Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 1

A Special Place

Fremantle was always a special place. For millennia the Nyungar people met there in spring and autumn to feast on fish and game, to dance and to exchange goods. European settlers arrived in 1829 with exotic plants and unsuitable equipment and struggled to hang on against fearsome storms, then heat. With the help of whaling, fishing, sandalwood and better farming methods things improved: but not for the Nyungars. The settlers took their best land and their best fishing and hunting places. Attempts at resistance were met with the full force of British law, which could mean hanging or exile on the Rottnest gulag.

Between 1850 and 1868 Britain sent out some ten thousand male convicts who translated into badly needed labour and capital. The Royal Engineers helped

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them construct simple but elegant Georgian buildings (including their prison home) from local limestone as well as timber bridges and other facilities. With the convict legacy of vastly improved infrastructure Fremantle became a lively maritime trading centre. It also generated a widespread reputation as a holding place for carousing seamen, off-season pearlers and colourful prostitutes from at least a dozen nations.

Fremantle was run in the late nineteenth century by a small but powerful group of merchants - including one woman. They controlled both the economic and the cultural life of the port without a harbour.

A woman 'merchant prince', Mary Higham, c. 1870 [City of Fremantle LHC]

A series of big gold rushes in the 1890s transformed Fremantle. A harbour was built, and the West End became a construction site where recently arrived architects put up buildings featuring metal cupolas and opulent plaster decoration. Meanwhile the merchants lived in some splendour in large houses situated along the limestone ridge above the city and a in Queen Victoria Street.

The period of prosperity continued with an agricultural boom for wool and golden grain, and Fremantle also continued to serve as a playground for noisy pearlers celebrating a safe end to another rewarding but risky season. From 1905 trams started heading east, north and south, and opened up middle-class and workers’ areas for housing.

With large numbers of wharfies, woollies, slaughtermen and prison warders Fremantle readily became a strongly unionised town in the new century. It was also a cheeky town: you didn’t push around its 20,000 citizens or its footballers, particularly if you came from Perth - the capital resting a distant eighteen kilometres upriver. Fremantle became the second biggest Allied submarine base during World War II and flourished in the post-war period.

Left: Building at Lot 424, corner of Pakenham and High streets, c. 1905-06, before demolition.
Right: During 1906 demolition [City of Fremantle LHC]

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Central Chambers at Lot 424, corner of Pakenham and High streets, c. 1907-08. [City of Fremantle LHC]

But by the late 1960s Fremantle was heading for trouble. It had never been a tourist town - there were few restaurants, and it was dead on weekends, with everything but pubs closing at noon on Saturday.1 The passenger liners that had brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Fremantle were being largely replaced by jet planes. The three thousand wharfies who used to swarm over cargo ships and, when their shift ended, to fill the hotels, were being replaced by a few forklift or crane drivers. Cargo came in containers: it didn’t need much handling. The cavernous woolstores were moving out to Spearwood.

Many people felt that this process had to be accelerated: Fremantle needed to industrialise and modernise. There is a memorable quote from the then mayor of Fremantle, Sir Frederick Samson:

We’re finished as a residential area. Most of the houses that will remain after the next five years’ changes will be on quarter-acre blocks out of the main city ... We are going industrial in the best way, with plenty of advance planning.2

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That planning resulted in the industrial suburb of O’Connor and the residential suburb of Samson.

When the Fremantle Society was formed in 1972 this prediction had not yet quite come true. Fremantle might have become a bit tatty, but it was still arguably the world’s most intact Victorian port town and a home for increasing numbers of artists wanting to take advantage of the cheap accommodation and cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was also a lively place with vibrant Italian, Portuguese, Croatian, Greek and other communities as well as a strong remnant of old Fremantle families who had traditionally run its shops, tearooms and hotels. Historian Kenneth McPherson describes it vividly:

Changes in the ports:
Top: Fremantle lumpers, 1920. [A. Orloff]
Bottom: Post-war heavy lifting, 1962. [Fremantle Ports]

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Unloading - with no one in sight, c. 2008. [Fremantle Ports]

When I was growing up in Fremantle in the 1950s and 1960s the city had a distinctive ethos which very clearly set it apart from the rest of the sprawling Metropolitan Region. My overwhelming childhood image of the city centres upon the harbour; passenger liners and cargo vessels were part of our lives, particularly as so many of us were first generation migrants. The Italian-dominated fishing harbour reinforced our sense of the sea and all the people I knew, from wharfies to shopkeepers, from priests to spivs, were somehow integral parts of a distinctive and localised society which had evolved around the port. 3

Marny Lee, an ‘old Fremantle girl’, also describes it as having ‘a lovely community feeling’ and ‘a warmth and spirit’, and remembers it as ‘a bit exotic’ compared to the suburbs in which her friends lived.4

