A Brief History of the Old Mill
The oldest surviving physical link with the pioneering days of the Colony of Western Australia is the Old Mill in South Perth. It remains a memorial to the courage of those few British people who, taking all they had with them, sailed half way around the world to claim for Great Britain a new land in an unfamiliar hemisphere.
Governor James Stirling established the Swan River Colony in 1829. Grain and flour were vital for the new colony as bread was the staple food. Many of the early settlers grew their own wheat and hand milled it using a quern. William Shenton recognized the need for a more efficient method of milling. He was an engineer from Winchester in England where his family already owned a mill. He arrived at Fremantle in 1829 bringing machinery for a saw mill.
Shenton built a windmill in Fremantle and Point Belches (now Mill Point) before building in 1835 a second mill at Point Belches that remains today. In many ways the mill at Point Belches seemed ideally placed along the river. The first horse drawn ferry crossing from Mount Eliza to Point Belches was in 1833 and Shenton’s mill became a popular meeting place. In addition the people of Perth would travel on the ferry to the south bank to collect timber.
Unfortunately the mill was not a profitable concern. It was not well located in relation to the major markets and erratic winds meant that it was often unable to grind wheat. There were also rival mills.
Tragically William Shenton was drowned at sea on his way from Perth to Bunbury in 1842.
One of the more significant characters associated with the mill was a lessee. Thomas Brown known as ‘Satan Browne’, was an architect and convicted forger, who arrived in the Colony in 1865. In 1879 he took out a lease on the mill. He added a balcony and viewing platform and named it the Alta Gardens Hotel. However, by 1881 Browne was in debt and being sued. His case was to be heard in the Criminal Court but before his sentence was passed Browne committed suicide by taking strychnine.
The property deteriorated and despite being resumed by the government in 1929 little effort was made to conserve it until 1957. In that year H L Brisbane and Wunderlich (later Bristile) agreed to take up a long lease for the site from the State Government, and restored and repaired the mill and miller’s cottage, creating a folk museum and brick and tile display to advertise their products.
In 1973 the Old Mill was classified by the National Trust. The Old Mill has cultural heritage significance for the following reasons:
- The mill and cottage are of architectural interest and have aesthetic appeal
- It survives as a remnant of a wind driven mill dating from the first decade of European settlement in Western Australia
- It has historic value as evidence of one element in the history of milling in Western Australia.
The Old Mill was vested to the National Trust in 1992, after the running costs of the site became too large for Bristile, and volunteers continued to open the mill to the public.
Restoration work was carried out on the mill in the early 1990s and today the Old Mill comes under the auspices of the City of South Perth. It is no longer a national Trust property.
The Old Mill has social value through its potential to contribute significantly to the understanding of early milling. It is also an educational resource providing insight into the early commercial endeavours in the colony and information about the people associated with the property since 1835.
The Old Mill contributes to a sense of place for the community of the City of South Perth as a historic place with aesthetic appeal and has considerable community and educational significance. The mill provides evidence of the commercial endeavour of the early pioneers of the Swan River Colony. It also provides evidence and information about the history and people associated with the mill.
Further information about the Old Mill and it's place in today's society can be found in the Things to See and Do section.
National Trust of Australia (WA) The Old Mill South Perth - information booklet
National Trust of Australia (WA) Visitors Guide - The Old Mill information pamphlet
General Printing Division, West Australian Newspapers The Old Mill Museum: Perth, Western Australia, Perth, WA 1968
Crowley, F.K. The History of South Perth, Perth, WA 1962.