The SS Sultan

(Today marks the anniversary of the unofficial opening of Fremantle Harbour, when the SS Sultan entered the channel in the Swan River.)

Just after 11 o’clock, on the morning of Tuesday, 4 May 1897, the SS Sultan left its moorings at the long jetty in Gage Roads, off the coast of Fremantle, under the command of Captain Frank Pitts. The ship, with its distinctive blue funnel and twin masts, rounded the recently completed south mole. In the clear but chilly air, the brightly coloured flags festooning the ship’s rigging fluttered like carnival bunting. Many smaller boats, also gaily decorated, accompanied the steam ship on this short but historic voyage.

As the ship approached the mouth of the Swan River, the pilot, Captain McDonald, handed the wheel to Lady Margaret Forrest, wife of Western Australia’s premier John Forrest. She would have the honour of steering the first ocean-going steam ship into the newly constructed harbour.

If Lady Forrest was nervous about taking a 2,000-ton ship with a draft of nineteen feet into a channel that had, until recently, been impassable to anything bigger than a sailing boat, she didn’t show it. Sir John Forrest’s broad chest no doubt swelled with pride at his wife’s poise and grace, but even more so at the success of his greatest project yet.

Some aboard the ship watched nervously as the Sultan began turning to dock alongside the wharf on the south quay. Skeptics had long claimed that the channel was too narrow for an ocean-going steam ship to rotate. But the skeptics were proved wrong as the ship effortlessly swung around in the channel, to moor alongside the wharf.

This was not an official opening ceremony. The rocky bar that had once divided the river from the sea had been blasted away, and the channel dredged. But the wharf was still a construction site, littered with piles of timber, railway trucks and building materials.

The crowds lining the quay — men and boys in suits, women in dark winter dresses, some holding young children aloft, others with umbrellas unfurled against the sun — cheered and applauded as the Sultan arrived just before noon. At last Fremantle had a harbour capable of receiving the largest ocean-going vessels.

A toast to the missing guest of honour

On board the Sultan, the invited dignitaries moved from their seats on the forward decks, down the mid-ship staircase into the saloon. They included members of both houses of parliament, the Mayor of Fremantle, officials from the Public Works department, the Railways department and of course, the Fremantle Harbour works. Many of the guests were accompanied by their wives.

The ship’s all-Asian crew moved about quietly serving lunch to the gathered guests. The SS Sultan, along with its sister ship the Saladin, had been built three years earlier, specifically for trading between Australia and Asia. The hardwood fittings and brown velvet-cord upholstery of the saloon still had a luxurious feel.

Once the guests had dined and drunk well, the speeches and toasts began. In the course of a long and rambling speech, Sir John Forrest paid tribute to the harbour’s designer and builder, Engineer-in-Chief C.Y. O’Connor. Sadly, O’Connor was unexpectedly detained in London, where he was discussing plans for the goldfields pipeline. He couldn’t be present to see this great achievement, which had cost him so many struggles along the way.


“THE FREMANTLE HARBOUR.” The West Australian 5 May 1897: 2. Web. 4 May 2022

“THE LUNCHEON.” Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954) 7 May 1897: 16. Web. 4 May 2022

See for a photo of the Sultan’s arrival.

The SS Sultan sails into Fremantle
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