Auction Highlight Spring 2010 Captain Charles Russell (c.1840-1918)

An inscription on the reverse of this painting announces. “Swan River Bar WA.  Before it was opened up for (the) Harbour. Painted by Captain Russell Harbour Master, given to me 1896 – WA Gale.”

Lot 50 Captain Charles P Russell – The Fremantle Bar

As with most Victorian gentlemen, sketching and painting formed part of their education and this is not the first piece by Captain Charles Russell R.N. to appear. Examples of his works are included in the collection of the Western Australian Museum and they comprise of pieces painted in 1886 on his voyage from England to Fremantle where he was to take up the duties of Chief Harbour Master, a very important colonial position. Captain Russell was to remain in that position until retiring in 1902.

When he arrived in 1886 with his wife and daughter the Fremantle Harbour facilities consisted of the Long Jetty that was previously known as the Ocean Jetty. Extensions in 1883 caused a name change and the Long Jetty was to remain the principal port facility for Perth and surrounding districts until the new harbour was opened in 1897. Victoria Quay, as it was named, provided an extra 2360 feet (720 metres) of wharfage for shipping.

As Cheif Harbour Master, Captain Russell was also in charge of The Harbour and Light Department which placed under his care all maritime matters related to the state, including care and maintenance of lighthouses and navigation aids. The ports of Albany, Busselton, Bunbury, Geraldton, Dennison and Cossack formed part of the department’s responsibilities and the administration of the shipping and piloting legislation was another function it performed. The Chief Harbour Master was also in charge of refloating grounded ships, investigating and reporting on shipwrecks and rescuing shipwrecked sailors. The responsibilities of rescue and investigation were often tasks Captain Russell assumed himself.

In addition to reporting to parliament the Chief Harbour Master was frequently under the eye of the press. Criticisms or differences of opinion were not unknown to him and he handled such matters with composure and decorum. He made a strong contribution to the development of Western Australia and held the respect of his colleagues and ship owners alike.  In the West Australian of July 4 1899 Sir John Forrest was reported as saying “…and those who knew Captain Russell as he [Sir John] did would not say that the gentleman was anything but a cautious man or likely to give an opinion which was not justified.”

Upon his retirement and prior to his return to England in 1902 his colleagues at the Harbour Department presented him with a purse of gold sovereigns. The shipowners, as a gesture of appreciation, also made a presentation to him of another purse of gold sovereigns in the offices of The Adelaide Steamship Company. During an address to the gathering Mr WE Moxon was reported in the West Australian of April 1902 as saying to Captain Russell on the eve of his departure to England “your position during a period of very great stress upon the capacity of Harbour Master has been unique, owing to the very great rush of shipping during a portion of time, to a young and underdeveloped port – a condition of affairs so far as the facilities of the Port of Fremantle is concerned which has been in a great measure removed.”

In reply to the kind words Captain Russell was respectful but not without criticism of the government. He gave a brief run down of the challenges the new harbour had caused him and he also expressed disappointment at government spending cuts, particularly in the closing of the survey section of the Harbour and Light Department.

He held the view that the government steamer Victoria could be put to better use in surveying the North West Coast.

In the Western Mail April 1902 Captain Russell was reported to have said “there is an immense amount of work to be done on the North West coast. To my mind running the bottom of a ship into a reef was not the proper way of locating it.”

This picture of the Fremantle Bar was painted around 1891 from the Harbour Master’s residence at Arthur’s Head. The residence had good views of Fremantle and the surroundings including the jetty at the foot of Cliff Street, where goods were loaded onto flat bottom barges for the journey up river to Perth.

It was probably a Sunday afternoon when Captain Russell painted this work as there is little activity on the jetty, and a barge with full sail heads round the bar for the up river trip to Perth. It was the habit to use the afternoon coastal breeze for the Fremantle to Perth leg and the morning land breeze for the return. In the 1890’s Sunday was ideally a day of rest and in all likelihood the only time a person with Captain Russell’s workload could find the time to relax, take in the view and record it.

The position of the formidable bar at the river mouth, with warning marker on the ocean side of its farthest extremity is clearly visible and the scale of the task in removing this obstacle becomes obvious. 799,250 cubic yards (610,000 cubic metres) of coralline rock was shattered and removed by the dredges Fremantle and Parmelia and, the dredge Premier removed 692,000 cubic yards (529,000 cubic metres) of sand, a portion of which was used in reclamation for the harbour and the majority of it being dumped at sea. All dredges worked day and night to complete the task.

In addition to the stone quarried from Rocky Bay some of the material excavated from the bar was used in the construction of the north and south moles. The moles were an important component of CY O’Connor’s harbour design and at the forefront of harbour construction as they protected the river mouth from the swells and rough weather delivered by the Indian Ocean. Some of the pieces of stone quarried from Rock Bay weighed 26 ton.

The north bank of the river is shown in a near unspoiled condition with tall and heavily vegetated sand dunes. These features were removed when the North Wharf was developed in 1902 and industry needed land close to the harbour. The population of Western Australia in 1891 was around 53,000 and it would be another 4 years before the diggers would arrive by the shipload seeking fame and fortune on the goldfields and double the colonies population, and then double it again by 1901.

This painting is one of the few on record showing the Swan River Bar in its entirety and it’s proximity to Willis Point. Both the Fremantle Bar and Willis Point were reclaimed during the building of Victoria Quay.

WA Gale who is credited with the inscription on the back of this work is most likely to be Walter Augustus Gale (1864-1927)  a protégé of Sir John Forrest. In 1896 he was the clerk and librarian of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly and would have known Captain Russell through the number of official functions they attended.