“… sociability, and rational amusement …”

The Town Hall has always been a popular venue for exhibitions and displays by community groups and commercial organisations. All sorts of community groups have used the facilities over the years to share and promote their special interests and often raise funds as well.

The first bazaar and exhibition opened on 6 September 1870, in aid of the ‘Benevolent Fund for destitute and indigent women’. At the bazaar you could buy all sorts of handcrafts, while the exhibition displayed an extraordinary range of artworks, curios, antiquities and natural history objects. A piano in the gallery provided entertainment. Some of the objects displayed ended up in the collections of the WA Museum.

Click here to read the newspaper report of the first bazaar and exhibition at the Perth Town Hall

Wild life and wild flowers

Many Perth people remember fondly the wild life shows held at the Perth Town Hall from 1946 to 1975. The brainchild of Vincent Serventy, and family, these were organised by the WA Naturalists Club and the WA Gould League to promote interest in natural history. 

The annual wild flower exhibitions are also fondly remembered and have an even longer history. These began in 1892 and became popular annual events, raising money for various charities through the years. WA railways were involved in organising transport of flower displays from various parts of the state. By the 1930s the displays were promoted interstate to encourage tourism. The show included competitions with categories for different types of floral arrangements, as well as paintings and drawings, and fancy work – for both adults and children. Primrose Allen remembers visiting the Town Hall as a child – ‘I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the orchids and especially by seeing the rare Qualup Bell’

Hobbies and pastimes

The Perth Town Hall was not just for the city – hundreds of country people flocked to Perth for the opening ceremony. The Country Women’s Association frequently held shows. Their 1935 ‘exhibition of handicrafts and home industries’ was a huge success, with nearly all of the entries coming from the country. The display of ingenuity in ‘turning waste material to profitable use’ was especially admired and strikes a chord today. 

A highlight of the 1935 CWA exhibition was the spinning demonstration. Mrs Broun (left) is working a spinning wheel made during World War 1, used by hundreds of Perth women to spin yarn to make socks for soldiers. Mrs A.G. Todd demonstrates on a 235-year-old wheel from the Shetland Islands, used for spinning flax to make clothing for fishermen, on the Greenland fishing- grounds. Miss Francis, of Fremantle, added atmosphere by playing on her harp during the demonstration. RWAHS P1999.4430

After World War 2, displays of arts and crafts from different countries were popular and celebrated the contributions and culture of ‘new Australians’. A bewildering variety of interest groups held shows and exhibitions – from stamps to sewing, model trains to orchids.

Informing the community

Professional and commercial organisations also hold events at the Town Hall. Wireless demonstrations were popular in the early part of the 20th century, while the Town Hall hosted the first demonstration of television in 1949.

“… a place of innocent recreation and entertainment …”

In 1870, Perth people quickly took advantage of the new facilities and organised social events such as concerts and dances. Some early users of the hall raised money to help the City Council improve the facilities, while other activities supported all sorts of causes. The Town Hall was truly intended as a social centre.

Entertainments of all kinds – both amateur and professional – have been a feature of the Town Hall ever since. Concerts – popular as well as classical – continue to be popular. Plays and shows are still staged – the Town Hall has even been a venue for the Perth Festival Fringe. The Town Hall was also used as a cinema for a while in the early years of the twentieth century. 

Sporting activities, such as boxing, fencing, callisthenics, and even badminton, also feature in the history of the Town Hall. 

Celebrations over the years

Performances for all tastes

Dances at the Town Hall have always been popular and many community groups have organised balls there. Tuesday morning community shows still provide a popular program of entertainment for seniors.

Jane Jewell, daughter of the architect Richard Roach Jewell, sang a solo at the first concert held at the Perth Town Hall on 15 July 1870. ‘The Elfin Echoes’ is a setting of a poem by Tennyson. The composer is unknown. Performed by Valerie Bannan. MS supplied by RWAHS.

The Perth Congregational Choral Society were first off the mark. Their concert on 15 July 1870 was repeated by popular demand a few days later. All the musical forces of the colony were marshalled for a Grand Concert on 29 August 1870. This raised £43/15/8 (equivalent to more than $6000 today), given to the City Council for fitting out the building. 

Local amateur musicians formed a group called the Minstrels of the West to raise money for a piano. They achieved their goal at their 10th concert in 1877. 

Amateur music-making has always been important to the Perth community. Indeed, community singing at the Town Hall was a feature of the 1920s and 1930s, with radio broadcasts of these events to the West Australian community. Many local choral and instrumental groups have performed at the Town Hall over the years. The stage has also been popular with dancing schools for putting on end-of-year performances and for musical and theatrical competitions. 

Dining and dancing

The Town Hall today is an elegant and historic function venue. 

As well as formal civic dinners and receptions, community organisations, private companies and ordinary people host monster tea parties, receptions and dinners in the Town Hall. 

