A look back at the ports of Albany and Fremantle

1852 - Chusan
Chusan - 1852

Fifty-five years ago, when I arrived in Albany from Perth to start a journalistic cadetship, the town stank.

The stench from whale slaughter wafted across beautiful King George Sound, the price for local prosperity. 

Whaling, one of the first viable industries for the Swan River Colony, survived in Albany until 1978 and is well documented. King George Sound could tell many other stories.

As one of the world’s greatest natural harbours, it helped sustain and protect Aboriginal people for millennia before shielding visiting sailing vessels for hundreds of years.

Princess Royal Harbour in the Sound is famously recognised as the port where our warships gathered before steaming for Gallipoli.

Albany’s harbour, WA’s long-time primary port of call, became a great rival to Fremantle’s harbour.

Even after the completion of Fremantle harbour, its creator, C Y O’Connor, returning from a trip to London, had to disembark at Albany and travel overland by horse to Perth because paperwork had not been completed to officially commission Fremantle port, opened in 1897.

Sailing into Albany in 1852 was a plucky little ship from England, the 700-tonne barque rigged steamer, Chusan, which had just made the first delivery of a regular mail service from England to Australia.

Having dropped-off its mail to Sydney and Melbourne, the Chusan… “caused quite a commotion in Albany and ill-feeling at the town’s rival port of Fremantle,” reported The Albany Advertiser.

The ship had already been viewed with suspicion by older mariners because she used coal to supplement sail.

Albany, due to its protected harbour, had been chosen over Fremantle by shipping company P&O as their coaling depot. The colony capital was not happy and complained to London.

“Public meetings and memorials to the Secretary of State to the Colonies made vain endeavour to remove this slight and insult to the capital city and its port,” wrote Boyd Cable in his P&O history.

“Fremantle offered no more than an open roadstead with every risk of westerly gales dragging a ship’s anchors and driving her ashore.”

Mail for Perth had to be taken by packhorses or carts from Albany over four to six days.

For 50 years, Albany continued to be the colony’s main port of call.

“Fremantle finally got its revenge by building its breakwater and artificial harbour in 1897.”

But, Albany hung on to its treasured harbour facilities until 1900 when the mail steamers changed over to Fremantle.

“August 20, 1900 was a sad day for the port of Albany because the India was the first P&O liner to bypass Albany and dock at Fremantle,” reported the Advertiser.

The Chusan had plenty of memorable moments before it even got to Australia.

On her 1852 inaugural mail run to Australia, the Chusan stopped in heavy seas to rescue a man overboard and during that time, fires broke out in the engine room.

Heavy gales blew away the ship’s foresail and jib but, by a miracle, also blew out the fire. In mountainous seas, the Chusan managed to sail slowly along until the steam engine could be relit. Coal, having clouded the ship in controversy, saved the day.

Reported The Albany Advertiser: “If she had gone down, Sydney and Melbourne would have lost more than its first news from the Mother Country in 10 months. The Chusan was carrying 150,000 gold sovereigns”.