“… 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.
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.
The Perth Town Hall is a focus for events in times of war, and for celebration and remembrance in peacetime. Troops have been farewelled and welcomed home by the City with parades, receptions and dinners. In wartime, the Town Hall has provided recreation facilities for the armed forces. And in peacetime, the Town Hall clock marks the two-minute silence for Remembrance Day.
The Boer War
The Boer War was the first major military involvement by Australian forces overseas. Troops embarked for South Africa from Fremantle and the arrival of the contingents of volunteers from South Australia and New South Wales in February 1900 was celebrated with a parade through the streets from the railway station to a reception at the Town Hall.
Click here to read the West Australian’s report of the welcome parade and reception.
First World War
During World War 1, the Town Hall was a recruiting centre. Community groups used the Town Hall for fundraisers to send ‘comforts’ to the troops and to organise distribution.
The first Anzac commemoration was marked by a luncheon for ‘returned Anzac heroes’ at the Perth Town Hall on 25 April 1916, organised by the Soldiers Welcome Committee.
World War 2
During World War 2, the Town Hall became a recreation centre for use by members of the armed services. A group of 28 women’s volunteer organisations banded together to form the Citizens Reception Council to run the centre. They provided light refreshments from 10.30am to 10.30pm every day and facilities for writing. In the evenings, they organised entertainment in the form of music and dancing.
The late Phyllis Worth volunteered in 1941 before she joined the WAAAF as a nursing orderly. She used to go to the Town Hall on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings to help with serving tea and sandwiches. She remembered:
I was on duty the night they catered for the first New Zealand contingent going overseas. I had set out rows of cups and saucers for the teas and coffee. There was an enormous white teapot and I was only 5’1” and found it a bit heavy. One big Kiwi came around and said ‘Hi Little One, that’s too big for you”, so as he poured the tea I handed it out amid much laughter.Phyllis Worth
A certificate of appreciation for Mrs McCallum-Smith, a volunteer member of the Citizen’s Recreation Council. City of Perth Collection.
The City of Perth celebrated the end of the war with a giant V hung from the clock tower. The Town Hall hosted many ‘welcome home’ events for returned service personnel and prisoners of war.
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.
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.
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.