William Watson arrived in Fremantle in 1895. He, his wife Lill, and their three children had migrated from Melbourne, where the Watsons had kept a grocery store specialising in pork products.
Leaving Melbourne to escape economic depression and unsanitary inner-city conditions, the Watsons made the journey by ship, landing at Fremantle in late June 1895. Within a week, Watson had registered a grocery business on the corner of High and Market Streets, and once again quickly specialised in pork and dairy products, making his own sausages on site.
His business grew rapidly as he developed relationships with local pig farmers and stock agents. By 1898 he was struggling to keep up with the demands of a growing Fremantle population, and decided to make the move into pig farming himself to ensure his own supply.
The 1890s was a time of expansion for the Cockburn district, with new subdivisions being offered for agriculture and industry close to Fremantle. Watson chose to lease 10 acres of land from the old Manning Estate at Hamilton Hill
, near what is now Davilak Reserve. He built a house and piggery on Forrest Road, which he named ‘Yapeen’, after his wife’s home town in Victoria.
Building at Hamilton Hill, 1899
By 1899, he had a house built at Yapeen, and the family was living there permanently. The piggery was up and running by early 1901, with a bacon-curing factory and over 1000 pigs. He was apparently a stickler for cleanliness, and ensured his pigs and buildings were subjected to daily cleansing processes. He fed them on a high-quality diet of barley, pollard,
corn, and concentrated milk, which reportedly improved the flavour of the meat.
Piggeries at Hamilton Hill, 1900s
Watson was joining a legion of small-scale pig farms in the Hamilton Hill area when he built Yapeen. When an outbreak of swine fever caused a stock inspector to conduct a tour of the Cockburn area in 1903, he visited 10 piggeries ‘in various directions between Fremantle and Bibra Lake’, altogether containing 775 pigs.
Amongst the owners of these small operations were local families including the twins Joseph and Levi Baker and Horace Dixon. Earlier traces of piggeries on Rockingham Road, one in particular being known as ‘Mr. Albert’s piggery’, demonstrate that the area had been used for slaughtering since at least the 1880s.
It was a combination of sanitation complaints, suburban growth and government regulation that eventually closed the doors of these smaller establishments by the beginning of the 1910s.
Watson’s increasing business
The first decade of the new century was one of growth and prosperity, with Watson opening up his hugely successful Watson’s Luncheon Rooms in Fremantle in 1906. This casual dining house was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and all the food they served came from the Watsons’ small farm at Hamilton Hill, and later at Spearwood
, or through their own supply stores.
When electricity became available in Fremantle in 1905, the bacon curing factory was moved from Hamilton Hill to the back of the Luncheon Rooms property, on the corner of Mouat and High Streets. The pigs raised at Hamilton Hill were killed at the farm in the early morning, then transported into Fremantle to undergo the curing process.
The Hamilton Hill processing plant, producing sausages and other smallgoods, was closed down in 1908 when this work was also moved into Fremantle.
Moving to Spearwood, 1909
When his ten-year lease on the Manning property came due in early 1909, Watson decided it was time to buy his own property. He was successful enough to easily afford a good block of land, and he selected two blocks at 174 Hamilton Road in Spearwood. This would be the home of the Watson’s farm, processing plants and factories for the next 90 years.
Woodlands house and estate
Included in Watson’s purchase was an established orchard property known as Woodlands, which he bought from John Barker Mell. The 40-acre property included an old homestead dating to the 1860s, originally built for Edward Troode.
Troode had been Chief Clerk of the Customs Department in Fremantle until the 1890s, and had several cottages and workers’ houses built on his land, alongside the extensive orchards and gardens. A well-off Fremantle official, he was one of the few men to build a stately home on his land in the Cockburn district in the convict era, with most leaving their blocks empty for cattle grazing.
The house was ten rooms, built of stone, ‘with Coach house, stables, and other out-buildings’. In 1909 the homestead had to be completely renovated before the Watsons could move in, as all its wood patios and floors were rotting, but once completed it made a fine family home.
Expanding the business: Spearwood 1909-1920
Once the works at Spearwood
were set up, Watson prospered. He established himself as a man concerned with every aspect of his community, and worked tirelessly not only for his own business interests, but for the promotion and growth of Spearwood and the wider district.
The 1910s saw him sponsor local agricultural shows, sit on committees for the building of halls, schools, and churches, and promote the Spearwood district in the press. In a natural progression, he became interested in politics, and ran as a candidate for more than one party, as well as an independent, eventually succeeding in being elected to Federal parliament in 1922.
Fruitgrowers and Market Gardeners Association, 1913
In August 1913, Watson was instrumental in organising the small-scale farmers of the Cockburn districts into the Fremantle and District Fruitgrowers and Market Gardeners Association (FG&MG), which held their first meeting at his Luncheon Rooms. At that meeting, he was elected its first President.
His piggery became an infamous part of the farming community at Spearwood, and the butt of some jokes. According to a local columnist, a local Scotsman spent half his July morning searching for what sounded like bagpipes being played somewhere around the district. The mystery was only solved when he spoke with Herb Burnett, who explained that he had been ‘killing Watson’s porkers that afternoon’.
By this point, wrote a skeptic in the Westralian Worker, Watson was ‘the Butter King of W.A... He is not only one of the State's largest pig-raisers, but also its largest individual pork-dealer... [and] the largest importer of butter in Western Australia
.’ The Spearwood farm was prospering.
The impact of World War One
The onset of World War One and the rush of enlistments saw a drastic drop in staff available to work in his processing plants, stores, and lunch rooms, and eventually caused him to close many of his shopfront services.
But the farm and factory at Spearwood remained and flourished, benefiting from the guaranteed overseas markets created by a world at war. By 1914, a year of economic uncertainty and drought, his holdings and businesses were worth £45,000, and they only increased as the years progressed.
