“… 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.

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

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.

Captain Stirling and his party arrived at Kuraree on 12 August 1829, and marked the site of the future City of Perth by felling a tree. This event began a period of conflict over land and resources. For the dispossessed Whadjuk Nyoongar, life would never be the same again. The settlers, with their houses, fences and roads, their crops and their animals, took over the land and stopped access to traditional hunting and gathering places.

Chris Pease, Land Release 3 2008. The artist shows how British land tenure was imposed on Nyoongar Country.  City of Perth Cultural Collections
Chris Pease, Land Release 3 2008. The artist shows how British land tenure was imposed on Nyoongar Country. City of Perth Cultural Collections

Nevertheless, over the years Whadjuk Nyoongar have continued to fight for recognition and asserted traditional ownership of the area where the city stands. 

The Aborigines Protection Act of 1905 gave power over all aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives to a ‘Protector’. This included employment and wages, where they could live, who they could marry, and often children were taken away from their parents to be brought up in institutions such as Moore River Settlement. From 1927, central Perth was a prohibited area. Aboriginal people needed permits to enter the city and were arrested if found there after the 6pm curfew. 

A permit allowing the holder to be in the prohibited area
A permit allowing the holder to be in the prohibited area

City of Perth Elder Margaret Culbong remembers those days.

We hardly went into Perth because we were only allowed in parts because of the racism and discrimination. My Dad worked on the railways and got a free pass on the train into Perth. That street that ran past the station, we were really only allowed to go. The corner of Barrack Street and Wellington is where we used to sit. Dad and Mum did business and went to Perth for medical business. We would sit on the seat and watch all the traffic go past.

We only went down Barrack Street if we went to the government garden. We had to walk on one side of Barrack Street past the Town Hall, not the other side. Weren’t allowed to do that. We went into the government gardens. Walking on the right side, never on the left side of Barrack Street. Because of all those restrictions. Racism and oppression.

City of Perth Elder Margaret Culbong

Over the years, various Aboriginal organisations, mostly based in East Perth, such as the Coolbaroo League formed in 1947, provided social services and campaigned for Aboriginal rights. When the prohibited area was finally abolished in 1954, the Coolbaroo League lost no time in reclaiming the City of Perth by hiring the Town Hall for their Royal Show Gala Ball.

Today, the City of Perth acknowledges that it is on Whadjuk Nyoongar land and City of Perth Elders have contributed to developing the content for this exhibition.

Crochet shield in Aboriginal colours, by City of Perth Elder Margaret Culbong.

I do a lot of crocheting – beanies and that sort of thing. Get the cheaper wool when I can pick it up. I had this wool left over and I thought maybe I should make something with it. I thought the City of Perth had all their coat of arms whatsit things. I thought I’d do one too. Thought I might as well crochet a shield. At the time it didn’t really mean anything and no real significance, but then as I went along with the crochet it did begin to matter. It became something. It mattered. It had the white man’s shape and size but it was putting our mark and our claim on our country.

Margaret Culbong

City of Perth Cultural Collections. 

Find out more about Aboriginal culture and heritage in the City of Perth at Perth Online

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.

The Perth Metropolitan area is Whadjuk Nyoongar country. This land was created by the Waugal, or rainbow serpent, who shaped the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), the rich swamps and wetlands of the coastal plain and the ranges to the east. 

Whadjuk Nyoongar people nurtured this land for many thousands of years, sharing knowledge about caring for country from generation to generation. They travelled through this landscape, hunting, gathering plant foods, and fishing. 

In 1829, the area that became the City of Perth, or Boorloo, was in the boodja of Yellagonga, a Whadjuk Nyoongar leader, and his family. Yellagonga’s boodjar took in the land north of Derbarl Yerrigan, from the sea to Ellen Brook and north to Moore River. 

Yellagonga and his family had kinship links across the whole of what is today the Perth metropolitan area – with Weeip’s family to the east, Munday’s family between the Helena and Canning Rivers and with Midgegooroo’s family to the south. 

Byerbrup is the name of the ridge of high ground between Matagarup (the shallow river crossing at Heirisson Island) and Gargatup (King’s Park). Today, Hay Street follows this important Whadjuk Nyoongar pathway and the Town Hall is at a place on the ridge called Kuraree.

An artist’s impression of how Byerbrup and Derbarl Yerrigan would have looked to Whadjuk Nyoongar in the 1820s. The star shows Kuraree, where Miago camped and where the Perth Town Hall was later built. Image courtesy of City of Perth and Edith Cowan University.

Kuraree is a high point with a view over the surrounding country. There once was a spring near here. It was a good place to camp, close to both the rich resources of the Gumap river flats and the wetlands to the north. No doubt jeena middar (corroborees), where different family groups gathered together, were often held in this area when food was plentiful.

Click here to find out more about Whadjuk Nyoongar place names in the Perth area at Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili (Our Country on Paper).

Click here to find out more about the landscape of the Perth area at Reimagining Perth’s Lost Wetlands, an online exhibition of the WA Museum.

The changing landscape of Perth
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