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Military & Maritime History


Wadjemup / Rottnest Island has a long, rich history, spanning generations and cultures. Once used by the Whadjuk Noongar people for important ceremonies and meetings, rising sea levels around 6,000 or 7,000 years ago cut the island off from the mainland. It effectively remained undisturbed by human hands for thousands of years, with no current evidence — either cultural or scientific — suggesting that Whadjuk people inhabited or journeyed to the island during this time. 

But it still played a prominent role in the culture, and became known through the Dreaming stories (Nytting) as the place where the spirits go to rest — the Noongar version of heaven.

Without any human disturbance during this time, the animal and bird population thrived.

The earliest known discovery of Rottnest Island by European explorers is credited to Dutch navigators during the 17th century, during their search for a shorter route from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia. However, it wasn’t until 1658 that anyone actually set foot on the island, believed to have been Samuel Volkerson and his crew of the Dutch ship Waeckende Boey.

In 1696, the next recorded European visitors made landfall. Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh landed on the island, giving it the famous name of Rottnest Island. This means ‘rat’s nest’ in Dutch, as he mistook the island’s abundant quokka population for giant rats.

Despite its prominence, it took until 1831 before any large presence was established on Wadjemup. As part of the Swan River Colony, Robert Thomson moved his family to the island and began building up the main settlement, now known as Thomson Bay. 

1838 saw Wadjemup enter a sorrowful chapter of its history, with the construction of the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Establishment — a prison and forced labour camp that incarcerated over 4,000 Aboriginal boys and men over its 93-year lifespan.

Over sea, under surf

As nautical travel became more prevalent around the island, the first noted maritime disaster occurred in 1842. The vessel Transit ran aground on a reef just off the coast. The same year, the first Wadjemup Lighthouse began construction. This was the first stone lighthouse built, and lit, in Western Australia. 

Construction was completed in 1849, and it became active in 1851, providing two important functions to the island. The first, to identify Wadjemup’s presence to nearby vessels and highlight the dangerous reefs surrounding it. The second, to deliver a critical method of communication between seafaring vessels and the island’s pilot service.

The first Rottnest Island Pilot Station was built in 1846, and the service operated from 1848 until 1903. The pilots were experienced sailors whose job was to guide ships around the dangerous reefs surrounding Wadjemup, and into Fremantle harbour. 

But even with the pilot service, and newly-built Wadjemup Lighthouse, maritime disasters still occurred — notably, the wooden cutter Gem, which was lost in 1876 leaving no survivors. The ship was sighted by the Wadjemup lighthouse keeper sailing three kilometres east of the island, at which point it abruptly sank. What happened to it remains a mystery to this day.


The dawning of a new age

Despite the safeguards put in place to protect ships and their crews, seven more ships ran aground on reefs surrounding the island between 1878 and 1891. To help combat this, a second, larger lighthouse was built on the same site as Wadjemup Lighthouse

Designed to replace the existing structure, this newer, more modern lighthouse was built at the highest point on the island. Standing at 38 metres tall, it is the fourth tallest lighthouse of its kind in Australia.

The newer building provided a clearer beacon for seafaring vessels. Where the original lighthouse used a revolving catoptric light, that used a series of mirrors to reflect the light of a lantern, it only shone for five seconds every minute. The new lighthouse featured a more advanced holophotal dioptric revolving light that flashed every 20 seconds, providing much better navigation for any vessels passing by Wadjemup.

But in 1899 tragedy struck again, with the vessel City of York running aground on the island’s reefs, with 12 lives lost.

This spurred the construction of a second lighthouse at Bathurst Point. This new lighthouse would enable navigators to pinpoint their location by triangulation, greatly increasing safety over the seas. 

Bathurst Lighthouse
Bathurst Lighthouse

Wadjemup during the Great War

While the beaches of Gallipoli and the muddy fields of France and Belgium were far, far away, Wadjemup still played a part in Western Australia’s efforts during World War I. Australia’s Department of Defence commandeered the island as an internment camp from 1914 to the end of 1915.

In September 1915, the camp held 989 people on its shores. While most of those within the camp were there purely due to German and Austrian heritage, there were some legitimate prisoners of war. 

Despite the initial fervour in the war effort, however, the internment camp was abolished, and recreation and holiday pursuits returned to Wadjemup in December 1915.

Between the wars

As Wadjemup returned to its peacetime trappings, the world moved on, and the technology on the island progressed. Buildings were improved, Bathurst Lighthouse was upgraded to an automatic flashing light in 1920, visible up to 14 nautical miles across the waves. This helped further improve the safe passage for ships over the ocean.

During this time, however, political upheaval was rearing itself again in Europe. 

In 1933, with rumblings of international conflict on the horizon, Rottnest Island was identified as a critical point in Western Australia’s coastal defence. It was agreed that the installation of a system of guns on the island could provide vital defence of Fremantle Port against any hostile ships. 

In 1936, Wadjemup Lighthouse was connected to electrical power. At the same time, preparations began at Bickley Point to make way for the island’s naval defences. 

Two gun batteries were constructed on the island: Bickley Battery, featuring one set of two 6-inch guns, and Oliver Hill Battery, with two 9.2-inch guns. The military also constructed six searchlight emplacements, magazine shell stores, a powerhouse, a directing station, and a railway from the jetty to the 9.2-inch guns. 

