“… 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. 

A highlight of the 1935 CWA exhibition was the spinning demonstration. Mrs Broun (left) is working a spinning wheel made during World War 1, used by hundreds of Perth women to spin yarn to make socks for soldiers. Mrs A.G. Todd demonstrates on a 235-year-old wheel from the Shetland Islands, used for spinning flax to make clothing for fishermen, on the Greenland fishing- grounds. Miss Francis, of Fremantle, added atmosphere by playing on her harp during the demonstration. RWAHS P1999.4430

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.

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.

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. 

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