Town Sites - the History of

Canning Mills

Article by:       A. G. CHATE

Compiled November 1969 – handwritten article (18 pages).  

The stories and sketches below reflect memories of a young eighteen-year man, Mr A G CHATE.  

He was appointed as Headmaster at the one-teacher school at Canning Mills in 1920.  

The article gives an insight into the people that lived in these hard times.  

The Sawmill had been shifted to Barton’s Mill some years earlier however, the railway was still very active in the Canning Mills-Karragullen area.  

There is very little remaining of the town and the sawmill today – some remontants are visible if you know where to look.  The obvious outstanding and heritage listed site of those remnants, is the cobbled stone roadway.

Although I had travelled up the Zig-zag Railway Line previously as far as Kalamunda, I had never gone beyond that centre, so the journey to my destination was full of interest. The train consisted chiefly of empty trucks with a couple of old time carriages at the rear and hauled by a powerful double ender Garratt steam locomotive. We stopped briefly at the sidings of Walliston, Heidelberg (now Carmel) etc to drop off trucks for the local orchardists and sleeper cutters.
Pickering Brook was quite a busy little centre. It had a general store, the first since Kalamunda, and the railway yards had several shunting lines and rakes of timber-laden trucks brought in from Barton’s Mill by the mill locomotives. Instead of a turntable for turning locomotives to the opposite direction, there was a triangular section laid out. A locomotive would uncouple from its rake of laden trucks, proceed to the triangle and then, having turned to face in the opposite direction, it would back up to a line of empty trucks for return to Barton’s Mill.
There was a regular service by the West Australian Government Railways to Pickering Brook and return; but some half a dozen or so times a week, the train would proceed to Canning Mills and the terminus at Karragullen with stores etc,
From Pickering Brook to Canning Mills was quite an experience. I never did count the turns in the line as the train wound in and around the hills. On many an “S” turn, it was possible to view the loco from one carriage window, then quickly look out the opposite window to see the guard’s van bringing up the rear.
This section of the railway line and the Zig-zag from Greenmount to the Coastal Plain reflected great credit on the original engineers, who surveyed and laid out the line for the Timber Companies. I don’t think the West Australian Government Railways made many alterations at all, when the government took over the line from the Company after the Canning Mills were destroyed by fire about 1902.
Descending the scarp via the Zig-zag always provided something fresh to view or to experience. In summer, one could look down on the heat haze over Perth, or, on a clear day, pick out landmarks in the distance. Mount Lawley for example, in 1920 was the fashionable suburb and could be discerned from Greenmount by the tiled roofs making a red smear among the olive green of the surrounding vegetation.
In winter, Greenmount would often be bathed in sunshine whilst the coastal plain had a low-lying blanket of cloud. Then one looked down across a vast sea of grey cloud stretching to the west. Under these conditions, it was most necessary to close all carriage windows while the train went down the Zig-zag. A warning toot from the loco whistle was the signal to close windows. Gently and almost eerily silent, the train passed through the cloud and each compartment was confined in its own little world, shut in by the dense cloud outside. The exterior of the train would soon be saturated with moisture, which even seeped inside the carriages. However, at the foot of the Zig-zag, the carriage windows could be re-opened and one would gaze out on a grey, rainy landscape.
Springtime, perhaps, provided the best experiences. The atmosphere would be frosty and the breeze bitingly cold on the face as passengers leaned out of carriage windows to view the magnificent displays of wildflowers, alas, so soon disappearing from the region nowadays. Leschenaultia and Kangaroo Paws grew in profusion. Clumps of orchids, such as the Spider, Donkey etc, would be brought to one another’s notice. Lovely flowering gums would be in full blossom and even the great boulders of granite protruding from the hillsides took on a fresh look with their splotches of lichens on their mossy garb.
When I assumed duties at the school, there was an enrolment of twenty-two children of all grades of Primary School. Seven or eight were local, two or three came from Karragullen and the rest from orchards to the west. They all had to walk , of course.
The school building was actually the Methodist Church, which had been in use when the mills were operating but later rented to the Education Department for use as a school. It was well built of dressed jarrah timber and consisted of the main room, some 30feet by 20feet with a small porch and entrance at the southern end and a room about 10 or 12feet by 20feet with side door at the northern end.
The side walls had a number of tall windows in them. The desks were those antiquated abominations to hold four or five pupils each. The desk sloped slightly and had a low ledge to stop pencils rolling off. The set was attached to the cast iron framework and had no back to it. No blackboards were attached to the walls, so the teacher had to make do with blackboards on easels. A few charts and pictures could be hung between the windows and there was a large cupboard or two, for storage of pads, chalk, pencils etc. Winter heating came from an old time pot-bellied cast iron stove standing on a large sheet of flat iron tacked to the wooden floor. Water was reticulated to some wash basins in the porch and there were two “little houses” to the south. The pans from these were cleared once weekly by a contractor, who also serviced the Inn and the houses. A small garden was fenced off along the eastern wall of the school and for playground, the children were free to go anywhere about the immediate vicinity. There was no definite playground and it was hard to find a level patch as the land thereabout sloped down to the railway line and beyond it to the creek.
