The Smelter's Camp

Join Dr Kate with the 2021 Battye Fellow, Julie Raffaele, discussing her research into the 'Smelters' Camp' (aka Robb Jetty Camp) - a transient person's campsite that existed for over half a century among the dunes of Cockburn Sound and was originally an Aboriginal gathering place.

Discover some of the stories of the people who lived at the Smelters' Camp between 1898 and 1960. Julie's research uncovered the fascinating personal histories of over 260 individuals. Residents camped by choice or through homelessness until the camp's demolition in the 1960s.

The camp was a symbolic microcosm of changes in society and along our coastline and existed because of the effects of economic turbulence, homelessness, migration, veteran recovery and mental illness, quarantine and isolation – all topics with continuing relevance to Western Australia today.

Read Julie’s research. 

Recorded live on ABC Radio Perth on 1 April 2022.


Christine: Today, it’s a prime piece of South Fremantle real estate right next to the beach, a few steps away from million-dollar apartments, but for decades, it was a make-shift home for the homeless, people with PTSD, migrants and veterans. Today on History Repeated, a look at the stories of the people who lived at the Smelter’s Camp at Cockburn Sound.

If you have a connection to the camp, please get in touch with me. I’d love to hear it.

1300 222 720 or 0437 922 720.

Let me introduce you to the people who know more about it.

Firstly, we have our regular Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian.

Hello Kate.

Dr KG: Hi Christine.

Christine: Thank you for coming on again.

Dr KG: It’s a pleasure.

Christine: And we’ve got Julie Raffaele, Battye Fellow from 2021. Hi Julie.

JR: Hi, how are you going?

Christine: I’m good, I’m good.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is the Battye Fellow?

JR: So, they advertise each year for someone to explore an area of research within the Battye collection that highlights the breadth and depth of that collection and I applied and luckily enough with the preliminary research that I’d done that I wanted to expand upon, the committee found some interest in it and off we went.

Christine: Good. So, tell me, why did you decide to do your project on the Smelter’s Camp at Cockburn Sound? Why did it stand out to you?

JR: Well, like I said I’d done some initial research. I’d had some preliminary funding from City of Cockburn and Cockburn Historical Society and that had produced a certain amount of you know, a lengthy document which I really needed to look into a little bit more deeply and that of course leads you immediately to the State Library and the…floor number three and the Battye collection, so yes, that’s how I ended up with that.

Christine: Ok, we’re going to hear about the collection really soon from Kate obviously, but can you tell us from what you’ve found, where was the camp exactly and what did it look like?

JR: Well it was basically a shanty town. It occupied several pockets and they were around Catherine Point which is an area that’s between where the new developments are at South Fremantle and basically up to about the power station and Woodman Point, so there was a couple of areas there where people were living that ranged from tin huts to wooden huts to tents to something considerably rougher, but there were actually little established houses there. We’ve seen them in aerial photos and there was a community that basically was there for over half a decade on Crown Land and that really fascinated me - how something could exist for quite that long in an area that wasn’t that far from residential areas and, but just survived for that long. It was quite incredible.

Christine: On Crown Land as well. I mean, that’s rather fascinating. So, a Smelter’s Camp. What was done at the Smelter’s Camp?

JR: At the camp, well the camp was located near the Bradford Kendall Foundries which is why it was called the Smelter’s Camp but basically it occupied several kind of pockets there and it was…it moved and transformed over the years. There were a lot of people that were living there who were workers at the industrial areas through there - the abattoirs, Robb’s Jetty, you know, the smelters later itself; and then also there were people that had come down from the Goldfields early on and migrants and people that just possibly weren’t able to live anywhere else and I should say that initially it was an indigenous camping area. My research started in the late eighteen hundreds when all that paper research starts to become available.

Christine: Ok, so in terms of the camp, why were people living at this site? So, the records say homeless, PTSD people, migrants, veterans, some who were mentally ill. Why did they come to be there?

JR: Well I think it was a community in the end and there were always indigenous families who continued to come down and camp even for recreation but there were a lot of people also that…it was the closest…sometimes rent free, sometimes rented which was a bit controversial. A place that they could live in proximity to their work and then sometimes there were people that actually weren’t able to mix in society quite as much. They were recovering from mental illness as we said. They were migrants who weren’t yet integrated, you know and had accommodation so there were a lot of reasons. There were women that lived there a long time, there were children and obviously a great population of transient men.

