The SS Sultan sails into Fremantle

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.

East Perth Cemetery

Graves at East Perth Cemetery 
(photo from

On a hilltop just east of Perth city, nestled between the cricket ground and the racetrack, is a scruffy looking site known as East Perth Cemetery (or officially ‘Cemeteries’ ). There are no manicured lawns or neat rows of gravestones here. Some of the graves have elaborate monuments and fences, others carry a simple cross. But most lie unmarked beneath the rough grass. 

The site was originally called Cemetery Hill. Governor Stirling set it aside in 1830, not long after the Swan River Colony was established. He wanted to avoid ‘indiscriminate burials and unpleasant consequences arising therefrom, in a warm climate’!

Initially the cemetery was non-denominational. Then in 1842, the Governor granted custodianship to the Trustees of the Church of England. Other denominations received land for burials over the years, thus the plural title ‘East Perth Cemeteries’. A mortuary chapel was built in 1848. It became St Bartholomew’s church after being extended and consecrated in 1871.

It’s estimated that up to 10,000 people were buried at East Perth Cemeteries before the site closed in 1899. Most were in unmarked graves. Many of the remaining  gravestones date back to the 1890s. In the 1930s the land reverted to the Crown as a disused burial site. Since then, much of the original cemetery has been bulldozed for development .

The National Trust took over the care of St Bartholomew’s church in 1975 and the remaining cemetery grounds in 1994. They have done a lot of restoration and preservation work on the structures and gravesites. However, they have chosen to leave the grounds unkempt, as they would have been in the early days. As a result of never having been ‘beautified’, the site has one of the greatest levels of biodiversity in the city,

St Bartholomew’s chapel
(image from

Connections with Alice Mitchell

Last November, I gave a talk in the narrow, steep-roofed church of St Bartholomew, at the invitation of the National Trust. I found some interesting connections between baby farmer Alice Mitchell and the cemetery while preparing the talk.

The rector of St Bartholomew’s in 1907, Reverend Robert Craggs, appeared as a witness at Alice Mitchell’s murder trial. He had visited her home in nearby Edward Street a couple of times. On the first occasion she called him to baptize a baby who was dying. The second time she asked him to write a note to help get a baby admitted to hospital.

Three of Alice’s own children who died in infancy were buried at East Perth, in unmarked graves. Tragically, two of them, Florence Susannah and John Matthew Sweeney, died on consecutive days in January 1884. Both were the victims of measles.

The cemetery had already closed when Alice’s mother, Hannah Eliza Hammond (nee Leeder) died in 1901, but the family obtained permission to bury her at East Perth. Presumably this was because of her pioneer status and family connections.

Most of the babies who died in Alice Mitchell’s care in the 1900s were taken by the undertakers to the new cemetery at Karrakatta. But in 1904, three-month-old Septimus Reginald Gildersleeves was buried in the Wesleyan area of the cemetery at East Perth. I haven’t been able to discover why.

His mother Mabel and her family migrated to Perth in the 1880s. They had no long-standing family connections with the site. Mabel’s parents seem to have been ordinary working class people. So it’s a mystery as to why the authorities granted permission to bury little Reg at East Perth. Also a mystery is why the family changed their name from ‘Gilders’ to ‘Gildersleeves’ when they migrated. If you have any clues, let me know!

Detail from map showing East Perth Cemeteries
(SROWA, Series 2168, consignment 5698, item 1371)

Finding burial information

If you’re looking for information on burials in Perth’s early days, the East Perth Cemeteries site has a good searchable database. The results may include burial details, family names, date and/or cause of death and death certificate number.

The Metropolitan Cemeteries Board has an online search facility that covers Karrakatta, Fremantle, Pinnaroo, Midland, Guildford and Rockingham cemeteries, from 1899.

For burials on the West Australian goldfields, try the Outback Family History site. This covers many small towns that no longer exist, as well as the bigger cemeteries such as Coolgardie.

The National Library of Australia website has a comprehensive list of resources for finding cemetery records across Australia. has information on millions of cemeteries from around the world and is free. also has a free search engine, although it tends to direct you to paid genealogical sites to see the results.

And of course, the digitised newspapers on Trove can reveal lots of information such as death notices, funeral notices and obituaries, sometimes even for overseas deaths.

(This is an edited version of an article from my monthly newsletter, The Scribbler. To receive your own copy directly to your email inbox, subscribe now.)