In springtime, the children and I would go for a nature study walk on Friday afternoons, in the bush nearby. There was rivalry among them to see who could get the widest variety of orchids. Thanks to the children, I would have a magnificent bunch of wildflowers to take home during the week-end. This meant catching the 6.30a.m. train ex Canning Mills of a Saturday morning.
There was one solitary mill house remaining to the north of the Inn but opposite the school and running south was a row of another four or five. These were typical of their day. The roofs were of corrugated iron and the outside walls consisted of “face-cuts” nailed vertically to the sawn timber frame. Narrow two inch battens were nailed over the spaces between the “face-cuts”, thus making a wind and weather proof wall. Two of the houses even had front verandahs. No house, however, was enclosed by a fence.
Going northwards from the Inn, the gravel road gradually dipped down to a fairly level area (see sketch Map). Here to the left was an open, grassy space with a concrete pitch in the middle. I don’t know how long it had been since any cricket had been played there.
Behind this was the house originally built for the mill manager; but occupied in 1920 by a Mr. Syd Smailes and his family. Mr. Smailes was connected with the timber industry and ranged the district at least as far as Barton’s Mill. The house was a large, well built timber structure of high quality dressed jarrah with both plaster walls and ceilings and corrugated iron roof.
The Inn, too, was of top quality timber. A wide passage ran right through from front to back door. On the left was the public bar. Behind this was a room with a fireplace, which was much appreciated by the local men in winter, when they came in after their evening meal to spend a social hour or two with each other. Next came the private quarters of the publican. Then there was a rather large dining room connected to an equally large kitchen. Last of all on the left was the bathroom.
Behind the music room was a small sitting room and the three or four bedrooms. The back verandah overlooked a smallish fenced in yard, whilst the front verandah stretched right across the front and around each corner for twenty feet or so.
Across the road was a feed house and a couple of stables for the convenience of travelers passing through. A water trough for horses also stood in front of the Inn. In springtime the trough often had a thin layer of ice on its surface till well after 9a.m.
To the right of the front door was a music room with a few chairs and an upright piano in it. Also in one corner was an old-fashioned mechanical player. This was pushed up to the front of the piano so that its fingers rested on the keys. A perforated roll could be inserted in the machine and then it was operated by the foot impelled bellows as in the late type of player pianos.
To the northwest of the Inn, on high ground was the railway dam. I do not know whether this was constructed by the milling company or by the West Australian Government Railway. The Civil Engineering Branch of the West Australian Government Railways might have this information on their files re the old station. A pipe from the dam led down to the water tower just south of the railway station. The Inn, the School and the few houses were supplied by reticulation from this pipe. The water was really cold, even in summer, and one did not remain very long under the shower.
The Railway Station consisted of a single raised platform on the west side of the line. It was not much longer than a railway carriage. On the platform was a waiting room and cover for any goods left for the local people. The most regular consignment was the publican’s order for bottles liquors and five-gallon wooden kegs of beer.
Between the Inn and the School, was the remains of a brick baker’s oven slowly eroding away. There was no sign of the building in which the dough must once have been made.
Over on the other side of the creek one solitary mill house remained. It was occupied by an old bush worker who lived alone. Late in the year, on one very hot afternoon, one of the children looked out of a schoolroom window to see dense smoke rising above the thickets near the creek. We all rushed over to the spot. It was the old man’s house on fire but we were too late to do anything so we remained till it burnt to the ground. This did not take long as the old timbers must have been tinder dry. However, there was sufficient clear space about the house so no grass or scrub fires resulted. The kind people of the district soon raised an amount of money for the occupier to replace the few clothes and other possessions which he had lost in the fire.
Also on the east side of the creek, one could see the remains of the log landings for the mill and the various tracks made long before by the two wheeled drays and the whims used for log hauling. Most of these tracks were now so eroded by water running along the wheel ruts that a great many were impassable to the motor vehicles of 1920 even though the latter were fairly high slung on their axles.
However, visitors by motor cars were a rarity. Travellers usually came by train or by pony and sulky. One regular, who came by pony and sulky, was a supervisor of clearing gangs operating in the Bickley Valley, where blocks were being prepared for returned soldier settlers. He would return to the Inn each morning but went home to Perth (usually by train) for the week-end. The Conservator of Forests or some of his officials, came through occasionally and stopped overnight.
Now and again, small groups of men from Baton’s Mill would come over to the Inn for a few drinks and would catch the evening train back to Pickering Brook, considerably merrier than when they first arrived. Some, for reasons of their own, were known only by nicknames. One such wore a very thick black beard, well cared for but effectively disguising the shape of his mouth and jaws. It was said of him, that he would never permit himself to be photographed but walked away from any group facing a camera.
