“… 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 ‘Untold Stories’ podcast.

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.

Perth Town Hall brings the community together for celebrations and many weddings and wedding anniversaries have been celebrated there. 

Since the restoration of the Perth Town Hall, the venue has become a popular venue for all sorts of celebrations – but particularly weddings. 

You can even have an alpaca at your wedding in the Perth Town Hall!

Perth Weddings

To celebrate the 150th birthday of the Town Hall, we invited members of the community to share photos from their special day with us. 

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.

100 years of prosperous progress

In 1929, Western Australia hosted a series of events marking the centenary of the state – mostly between 28 September and 12 October. 

The felling of a tree at what was to be the site of the Town Hall in 1829, by Captain Stirling’s landing party is Perth’s foundation event. The official opening of the new Town Hall in 1870 was held close to the 41st anniversary of that event. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Town Hall played an important role in celebrating 100 years since the foundation of the Swan River Colony in 1829. 

The Town Hall hosted a Pioneers dinner on 3 June 1929 – especially for West Australian-born and residents over 50. SLWA PR973/2

At the Town Hall, the main celebrations were on the 12 August 1929. This was the 100th anniversary of the City of Perth – the day the first stone was laid for the barracks. The WA Governor Sir William Champion announced that George V had granted the City of Perth a Lord Mayoralty. The event was marked with a parade at the Town Hall at which a commemorative plaque was unveiled. SLWA 100656PD; 100658PD.

Following the parade, a civic Centenary Luncheon was held inside the Town Hall. SLWA 100661PD
A playlet was presented on the stage at the Town Hall after the luncheon. This was a dramatization of the Centenary painting by G. Pitt Morrison. It began with Father Time and a group of Aboriginal people gathered around a fire. Captain Stirling’s party arrived and Mrs Dance ceremonially struck a jarrah tree. The figures faded out, to be replaced by an image of the new city with the drone of an aeroplane engine symbolising progress. The plan was to repeat this performance three times during the evening, but it proved so popular that a fourth session was staged at 10.30pm. SLWA 3499B/3.
Fifty years later, a statue of Captain James Stirling was unveiled at the Town Hall as part of WAY79 celebrations for the 150th anniversary. As we approach the 200th anniversary, Lyle Branson’s 2016 artwork reflects on the clash of cultures in Stirling’s symbolic foundation act.

Image Credit: Lyle Branson, The Felling of a Tree That Carves Up the Land, 2016, infinity rag photographique paper
760 x 156 cm,  1/3, City of Perth Cultural Collections, Photo courtesy of the artist.

"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
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