Christine: Sounds like they supported each other. So, what was the process of finding out the personal stories of these people who lived there? Yes, what happened? I understand you found the process quite addictive Julie, is that right? [laughs]

JR: Yes, it’s a bit OCD isn’t it?

Christine: [Laughs] Tell me.

JR: So, I’d start with a name. I spent a lot of time looking through electoral rolls initially because actually some people listed the camp as their place of residence in the electoral roll. So I was able to find names and then I was looking at newspapers where perhaps something has happened, someone had been robbed or someone had been arrested that they list anything from the Robb Jetty camp to the meat works camp to…it had lots of different names so you could start to link people in and then you could start to see connections and friendships and some people were enemies…you know, throughout the community and then you can start to see the network of people and how they survived and what their life was like and how they worked and if you were really lucky, you got a glimpse of character and so for me I’d start with a name and I end with a life and from that research I think I walked into the Battye Fellowship with about 200 names and I walked out with 260 odd.

Christine: Yes, wow and you probably felt like you lived there after getting to know some of them [laughs]. Like you were in the hallway. So, who really stood out to you as part of your research? Can you tell me one of the stories?

JR: Sure, well I have a gentleman from Croatia who spent a lot of time up at the mines as a fireman and his name was Pietro Lujo also known by a few names including ‘Peter the Slav’ and in 1911 he came down with an illness and he was diagnosed with miner's phthisis and he was given two months to live so the doctor said to him…I don’t know about this medical advice but they basically said that he could extend his life if he drank blood. So, he moved to Fremantle and he made friends with Alec Watson who was the manager of Emanuel Brothers, one of the abattoirs there and he was permitted to set up a shack near the hay shed at Robb Jetty. He had these two dogs Billy and Susie and then basically he was quoted as saying, “There would be a plentiful supply of the magic fluid” and he went ahead and he drank three or four pints a day for 16 years which…

Christine: [Shocked] 16 years! Oh, my goodness! Oh wow, I’m so glad that we have come so far in terms of the medical world. Wow, ok. And so he got more years and I guess that kind of gave him the validation he needed…he and the doctor needed. What happened after that?

JR: Well he died at 86 so he did pretty well.

Christine: I’m still not going to do that.

It’s 20 minutes past 2.

Julie Raffaele, she’s the Battye Fellow I should say, telling us about the Smelter’s Camp at Cockburn Sound and very soon we’re going to hear from Dr Kate Gregory about the significance of this collection.

Oh, my goodness.

So where were the other migrants from Julie?

JR: It’s a little difficult to sometimes tell because there’s different…there were a lot of people referred to as Albanians so I was dealing with these mysterious group of Albanians for a long time but I’ve heard since that that is often a kind of summary name for a great deal of the population in Europe so we have them there. We have obviously a lot of people of European backgrounds; British, Irish…from the original migration group and then obviously you have Italians and people of the then Yugoslavia and yes, French as well.

Christine: And you even spoke…you spoke with some of the people who remember living at that camp. That’s incredible. What did they tell you Julie?

JR: Well I first…I connected on Facebook with a man named William Herdigan and he lived there as a young man with his mother Maxine who was very well known in the area. She lived basically on that last section of the new development there. She lived on top of a sandhill which is no longer there. It was called ‘Mackies Hill’ and she was known for her glamorous hats and wearing lipstick and she was also known for a fairly good right hook and…

Christine: [Laughs loud]

JR: He spent a lot of time there and he spoke about the fig trees in the area and resourcing things from the tip to build whatever you needed. There were a lot of canned goods that went into the tip and provided the cans hadn’t been rusted or whatever, they were generally kind of resourced so there was a lot of ingenuity happening. Anyway I met him and I walked into his house and he immediately told me five people I didn’t have on my list, so as you can imagine, this was quite a rich source and I met another man later named Terry Fulton whose parents lived in the vicinity and he remembers a really carefree childhood where he could roam around the area and he remembers the community and he describes in great detail what his little house looked like.

Christine: What were conditions like? What did you learn Julie?

JR: Well he lived in a little hut. It was basically two huts together. There was a water tank. They had a well. There was a fence around it, so it was all tiny house living I suppose. So, it wasn’t something that he perceived as linked to a lack of, by any means. He had a really beautiful childhood until he was about 10 and had to go off to school [laughs].

