Convicts and Architects

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

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