Perth’s homemade tinny history raised from the river bed by keen local
There was once a small fleet of homemade canoes that called the Swan and Canning Rivers home.
Affectionately known as “tinnies”, they were fashioned by children from scavenged corrugated iron and were all the rage in the early 1900s.
The first recorded instance of one of these homemade canoes appearing was in 1893, when 13-year-old Izzy Cohen paddled 90 kilometres down the Avon River from Northam to Perth.
Local historian John McLennan from the Maylands Historical and Peninsula Association recently decided to wade into the untold history of these rough crafts.
John McLennan from the Maylands Historical and Peninsular Association just loves the stories of these tinnies. (ABC Radio Perth: Hilary Smale)
“They were a sheet of galvanised iron, flattened out by little boys — normally out of sight of their parents — and the ends folded up,” Mr McLennan told ABC Radio Perth‘s Hilary Smale.
“A bit of bitumen from the local road was added to seal it, and of course all the old nail holes had to be sealed as well.
“Maybe a piece of wood was put across the middle to hold the two sides apart and then they were paddled all over the Swan River.”
The Mackay family crowded into a tiny corrugated iron tinny, with a sail and paddle on the Swan River in 1925. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
Mr McLennan said the handmade tinnies were popular because the building materials were so easily available.
“By the 1890s the first flush of galvanised iron, which had been on roofs and the bull-nosed verandas of buildings, were starting to rust out a little and they were starting to use tiles and other methods of roofing,” he said.
“So there was galvanised iron lying around for the kids to find and snaffle.
“And there was plenty of new tar on roads in those days because they were just starting to move away from gravel to the bitumen road, so they used bits of bitumen and bits of tar as a sealer.”
The popular hobby continued until the 1950s.
The boys at the then Catholic orphanage, Clontarf at Waterford, even had a fleet of tinnies and were pictured in the local newspaper racing on the river in 1930.
Darker side to ‘crazy catamarans’
But it was also a dangerous hobby and, through his research, Mr McLennan uncovered reports of six deaths of boys aged between nine and 15 who drowned while paddling their tinnies.
In the 1920s and 30s, The Sunday Times ran regular opinion pieces railing against the tinnies.
One anonymous contributor in 1922 wrote in the They Say column:
“They say: that the season for idiotic amateur boat builders is now open. That some of the crazy catamarans being launched will give the water police a job. That many galvanised iron canoes are being pinned together for suicide purposes. That a piece of ragged metal catching on a garment will drown the strongest swimmer.”
In 1936, the WA chief inspector of police was reported as saying: “Not the smallest task which the Police Department is set during the summer is that which involves investigation of reports that children have been drowned as the result of expeditions in homemade canoes.”
A report on kids and their canoes in The Sunday Times, March 1936, showed them racing in spite of the risks. (Supplied: Trove, National Library of Australia)
“The newspapers of the day called for a program to get rid of the tinnies; they called them death traps, suicide vessels, terrible names,” Mr McLennan said.
“But kids were kids, they did what they wanted to do.”
Children punting and canoeing on Lake Monger in 1914. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
TV and plastics end hobbycraft
By the 1950s, the tinnies’ popularity entered their final decade.
“I spent a fair bit of time on the Canning River in the late 50s and there were certainly tinnies still around then,” Mr McLennan said.
“My brother was a part-owner in one, he built it with a friend.
“They found a sheet of galvanised iron, created it and he paddled around the Riverton jetty in it and had a lot of fun.
“I watched from the shore. They never seemed quite right to me, not quite safe.”
In the 1960s, with the advent of both television and plastic kayaks, the homemade crafts became rare.
“Basically, galvanised iron disappeared as a roofing material,” he said.
“And television happened and the kids had something else to do.”