… a building … for the benefit of the public at large, and in which public meetings … may be held

The Town Hall provides a space for meeting and debating the issues of the day. Over the years the hall has been used by a wide range of groups to protest, to argue, to discuss and to learn about all sorts of political and social issues of interest and concern to the people of Perth. 

Over the years, the Town Hall has also had a formal role in the political life of Western Australia – Governors were presented and welcomed at the Town Hall until 1931, and elections are often held there. 

The Town Hall was used as a polling place for the Federal election held on 21 September 1940. SLWA 221413PD, 221414PD.

Sometimes, perhaps, the Town Hall has not been entirely neutral in political debates.

Banners supporting conscription hanging from the Town Hall tower at the referendum during World War 1. SLWA BA1272/26.

Debating politics

The Town Hall has hosted debates on all manner of political issues from votes for women to Aboriginal rights. The Town Hall has even seen the formation of a political party – Don Chipp’s Australian Democrats held their inaugural meeting there in 1977.

Before mass media, meetings held in the Perth Town Hall and other venues were very important for a healthy democracy. The tradition of ‘town hall meetings’ still continues today – even with the internet and social media. 

‘Monster meetings’ were held at the Town Hall in the months leading up to the vote on Federation in 1900. The Town Hall was a polling place and crowds gathered outside on the day of the referendum.

Crowds gather outside the Town Hall on the day of the vote on Federation in August 1900. RWAHS 2004. 238.

In the 1930s, the Town Hall saw large meetings in favour of Western Australia seceding from the Eastern States.

John Curtin speaking in the Town Hall about war loans, 1944. SLWA 221419PD.

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.

A reception at the Town Hall for the WA contingent of troops for the Boer War, 1899. SLWA 1875B

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. 

The NSW and South Australian Bush contingent entering the Town Hall. SLWA 011460D

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. 

"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. 

Captain Stirling and his party arrived at Kuraree on 12 August 1829, and marked the site of the future City of Perth by felling a tree. This event began a period of conflict over land and resources. For the dispossessed Whadjuk Nyoongar, life would never be the same again. The settlers, with their houses, fences and roads, their crops and their animals, took over the land and stopped access to traditional hunting and gathering places.

Chris Pease, Land Release 3 2008. The artist shows how British land tenure was imposed on Nyoongar Country.  City of Perth Cultural Collections
Chris Pease, Land Release 3 2008. The artist shows how British land tenure was imposed on Nyoongar Country. City of Perth Cultural Collections

Nevertheless, over the years Whadjuk Nyoongar have continued to fight for recognition and asserted traditional ownership of the area where the city stands. 

The Aborigines Protection Act of 1905 gave power over all aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives to a ‘Protector’. This included employment and wages, where they could live, who they could marry, and often children were taken away from their parents to be brought up in institutions such as Moore River Settlement. From 1927, central Perth was a prohibited area. Aboriginal people needed permits to enter the city and were arrested if found there after the 6pm curfew. 

A permit allowing the holder to be in the prohibited area
A permit allowing the holder to be in the prohibited area

City of Perth Elder Margaret Culbong remembers those days.

We hardly went into Perth because we were only allowed in parts because of the racism and discrimination. My Dad worked on the railways and got a free pass on the train into Perth. That street that ran past the station, we were really only allowed to go. The corner of Barrack Street and Wellington is where we used to sit. Dad and Mum did business and went to Perth for medical business. We would sit on the seat and watch all the traffic go past.

We only went down Barrack Street if we went to the government garden. We had to walk on one side of Barrack Street past the Town Hall, not the other side. Weren’t allowed to do that. We went into the government gardens. Walking on the right side, never on the left side of Barrack Street. Because of all those restrictions. Racism and oppression.

City of Perth Elder Margaret Culbong

Over the years, various Aboriginal organisations, mostly based in East Perth, such as the Coolbaroo League formed in 1947, provided social services and campaigned for Aboriginal rights. When the prohibited area was finally abolished in 1954, the Coolbaroo League lost no time in reclaiming the City of Perth by hiring the Town Hall for their Royal Show Gala Ball.

Today, the City of Perth acknowledges that it is on Whadjuk Nyoongar land and City of Perth Elders have contributed to developing the content for this exhibition.

Crochet shield in Aboriginal colours, by City of Perth Elder Margaret Culbong.

I do a lot of crocheting – beanies and that sort of thing. Get the cheaper wool when I can pick it up. I had this wool left over and I thought maybe I should make something with it. I thought the City of Perth had all their coat of arms whatsit things. I thought I’d do one too. Thought I might as well crochet a shield. At the time it didn’t really mean anything and no real significance, but then as I went along with the crochet it did begin to matter. It became something. It mattered. It had the white man’s shape and size but it was putting our mark and our claim on our country.

Margaret Culbong

City of Perth Cultural Collections. 

Find out more about Aboriginal culture and heritage in the City of Perth at Perth Online

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