The stumps of wood that form a line through the Canning River are an unusual relic of Perth’s earliest industrial heritage and convict labour.
The old convict fence, a series of uneven wooden poles in a line above the water between Salter Point and the Shelley Bridge, was part of a dredging effort to get barges down this section of the river.
“In 1862 timber miller Ben Mason set up a mill in Canning, and the business, Mason and Bird Timber Company, played a very large role in the settlement of the Canning River area at that time,” explained Richard Offen from Heritage fencing in Perth.
“Timber was one of Perth’s earliest export industries.”
Mason would load his timber upriver onto barges, which would then be pushed down towards Salter Point, where the water was deep enough on the western side for steamships.
The barges were then towed to Fremantle, and the timber shipped around the world.
The Pickering Brook Heritage Group records Mason’s great commercial success, noting that in 1865 Mason supplied 605 loads for export, 495 loads for colonial demand, 400 loads of sleepers to India and 1,000 telegraph poles were cut for the South Australian Government.
“But there was a problem, especially in summer, because often the barges were grounded due to the low water level. He found it difficult to get the timber down to Fremantle for the ships that were leaving,” Mr Offen said.
In the same year Mason also lost an order for 60 loads of timber because he could not get them over the Canning shallows, and he became frustrated at the lack of government work to dredge the river.
In response, the colonial secretary sent a load of convicts to dredge the river and build the fence.
The fence was created with jarrah poles, as the WA heritage register records, “sharpened and thrust as a stake into the muddy bottom of the river. Casuarina boughs and logs cut from vegetation along the riverbanks were interwoven through the poles to create a fence.
The fence proved only a temporary solution.
“Within three years both Ben Mason and George Randell (who owned the steamboat company) were again moaning that the existing fence had fallen into disrepair and they were again having difficulty with the barges,” Mr Offen said.
“The government gave the tender for work on the fence to Mason and Randell themselves.”
“They proposed using a paddle steamer, which would dredge another channel with its propeller, and they would quickly repair the fence after it went through.
“That seemed to work reasonably well because work was not done again until 1887, and then the Public Works Department did some more work in 1892.”
The timber mill, the fence itself and the barges and steamboats are now long gone from the Canning River, and only the poles from the fence remain.
It is uncertain how many of the poles are those originally placed by convicts, given the multiple repairs made over the years.
The fence still forms a clear line along that part of the river, and is on the state heritage register which describes it as a “prominent uncommon structure of landscape” with a great deal of heritage value.