As you make your way around the City of Cockburn, you will notice poppies have begun to bloom on street name signs. Each of these marks the name of a Cockburn local who served in the armed forces in a war or peace keeping related activity, or a commemorative event. Behind each name is also the story of a local family, many of whose lives were forever changed by events on the other side of the world.
Below are the words and images that appear on signs posted around Cockburn, delving deeper into the experience of war for those left behind. For a complete list of street signs with poppies and their backstories, see the City of Cockburn Poppy Street Signs page.
Bringing in the harvest in wartime
When World War 1 broke out in 1914, the area we know as the City of Cockburn was home to market gardens managed by families supplying Fremantle and Perth with fresh produce. The call to service in the ‘Great War’ was answered by many men from this district, and farming families rapidly found themselves having to cope without their husbands and sons.
One such family business was the Watsonia bacon factory in Spearwood, owned by well known Fremantle merchant William Watson, who was to lose two sons on the fields of France. Sadly, his story was not unique, and the impact of the war on this district can be seen on local war memorials such as that at Banjup – which lists six dead and four wounded of the 14 men who enlisted. Nine of those 14 came from just three families. The loss and wounding of so many of their young men must have been felt very deeply in this tiny community.
Many did come home however, and they were joined by returned soldiers from other areas in farming in Cockburn.
George Aberle was inspired by the vines he saw in the Mediterranean and was soon exporting his award-winning grapes.
Nicholas Marich, who served in the Australian Army and became the Yugoslav Consul, established vegetable gardens and played a key part in Growers’ Associations.
Bert Ellement sadly left a brother on the battlefields, but returned home with the nurse who cared for him and joined his family in growing onions. Imagine the veteran’s sadness when only a few years after the Great War, World War II was declared, and again families farewelled members for overseas service.
During the Second World War, Cockburn’s farming veterans played an important role in providing fresh fruit and vegetables and, despite being a ‘reserved occupation’, market garden labour was again an issue. The
wider community was called in to help, and in 1942 a dress shop in Perth sent its young women to plant 50,000 onions as part of their National Service volunteer work. The following year boys from the Fremantle
Technical College brought in the carrot and swede crop for Mr Davey, whose two sons were prisoners-of-war.
War also brought food shortages, and in 1943 the Federal Government requisitioned all pigs over 100lb (45kg) for the armed forces. William Watson’s factories were kept busy providing tinned sausages, ham and bacon to the armed forces, and later to the United Kingdom to help with post-war recovery.
Despite its rapid growth as an urban area, market gardens are still scattered across parts of the City of Cockburn, bringing a flavoursome reminder of the important role of this area in more difficult times past.
Fear of invasion and the enemy within
Many of the men who had served in World War I became active members of their local Returned Services League on their return to Australia. In Cockburn this was the Spearwood-Hamilton Hill Sub-branch, made up of returned locals and other soldier settlers who had moved into the area to farm after the war. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 the men of this Sub-branch quickly formed into a Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC).
These men were organising and training well before they were recognised as a military unit, and there are tales of training operations with broom handles, wooden guns and farm implements until 1941, when they were officially established as No. 3 Platoon, A Company, Fremantle Battalion.
As hostilities increased, Australia began to fear the threat of invasion, and coastal defenses were built around the nation. In the Cockburn area anti-aircraft guns were placed at Bibra Lake, Coogee, Jandakot, Mt Brown and Hope Valley. Searchlight stations were also installed at Bibra Lake and Woodman Point. At first these defenses were manned by enlisted soldiers, but as these men were transferred to overseas duty, the job of local defense in Cockburn fell increasingly to the No.3 Platoon.
The VDC was joined by women of the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS), an enlisted force of young women who were trained as radio operators, signalers, searchlight operators, drivers, enemy aircraft spotters and many other wartime occupations. Some were local women, and others were from elsewhere in Australia and posted to the coastal defenses in the Cockburn area.
While local veterans and young women were playing their part in the country’s defense, another group of locals found themselves suddenly under a cloud.
The Cockburn area had always been a rich mix of nationalities and cultures, but in wartime people with ‘enemy’ heritage were often viewed with suspicion. Unfortunately, injustices occasionally occurred. In the Great War German-born George Bichoff lost two sons who were serving in the Australian military, but was still sacked from his job on the wharf. He later changed his name to Bishop. In World War II it was those with Italian heritage who were singled out. In the month after Italy entered the war, as an enemy, a quarter of Italian born men in Western Australia were interned.
Many younger Italians did manage to join the VDC however, and Cockburn residents of all cultural backgrounds continued to play an important part in vital wartime food production, supplying the forces overseas and then the United Kingdom in the post war recovery years.
As you travel though the City and see street signs with red poppy symbols you’ll notice that the names of those who served have a thoroughly mixed cultural heritage, a legacy which survives today in the City’s rich multicultural community.
Commemorating the fallen with a gift to the community
At the end of the 1914-1918 war, families of the Cockburn area began welcoming home their sons and daughters who had served overseas, and adjusting to the loss of so many of their young men. Memorial cenotaphs were being built throughout the State, but the newly formed Hamilton Hill Association looked to build a hall in memory of those who lost their lives. The building would be used by the community for local deserving and patriotic causes.
This small but highly persuasive committee, headed by Mrs Mary Maud Winfield, became the driving force in fundraising and securing important support over the ensuing years. Land and stone were acquired, the state sawmills supplied discounted timber on credit, and an honorary architect, solicitor and auditor provided their services. In February 1925 the builder, Mr Rennie of Fremantle, began work. March the same year saw the foundation stones laid amid much ceremony.
Returned servicemen of the district formed a guard of honour as the State Governor, Sir William Campion, placed the first foundation stone and Mrs Winfield laid the second stone. Families placed wreaths for their lost men to the accompaniment of the Fremantle Naval Band. The building was completed and officially opened on 19 July 1925, with the hall packed so full that people spilled outside. Again, wreaths were laid and the Last Post sounded.
The next few years saw a flurry of activity in the hall as the community worked to pay down the debt still owed. A children’s fancy dress party was followed by a masquerade ball with over 200 people celebrating, tipping the funds raised over the half way point of the £2,360 needed.
In December 1925 an Oriental carnival called ‘A Week in Tokio’ was celebrated.
Japan was an ally in World War l and the hall was transformed into a Japanese street decorated with cherry blossom and wisteria, with kimono clad attendants adding a flash of exotic colour. Outside the hall, returned servicemen ran a boxing ring to the delight of large crowds of onlookers.
The hall became an important meeting place for the growing community with regular dances, community events, agricultural shows, carnivals and film showings being held. At many of these events senior returned servicemen welcomed guests to the hall – Colonel Pope in particular spoke about how pleased he was to see so many men from his old Battalion – the 16th AIF – settled in the Cockburn district, farming and working in the area.
In October 1938, almost 20 years after the first meeting to start fundraising, the final repayment was made and a celebratory banquet held. Less than a year later, war was to break out again.
More names would be added to the list of those from Cockburn who served the nation, many of whom you will now see recognised by a red poppy street sign as you make your way through the City.
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