The first European to sight the Perth area was the Dutch sailor Willem de Vlamingh who sailed along the coast in 1697 and named Swan River after noting the large flocks of black swans in the area. De Vlamingh was less than impressed with the region describing it as arid, barren and wild
. It is tantalising to contemplate what he would think if he could see the rich, green parks and gardens which now line the riverbanks.
The area was explored and chartered by both the French and the British in the early years of the nineteenth century. The French actually chartered the Swan River in 1801 but a subsequent expedition found the river unsuitable as a port. It wasn¹t until 1827, when Captain James Stirling and the botanist Charles Fraser became enthusiastic about the potential of the river, that anyone seriously considered the possibility of a settlement.
Stirling and Fraser¹s timing was perfect. In both England and New South Wales there was a growing concern about the French interest in Australia. La Perouse, D¹Entrecasteaux and Nicholas Baudin had all explored the coasts of the new continent and it was clear that, if settlement was a criterion of possession, the British could only claim the south east corner. Consequently there was much interest in establishing outposts on the western, southern and northern coasts.
This eagerness for new penal colonies was matched by a desire to close down the penal colony at Port Macquarie and open the area up to settlement. With this in mind a small contingent of soldiers and convicts had been sent to Albany in 1826. Meanwhile Captain James Stirling, whose report on the potential of the Swan River had been received with little enthusiasm, had gone to England in 1828 to press for the establishment of a colony on the Swan River.
Stirling¹s report had been wildly enthusiastic about the potential of the Swan River. He declared that the district held out every attraction that a country in a State of Nature can possess and that both the soil and the anchorage were ideal.
Stirling managed to generate considerable debate in the British parliament and so, even though he was given limited government support, on 1 June 1829 he set sail from England as the Lieutenant Governor of Australia¹s first free colony. It is a fascinating thought (particularly with the entrepreneurial debacles of the 1980s still fresh in our minds) to register that Perth was founded, as no other Australian capital city was, on an amalgamation of limited government and entrepreneurs. This situation doesn¹t seem to have changed greatly over the years.
Stirling sailed with a small contingent of free settlers aboard the Parmelia while the HMS Sulphur brought a military detachment to the colony. Stirling considered a number of possible sites along the Swan River but he finally chose a location 16 km from the mouth of the river and nestled under Mount Eliza. It was an ideal location.
In her book The Swan Valley: A Perspective in Time and Place, Dorothy B. Robinson
explains the strengths and weaknesses of the location: The site was edged on the south and east by the river with its border of mud flats, and on the north by lakes and swamplands. On the west was a high limestone ridge, named Mount Eliza, with a rugged scarp to the river¹s edge. Mt Eliza provided a lookout point from which to watch for a potential enemy. It was a good defensive site.
|Hay Street Mall today|
The main street, Hay Street, was surveyed to run along the crest of a sand dune extending eastwards from Mt Eliza, with parallel streets on either side, and with streets at right angles leading southwards to the river and to northwards ending in lakes and swamps. A number of springs provided fresh water, as did the lakes to the north. The river being an estuary, its water was too salty to drink. However, the river was a source of supply of fish for food.
The colony¹s early years were difficult. By accident the site
Stirling had chosen was on a route used by inland Aborigines to reach
their coastal fishing ground. Clashes between settlers and Aborigines
were common place and in the 1830s one Aboriginal leader was shot by
firing squad and in another incident a flour mill in South Perth was attacked.
The colony was the first to be developed entirely by free settlers. It wasn¹t until 1850 that convicts arrived and by that time the basic structure of the settlement had been established. The early growth of the city was slow. By 1849 the population was 1148. By 1891 it had only grown to 8447 and even in 1911
it was only a medium sized country town with a population of 31 300. The arrival of the Trans-Australian Railway in 1917 and the early
success of the gold mining towns pushed the population to 272 528 in
1947 and the subsequent immigration from Britain meant that by 1981 there were 809 035 people living in Perth and its suburbs.
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