Robb Jetty: the early cattle trade, 1877-1898


Robb Jetty was built in 1877 for sailing ships arriving from the south-west and interstate. It rapidly became a second harbour for the growing Western Australian capital, and when it was extended in 1894 it became the metropolitan area’s only cattle landing jetty. Abattoirs, meat processing plants, inspection pens, and sale and quarantine yards grew up around the jetty, and the area became synonymous with the Perth meat supply.

The name ‘Robb Jetty’ or ‘Robb’s Jetty’ originates with the first land grant in the area, to Captain George Robb who arrived at Gage Roads in his ship Leda in January 1830. Until the 1890s, the area and its jetty were more commonly known as Owen Anchorage.

Birth of a port south of Fremantle

Building the jetty: 1870s

Ships’ captains knew Owen Anchorage as a safe and secure place to anchor, where there was a natural harbour created by the northern shore of Woodman Point. When, in the 1870s, the ship jetty at Fremantle Harbour was in dire need of repairs, members of the government saw it as an opportunity to move the entire harbour to Owen Anchorage.
Unshipping cattle at Robb Jetty, 1911

The area was already used as an informal outer harbour supplementary to the needs of the main harbour in Fremantle. Though plans were drawn up and architects consulted, the government was not able to raise enough funds to move the harbour south, and the idea was dropped. 

In 1877, however, there was enough money to build a jetty which, though almost immediately criticised as too short for deep-water ships, made life much easier for captains who could now offload their cargo by smaller boats at Owen Anchorage. The jetty was completed in 1877 or early 1878.

Uses of the jetty: 1880s

Sail was still the major method of shipping in the 1880s, and many of the sailing ships docked at what was then known as the Owen Anchorage Jetty. They were often loading or discharging timber from the south-west: jarrah and tuart for building in Perth or Adelaide, or sandalwood bound for Asian ports. One cargo in 1888 consisted entirely of sugar, many others were simply ‘general cargo’. Occasionally passengers were taken on.

Steamships and cattle

 By the late 1880s, steam shipping along the Western Australian coast was a growing industry. The first steamship reached Derby in 1885, just as the Kimberley was beginning to flourish as a cattle district. This was to have a lasting impact on the Robb Jetty area. 

Transporting cattle by sailing ship was a dangerous business: in 1885, a schooner docking at Fremantle carrying bullocks from Cossack arrived with 27 still alive, having started with 43.

1887 saw one of the first steamers arrive at Owen Anchorage, the steam ship Australind, with 29 bullocks from Fortescue and 50 sheep from Cossack. The jetty being too short, the bullocks were pushed into the sea and swum ashore without loss of life. 

Getting cattle ashore

Until the jetty was extended in 1894, swimming cattle ashore was the only way to get them off the ships at Robb Jetty.

Cattle would be shunted off the ships, swung off by crane, slid down greased chutes or coaxed onto mechanically tilted gangways, landing in the water to fend for themselves. Swimming them ashore meant being herded by men swimming on horseback or in dinghies.

Inevitably some would be lost by drowning or crushing in the ships’ mechanism, and shark attacks were common. One was killed by a ship’s propeller, caught up in a collision between ship and jetty.

Once they arrived on the beach beside the short jetty, they would then be driven on foot to the nearest saleyards in Fremantle, where they would be bought by wholesalers or private butchers, and then transported by various methods to private slaughterhouses. 
 
S.S. Australind of The West Australian Steam Nav. Co / Allan C. Green
Driving cattle through the heavily-used streets of Fremantle was less than ideal: in the early 1890s a man was killed when a bullock being driven through Fremantle rushed at him and knocked him down. Something had to change. 

Extending the jetty: 1890s

The Kimberley cattle trade was growing incredibly fast, and each new ship that landed brought more stock than the last, all of which had to be brought to shore by these antiquated methods. 

But the jetty was now 15 years old and had been described as ‘one of the antiquities of Fremantle’: the ‘primitive jetty’ consisting of ‘a few bays of piles driven in the beach, on which a rough decking was provided’.

Matthew Price, jetty builder

In March 1894, contractor and jetty-builder Matthew Price put in a successful tender to extend the jetty. His plans included extending the current jetty out a further 545 feet into four fathoms (7.3 metres) of water, deep enough for any ship to safely dock and offload their cattle with ease.
 An 858-foot fenced cattle race would extend from the jetty and feed into three large stockyards to sort the cattle. In April 1894 timber was brought up by sailing ship from Rockingham ‘for the new cattle landing jetty’. 

By August the jetty was nearly complete: extending a total of 796 feet from the shore, a shipment of 277 head of cattle from the Durack Brothers’ Kimberley station were all walked off their ship, down the jetty, and into the holding pens without injury or loss. It was the beginning of a new era.
 
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