As there were no young people my own age there abouts, I found diversion in other ways.  I had always been a good walker, so found it no hardship to go for long walks.  When the oranges were ripe, I would walk some three or four miles westward to friendly orchardists and return with pockets full of fruit, or I could go along to Karragullen and back.
Several times I visited Victoria Reservoir, which I estimated to be over four miles away. I could go there and back by the one route or, occasionally, I would walk a mile or more along the gravel road towards Pickering Brook, until I came to the water race which led water down to the reservoir. I would proceed along its bank to the wall across the valley and perhaps return via the more direct route through the bush and over the hills. I would not meet anyone on the way but there was always something of interest to view.
Quite a few times I would follow the road right into Pickering Brook, timing my arrival to coincide with the arrival of the train from Midland Junction. In that way I could hitch a ride back to Canning Mills by courtesy of a friendly guard.
Two men from the Railways Department camped for a week at the station while they did Maintenance and repair work. I was allowed to borrow a three wheeled, hand operated trolley and go for rides along the line either to Karragullen or to Pickering Brook. It was quite a pull up the hills and round the numerous curves to Pickering Brook but the return journey was quick and easy. The railway men had instructed me how to throw my weight correctly to one side on the curves to counteract any tendency for the odd front wheel to lift. It was quite a thrill therefore to coast rapidly back to Canning Mills, well knowing that there would be trains to worry about on this section of the line.
The local Inn at that time was run by a Mrs. Liebow with help from her sister. A local resident used to bring up for her any supplies left at the railway platform and return the empties. Mr. Liebow was on his wheat farm on the Wongan Hills line but, when winter rains had arrived, and he had finished seeding, he came down for a few weeks’ stay at Canning Mills. He arrived by motor car and took Mrs. Liebow to Perth for a day’s shopping or visiting several times. I cannot remember the make but it would now be a valuable antique if still in existence. It was large and roomy and had the usual waterproofed hood over the top. The gears were operated by the gearshift lever being moved into the appropriate position through the gates on the right hand running board. The head and tail lamps were connected to a cylinder on the running board and were supplied with acetylene gas. So a supply of carbide was also carried.
Mr. Liebow had only been home a few days when he called a meeting of interested bushmen from around the district. So far as I can remember, he offered 50 pounds as prize for the main log chop. Other prizes were to be paid out of entry fees. A Saturday a month ahead was fixed for the series of log chops and preparations proceeded quickly. Plenty of food and liquid refreshments were ordered and the day was well advertised. A few days beforehand, the logs arrived and were inspected by the committee. Soon all was in readiness.
By half past ten that Saturday morning people began to arrive by sulky, spring cart or on horseback. The bar was soon well patronized and I’m sure it was not long before the publican had re-couped the prize-money he had offered. The dining room, too. was so well patronized that several sittings had to be arranged.
Officials and competitors, meanwhile, were busy with the various events. Quite large bets were laid too. Log chopping in such a district was most popular and top class men came from long distances to participate.
As evening drew on, some visitors retrieved their children and returned home but many stayed on for the dancing’ I had been asked to obtain permission for the school to be used for the dancing. The Education Department, however, informed me that I must seek it from the Trustees of the Methodist Church. The Trustees sent me a letter in reply to my request telling me that permission would not be granted.
The Dance Committee, having been informed by me of the refusal, made their own arrangements. The lock to the main door was a simple back door type and was easily opened by someone. Whether by a piece of bent wire or by a key brought from elsewhere, I do not know. I had kept discreetly out of the way till the entry was a fait accompli.
Soon the Committee had the few desks pushed back to the walls. Plenty of candles for illumination were set up and the floor waxed with shredded candles. Couples danced to the music of a concertina. The floor was crowded with couples when a barn Dance or old time dance was announced but there was more room for the younger folk who wanted to try out the Maxina or the newer waltzes. Not withstanding the crowded conditions and the rather rough floor we all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
Just before midnight, dancing ceased and tired folk sought their various vehicles. With many a “goodnight!” they wound their way home through the bush. I let sleeping dogs lie by not reporting the event.
Meanwhile, when the log chopping events were finished, quite a few men set up a two-up school on the road outside the Inn. When it became too dark for this, the gamblers moved into the room behind the bar of the Inn and a poker school was quickly in session. Much money was lost and won. I saw men with fistfuls of banknotes laying their bets. The poker school eventually broke up in the early hours of the morning.
Mr. Liebow had arranged to buy all unused logs. During the next few days, he was busy with his barrow gathering up the greats chips and the severed logs. Soon a large pile of firewood
lay weathering and drying in the back yard of the inn. Quite two years supply I should think
