Family photo Busselton Jetty

Busselton Jetty: a memoir in storm cycles

With any historical site, it’s the stories of real people that bring a place to life.

In the aftermath of the first World War, my grandparents emigrated from the United Kingdom to Wadandi Country, in the far southwest of Western Australia. With fewer than 4,000 people, the Busselton region was still a colonial outpost, sprawled out along the shores of Geographe Bay. The town had grown around the trade in dairy and timber, with the help of a jetty that even now remains the longest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Despite 160 years and the ravages of wind, sun, salt, teredo worms and cyclones, the Jetty stretches 1,840 metres out into the brilliant blue waters of the bay. Since the 1880s, Busselton has been a mecca for ocean-loving visitors and the Jetty, with its bleached eucalyptus timbers adorned with fisherfolk, scales, and seagull splatters stands firmly at the heart of it all.

Few people have been lucky enough to live close by, but for twelve summers my family lived at the Beach Shop, right at the foot of the Jetty. Early childhood on the foreshore is a familiar origin story for my dad, who, inspired by the sea, became a marine scientist and architect of the marine reserve system in Western Australia. But there are more stories to be told, still faintly visible through the lens of decades. I don’t remember my Grandmother Ruby, and like many women of the past, her experience seems to have slipped through the fingers of history.

My curiosity was sparked by a pockmarked, sepia photograph of the family sitting on a low wooden-rail fence at the front of the Shop: my grandparents Ruby and Arthur, with their four small children perched in between. Behind, signs for hot water, fishing tackle, and canoes hang from the verandah. The canoes, hand-made from sheet metal by Arthur, are propped upside down on the fence in the background.

Ruby sits on the fence like she’s riding side-saddle, wearing a fashionable, knee-length dress, her feet in sensible court shoes. She has a warm and engaging smile, and her personality is said to have been a perfect foil to Arthur’s officer-like authoritarianism. The image was taken in 1938, shortly after a cyclone lashed the south west and left damaged infrastructure, ruined orchards, and raging bushfires in its wake. In the aftermath, Ruby made a rare appearance in history, in a news report from the The South Western News, February 1937:

Considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the beach shop, which was gradually being undermined by the sea. Mrs. A. Wilson, who conducts the shop, and who lives on the premises had already packed up her belongings in preparation for a hasty retreat should such have been necessary. The changing of the wind a short time before dawn, fortunately, made the evacuation unnecessary, and by daylight the sea had abated considerably.

Reading this news snippet further piqued my curiosity. What brought a woman born in inner-city London to face a cyclone on the edge of the sea in a far-flung corner of the world?

Ruby was born in 1895 at Fulham, a working class suburb in western London. Her father was an interior decorator, from a long line of London artisans. Fulham originally meant ‘Fulla’s river meadow,’ but by the turn of the twentieth century the banks of the Thames were fringed with heavy industry and wharf infrastructure. Tight streets lined with terrace houses led down to a grim river that was edged by factories and thick with centuries of human grime and filth.

Aware that local children were deprived by this environment, local authorities arranged a play space in Bishop’s Park, on the edge of the Thames. Sand was trucked in from Kent and used to create an urban beach and paddling pool. Margate Sands opened in 1903, and according to the Fulham Historical Society, it was ‘immensely popular.’ Ruby lived only two kilometres away, and it’s likely that she visited with her two small brothers. The children of London must have been delighted, but the contrast with the clean white expanse of Geographe Bay couldn’t be greater.

When my family arrived in the early 1920s, Busselton would have seemed full of opportunity. Arthur established Wilson’s Aerated Water factory, and in 1935 Ruby took over the lease of the Beach Shop. At that time, the Jetty still existed on it’s original alignment as a seaward extension of Queen St, Busselton’s main thoroughfare.

At that time it was still a working jetty, built to export timber and dairy produce from the colonial settlement of Vasse. Begun in 1864, it was lengthened at least nine times to increase the mooring depth and allow larger ships to dock. In 1911 the ‘skeleton’ jetty was added, which joined the original jetty at an angle and carried a railway line for cargo. The triangle of ocean between was fenced off from sharks, and the older section became known as the Promenade. It was the heart of social life in the small town.

Despite the remote location, the Jetty kept alive a sense of connection with places far away over the sea. And by the turn of the twentieth century, Busselton was the busiest holiday resort in the state. People were drawn by the ‘fairyland’ caves of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, and by the clear, blue waters of Geographe Bay. Alongside the coming and going of goods, people promenaded up and down, swam, fished, hired Arthur’s canoes or watched enchanted toddlers paddling in the wavelets. Many of them would have called in at the Beach Shop and chatted with Ruby, who likely enjoyed catching up with the many newcomers from London and the UK.

Built in 1931, the Beach Shop was a square weatherboard with a pitched roof and a wide veranda, promptly enclosed by Arthur for makeshift bedrooms. In her Jetty Stories, Ruby’s daughter Margaret recalls family life at the foot of the Jetty:

It was our practice on fine summer evenings to take our tea on the sheltered side veranda of the Beach Shop, overlooking the beach and the start of the jetty, and watch the passing parade. There was always something to see.

Margaret’s bedroom window opened out onto the sea wall that protected the foundations of the shop form the waves. She and her siblings could drop out of the window onto the wall, just metres from the water. My father was ‘on the beach’ by the age of 18 months. Ruby invested guardianship to his big sisters and he was watched over by a whole community of beach-goers.