In 1915 Watson bought the company’s first lorry, which he began using to ferry slaughtered pigs between the Spearwood property and the curing and processing plant at Fremantle. It was also this year that his two eldest sons, William and Bert, enlisted for military service. They would both be killed in action in France in 1917.
Inventing ‘Watsonia’, 1920
By the end of the war, Watson’s business was going from strength to strength. The Spearwood farm killed 200 pigs a week to supply 70% of the Western Australian bacon trade, and the ‘Butter King’ held firm at 65% of the state’s butter trade as well.
In 1920 the company began producing a new margarine-butter hybrid product, which they discovered was legally not allowed to be named either margarine or butter, a Watson’s staff member came up with the name Watsonia.
Originally the name was used only for the new spreadable butter, but as the product increased in popularity the company realised the power of branding, and expanded the name to all Watson’s products.
William was elected to Federal Parliament in 1922, and had to leave his company in the hands of his 20-year-old son, Hal. Throughout the 1920s, Hal stepped up to look after the huge variety of business interests under the Watson’s umbrella. His younger brothers were still living with Hal and their mother at the Woodlands house in Spearwood, and Hal also took on a father-like role for them despite his youth.
The farm at Spearwood remained a constant throughout the 1920s: the pig industry grew, and Spearwood farmers could always count on Watsons taking their animals no matter how many or few. Watsonia, rapidly turning away from retailing into primary production and supply, needed 200 pigs a week to satisfy their customers’ demands, which meant that Hal travelled through the south-west nearly every weekend buying pigs from farmers.
Bacon and butter factories at Spearwood
Though a bacon factory had been in partial operation at the Spearwood site for some years, the years immediately following the Depression of 1929 saw a rapid increase in the number of pigs available for purchase. State and Federal government were both attempting to alleviate financial distress by increasing primary production, and though this was not always successful, it paved the way for Watson’s to dramatically expand their business.
Bacon and pigs
From early 1930 Hal had seen an opportunity in the extra pigs: he made a deal with the manager of WA Meat Exports at Robb Jetty
to slaughter, freeze, and ship the pigs to London, Scotland and Singapore, adding at least 400 extra pigs per week to their totals.
By 1931 William had decided that paying the Robb Jetty men to slaughter his pigs did not make financial sense, and had architect Claude Nicholson draw up plans for a larger killing floor and refrigeration plant at Spearwood. By the time the factory was opened in August 1931, Watson’s was killing up to 1200 pigs a week, only 450 of which were sold locally. The rest were cleaned and frozen on site, before being transferred by trucks to the wharves at Fremantle or Robb Jetty, a journey of about 20 minutes.
The factory was modern and built for speed and capacity, and it wasn’t long before the bacon curing work that had been running at the Watson’s Fremantle premises was moved out to Spearwood as well.
In 1932 William and Hal added to their Spearwood factories with a butter factory facing Mell Road, close to the Spearwood railway station
. The factory was ‘built in record time and commenced operating in October 1932; within two years it was the biggest in the State, turning out the most butter of any individual factory in WA
Their milk and cream came from dairies in the Peel Estate and the Serpentine region, and all the way through the south-west, arriving by train at the Spearwood station, or by Watson’s own truck from those nearby regions not served by a train line. Buttermilk, a butter byproduct, was used to feed the pigs kept in yards at the bacon factory nearby, and nothing was wasted.
By 1933 the factory was already so successful that they had to hire more hands to keep up with the workload. Finding markets and opportunities everywhere they looked, Watson’s managed to weather the Depression years without any real financial difficulties, and entered the war era as a major manufacturing business in the metropolitan area.
Watsonia during World War Two
By 1940 Watson’s was one of Perth’s largest industries: in a list of ‘some of the largest industrial consumers of electricity’, alongside quarries, flour mills, dams, and steelworks, Watson’s came 13th overall, consuming 288,500 units of electricity per year.
As in World War One, war was good business for a food producer. With export markets already built and a captive audience of rationed households and the armed forces, Watson’s was in a prime position as Australia entered the war. During the early stages, they were a major supplier to the British Ministry of Food, sending a steady stream of pig and dairy products to England on troopships.
As a food producer, Watson’s came under the list of protected industries when the Manpower Directorate was established in 1942 - this meant that keeping it staffed was an issue of national concern, and workers could not leave without permission from the Manpower Department. Nevertheless, filling the gaps left by the rush of enlistments was a constant struggle, and the factories advertised constantly for men and women, ‘urgently needed’, throughout the war years.
American canned sausages
Approached at the beginning of 1942 by the American armed forces to begin producing canned sausages for the American soldiers in the Pacific, Watson’s agreed and built a lucrative new business with American help. A cannery was constructed beside the bacon and butter factories, and under supervision Watson’s produced 1800 tons of canned pork sausages for America between 1942 and 1945. Later, these would also become favourites of the Australian government, and won Watson’s lucrative contracts.
In 1943 the Federal government announced that it was taking on a scheme of pig acquisition that would ensure adequate supply to the fighting forces as well as supplying Britain, in ever-dire need of food. Setting aside several factories in each state, they agreed to buy every pig slaughtered at those factories at a set price for two years.
In Cockburn, Watson’s, along with Robb Jetty and Anchorage Butchers, were on the list. This would effectively come to mean the disappearance of pig products from civilian Australian lives for the rest of the war years.
By 1944 Watson’s was netting huge government contracts for supplies to the armed forces. 1942 had seen contracts at around £1000 each for meat and dairy; by November 1944 they were under contract for £50,400 for canned sausages, and three months later this order was repeated to the tune of £185,285, alongside an order of £53,725 for ham, bacon, pork, and butter.