and set up the new public abattoirs at Midland and North Fremantle specifically to serve non-Kimberley growers only. Though many people thought buying the private facilities at Robb Jetty from the Kimberley companies was a much better idea, the government was visibly trying to distance themselves from the whole Kimberley concern, and Robb Jetty seemed like it might be a casualty.

The end of private abattoirs

As Scaddan's nationalisation policy swept the state, it became clear that the time for private abattoirs was over. The big players at Robb Jetty all let their facilities fall into poor condition, and announced that they would be willing to sell to the government at valuation cost. Their fears were well founded: in June 1916, all private abattoirs were closed, and the government intended to build another public abattoir at South Fremantle and undertake all slaughtering in the metropolitan area. They purchased the Union Abattoir, previously Copley & Co., and immediately realised they had taken on more than they could handle. 

In 1917, Connor, Doherty & Durack sold their abattoirs, including all the equipment and buildings and a windmill, by auction. The era of the private owners was over.
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