“… 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.
“… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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!
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.
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.
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!
The Clock Tower
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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