A tea and social in 1935 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Mr Alfred Sandover’s arrival in Western Australia. State Library of Western Australia 018921PD.

Town Hall dances have always been popular. Balls were a highlight of social activity in the early years of the Swan River Colony and the Town Hall provided the community with a new popular venue for dancing. 

Many Perth couples met at Town Hall dances. Lance Langford remembers how a beautiful brunette named Patricia Edmondson caught his eye and he asked her for a dance. He was 19 and she was 16. There were many dance venues but the Town Hall was a favourite because it was the biggest, had a good floor for dancing and had a good band. Lance and Patricia married in 1954. 

Exploring changing fashions of dress over 150 years of events at the Perth Town Hall

Steve Weeks also remembers the dances at the Town Hall in the early 1960s. As a child, his mother would bring him and he would sleep under the table! But later on, Steve danced there himself as a competitive ballroom dancer.

Steve Weeks remembers dances at the town hall
Social dance clubs have been popular at the Perth Town Hall for many years. This 1991 video shows the Amelia Club, which met on Wednesday nights. The pianist is Beryl Long. She continued to play for the dance clubs well into her 70s! Other clubs were Kui, Beehive and Harmony. The Kui Club started in 1947 and is still going at the Wembley Bowling Club. Most of the dance clubs moved out of the Town Hall to make way for the restoration in 2005.

The Coolbaroo Club

On 4 October 1954, the Coolbaroo Club held a Gala Royal Show Ball at the Perth Town Hall. 

The Coolbaroo Club was an Aboriginal organisation well-known for its advocacy for Aboriginal rights and for organising social activities, especially dances. The City of Perth was a prohibited area for Aboriginal people, only abolished in 1954. Booking the Town Hall for their Gala Royal Show Ball celebrated the abolition of the prohibited area and publicly reclaimed the right to be on Aboriginal land. The Coolbaroo Club continued to hold events in the Town Hall for the rest of the decade. 

Farley Garlett interviews Albert and Irene McNamara about their memories of the Coolbaroo Club

Find out more about the Coolbaroo Club from the City of Perth's new podcast 'Untold Stories of Perth'

Sports and games

A wide range of sporting contests have been held in the Town Hall, including boxing, badminton, fencing, callisthenics. 

The first State Badminton Championships were held at the Perth Town Hall in 1927 and in 1950 the Australian Championships finally came to WA for the first time. 1951 saw the State Fencing Championships at the Town Hall.

Boxing was controversial. Boxing was very popular, but there was also considerable opposition to the sport. Consequently, the use of the Town Hall for boxing matches was very controversial. 

Lotteries were also controversial. There was strong opposition to the formation of the Lotteries Commission (now Lotterywest) in the 1930s. A 1933 meeting to protest against the refusal of the Lotteries Commission to allow newspaper competitions was said to be the biggest ever held at the Perth Town Hall. Nevertheless, the Lotteries Commission held public draws at the Perth Town Hall for many years.

A craze for ‘rinking’

One of the more surprising uses for Perth Town Hall was for roller skating – or ‘rinking’ as it was known. 

The craze for roller skating arrived in Australia in the 1860s and a rinking club was formed in Perth in 1877. This was strictly an upper-class affair and the members met twice a week in the Town Hall. 

The club held a remarkable costume ball on 17 October 1878, recorded in detail in the local papers and by Henry Prinsep’s sketch of the event. The most ‘original and remarkable dress’ was undoubtedly Captain Wilkinson’s Cleopatra’s Needle costume – which must have been very difficult to skate in!

The craze grew and within ten years commercial operators stepped in and established several skating rinks in Perth and Fremantle. Mr George Webb set up the Broadway Elite Skating Rink at the Perth Town Hall. 

Roller skating was a popular family affair. Advertisements invited ‘Girls and Boys, their Fathers, Mothers, Grandmothers and Grandfathers and the Baby FREE’. On Boxing Day 1888, 5000 people were expected to attend the Town Hall rink over morning, afternoon and evening sessions. As well as general skating, there were organised games and competitions for adults and children, fast skating and races. Exhibitions of trick skating entertained the crowds, with a band supplying music.

We, the Mayor and councillors of the city of Perth, desire, on behalf of the citizens, to offer to you a cordial welcome to the capital city of this State.  

Visiting celebrities create great community interest and excitement. Managing such visits on behalf of the community as a whole is a task that falls to various levels of government and there are strict protocols and formalities involved. 

Civic welcome for Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1965. City of Perth

The Town Hall is usually the place where the Perth City Council honours important visitors with a formal ceremonial welcome. Many celebrities have been honoured over the years, from royalty to explorers, statesmen to service personnel. 

The formal part of the proceedings involves a speech of welcome from the Mayor with a response from the visitor. The welcoming speech is a work of art in the form of a handwritten illuminated address, decorated with pictures relevant to the occasion. 

