“… 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.

… 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 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

Our friend Migo having subsequently very narrowly escaped drowning while swimming to this island, I distinguished it by the name of “Isle Migo” in remembrance of him and his many sterling good qualities.

John Septimus Roe’s diary

Miago (sometimes spelt Migo in documents) was a well-known figure in Perth in the 1830s. According to his granddaughter Fanny Balbuk Yooreel, Kuraree, the site of the Perth Town Hall, was one of Miago’s favourite camp sites. 

Miago’s boodja was in the Upper Swan area, but he had family links across the whole of the Swan and Canning, as well as towards Pinjarra and the Murray River. He was related to many other well-known Nyoongar leaders of the time, such as Munday, Yagan and Midgegooroo. 

Miago was well-known to the settlers, and friendly with some of their leaders. Local newspapers often describe him as a ‘messenger of peace’ and ‘ambassador’. He had a great reputation as a tracker and guide. 

Elder Farley Garlett tells the story of Miago

A respected leader

When the settlers arrived in 1829, Miago was quick to grasp what was happening and quick to position himself as an interpreter and mediator between his people and the settlers. Miago worked hard to make peace by building relationships with the settlers and finding ways for his people to maintain their culture.

In 1833, he went with Munday to meet Governor Stirling. They explained how the actions of the settlers were affecting the daily lives of Whadjuk Nyoongar people. In 1835, Miago organised a peace meeting between Governor Stirling, Swan River people and the people from the Murray River, after the Pinjarra massacre. This included persuading the Governor to host a jeena middar (corroboree). This was held in the Kuraree area, close to the site of the Perth Town Hall. 

Miago was obviously well-respected by his people. At a gathering in 1849 he was chosen as a leader of the Whadjuk Nyoongar living in the Perth area. 

Many of the settlers respected him too. This gave him a chance to try to explain the Nyoongar way of life. For example, he lived in George Grey’s house for several months, teaching him about Nyoongar customs and language. 

C.D. Wittenoom’s sketch of Perth in 1839, as Miago would have known it.
C.D. Wittenoom’s sketch of Perth in 1839, as Miago would have known it.

A brave traveller and song man

Miago must have been brave. He travelled with explorers as guide and interpreter – even to strange places where he believed the people would be hostile. 

Miago travelled with John Septimus Roe to the Albany area, where Roe named Migo Island after him. He also sailed on the Beagle’s expedition to the Northwest. Stokes often mentions him in his diary of the voyage. 

Stokes tells us in his diary that Miago often sang during the Beagle voyage to keep his courage up when he was homesick. None of Miago’s songs were written down, but Grey wrote down other Nyoongar songs about his adventures at sea. Miago’s mother sang about her worries about him going into danger on the ship – her song became well-known and was sung by other Whadjuk Nyoongar travellers.

Extract from Grey’s handwritten notes on the Nyoongar songs associated with Miago. National Library of South Africa, Capetown

Reviving Nyoongar songs

George Grey wrote down the words for two songs associated with Miago.

Dr Clint Bracknell, songwriter and music researcher at Edith Cowan University, has composed music for these words. They are performed here by celebrated singer-songwriter Gina Williams and guitarist Guy Ghouse.

The first song is introduced with the spoken words Ngany norp, baal bokadja woora (my son, he away far).

Grey recorded the words of this song as: ship bal win-jal bat-tar-dal gool-an-een. He translated it as ‘Whither is this lone ship moving away’. This song was said to have been sung by Miago’s mother while he was away on the Beagle voyage.

The second song is introduced with the spoken words Baal kaarlak koorl, yeyi ngaala waangk (he home go, now we say).

Grey recorded the words as Kan-de maar-o, kan-de maar-a-lo, Tsail-o mar-ra, tsail-o mar-ra. His translation is: ‘Unsteadily shifts the wind-o, unsteadily shifts the wind-o, The sails-o handle, the sails-o handle-ho’. This song was popular after Miago’s return and seems to describe his experience aboard ship.

This project has been supported and endorsed by the City of Perth’s Nyoongar Elders advisory committee.

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