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01 - North Fremantle Soap Factory

W.H. Burford Soap Factory

The North Fremantle area around the Swan River, particularly in Rocky Bay, was once home to many industries and factories, including two soap and candle manufacturers.


More well-known is the W.H. Burford Soap Factory, perched near the cliffs of Rocky Bay.


In 1886, John W Bateman who owned the Swan Soap and Candle Company, applied to the government for permission to construct a landing in Rocky Bay. This would give him access to his proposed factory business at the top of the cliffs from the river, to transport goods. Whilst it’s unknown whether or not he did in fact build this landing, his factory was officially opened on 4 November 1886.


Ten years later, it would be acquired by W.H. Burford & Sons, who would go on to build a three-storey red brick building in 1905 at the factory site.


First established in 1840 as a candle manufacturer in South Australia, W.H. Burford & Sons expanded to Victoria and New South Wales before commencing operations in Western Australia in 1894. Located in a Victoria Park factory, they began producing soap.


In 1905, they decided it would be wise to relocate their factory closer to the port, where receiving imported goods such as “salt, sulphuric acid, nut oils, perfumes and colours” would be a lot more convenient.


Their new location in Rocky Bay was also in close proximity to where lime was being mined, which was required for producing caustic soda. The railway line located behind them served the industrial sites in the area, enabling them to receive coal for the furnaces and timber for packing crates.


W.H. Burford & Sons produced a range of hand, laundry, soft and kerosene soap, as well as stearin candles which were popular with underground miners.

Stearin candles are made from vegetable or animal fats and oils, instead of the traditional paraffin types. They are

considered a higher quality candle with a heavier weight. The melting point is a lot higher than paraffin, which becomes

soft from 37°C, although they burn much brighter.

Their stearin candles were such in demand, the mining industry required as many as 27,000 candles per day for underground work. That sounds incredibly impressive, particularly for the early years when industrialisation was nowhere near what it is today on a manufacturing scale.


If that wasn’t enough, the factory was also able to meet high demands for soap tablets, producing an approximate 7,000 wrapped tablets a day!


Returning to candles, 30 machines were in operation on a daily basis, producing 300 candles from raw material through to a finished product in 20 minutes (Western Mail). This required 4,000 gallons of water (just over 15,000 litres!) to keep the candles cool.


The company was taken over by Kitchen and Levers who operated under the name of Perth Manufacturing Co Ltd until they closed in 1946. The factory would remain vacant until 1959 when a margarine company would take up the premises. Joining the Unilever Group, they produced Western Australia’s first margarine.


Although it’s hard to know when the building next became vacant, Hood Sails used the factory between 1976 and 1979 as a sail loft, before the factory was converted from 1980 to the residential apartments we see today.


At a cost of $2 million, which included a number of newly constructed buildings as part of the development, it was the result of a syndicate of business associates operating under the name of Lavender Bay. This would see 36 homes created, a tennis court and a number of swimming pools.



The 96 metre soap tunnel connecting access from the river to the Burford Soap Factory, was used for discharging liquid waste into the Swan River. It caused the river waters to become soapy, resulting in the area becoming known as “Soapy Bay”. It has been measured as 1.8m high and 1.4m wide.


Pump House

In front of the tunnel’s entrance, remains of what was once the red-bricked pump house, with a “characteristic English bond patterning” on the bricks, can still be seen. It appears that it would have been approximately 3.4m x 3.6m. In the centre of the foundations, a raised concrete footing of approximately 40cm can still be seen, with evidence of what remains of the narrow walkway leading into the pumphouse. It was used to pump water from the river to the factory, via the metal pipes that remain on the tunnel floor. Water would then make its way to the cooling tanks in the factory or be turned into steam.


Freshwater Springs

During Captain Stirling’s 1827 expedition of the area, he had proposed cutting the land between Leighton Beach and Rocky Bay to “provide a safe deep-water anchorage for shipping in Rocky Bay”. This would’ve been in close proximity to the Burford Soap Factory.


The limestone bar which can still be seen today made the waters inaccessible to larger ships. The Fremantle Harbour was constructed instead, destroying “one of the Aboriginals’ original crossing points” (Ecoscape, 1992).


Garungup Cave (also known as Waugal Cave) is associated with the story of the rainbow serpent with the area of Rocky Bay and the Garungup River (Swan River) known to local tradition owners as “being place of significant mythological and ceremonial importance”. There is no doubt in my mind that many more sacred sites have long been destroyed in the area without a chance of being documented, in which the establishment of the Burford Soap Tunnel would’ve surely contributed to some degree. (Although Garungup Cave appears to actually exist further up the river in Mosman Park and separate from Waugal Cave, we have kept it the way it’s written, as documented by the WA Maritime Museum).


Before dredging of the Swan River took place, two freshwater springs could be seen during times of low tide in close proximity to where the tunnel was constructed.



References (Non-link)

Ecoscape (1992). Leighton Peninsula Park Study. Prepared for Leighton Peninsula Park Steering Committee. Funded by Department of Planning and Urban Development. Perth, W.A.


Western Mail – 21 October 1911:47

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