Illuminated address welcoming Lord Kitchener to Perth in 1910. Kitchener was then perhaps the most famous man in the British Empire and Western Australia gave him a rock star welcome. City of Perth collection

In the decade after the Town Hall opened, explorers Sir John Forrest and Ernest Giles were both welcomed formally by the city. In 1874, John Forrest led a six-man exploring party from Geraldton to Adelaide. Two Nyoongar men, Tommy Windich and Tommy Pierre, were valued members of this team. A few days after his return, 120 men gathered for a celebration banquet in the Town Hall, decorated with flags and greenery – ladies were only able to watch from the balcony. There were plenty of speeches, including Tommy Pierre’s – no doubt the first Nyoongar to make a speech in the building. 

Exploration team, John Forrest’s third expedition 1874. Left to right: Back row: Tommy Pierre, Tommy Windich, James Kennedy, James Sweeney; Front row: Alexander Forrest, John Forrest. State Library of Western Australia 00451D

In 1875, Ernest Giles arrived in Perth to a spectacular welcome after crossing the Nullarbor Plain with his camels. Crowds gathered around the Town Hall and along Adelaide Terrace as far as the Causeway. Giles and his party were accompanied by a full procession, including a brass band. On arrival at the Town Hall, the camels were stabled in the market place underneath. It was standing room only in the hall itself, as Mr George Shenton, Chairman of the City Council read the welcoming address.  

Ernest Giles and his party arrive at the Perth Town Hall, 1875

We are glad to learn that the large public clock for the Town Hall is now in course of erection, and that probably in a few days' time the passing hours will be notified by the quarter chimes, and deep-toned hour bell, while the true Perth time will be shown on its four dials, illuminated at night. … This is the first public convenience which the Town Hall extends to the city; and we cannot question its usefulness.

… the grand old clock by which all Perth sets its watches, catches its trains, keeps its appointments.

Town hall clocks were once important landmarks for city life. In the days before everyone carried a personal watch – or a mobile phone – everyone relied on the Town Hall clock to keep time for the city. The sound of the bells striking the hours and the quarters carries about three kilometres and can sometimes be heard as far as Bayswater. And the clock was lit at night. 

At least one resident of South Perth used to keep a telescope in his front room to check the time by the Town Hall clock. Raising a flag on the tower used to be the signal that the mail boat had arrived. 

General view of clock tower
Waiting for the stroke of midnight, New Year’s Eve, 1936. WA Newspaper.

Looking After The Clock

The Town Hall clock was built by London clockmakers, Thwaites and Reed and the three bells also came from London. It was installed by local clockmaker Mr John Bowra, who maintained the clock for many years. It was originally wound by hand, but electric motors now do the job. 

The Ennis family has looked after the clock now for nearly ninety years. Norman Ennis of Ennis Jewellers, got the contract in the early 1930s and Norm’s sons, Norman Junior and Ron followed in his footsteps. Today, Paul Ennis, Norm Ennis’s grandson, keeps the clock running. 

Paul Ennis maintaining the clock
Paul Ennis is the third generation of the Ennis family to maintain the clock. WA Newspapers

Any problem with the Town Hall clock was once big news in Perth. One of the hazards in the early days was birds getting into the works and stopping the clock. The clock is also affected by the weather – so in a heat wave people would complain that the clock was wrong.

Generations of Perth people gathered at Town Hall to see in the New Year as the clock struck. Radio station 6WF broadcast New Year festivities from the Perth Town Hall. And the Town Hall clock marked the two-minute silence on Armistice Day 11 November. 

Norm Ennis, junior, remembers how “Everyone congregated under the dial for the clock to see the New Year in, and nearly every year there was a big article in the paper that the Town Hall clock had never struck the midnight hour. …. the congregation was so eager, that they’d start cheering and that before the clock actually struck, and then they’d claim the damn thing had never struck.” So, Norm used to climb up with a hammer to strike the bell himself if necessary. But he never needed to as the clock always worked perfectly!

A word from John Bowra
Battles over time
Commitment to the cause

The Clock Tower

A scale model of the Perth Town Hall clock made in recycled jarrah by retired engineer, James Lang, of Mount Lawley. Lent by the Lang family.

For many years, the clock tower on the corner of Barrack and Hay Streets was the tallest building in the city and would have been a prominent landmark for meeting friends. 

Helen Mountstephen remembers in the 1950s and 1960s “the Perth Town Hall was one of the places where people would quite often meet.” 

And Steve Weeks remembers being a newsboy on the Town Hall corner selling the Daily News. 

Listen to Steve Weeks

Over the years, the platform at the top of the tower has been a favourite vantage point for photographers. More than a century of photographs taken from the clock tower show how the city has changed. 

Historical Panoramas

Click here to find out more about the changing cityscape.

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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