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'Python' and the convict 'fence'. (12 October 2015)

contributed by JockSwa
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'Python' wreck, Canning River, Shelley The Python was a 32m long barge built to transport cargo under tow on the Swan and Canning Rivers during the early 20th century. By 1946 it was no longer required and was offered to Clontarf Boys Home, situated on the Canning River, for the boys to play on. While being towed to the orphanage, it became stuck in shallows a couple of kilometres downstream from the establishment and as it could not be moved, there it remained. It was vandalised and burnt to water level in the 1960s. Pictured is the stern section. The wreck's remains are visible above water during spring low tides. Post markers warn of the threat to navigation.

My family moved into the Shelley district in the early 1960s when I was a teenager. In those days it was much less developed than the fully occupied suburb it is today. With a touch of the 'wild' still about the place, I found it fascinating and a great place for a young guy to live. The Canning River was just down the road, and I talked my parents into buying me a 3.8m fibreglass rowing dinghy to make use of the assets provided and indulge my love of boats and boating.

I was intrigued by a long row of timbers sunk into the mud well offshore in the river, also a sizeable derelict vessel hard up against this 'fence' downstream from where I lived. Taking a young lady friend for a row was an excuse to do a little exploring and check out the old double-ended tub. I noted the name, 'Python', carved into the ancient weathered grey bow-timber. It was a name that seemed to fit with an air of eeriness about the derelict, and I never forgot it. We climbed aboard for a look-see, gingerly picking our way around on broken and rotting deck timbers.

Canning River, Shelley WA Convict-built 'fence' in the Canning River in the Shelley and Riverton areas. To assist in transport of timber from a landing upstream, it was originally constructed in the 1860s to try to control water flow and scour a channel through a shallow, muddy section of the river. In this it was only partially successful. It was refurbished a number of times by both convicts and contractors. It was last worked on in the 1890s to act as a barrier to contain spoil when that part of the river was finally dredged by the government steam dredge 'Black Swan'.

When I learned of the barge's destruction by vandalism and fire a while later, burnt to water level, I was angry and disappointed that such a relic could be lost that way. This veteran work vessel obviously must have had a story to tell. Was it connected in some way to the timber 'fence' it came to rest against?

I was not to find out some of the history of the barge and the fence-like structure until recently. Rumour had been that the vessel was used to carry stone for the construction of Clontarf Boys Home, upstream of its final resting place. That may be, but research only revealed that the 'Python' was built for towing in 1907 by one of WA's most prolific early boat builders, W&S Lawrence based in Perth Water. The vessel was 32 m long: 7.95m beam: draft: 2.7m. It displaced 152 tonnes. It was owned by the Swan River Shipping Company, and used to transport cargo on the Swan River system, the main transport artery between Perth and Fremantle until railways were laid in the late 19th century.

The Shell Company owned the vessel during 1945-6. After that it had outlived its usefulness and was offered to Clontarf Boys Home by noted boatman H. Tilly for the entertainment of the boys. One Joe Hill towed the old craft up the Canning to just beyond Salters Point where it stuck fast in shallows well out toward midstream. Efforts by Clontarf boys to pole the big boat to their jetty were unsuccessful, so there she stayed, unloved and forgotten as she was when we visited her.

The convict built 'fence', more accurately a barrier, was built to assist access by shallow draft barges carrying timber from Masons Landing, a few kilometres upstream. Downstream at Salter's Point where the river became sufficiently deep, steamboats could navigate and tow the barges to Fremantle for export of their cargo overseas. Before the discovery of gold in WA in the 1890s, timber was the struggling colony's main export and financial saviour.

In the 1860s, Benjamin Mason and partner Francis Bird had commenced felling and milling timber near the Darling Scarp, transporting it down to Masons Landing on one of WA's first rail lines, a wooden structure. But downstream of the landing as far as Salter's Point (now Salter Point), muddy shallows created a problem for navigation, especially during low summer flows. Mason mooted a plan for an in-river 'fence' near the areas now known as Riverton and Shelley, to direct flow and hopefully scour a channel. It was approved by the government of the day. Re-convicted prisoners were used for this arduous labour. They camped nearby on Shelley shore. I cannot be sure, but they were almost certainly part of the controversial convict transportation system from UK to the Swan River Colony, which in fact had a positive effect on the colony's then woeful economy, with its dire need for cheap labour.

Swan River was the last location used by Great Britain to ship convicts from their ailing prison system. The colony had requested it, and at a time when other parts of the continent had long rejected the convict transportation system, the Swan River Colony's heirarchy received quite a bit of flak from 't'other side' for their acceptance of it.

The Canning River 'fence' structure consisted of jarrah posts augmented by casuarina logs and boughs felled nearby, and a topping rail for integrity. The structure was only partially successful and needed refurbishing on a number of occasions later. At some stage, wattling was used between the logs to assist the barrier.

Finally in the 1890s, it was decided to dredge a channel using the government steam dredge 'Black Swan' and to use the barrier to hold back the spoil. But the river's use as a transport medium would soon be superseded by railways. The 1890s exercise would be the last to keep a channel open in the middle reaches of the Canning until a recreational boating channel was marked many years later.

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