This article originally appeared in the Esperance Tide, as part of the 5 Minute History series.
Fairhaven is a beautiful historic building located on Dempster Street with a rich history. Originally named Bay View, this double story house made from handcut limestone bricks was built in 1903 by Joe Norman. Captain Frederick Douglas, the first owner of Bay View, and his brother cut the bricks for the building by hand. The limestone for the bricks and also the lime mortar was sourced from Dempster Head and from a small quarry on Layton Street, and the bay windows were bought from England. Since that time, the building has been an iconic part of Esperance’s history.
Captain Frederick Douglas was born in 1850 in Hinxton, England. He came to Fremantle with his parents in 1852. He was educated in Perth, and his first job was at the Fremantle Post Office. In 1869, Fred moved to Albany with his older brother, William. In 1873, William bought the cutter Victory, starting the family’s career as sea captains. In 1879, Fred married Priscilla Keyser, and together they had 4 children. In 1881, Fred purchased the schooner Agnes, and took up the mail run from Albany to Esperance. Along with the mail, Fred also shipped cargo along the coast from Fremantle to Eucla. In 1892, Fred anchored the Agnes at Bremer Bay, and loaded up a cargo that included 40 tons of sandalwood. That night, a storm blew in, and the Agnes was wrecked on the beach at Bremer Bay. Fortunately, all of the crew were safe, and the cargo and fittings were salvaged. A local farmer named John Wellstead purchased the wreck, and used the timber for buildings on his property. The wreck of the Agnes delayed the delivery of mail to Esperance for two months.
After the wreck of the Agnes, Fred purchased the schooner Grace Darling, and used it in coastal trade between Fremantle and Adelaide, as well as continuing his mail run to Esperance. The Grace Darling set a record for the time, travelling from Esperance to Albany in just 19 hours. In 1894 the iron steamship the SS Rodondo hit Pollock Reef, off the coast of Cape Arid, in the area of Salisbury Island. In the ensuing panic, one of the lifeboats fell into the sea, with 18 people aboard. 4 of those passengers drowned. The lifeboat was recovered, and the remaining 196 passengers and crew made it safely to a small, barren island. Captain Hill tried to run the Rodondo aground on a reef, but he failed, and it sank somewhere off the coast of Salisbury Island. To this day, the wreck of the Rodondo has not been found. The survivors of the wreck took the one lifeboat that was still intact, and the Chief Officer, along with some of the crew, went in search of help. Fortuitously, they were picked up by Captain Fred Douglas in the Grace Darling, who was travelling to Middle Island to collect a load of salt harvested from the pink lake there. They immediately set off in search of the stranded survivors. Despite rough seas and treacherous conditions, all of the Rodondo’s passengers and crew were saved by the Grace Darling, and taken to Point Malcolm. Fred was reportedly fined forty pounds over the incident for the late delivery of the mail, delayed by the rescue efforts.
After this incident, Captain Fred Douglas continued his shipping route with the Grace Darling, becoming a legend along the coast of WA. In 1889, his wife Priscilla died, and Fred married again in 1890 to Susan Wellstead of Bremer Bay. He and Susan went on to have a further 6 children. In 1903, Fred built Bay View as a family home, with local builder Joe Norman. He erected a flagpole at the front of the building which was said to be made from the mast of the Agnes, Fred’s first ship, but was possibly also the mast of another ship, the Iris. Fred sold the Grace Darling in 1910, retiring due to ill health. On his retirement, newspapers at the time reported ‘….no name is better known on the coast of Western Australia than that of Captain Fred Douglas.’ He was presented with a gold watch from the citizens of the coastal towns from Fremantle to Esperance, and many remarks were made about his kindness and generosity. Along with Bay View, Fred built the Grace Darling Hotel on the Esperance foreshore.
After Captain Fred Douglas’s death in 1916, Bay View was bought and sold several times, and was used as a private residence. In 1965, the building was purchased by the Churches of Christ Federal Aborigines Mission Board, and renamed Fairhaven. The building was used to provide accommodation for Aboriginal girls who came to Esperance to work or study. The girls, aged from 14 to 17 years old, came from areas such as Norseman, Cundelee, Warburton Ranges, and Leonora. The girls usually found work on farms around the area, and some of them studied at Esperance Senior High School. At the time, Pedlars Boys Hostel, located on Daphne Street, provided accommodation for young Aboriginal men who were working in the Esperance area. They often socialised with the young women from Fairhaven. Sonny and Fran Graham, who were involved with the running of Fairhaven, remember that many marriages occurred as a result of these social occasions. Sonny and Fran also remember that the girls who lived at Fairhaven were very good at basketball, and that Fairhaven also had a good choir which competed several times at the local music festival. Fairhaven was closed down in 1987, and the building was sold. It is now owned by Graham and Kathryn Jacobs. They have renovated the building, and it remains a beautiful, iconic part of Esperance’s Dempster Street landscape, and one of the few remaining historic buildings in town.