“… 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.

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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