However, the built environment was on the verge of destruction. In the late 1960s and early 1970s most of Fremantle’s councillors were determined to bulldoze the city beyond recognition in the name of progress. The city’s bustling commercial axis, High Street, was to become a four-lane thoroughfare. The extravagant gold rush facades along both sides of the street would just have to go. Number 89-91 had gone already. Henry Street would link into a coastal

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East Fremantle: Marmion Street tramline under construction, 1905. [City of Fremantle LHC]

highway. Almost all the buildings along its east side had been purchased by Main Roads, the Metropolitan Regional Planning Authority and the Fremantle City Council and would be obliterated even though they represented, arguably, the West End’s finest stretch of buildings. On the other side of Henry Street the Orient Hotel was marked for demolition, to be replaced by a glass and aluminium showroom for second-hand boats.

Other disasters were either planned or had already been executed. At the western end of High Street one of the state’s oldest buildings, the Round House built in 1831, was only just surviving; there had been a number of attempts at its demolition. Already many limestone warehouses east of the Town Hall had been destroyed and were being replaced by shops which were small and struggling, and set well back from the original building line.

Ironically, the driver of some of this destruction was the Stephenson-Hepburn plan for Perth and its surrounds. The plan was developed for the state government by Professor Gordon Stephenson, a charmingly austere intellectual who had worked in Paris with modernist Swiss architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. Stephenson had also worked at the University of Liverpool in a city distinguished for its handsome and vast maritime buildings, which are now part of a world heritage precinct. Stephenson loved the coherence of Fremantle’s West End, and the Henry Street highway represented his best

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Top: Orient Hotel, 1974 [Michal Lewi]
Bottom: 89-91 High Street showing proposed new setback for buldings. [Michal Lewi

effort to do the least possible damage. He calculated that his plan needed to accommodate a vast number of blue-collar workers - and their cars - many of them in high-rise apartments in North and South Fremantle where there would also be factories.5

The agents of destruction of old Fremantle were different from those responsible for the brutal conversion of St Georges Terrace in Perth from an elegant European boulevard to a badly designed steel and glass wind tunnel. In Perth private entrepreneurs were at work: Fremantle did not offer the same rich pickings because of its lower land values.

So the Fremantle City Council stepped in as promoter of development. The councillors of the time had usually been born in Fremantle but had moved to more respectable nearby suburbs like Applecross. They disliked ‘old-fashioned’ Fremantle; they wanted it to be more like Perth. They remembered the Depression, with hungry children rustling up spilt wheat from the wharf and stealing other provisions from the city’s many food stores. A number had done the stealing themselves, and now had an almost neurotic desire to wipe out any remnants of this past life. They were not alone in this. The State Member for Fremantle, Harry Fletcher, whose wife Esme was a councillor, made his feelings quite clear: ‘The best thing you could do for Fremantle is to get the bulldozers in.6

This was not an uncommon attitude at the time. Heritage as a concept hardly mattered in the 1950s and early 1960s in either Fremantle or Perth, and did not have serious credentials anywhere else in Australia. There was a general feeling that modern was good, and that there was nothing special about old buildings, which were generally seen as an inconvenience.

But things were gradually changing. The first National Trust had been formed as early as 1945 in New South Wales, and had been followed by similar bodies in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia in the 1950s and in Queensland and Tasmania in the early 1960s. However, consciousness of the importance of Australian heritage had generally not filtered through to the wider public.

This was to change decisively as communities began stirring, often when confronted by freeways, in the late 1960s. The first community-based action

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group in Australia, the Paddington Society, was formed in Sydney in 1964 to protect the old buildings and historic atmosphere of the area from being destroyed by modernising developers. It was soon followed by the Glebe Society and the Balmain Association in Sydney, the North Adelaide Society in Adelaide and the Carlton Residents Association and the Fitzroy Residents Association in Melbourne. AH these groups campaigned successfully against the destruction of their respective areas for high-rise accommodation and road building. In 1969 the Carlton Residents Association ran a highly successful ‘these are not slums’ campaign against the Housing Commission of Victoria’s extensive urban renewal and slum clearance powers.7

There were resonances of this movement in Fremantle within the Council itself. Sir Frederick Samson had pushed strongly for the preservation of the old Fremantle Asylum as early as 1958, inspired by the conviction of local Fremantle architect Robin McKellar Campbell that the buildings were worth saving. This point of view was reinforced by the visit of the Chairman of the National Trust of Great Britain, the Earl of Euston, who described the Asylum as ‘the most marvellous example of colonial gothic architecture in Australia.’ Negotiations began with the state government, and in 1967 the state started funding the conversion of the Asylum into a branch of the WA Museum and an arts centre. The year before, the City of Fremantle had finally also agreed to restore the Round House, the state’s oldest existing public building, which had been in serious danger of demolition or at least removal from its original site during the early 1960s.