Although the mills had long ceased to operate, there were still some good trees left standing that were of commercial size. The Forestry Department was at this time just getting into its stride. Trees were being measured and those of sufficient size were marked for the benefit of the woodcutters and sleeper cutters, but re-aforrestation was not yet in real operation.
Guided by the noise of saw and axe, I would sometimes visit the scene to watch the skill of the wood-cutters. Their two-men crosscut saws would soon bite through the great logs, dividing them into lengths commensurate with orders from the firewood merchants in the city. Then with maul and skillfully place wedges, the men would convert the logs into billets which would be stacked nearby in standard “cords” to be picked up later by the carters with their medium draught horses and broad tyred drays,
However, I was more impressed by the skill of the sleeper cutters. Sleeper cutting by hand would now appear to a lost art. Young folk of today do not seem to know what a “broad” axe is or what its function was.
Having selected his tree, the sleeper cutter felled it with crosscut saw and axe. The crown was next removed, leaving a long straight log on the ground, perhaps up to four feet in diameter, He would then measure off the lengths required for the sleepers he had on order at the time. At these marks he next ring-barked enough bark to be clear of his saw.
When the log was cut into suitable lengths, the sleeper cutter would roll one section clear of the rest so that it came to rest on a reasonably level piece of ground. The bark would then be expertly removed in wide strips and laid on the ground to form a carpet for his operations.
The next step was to examine the section carefully to note the grain of the timber. With wedges and heavy maul, he would split the section into suitable sized billets. A billet would then be placed on his carpet of bark after taking care that no stones lay underneath to take chips of steel out of his axe, should it happen to go through the bark.
A length of cord was blackened with charcoal and this was used to mark lines to the correct width of the sleeper. With axe or adze, enough timber was removed till near the guide lines. The broad axe now came into play. With unerring aim acquired by long practice, the sleeper cutter would slice shavings off till the line was reached. The sleeper would be turned onto one side, the thickness marked off and excess timber sliced away.
If upon inspection, the sleeper cutter was satisfied with his work, he would put his registered brand on one end of the sleeper and lay it aside for removal to the nearest railway siding. Occasionally, despite his care, he might come across a “shake” or defect, which he felt would not be passed by the inspector, This sometimes happened if the timber was taken from too near the outer rim of the log. In this case, the sleeper cutter would mark if off and make a sleeper of the next smaller size required by the Railway Department.
The tools of the sleeper cutter, in common with those of the wood cutter, were the crosscut saw about six foot in length, an axe or two (usually a “Kelly” or a “Plumb” brand), mild steel wedges and a maul. This latter was cylindrical in shape, cut from the branch of a wandoo or a tuart tree for weight and toughness. The striking surfaces were bound with hoops of mild steel and a long handle was attached at the point of balance.
The specialty of the sleeper cutter, however, was his “broad” axe. The blade was some twelve inches along the straight cutting edge. Like the smaller axes, it was kept razor sharp. The blades were protected when not in use by leather covers. As the broad axe descended on the work at the correct angle, the wood sliced off on shavings, so that the completed sleeper was square and of uniform width and thickness.
To the north west of the Inn and uphill towards the railway dam, was a small grave of a small child. The white paint was flaking away and the woodwork was weathering badly. No headstone was on the grave. Whose burial place it was, I do not know. Perhaps Mr. Bray’s File on Lonely Graves in the State Archives may provide an answer.
I have already mentioned Mrs. Liebow of the Inn and Mr. Smailes and family occupying the former mill manager’s home. The first house on the left coming from Pickering Brook was occupied by a Mr Johnson and family. He was a wood cutter and sleeper cutter.
The house opposite the school was the house of a wood cutter who lived alone. He was an American and at that time must have turned sixty years of age. He was ready to bet that he would live to be a hundred. The U.S.Presidential Election of 1920 were discussed with me and he avidly read any news that he could get about the contenders, I don’t know what his former occupation was as a young man but he was possibly a chartered accountant from bits and pieces I noted in his conversation. I do know that he was a wizard with figures and could multiply three figures by three figure in his head as fast as I could do the same sum on paper.
The next house to his, going south, was occupied for a time by a team of three wood cutters. Then came the house occupied by a Mr. Weymouth (or Weyman, I forget which) and his family of small children. He was engaged in carting sleepers and billets of timber to the sidings with his horse and dray. He was very proud of his extra long moustache, which he could pull the ends round the back of his neck so that they touched.
The last house was owned, or at least occupied, occasionally by Mr. and Mrs. Howell, whose permanent home was opposite the Kalamunda Railway Station on the east side of the line.
This was the terminus of the line. There was no platform only a siding or two. A Mr. Saunders, with his family, lived in a house nearby with his small general store in the front. I do not remember how many other residents there were but they would be very few.
I have occasionally regretted since those days, that I was not then interested in local history. Otherwise I might have gathered more information. I certainly missed the opportunity of interviewing the older people thereabouts, who might have been able to tell something of Canning Mills when the mills were operating.

