… 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. 

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

Nice things will be said, nice things will be eaten, maybe nice things will be drunk, too...

The City of Perth regularly honours particular individuals with civic dinners or receptions – often held at the Town Hall.

Sir John Forrest’s Jubilee

Politician and explorer John Forrest was born in Bunbury in 1843. He began his career as a surveyor and he became famous as an explorer. In 1883, he was appointed Surveyor-General and appointed to the Legislative and Executive Councils. He became the first premier of Western Australia in 1890 and took advantage of the gold boom to preside over a major public works program including Fremantle harbour and the Goldfields pipeline, as well as a major expansion of the rail network. Following Federation, he was elected to the new Federal parliament in 1901 where he held various ministries, including Treasurer from 1905 to 1918. 

Sir John Forrest was incredibly popular in Western Australia. Plans to honour the jubilee, or 50 years, of public service by ‘Western Australia’s most notable son’ were begun in July 1915. The celebrations included a reception held at the Perth Town Hall on 15 December 1915, which brought together all sorts of people across social and political divides.

It was a brilliant gathering, with a brilliant setting, the hall having been decorated to a degree of magnificence that has not often been seen before in Perth. There was a particularly rich display of fernery—clumps of bamboo round the walls, and masses of ferns and palms at each end, and an ingenious electric light scheme, with a refulgent crown, set amid red drapery at one end and varicoloured cross designs interspersing the wall decorations. Western Mail 24 December 1915. 

The program for the reception honouring Sir John Forrest’s public service at Perth Town Hall. It features images of premier Mundaring Weir and Fremantle Harbour – the major public works overseen by Forrest as premier. SLWA PR967

Click here to read more about Sir John Forrest’s jubilee reception.

Mr Bold’s retirement

The secretary for the planning committee for Sir John Forrest’s jubilee was the Town Clerk, W.E. Bold. 

Born in Lancashire in 1873, William Ernest Bold migrated to Western Australia in 1896 and became clerk-typist at the City of Perth. He was appointed Town Clerk in 1900. He was then the youngest Town Clerk in any Australian capital city – and when he retired in 1944 was the longest-serving. 

Bold gained a reputation for efficiency and quickly became a powerful driving force in Council affairs. His ideas about town planning very much shaped the growth and development of the city and strongly influenced the Perth we see today. His work is commemorated in Bold Park – he was a strong advocate for parks and public spaces for the benefit of the citizens. By the time he retired as Town Clerk, Perth had the highest proportion of public open space to population of any city in the British Empire. 

The City of Perth marked Bold’s retirement with a ‘valedictory dinner’, a portrait in the Town Hall and a silver coffee service and serving tray. 

The valedictory dinner for Town Clerk, W.E. Bold. City of Perth.

150 years of civic hospitality

The menus for civic dinners over the years show changes in fashions of eating, as well as trends in designing and presenting menus.

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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