The Wilson kids next to the Beach Shop, with the Promenade in the background, around 1938.

In 1937 the world was still in the midst of the Great Depression, but for the Wilson family life was bountiful. The children always had shoes, and there was plenty to eat. More than 80 years later, Margaret still remembers the staple fare offered in Ruby’s tearooms: lunch was bread and butter, cold ham or corned beef, iceberg lettuce, pickles and rounds of tomato and cucumber. Morning tea was cupcakes, scones, and Mills and Wares fruit cake. On Sundays she was put to work serving icecream from large cylindrical tubs, and emerged at the end of the day covered in it up to her armpits.

Then came the storm. Tropical cyclones form every year in the Timor Sea, between Indonesia and the Kimberly coast. They rarely track as far south as Busselton. But in early February 1937, the heat of summer intensified and rumours came of a furious storm building in the north. People must have waited in the unsettling humidity, not really expecting it to reach so far south. But the storm clouds closed in, and warnings went out.

Margaret and her sister Beryl watched as Arthur cut his clinker-built boat away from its mooring and set it free to find its own way in the storm. In the first push of the sea surge she saw a dinghy float over the top of the jetty, before being sent to safety with family a few streets back from the waves. With the wind already howling in, Ruby stayed to defend the shop. It must have felt like the wooden building was being ripped apart, with its closed-in verandas and tin roof. Waves pounded the seawall and the storm surge flooded large parts of Busselton, terrifying for a woman who couldn’t swim.

A news photograph held by the State Library shows the damage to the foreshore: sections of the concrete seawall lying collapsed on the sand, and gaps in the structure of the Jetty. The dressing rooms on the Promenade were torn off and strewn along the beach. Arthur’s boat was later found, unharmed, on the other side of the railway tracks. Within a week, the local government were already doing repairs and life returned to normal.

But more storms were on the way.

The Great Depression heralded the build-up to World War Two, which came close to home for Ruby. During the first World War, she had been working as head cutter in a London fashion house. Photographs show an elegant young woman with wavy brown hair and a soulful expression. There is no record of her experience of the war, but eye-witness accounts from her neighbourhood describe thousands of people out on the streets to watch as German Zeppelins drifted overhead, dropping incendiary bombs.

The aftermath of the war bought Ruby good fortune and a new life abroad. In 1919 she married Arthur, an officer in the Australian army who had been injured in Belgium, and rehabilitated in a London hospital. The men of their generation had been annihilated and he always said that the family line passed through the eye of a needle. They left behind the horrors of war and emigrated to Western Australia in 1920.

Busselton Jetty became a double-edged sword when World War Two broke out. The Jetty, always the town’s connection with the world, suddenly seemed like a beacon. Arthur, too old to return to active service, had been appointed captain of the 19th Battalion Garrison, responsible for the defence of local shores. Margaret recalls him drilling holes all along the Jetty, ready to fill with explosives if an enemy arrived.

When Arthur was sent to Geraldton with the Battalion, Ruby moved to Perth for the winter. Remaining in such a vulnerable position must have seemed too much without Arthur’s support, but when summer came she returned to re-open the Beach Shop. Perhaps it helped her maintain a semblance of normality: raising children, playing the organ in the historic St Mary’s church and supporting the Mother’s Union, more pressing with so many men away.

The final years of the war bought the fall of Singapore, the bombing of Broome and Darwin, sea battles in the Pacific, and fear of the Japanese Kamikaze. Noise from the RAAF base in Busselton must have been a constant reminder, but the enemy never arrived, and Arthur never needed to blow up the Jetty. The war came to a sudden and horrific end when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan.

Peace settled in. Surviving menfolk returned, the economy boomed and life went on. Then, in 1948 the Busselton Shire revoked the lease for the Beach Shop. After the family’s last summer it sat like an empty shell, until it was demolished sometime in the 1950s.

Shortly after, Ruby and Arthur bought Greenhaven holiday resort in Dunsborough, a small seaside hamlet a few miles away at the western end of Geographe Bay. Hundreds of people came every year to stay in the cottages by the sea, and although the Jetty era was over, Ruby’s warm, seaside hospitality carried on. Eventually, she and Arthur retired to a blue and salmon brick house only metres from the shore. In 1971, after experiencing two world wars, a cyclone, the whirlwind of work, and fourteen grandchildren, her life came to a sudden end.

Ruby on the verandah at Dunsborough

In 1978, a few years after Ruby’s death, Cyclone Alby spun down from the north. Meteorologists expected it would fizzle out in the Southern Ocean, but Alby made a surprise, landward lurch and destroyed much of the Busselton Jetty. Human generations come and go, and places never stay the same for long. With hopeful fortitude locals salvaged the timber, but the beloved Promenade was gone forever. The rest of the Jetty was rebuilt and remains, braced against the storms of life and holding many stories for those who wish to listen.

This memoir is dedicated to Ruby’s daughter Margaret Winchcombe, whose memories shaped its writing, and who didn’t quite get to read the end.

Feature image: Wilson family at the Beach Shop around 1938. (Left to right: Arthur, Margaret, Barry, Beryl, John and Ruby). Photographer unknown.