Canning Mills - Pictorial

Canning Mills - School

Canning Mills School - Mrs O'Flaherty (Teacher - 1914) (#1)
Copy of hand drawn map of Canning Mills in 1920 - Mr A.G. CHATE (1969)

Mill Managers Residence

Mill Manager's Residence - Canning Mills (#2)

The Forrest Inn

Forrest Inn - Canning Mills (#4)
Forrest Inn - Canning Mills (#5)
Forrest Inn - Canning Mills (#4)
Advertising Caption - Forrest Inn - Canning Mills (#3)

The SHARPE family

SHARPE’s house – Canning Mills. (#6)

Johnston (known as Jack) SHARPE lived here with his wife Violet and children, Bob, Violet, Lucy, Ben, Wally & Arthur

Picture:  Violet SHARPE at clothes line – Canning Road in the foreground

The LIEBOW family

Rear: Charles (Billy) and Bertha LIEBOW Front: Miss RYAN, Mr NADLER & Mary NALDER (Mrs Liebow’s sister) – Circa 1924 (#7)
Mr Charles (Billy) LIEBOW and his Chrysler Car – Circa 1924 .... Possibly the 1st Chrysler car in Western Australia (#8)

Canning Mills - the men

The men from Canning Mills – 7th April, 1912 (#14)

Log Chops

Log Chop - outside Forrest Inn - Canning Mills 1903 (#9)
Log Chop - Karragullen - circa 1924 (#13)

Timber Cutters

Timber cutters in the Bush . The man in the foreground is preparing a sleeper and working on a carpet of bark to prevent his Broad Axe from being damaged. A log has been docked to length and is being split by the man behind, who is holding a Plumb Axe. He has also been using a Maul and Wedges. (#11)
Copy of hand drawn sketch showing different types of Axes made by Mr A.G. CHATE in 1969

                       References Article:         

                              Supplied by Malcolm & Pamela BEARD

                       Images:     1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10   Kalamunda Library
                                         2     Rails in the Hills
                                         4, 5, 13   Kalamunda & Districts Historical Society
                                         6     History House Armadale
                                        11   Cala Munnda – A Home in the Forrest
                                        14   Peter SKEHAN