Beneath your feet

Regent Street in London paved with Jarrah.

JOHN DOWSON is the president of the Fremantle Society. In this week’s Herald History he looks at Fremantle’s timber streets and how WA’s forests helped pave the Empire.

DURING the Gold Rush of the 1890s the streets of Fremantle may not have been paved with gold, but some were paved with fabulous timbers like jarrah and karri.

A substantial section of Western Australian wooden paving blocks has been unearthed in Mouat Street, Fremantle during the major Water Corporation Pipes for Fremantle renewal project.

But they have been covered up again, ready to be forgotten by Fremantle Council, like earlier Fremantle archaeological projects in Pioneer Park and King’s Square. Yet, showing the exciting wooden street discovered in Mouat Street to passersby is a project not expensive or difficult.  

The Pipes for Fremantle project is itself worthy of archaeological interpretation. The Water Corporation pipes project is replacing cast iron pipes dating back to 1890, though leaving them in the ground alongside their new plastic cousins. They have lasted longer than the wooden blocks which covered the streets above them – High Street wooden blocks were laid from 1898, Mouat and Cliff Streets in 1903. 

Many streets around the world were paved with valuable WA timber. An astonishing amount of jarrah and karri was used. Very little of the streets of wood remain, but talk of wooden streets in Australia goes back before Western Australia was even settled.

Wooden Streets in 1826

The very day, December 2, 1826, that the Hobart Town Gazette reported Major Edmund Lockyer visiting for a supply of water on his way to form a settlement in Albany, the newspaper discussed the use of timber on roads in Europe: “We should remark here the practice in Vienna, and other cities of the continent of Europe, where open courts and blind alleys are usually paved with blocks of hard wood.”

In February 9, 1839 The 

Colonist recommended wooden streets for Sydney, reporting that merchants in the world’s most famous shopping street, Oxford Street, were so keen to have wood paving, they offered to pay for a section themselves. They turned up at a council meeting with a New Yorker who attested to the success of wood paving on Broadway, “the greatest thoroughfare in America”.


The satirical Punch magazine thought London’s streets in 1846 were such a mess they were fit for a steeplechase: 

“The grand fun of a steeplechase seems to consist in the risk people run, and the difficulty they encounter in urging their horses across yawning chasms, and other kinds of obstacles.” Drivers “if their horses will gallop fast enough, would induce them to plunge without hesitation into the midst of sewers and gas pipes, or to go bounding over lumps of granite, blocks of wood, and every other obstacle which the paving, lighting, and watering authorities are constantly offering to the traffic of the metropolis”.

1862 Governor Hampton Arrives in WA It took John Hampton, governor of WA 1862-1868, to get wooden roads in WA. He had seen them in Canada, and ordered three miles of Stirling Highway to be paved as a test. Convicts cut down 300-year-old jarrah trees and made 30cm thick discs, later to be known as “Hampton’s Cheeses.”

Hampton also paved parts of the road to Guildford, which followed a well-worn Aboriginal track, and the Albany Road, with wood. A section of the Guildford Road timbers (now Great Eastern Highway) in Belmont was discovered in 2012. The mayor proudly announced that his council was “committed to preserving its history”, so just 6 of Hampton’s Cheeses have been moved and will one day be displayed 

(moving heritage is the last thing that should be done in such cases).

Worldwide Use of Jarrah and Karri The use of Western Australia’s precious “Swan River Mahogany” for mundane purposes like sleepers and wooden streets, exploded in the 1890s, and 90 per cent of our great forests have gone to the ends of the earth.

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