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.
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.
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.