"Our Town Hall was looking its best …"

The City of Perth decks out the Town Hall in all its finery for special occasions and celebrations, such as royal visits, commemorations – and of course Christmas! 

The Town Hall was decorated with flags even before it was finished for the royal visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869. SLWA 6909B/134
Decorations in Barrack Street for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1901. SLWA 012500D
The 1929 centenary celebrations saw the Town Hall decorated with flags in the daytime and lit up at night. City of Perth. SLWA 095640PD.
The Town Hall lit up for the coronation of King George V in 1937. SLWA 095659PD
Another royal visit. Perth Town Hall lit for HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. SLWA 231933D
The Town Hall clock tower decorated for Christmas

From “Old Derelict” to “Jewel of the City”

Since it opened, there have been a wide range of opinions about the Perth Town Hall, as the building has adapted to the changing needs of a growing city. 

Governor Hampton’s views of the town hall

A much-loved landmark

The citizens of Perth were generally delighted with their new Town Hall. However, early users complained about the ‘wretched acoustics’ and the facilities. 

Changes to the Town Hall began even before it was opened, with the telegraph office housed in the base of the tower from 1869. A new building to house the Legislative Council was built in the planned courtyard to the east of the building. The Legislative Council was sworn in at the Town Hall on 5 December 1870, while the Perth City Council held its first meeting in 1871.

Commemorating the centenary of the first meeting of the Council in 1971. City of Perth.

The plan to use the undercroft for a market was controversial from the start. The market did eventually open in 1872, but only lasted a few years. Instead, the undercroft was progressively enclosed and altered from the 1880s to provide space for Town Hall staff and lettable offices to increase revenue. 

In 1875, Perth acquired a fire engine. It was kept under the arches at the Town Hall until the new fire station was built in 1901. There was no room for a stable, so if the fire alarm rang the horses from the cab rank outside the Town Hall were hitched to the fire engine. 

From the 1890s, discussion began about replacing the Town Hall with a more modern building to meet the needs of the Council as Perth grew. For the next thirty years, every scheme that was proposed met with opposition. One problem was that the land title only included the land on which the building stood. This was an obstacle to any future expansion. It also became clear that many citizens were attached to the Town Hall as a landmark and for its historical associations, despite its inconveniences.

Finally, in 1924, the Council bought the Strelitz Building on Murray Street for offices and Council chambers. The move was financed by converting the ground floor of the Town Hall to shops – described by the West Australian at the time as ‘municipal vandalism’. At the same time, alterations were made to the Town Hall itself, including remodelling of the stage and gallery, and a new kitchen and supper rooms. Various alterations and repairs have continued over the years.

Shops under the Town Hall

Over the years, various businesses have had premises in the Town Hall. Craven’s Pharmacy was the longest tenancy and became a landmark in its own right on the corner under the Town Hall clock. As the 1927 advertisement said: 

Try Craven’s Pharmacy, under Town Hall Clock, first.
If they haven’t got it, it can’t be got. 

Other shops in the 1930s included Ferstat, jeweller and tobacconist, the Rose Marie Fruit Palace, Petals florist, Warner, jeweller, Rutland and Thomas, tailors, and the Rosebud Tea Rooms. 

After World War 2, Maxim’s Café was a favourite destination after dances at the Town Hall – as Lance Langford remembers: 

I loved the food … popular in the evening with a cup of tea – a pancake with syrup like a waffle … only two shillings. 

There was a public outcry when the Council closed Maxim’s in 1956 for major alterations to the shops.

Click here to read more about Mr Epstein’s Rosebud Tea Rooms.

A heritage jewel in the historic heart of Perth

The Town Hall narrowly escaped demolition in the 1950s when the new Council House was planned. The new Council House was built, but public protests ensured the old Town Hall was not replaced. 

In the 1990s, conservation studies recommended restoration of key features such as the brick arches, as well as necessary repairs resulting from the construction and demolition of the R&I bank tower. Modernisation of the facilities secured the use of the Town Hall into the future. The Council embarked on a major program of restoration in 2001, which was completed in 2005.

Today, the Perth Town Hall is once again appreciated as an iconic landmark and a key element in the complex of historic buildings at the heart of the city, including the State Buildings, St George’s Cathedral and Government House. 

The Town Hall was begun in 1867 as part of Governor Hampton’s public works program to use convict labour for the benefit of the colonists. The site selected was on a slight rise at the corner of Howick (now Hay) and Barrack Streets. 