This became known as the Rottnest Island Fortress.

Inside the Fortress

September 1937 saw Rottnest Island declared a permanent station for Australian troops, with personnel from the Army, Navy, Airforce, and the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service (WRANS). And to perform their vital defence duties, a number of other buildings were constructed to support Bickley Battery and Oliver Hill Battery.

As well as construction of a barracks at Kingstown, in 1938 a four-storey Battery Observation Post was constructed at Signal Ridge, and another at Bickley Battery. The upper floor housed instruments to observe and direct gunfire from the Oliver Hill Battery. The floors below were used by Fire Command, or Fortress Command, as it was known, a station that coordinated gunfire of all the batteries in the Fremantle Fortress area. They shared the space with important roles such as the searchlight control engineer, a signal group, and other personnel.

Signal Ridge, the ridge just next to Oliver Hill, was chosen as the site of strategic signalling and military installations. A Signal Station was originally sited at Bathurst Point in 1904, but was dismantled and moved to this more practical location in 1939. The new site allowed the signallers to see ships approaching in any direction, allowing better communication with incoming ships, and ensuring faster response times should the guns be required. Staffed by WRANS personnel, the two-storey building afforded a full 360-degree view over the island.


World War II comes to Australia

After war broke out in 1939, Wadjemup was declared a prohibited area in June 1940. All recreational activity ended. A declaration that was intended to last three months, this continued for a further five years until June 1945. The island was occupied by military and naval personnel only during this time, with the two gun batteries manned 24 hours a day. 

Accommodation was needed for further personnel on the island, so WRANS House was established for the signallers operating the Signal Station. They worked in shifts of four hours on, and eight hours off, and rotated duties between Rottnest Island and Fremantle. The first signallers arrived on the island in 1943, and stayed until the Signal Station closed in 1945.

And yet, despite the impending threat to Western Australia’s shores, the guns were never fired at an enemy vessel. 

As the country’s military focus moved north, the fixed defences at Rottnest Island were reduced. Peace came once again to the island — but the guns, the gun emplacements, the tunnels, and the buildings and infrastructure required for war still remained.

Signal Station
Signal Station

After the wars

By April 1945, all buildings at the main settlement had been vacated by the military, except for the bakehouse and garage. Approximately 200 Italian prison camp internees were sent to the island for four months to carry out repairs and renovations.

In June 1945, the prohibition order on Rottnest Island was lifted, and civilians were again allowed back to its shores.

Oliver Hill Battery was put into maintenance mode and decommissioned in 1960. Despite its use long since gone, it was never dismantled, and the entire emplacement remains intact, ready to explore. This was part as testament to the role they played in Western Australia’s defence—but also due to the high cost of dismantling them and shipping the scrap back to Perth.

Bickley Battery remained in operation until 1968. At this point the guns were decommissioned and dismantled. One can be found installed out the front of Kingstown Barracks, as a reminder of the area’s significance. The other was transported back across the channel, and can now be found at the Leighton Battery on Buckland Hill, Mosman Park, almost directly opposite Bickley Point across the waves.

The Kingstown Barracks themselves were still used for military purposes up until 1984. But with just 43 days’ use out of the entire year, it was decided to close these too. Following this, it began its new life hosting hundreds of school children and groups in Barrack-style accommodation, before becoming the accommodation location it is today.

Today you can experience history for yourself

These stories from Rottnest Island’s past are still there to be explored.

Start your historical expedition at Wadjemup Museum. Newly renovated, it provides a gateway into the stories, with exhibits, artefacts, and audio experiences that tell the rich and complex history of the island.

The Pilot Boathouse still remains for visitors to explore, complete with a replica pilot boat, providing a better understanding of what life was like for these brave seafarers. 

Wadjemup Lighthouse provides a unique chance for a guided tour all the way to the top, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the inner workings of a fully-functioning lighthouse. It has changed a little from its original lantern fixture, however. The beacon was made fully automatic in 1990, and a newer, brighter lantern was installed, which can shine up to 26 nautical miles out to sea.

While closed to the public, Bathurst Lighthouse remains a popular tourist spot, providing iconic photos and gorgeous views looking out across Pinky Beach.

Take a guided tour of the Oliver Hill Battery, and descend into the tunnels underneath the guns. Here you’ll learn more about what life was like for the men working the battery, and what went on underneath the earth during its operation.

Signal Ridge, the Battery Observation Post, and WRANS House are all still standing, and provide insight into life during wartime on the island.

Maritime enthusiasts can explore the shipwrecks surrounding the island. Hike around the island to find the landbound plaques that point you out to sea, towards the final resting place of these vessels, and learn more about each ship.

Or, for more intrepid adventurers, you can dive below the waves and explore them yourself. The wrecks of Uribes, wrecked in 1942, and the barge Shark, sunk in 1939, lie just metres from Wadjemup’s shores, providing an excellent snorkelling experience for those looking to experience history under the waves.

Other wrecks can be found further out to sea, where you can visit them by boat or by scuba diving offshore. The Western Australian Museum has created a map for experienced divers, marking out the GPS coordinates of each wreck.