Although most councillors and council officers were strongly in favour of redeveloping Fremantle, there was also some awareness of the tourist potential of some of Fremantle’s old buildings. In 1968 the Deputy Town Clerk, Murray Edmonds, who had hitherto favoured extensive development, toured England and the port cities of Europe to gain some insight about how Fremantle might progress. The tour changed his mind, and his report on returning recommended that a study be conducted of Fremantle’s historic buildings.

In 1969 the Council set up a standing committee, the Cultural Development Committee, chaired by the City Librarian, John Birch, to oversee ‘the overall cultural needs of the community.’ This committee in turn set up a subcommittee to assess which Fremantle buildings should be preserved, in accordance with Edmonds’ recommendation. The subcommittee consisted of three

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Top: John Birch, City of Fremantle Librarian, 1966. [City of Fremantle LHC]
Bottom: City Engineer Ken Bott. [City of Fremantle LHC]

‘preservationists’ - Edmonds himself, Birch, and Rob Campbell, who had become the Council’s consultant architect and was then working on the Asylum - and two pro-development council officers - the City Building Surveyor, Eric Morriss, and the City Planner and Engineer, Ken Bott.8

The deliberations of this subcommittee produced a strangely ambivalent document entitled ‘Fremantle: Preservation and Change’. It seemed to acknowledge that there was something special about Fremantle:

There is a Fremantle identity - a ‘Fremantle feeling’ that is important to Fremantle people. The visual environment created by certain buildings and places, together with people’s awareness of their history, make a major contribution to this feeling that Fremantle is a separate place, and a special place.9

It also quoted from a UNESCO statement on preservation:

Regardless of contemporary pressures, each generation has a profound responsibility to preserve undiminished the historical and artistic heritage it has received from the past, and from new increments, and pass the total heritage on, unimpaired, to the next generation.10

However, it then went on to list only nine sites that the subcommittee felt should be preserved at all costs: the place where Captain Fremantle first hoisted the flag, Kings Square, St John’s Church, the Town Hall, the Museum and Arts Centre, the Round House, Samson House, the Proclamation Tree and some statuary (C.Y. O’Connor, the Marmion Memorial and the Maitland Brown Memorial).

Everything else was considered potentially disposable. Even the Gaol Gatehouse and Chapel, the Warders’ Quarters and St Patrick’s Basilica were only placed under Category Two, where demolitions and alterations could be allowed ‘if Council is fully satisfied that a greater social or aesthetic benefit will thereby be bestowed on the people of Fremantle!11 The Fremantle Railway Station, the Fremantle Oval grandstand, the Evan Davies building, and Fremantle Markets

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Fremantle Railway Station, 1907, open slather for demolition in 1971. [City of Fremantle LHC]

were among buildings listed under Category Three, for which the subcommittee did not recommend any protection. Nonetheless, flawed and timid as it may have been, ‘Preservation and Change’ did represent a modicum of interest by the Council and its officers in preserving some of Fremantle’s heritage.

‘Preservation and Change’ was made public in 1971. However, by that time a groundswell was building in the WA community at large that reflected a serious if limited change in public attitudes about the worth of old buildings. This groundswell was boosted by the arrival of many ‘new Fremantle people' who were attracted by the cosmopolitan lifestyle, political activism, and amazingly cheap houses - $20,000 could get you a two-storey limestone villa with harbour views, $10,000 a timber cottage in North Fremantle overlooking the river. A new voice was also about to arrive in town - Leslie Charles Lauder - leading a new community group: the Fremantle Society.

High Street looking east, c. 1935. High Street had undergone many changes but by the 1930s was settling down. [City of Fremantle Local History Collection]


1 Don Whittington, interview with Ron Davidson, 4 July 2008.
2 Sunday Times, 7 November 1965.
3 Kenneth McPherson, ‘Future Fremantle - a personal view’, Fremantle, vol. 8, no. 4, 1980.
4 Marny Lee, interview with Ron Davidson, 8 January 2009.
5 G. Stephenson, A life in city design, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1992.
6 Keith Sinclair, interview with Ron Davidson, 28 July 2008.
7 Peter Yule (ed), Carlton: a history, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2004, p. 156.
8 Kristy Bizzaca, ‘A history of the development of the heritage movement and the establishment of heritage policy in the City of Fremantle 1955-1982’, MA thesis, Murdoch University, 1997, pp. 20-23,26-27.
9 City of Fremantle, ‘Fremantle: Preservation and Change’, March 1971, p. 5.
10 ibid p. 6.
11 ibid p. 27.

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Garry Gillard | New: 16 June, 2020 | Now: 18 June, 2021