The architect, Richard Roach Jewell, then Clerk of Works, prepared two plans. The design selected was in a free Gothic style, with strong Tudor overtones. It followed the structure of Medieval European market halls, with an undercroft at ground level and hall above. 

Building began in 1867 – the plan was to finish in a year. However, work was not completed until 1870. Free tradesmen laid the foundations under the supervision of builder William Buggins, but most of the remaining work was done by convicts. This makes Perth Town Hall unique as the only capital city town hall in Australia built mainly with convict labour. 

The Foundation stone was laid on 24 May 1867 – a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday – and a suitably festive ceremony was planned. The weather on the day, however, was miserable with torrents of rain turning the decorated streets to a sea of mud. Undeterred, the festivities went ahead, and Governor Hampton laid the foundation stone.

Like many of Jewell’s other buildings in Perth, the Town Hall was built in brick laid in Flemish bond. The bricks were made from clay from East Perth – now Queen’s Gardens. 

Gallery of images of the Town Hall under construction

This “jewel” of the public works

A memorial plaque on the tower commemorates the architects – Richard Roach Jewell and James Manning. Jewell was the Clerk of Works of the Colonial Establishment, while Manning was the Clerk of Works in the Convict Establishment, and they worked together on several Perth buildings. Jewell was responsible for the design and construction of the building. Manning designed the spectacular hammerbeam roof and supervised the making of the roof trusses at Fremantle. He also designed the doors and windows.

Convict builders

The average number of mechanics, including laborers, employed from May 20, 1867, to May, 1870, has been 15 mechanics daily, and 19 laborers, making a total daily average of 35. If one mechanic only and one laborer had been employed, the mechanic would have been 47½ years nearly, or 14,780 days, and the laborer would have been 59½years nearly, or 18,531 days, i.e., at the rate of 312 days yearly, being the number of working days in a year.

R.R. Jewell

We know the names and trades of all the convicts who worked on the Town Hall as the roll survives. Some of them, no doubt, stayed in Western Australia and contributed to the development of the state. 

A popular story in Perth is that the small tower windows in the shape of arrows and architectural details in the form of twisted rope were sneaked into the design as a joke by the convict builders. However, this is unlikely as these features occurred on other public buildings of the time and it is hard to see how they could have got away with it. 

Frederick Bicknell was interviewed by the Sunday Times in 1935, at the age of 96. He was a carpenter in his twenties when he was transported. He worked laying the shingles on the Town Hall roof. 

Click here to read the full article about Frederick Bicknell.

David Gray worked as a bricklayer on the Town Hall for the whole project – including for the last few months in 1870 after he had obtained his ticket of leave. He had been convicted in 1865 for arson and forgery and sentenced to ten years transportation. After the Town Hall he worked as a bricklayer and later set up as a builder on his own account. When he died in 1912 his death notice described him as ‘one of the leading contractors in the earlier days of the state He was greatly respected by all who knew him and was always ready to help his fellows when in need.’

Edward Baldock worked as a bricklayer on the Town Hall in 1867 for about six months before gaining his ticket of leave. He had been originally convicted and sentenced to transportation for theft and assault. Following his release, he worked as a bricklayer. He married Henrietta Allen in 1871 in Busselton and had two children. However, he struggled with alcohol and separated from his family in 1873. He was arrested numerous times for drunkenness and assault up until 1901. Towards the end of his life he was listed as a builder in Wandering. He died in Narrogin in 1910.

A page from the convict roll for the Perth Town Hall. City of Perth Cultural Collections.

A grand opening

The Town Hall was opened with great ceremony on 1 June 1870 – the anniversary of the foundation of the Swan River Colony. Unlike the laying of the foundation stone three years earlier, the weather was perfect. 

Hundreds of people packed into the hall for the ceremony. Governor Weld’s speech included the announcement of self-government for Western Australia. After the National Anthem about 100 men sat down for a lunch – the ladies had to look on from the gallery! There were plenty of speeches and toasts. Following the opening the hall was opened to the public for the next few days.

So many people had been unable to get into the opening ceremony that a ‘monster tea meeting’ was organised a few days later to cater for those who had missed out. Ladies were able to attend this time and nearly 900 people crammed into the hall. There were the usual speeches and entertainment was provided by the Perth Congregational Choral Society and the Volunteer Band.

Governor Weld ordered a commemorative medal for the opening of the Perth Town Hall on 1 June 1870

You can read the Inquirer’s detailed report of the opening here. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/66032583

You can read the Perth Gazette’s report of the monster tea meeting here. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/3749393

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