Return to the Smelters

A REPORT and display recalling the lives of the people who lived in the Smelters Camp shanty town at Coogee Beach was bought to life recently by the visit of one of its former residents.

The Smelters Camp Report by historian Julie Raffaele is available through Cockburn’s libraries and follows the lives of nearly 200 people who lived in the area between the late 1800s and the 1960s (“Smelters history preserved,” Herald, September 14, 2019).

William Herdigan lived at the Smelters Camp as a child with his mother, Maxine, in 1952.

Returning to the site with his family to share stories from his childhood, Mr Herdigan says the landscape has drastically changed since then.

Where the camp once stretched across the coastline and into the sand dunes, apartment buildings now rise.

A well near where Mr Herdigan lived in the camp has completely disappeared, though most of the camp’s water had came from other sources anyway.

From the vantage point of a sewage treatment plant that’s about all that remains from that time, Mr Herdigan points out where the different events of his childhood had occurred.

He remembers a fig tree which stood in the camp; the local children spent a lot of time eating the figs, but also throwing them at each other.

Looking at the trees that fringed the camp, Mr Herdigan also recalls the time he caught a magpie with his bare hands.

Annoyed by the birds’ constant swooping, he studied their flight and nesting patterns during spring then hid in the bushes to grab one out of the air during a swoop. “I’m not sure who was more shocked – me or the magpie,” he laughs.

Mr Herdigan used to fossick around the camp for metals, particularly brass and copper, to make a few bob to get by by selling it to the metal merchants.

Closer to the coast was an area people gathered to talk and dance together.

Mr Herdigan remembers many of his neighbours and where they lived; their stories appear in Ms Raffaele’s report.

His mother Maxine (Effie to her family) had a favourite red dress and the sand dune where they lived was known as Mackie’s Hill in her honour. It was her struggle with alcoholism that played a main role in living at the Smelters.

For Mr Herdigan, returning to the Smelters Camp with his daughter Hara and grandson was an emotional experience.

He said it was important to share memories of the past.

Cockburn’s Historical Society helped put the report together, and the City of Cockburn provided funding for the research. At the exhibition’s display, there is space for people who have more information about life at the Smelters Camp to share their own stories. We’d also love to hear about people’s recollections (or photos) from the Smelters Camp, so send them on to


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