Christine: Yes, so when…

JR: [Laughs] Which he wasn’t so pleased about.

Christine: [Laughs] When was this all demolished? When did it go?

JR: Well, the basic date on it is about…I’ve got photographs from about the 9th of June 1957, but I don’t think it’s as clear cut as that because Terry talks about his mum and dad moving to the other side of the railway line for example so it says something about homelessness and whether or not a government department thinks that it can be solved by certain means and it generally isn’t, so certainly sometime after [19]57 people had been asked to move on and certainly bulldozers had gone through.

Christine: Yes, ok. So, what would you like people to learn from this part of our state’s history, Julie?

JR: I guess I just wanted these people to be remembered because I have so many rich stories here of people that lived just incredible lives; people that fought in the Boxer rebellion, people that were show men, women that travelled half way across the world and then ended up in dire straits. There’s just so many stories and I just thought that they were as entitled to be remembered as part of the historical tome as any other person who had achieved success or…

Christine: Yes, yes or who had done something terrible.

JR: infamy by more conventional means.

Christine: Yes, exactly, exactly and now you’ve written them into the record which I think is brilliant.

Julie Raffaele, is speaking.

2021 Battye Fellow and I think I’ll bring in Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian here.

What do you think of Julie’s research Kate?

Dr KG: Isn’t it fantastic Christine?

Christine: Yes.

Dr KG: It’s just wonderful. Julie has produced an incredible piece of social history really in the end and I think she sort of nailed it when she says that she starts with a name and ends with a life. It’s absolutely true. I guess her research was, I guess so challenging in the first place because what it does is really looks for evidence for lives that are largely unrecorded, so this is a sort of the invisibility of this kind of social experience of these people living in the Smelter’s Camp for that 60 odd years from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century 1960 or so. So, I think that was incredible in itself. She just…to be able to discover such a rich range of stories from these lives that were largely unrecorded.

Christine: So, speaking of which, what was the source material like…what…yes?

Dr KG: She had…I mean I guess what was interesting from my perspective and from the State Library’s perspective is just the rich diversity of materials that she needed to access and broad sweeps across the collection; everything from newspapers to photographs to maps, coastal maps, aerial maps, police records, prison records, oral histories, Road Board minutes, it just goes on and on. So, enormous sweep across the breadth of the collections and then as well as that, honing in on these personal stories and just bringing such colour, such kind of colour to these lives that were very nearly forgotten if it wasn’t for Julie’s work. So, look it was a tremendous project. A real privilege to work with Julie on it and I think why it’s so important for the State Library is it presents a challenge to us now because if we think about it, what Julie’s research I guess provides some light on is the challenge in recording contemporary history. So, it helps us to reflect on our own collecting practice. What do we preserve now, of now for the future? How do we collect the contemporary stories of homelessness, the impact of COVID 19 right now in WA? That kind of broader picture. So, in actual fact, I think her research has not only just recovered this amazing history, but it’s also really thrown a challenge to the State Library as to how we adequately collect the contemporary stories of homelessness now.

Christine: Yes, that’s such a good point.

Dr KG: Yes, it’s been great. Great project to work with Julie on.

Christine: Yes, so look if people want to go and see photos or read more about it, what is the best way to do it?

Dr KG: Well, there’s not a great deal that’s available yet on the State Library website. Julie has actually prepared…there’s some material that’s available through the Cockburn Library website.

Christine: Oh great. Yes.

Dr KG: That people can Google and Julie can probably tell you more about that but I think we had a wonderful public talk that…at the end of Julie’s Battye Fellowship late last year and yes, I think it would be fantastic to do some sort of digital story or something about it on the State Library website but we haven’t yet quite got to that stage.

Christine: Fair enough. You’ve been doing a lot of research so we’ll forgive you.

Julie, honestly what an incredible story and great that you are documenting these people’s lives for others to learn about. Thank you so much for coming on to tell us.

JR: You’re welcome.

Christine: Julie Raffaele and Dr Kate Gregory, always a pleasure.

Dr KG: Yes, that was a pleasure, thank you.

Christine: She is the Battye Historian and you heard from the Battye Fellow.

So, that was a story about the Smelter’s Camp at Cockburn Sound and those who lived there. Really, really fascinating. We’ve got news coming up next.


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