Dec 2013 Toolbox Visit

TRUE NOSTALGIA — A REAL TIMBER BOAT BUILDER’S SHED

 Our December Toolbox was a visit to the Freshwater Bay Museum at Claremont, primarily to see the old boatshed that had been donated to the museum by Chris Mews, whose family home is  several hundred metres along the bay near Claremont Yacht Club. 1

  Members gathered in the pleasant surroundings of the heritage museum buildings on Victoria Avenue. The afternoon commenced with a welcome and short presentation from the museum staff on the history of the buildings. 

Around 1850, the Claremont Park adjacent to the Council Chambers was set up as accommodation for convicts no longer required in other Australian colonies and who were starting to arrive in the West. Convicts were overseen by Pensioner Guards who were provided with accommodation on the foreshore at Freshwater Bay. In due course, there was a need for teachers and schools for their children. The museum premises were originally built as a school in 1862 from limestone, but it has not been possible to establish beyond doubt that it was actually built by convicts. One of the settlers, Mrs Herbert after whom the adjacent park is now named, was the first teacher. It was also a place of worship with church services for the convicts being held on Sunday afternoons. 

The school closed in 1879 and the place became a Boarding House and then in 1898 it became Police Quarters in which capacity it remained until 1973. During the 1920’s it was a Police Station for a short period. Following the closure by Police, it became an arts and crafts museum and since that time has slowly been developed into what it is today. 

In 1996, Chris Mews donated his family’s boatshed located at the bottom of his yard adjacent to the river’s edge to the museum and the shed was relocated piece by piece into the larger shed which houses and protects it at the museum. 

Following this introduction, we walked down the hill to the shed located closer to the waters edge where we found Chris Mews ready to capture our attention with his valuable knowledge of the past.

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 Chris introduced himself and observed that ‘every boy has a shed’ – and he had his too. This is the shed that he grew up in and which he remembers his father working in when he was a boy.

 In the early days of the Swan River settlement, the river was a major transport route and water power was greatly in demand. Hence, boatbuilding was a big industry along the river, feeding the transport requirements of the community. 

The Mews boat shed was built in 1900 and had a slipway running into the bay. It had no wall sheeting on one side where it adjoined another larger shed built in 1910 and demolished in the 1960’s. This larger shed was used to build luggers for the pearling industry, there being many luggers regularly lost due to the lack of weather forecasting in those days. There was also a third shed to the west of the Mews boatshed which remains in place today. Until about 1960, this third shed was the residence of a survivor of the Titanic disaster who was known in the locality as Eric the Iceberg.

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  The Mews boat shed was originally built by George Cooper who used it for his boat building business. It was later used by Ken and Frank Saukins who built custom built wooden boats until the 1960’s. As fibreglass started to take over the market, the demand for these custom built boats died out and this was the last working boat shed on the river to close its doors. 

Chris Mews’ great great grandfather came out to Australia on the ship Rockingham and brought many of the tools that are now on display in their working environment. Chris moved around the boat shed describing the origins and purpose of many of the items on display including the old tools in the collection. 

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He started with the large winch which had originally been mounted outside the end wall of the shed and was used to winch vessels up the slipway and into the shed. There was also a large hand operated stone wheel with a water bath for grinding tools prior to sharpening on an oil stone. The ‘office’ was a small desk in the corner of the shed complete with an original typewriter.

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There was a 110 volt drill press which Chris’s father had obtained from the American sailors during WWII in exchange for a bottle of Whiskey, augers for every boat building purpose including boring through deadwood for keel bolts or propeller shafts. 6

 A particularly interesting piece was a pitch ladle used for melting pitch crystals and pouring them into deck seams before the advent of silastic and the like. Then there was a shipwrights adze used to shape the larger timber components to fine dimensions when in the hands of experienced operators. A large collection of copper nails was also on the bench and Chris pointed out that square copper nails were used so that they would remain tight in the round drilled hole – the origin of the saying ‘a square peg in a round hole’. 

The major space within the boat shed was taken up by a clinker planked timber tender of the type that would have been built by the original boat building Cooper family and which Chris explained were used universally to access boats that were all on moorings prior to the time that jetties and marinas became the norm. There was also a late 1950’s Fisherman model Seagull outboard that had reliably served the Mews family but still looked in remarkably good condition.

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Overhead there were a number of spars and oars stored in the timber roof truss. Also stored here was a large pole with a blade on the end something like a flensing knife. Chris explained that his family established their first boatshed at Bathers Beach at Fremantle in the mid 1800’s. This boatshed was adjacent to the first whaling station established in WA. The implement referred above was used during the 1840’s to kill sharks that followed the whales in to the beach at the whaling station. Also associated with the whaling of that era was a pair of whale boat oars, also stored in the roof truss.

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 Chris closed by showing us a set of 100 year old Marples caulking irons and a caulking mallet which belonged to his grandfather. Apart from their sentimental value and the difficulty in procuring them if required, Chris has not donated them to the museum as he is currently restoring a Sambraillo timber launch and expects that he may need to use them again from time to time.

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 We thank the Freshwater Bay Museum Manager & Curator, Mona Numann and her staff for making the arrangements with Chris Mews and a special thank you to Chris for taking time out of his weekend to talk us through so much of the hidden history of the boatshed which he is so uniquely positioned to do.  His knowledge of boat building times long past was most appreciated.