Peeling off the Past

By Bruce Menzies*

Locals who haunt South Terrace may have noticed a change of signage at La Vespa. Above the café, bordering South Terrace and Jenkin Street, removal of an outer layer reminds us the premises have not always been home to long macs and diet-breaking patisseries. Not at all. For the best part of the 20th century, freshly exposed by the fading paintwork, stood a ‘family butcher’ shop. And the history of that shop reveals something of the history of South Fremantle.

La Vespa Patisserie, with the revealed Family Butcher signage, 7 May 2024

Until 1951, South Terrace, from South Street onwards, was known as the Mandurah Road. Street numbering was different to that today, as were the names of some streets. Jenkin Street, where I live, was called ‘By-The-Sea-Road’ – rather oddly as it runs perpendicular rather than parallel to the ocean. Today, La Vespa is at 247 South Terrace; for many years the street address was 131-133 Mandurah Road, and later 85-87. Even the oft-lamented Mills & Ware Biscuit Factory on the opposite side had a predecessor, being the home to Ross and Co – a ‘coffee and spice mills factory’. Along South Terrace, in the years before the Australian States federated, you would find fishmongers, drapers, grocers, bakers, bootmakers carpenters, a furniture factory, boarding houses and the Seaview Hotel. Next to Ross and Co was Brogmus and Rector’s ‘ham and beef shop’. Between Florence Street (now King William) and Sydney Street, Mr James Sowden established a butcher’s shop.

Once the Seaview, now The Local

Yet much land lay vacant, particularly on the seaside of Mandurah Road as it meandered towards Douro Road and the large smelting works at Owen’s Anchorage. Sowden may have seen an opportunity. In late May 1900 he advertised in the West Australian for builders to tender for a two- storey brick shop and residence on the Mandurah Road, employing an architect, FW Burwell. I’m guessing that tender lead to the erection of the current premises.

The first listing for Sowden’s butcher shop on the corner of Mandurah Road and By-The-Sea-Road appears in the 1901 Post Office Directories. It’s unclear when the move from his previous premises on Mandurah Road took place. But, at one or the other, he was burgled. On 19 July 1900, the West Australian reported ‘there is evidence that burglars are at work in Fremantle’ and that the ‘latest accounts of the depredations of this unenviable class of individuals comes from the shop of Mr James Sowden, a butcher in the Mandurah Road, South Fremantle.’ As reported, Sowden may not have lost much by way of cash in the robbery but financially his business may have gone downhill, or he overcommitted in building new premises. On 2 July 1901 a meeting of creditors took place in a Fremantle legal office, a prelude it appears to Sowden’s bankruptcy.

Though bankruptcies were not uncommon, Sowden’s life was undoubtedly disrupted. Around that time he had stood against four others for a vacant Fremantle Council seat in the South Ward. I suspect he was unsuccessful. By 1904, his butcher’s shop was being run by Mr J Lowe. Yet at the outset of war in 1914, we find another butcher’s establishment at 140 Mandurah Road, run by ‘Sowden and Sons’. James may have made it, as this business continued to be listed in the years after the war.

Copper Chimney, part of the old Mills & Ware’s redevelopment

Meanwhile, another identity, Horace Pittman Baker, took over the business on what is now the corner of Jenkin Street and South Terrace. He ran the butcher’s shop throughout the First World War and well into the 1920s. The 1920 postal directories paint a picture: Jenkin Street is now named and on that corner of Mandurah Road at 127 is Mrs Fanny Rochfort. Across Jenkin Street at 131–33 is Horace Baker, the butcher, and nearby at 139 is David Smirk, a greengrocer. Across the road diagonally is former tailor, Frederick Early, by then a tobacconist. Where the Copper Chimney restaurant now stands is Mrs Christine Payne, a grocer and draper. Mills and Ware Biscuit Manufacturers are listed on the corner of Wardie Street after number 140 – Sowden and Sons, butchers.

Baker seems to have been untroubled by burglaries or bankruptcies. His problems were largely matrimonial. Salacious reporting of divorce cases was both permitted and de rigueur in those days. In 1928, both the Perth Daily News and the tabloid, Truth, gave extensive coverage to the alleged infidelities of Baker and those around him. One comes away with the impression that 1960s sexual liberation and the ‘free love’ antics around certain gurus pale in comparison with the hedonistic days of the rambunctious 1920s.

Perhaps the local shenanigans carried a degree of irony, if not predictability, given that the Methodist Church was on Mandurah Road, not far from the butcher shop, and that, in 1909, Jenkin Street itself was named after the Rev JG Jenkin of that church.

At some point the venerable Baker ceased to be a butcher. By 1935, the business was in the capable hands of Alfred Withers, a stalwart of the Royal Fremantle Golf Club. Before coming to Fremantle, Withers had been a country representative for Goldsborough Mort and then Elder Smiths. Later, he moved to Katanning.

As an aside, my interest in Mandurah Road, now South Terrace, stems back to a family connection. In the 1930s my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Richard Gervase Kirton, had a chemist’s shop at number 214. The premises have undergone various changes, more recently from an outlet for Eastern artefacts to frozen meals and exercise activities. Kirton died in 1937 and his next-door neighbour, Robert Sayers, was his executor. A decade or more ago, I interviewed Norma Snary, then living in Harbour Road. Her father rented a house next to Sayers and she vividly recalled visiting my great-grandfather and coming away with cough mixture and the dreaded sarsaparilla.

Along South Terrace, if you look carefully, you will discern traces of the past. Some businesses have been in family hands for many years, and there are occupants who have long memories. But memories fade, and older folk who can remember characters and events prior to the Second World War are thin on the ground. In the second half of the 20th century, the ‘family butcher’ on the corner of Jenkin Street and South Terrace changed a number of times. Some locals have reminisced on Facebook, recalling their visits to the butcher shop before it morphed into a café in the late 1990s. Others remember Ron and Judy who birthed La Vespa, now one of the long-standing coffee shops along the Terrace. I suspect I’m not alone in testing my memory of what has gone before. In 2011, I launched my family history book in what was The Terrace (before that Granitas and now the Copper Chimney). Who recalls Aubergine, before various later incarnations? As for the makeover that has transformed a beloved old deli into the South Freo Conti, I can happily caffeinate in the new surrounds while holding affection for what was Calogero’s. For the rest of South Terrace, I simply can’t keep up.

Sergio, hard at work in South Freo Continental

It’s heartening, however, to see that the simple act of stripping off a layer of La Vespa signage has reactivated interest in what has gone before. For those of us who enjoy Freo today, the past may not always be omnipresent. But I reckon it’s worth more than the occasional glance over our shoulder, if nothing else to remind us of those who, over the years, played a part in creating what has become our privileged home.

By the way, the new signage at La Vespa will go up soon. Call in and say hello to Mary who is busily becoming part of the new history of South Terrace.

Mary of La Vespa

By Bruce Menzies. Based in Fremantle, most of the time, Bruce Menzies is the author of three novels, a family history, and a recent memoir. Details at ‪ If you’d like to read more of Bruce Menzies’ work on Fremantle Shipping News or listen to a fascinating podcast interview with Bruce, look here


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