As it happened – beyond the stories – proclaiming the 133-year-old tree

Largely unnoticed over 133 years, Western Australia’s historic Proclamation Tree survives at one of Fremantle’s busiest traffic crossroads.

A plaque at the site records the tree’s planting on October 21, 1890, but newspapers at the time recorded it as October 22, the following day. 

Few passers-by take notice of the spreading a Moreton Bay fig tree and road traffic makes it difficult to get to the dark plaque.

Should we make more of this commemorative site or will that encourage vandalism or theft? The plaque was nicked in the past.

Colonial markings, of course, are not totally popular, especially with the First Nations people who lived here for thousands of years. 

At the same location is a memorial to colonial citizen William Edward Marmion (1845–1896).

In colonial terms, the tree is significant because it commemorates the granting of responsible government to the Colony of Western Australia by Queen Victoria.

Governor, Sir William Robinson, ceremoniously wielded a gilded spade to lead the planting ceremony with Phillip Webster, an auditor with City of Fremantle, providing the tree.

Webster was a tree-loving pioneer “in an era when reckless tree-felling was the norm, he was also behind the plantings of Fremantle’s oldest surviving trees, by St John’s Church in King’s Square.

Sir William, it was reported, said he would: “not do more than express his hope that the tree just planted would flourish and that its growth and size would be symbolical of the growth and magnitude of the free institutions and prosperity in store for the colony.”

The Proclamation Tree’s plaque was donated and installed on December 18, 1930, by lads from Fremantle Boys` School.

On Proclamation Day 1996, 20 students went to the site, at the intersection of Adelaide St, Parry St, Quarry St and Queen Victoria St, to hear WA Governor, Major General Michael Jeffery, read the proclamation and witness the unveiling of a restored plaque.

Fremantle began as a colonial settlement in April 1829 when HMS Challenger
landed near the mouth of the Swan River. It was given the name New Holland for King George IV.

Close behind came Captain James Stirling to begin the Swan River Colony of Perth the same year. Stirling named the port after Captain Fremantle, captain of the HMS Challenger.

Fremantle was a free settlement with 400 civilian and military settlers arriving on HMS Sulphur and Parmelia in June, 1829.

Both ships bashed into rocks entering Cockburn Sound and Parmelia ran aground.

But all survived. Prisoners followed, to accelerate economic growth, and between 1842 and 1850, 234 juvenile offenders came on seven ships. In 1850, 75 convicts arrived on the Scindian from Portsmouth, followed by 9,000 more convicts before 1868.

The prisoners, all men, had almost finished their prison sentences and were considered less-disruptive and more easily manipulated.

They kick-started a flurry of activity; building the Round House, the Commissariat, the Kerosene Store (now the Kidogo Art House), Fremantle Boys School and the Lunatic Asylum (Fremantle Arts Centre).

Two thirds of the 9,000 convicts stayed in the colony after their release up and by 1868 the population had quadrupled to 22,738. The 1890s gold rush confirmed Fremantle as the principal gateway to a flourishing Western Australia.

C.Y. O’Connor’s plan for a harbour was launched after much political haggling, money was raised in London and work began in 1892.

The inner harbour was opened on May 4, 1897 when the steamer Sultan, with Lady Forrest at the wheel, entered the partly-built port of Fremantle or, now Walyalup.

If only the Proclamation fig tree could talk….