Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 14

Green Spaces and Industrial Cathedrals

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In 1983 the Fremantle Society had first floated the idea of modifying its constitution to protect Fremantle’s endangered natural heritage as well as its better-publicised built environment. Incorporated bodies like the Fremantle Society needed to keep their constitutions up-to-date otherwise legal protections provided by the state would lapse. Interest was quickly swamped, however, in the flood of investigative work which came with fighting against the Anchorage Octopus, the arrival of the University of Notre Dame, and being distracted by the Society’s own near-death experience in 1988.

It was 1996 before formal steps were actually taken again to preserve the natural as well as the built environment. The Annual General Meeting that year

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ratified two changes to the constitution. The first altered one of the Society’s objectives to make a building’s setting and gardens part of its heritage and, where interesting, of concern to the Society. The second inserted a new objective into the Society’s constitution: ‘To encourage the preservation of the natural heritage of the Fremantle area.’200

This constitutional change allowed the Society to promote broader environmental concerns like the Fremantle Green Plan, North Fremantle access to the river foreshore, Clontarf Hill in Beaconsfield, Cypress Hill in North Fremantle and the Swanbourne Street reserve where public artists had over the course of ten years converted oil tanks and a water cistern into a colourful series of impromptu art galleries. The trees and shrubs (particularly the limestone-loving templetonia) on the limestone crest in Swanbourne Street reserve provided an island of green on the highest point of the city.

Bryn Davis taking a stroll down the cappuccino strip. [Fremantle Herald]

Not surprisingly, the inspiration for this environmental push came from Society Vice-President Bryn Davis. Bryn liked to call himself an intergenerational environmentalist: he wanted to leave something for the next generation. He also wanted Fremantle people to be able to stay living in Fremantle. He had led the successful campaign to preserve the South Perth foreshore. Less successful

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was his effort to prevent the Burke government from permitting the building of large houses on the natural bushland that marked the border between Mosman Park and Fremantle. Bryn was absolutely fearless in his defence of this bushland barrier. Even the threat of Westpac sooling their massive financial power against Bryn in a damages writ did nothing to silence him.201 He also clashed with other Society members over a management plan which would have had removed a number of mature trees and one very sick old tree from around the prison. A grumpy compromise was reached in the name of a clear view of the prison gatehouse.202

Bryn had been promoting a linking of existing parks and reserves in Fremantle to create a wide circular park - an idea that was taken up and expanded by the Fremantle City Council in its Green Plan. The plan proposed to link the river foreshore, Cantonment Hill, the Army Barracks, the Fremantle Arts Centre, John Curtin land, Monument Hill, Stevens Reserve, the Lefroy Street tip site and former bus depot to Clontarf Hill. From there it would connect to the South Fremantle tip site, South Beach and then follow the coastline past the Esplanade, the Round House, the harbour front and back to the river foreshore. This Green Plan was endorsed in 1997, together with an allocation of money in the budget for preliminary work. A very promising start - but a decade would pass with no action being taken.203

Bryn then turned his attention to Fremantle’s industrial heritage. In the May 1997 newsletter he wrote that if the destruction of major industrial buildings continued people might be led to believe that Fremantle was no more than a coastal town, not an important industrial, commercial and warehousing port city. Industrial heritage at either end of town was exemplified by the grain silos in North Fremantle and the South Fremantle Power Station. Both were under threat of demolition.

The South Fremantle Power Station was an industrial heritage landmark; only the state government’s money shortage had saved this striking industrial cathedral so far. Ralph Hoare had a friend at Western Power who appreciated the late-art-deco features of the building embellishing the sand hills. In 1997 Ralph offered to take members on a stunning Society walk. So many turned up that a second walk had to be quickly organised for later the same morning.

Yet another walk followed, organised by Ralph and Bryn, but this time with Premier Richard Court, Heritage Minister Graham Kierath and other relevant ministers. The Premier seemed to be impressed. Minister Kierath soon announced

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interim heritage listing in November 1997. However, Ralph was saddened when the Premier rejected the power station as a new maritime museum and home of Australia II. This would have been an ideal use for the building, situated as it was on the oceanfront; it would have cut the bill for the maritime museum by $30 million, and there was a potential rail link with Fremantle.204

The Society had been successful in saving the South Fremantle Power Station. It now led the push to retain the iconic North Fremantle silos. These had heritage significance: they pointed to a major WA industry and had considerable architectural merit. The earliest building had been used as a signals platform during World War II, then kept growing south and north. Local artists had frequently featured the silos in their artwork.

The Fremantle Society wanted to show them off at close quarters one Sunday in April 1999. Along the way sixty members and friends stopped at the Railway Hotel in North Fremantle for breakfast. There have never been breakfasts quite like those at the Railway at that time: name how many eggs you want and in what

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state, multiple slices of bacon and a sausage, or two, or three, a scoop of baked beans, three slices of toast, jams - all for six dollars and cooked by staff well into their second or third can of beer for the morning. Members learned after the visit that the Railway Hotel was in the way of a new railway cargo loop and, as a consequence, was scheduled for demolition (the Society would eventually manage to save it). Later the crowd walked off the breakfast on the way to the majestic silos. Bryn believed the silos would make a spectacular home for the Port Authority, and in later years could possibly be turned into a magnificent hotel. He also pointed out that everyone, including the Heritage Council and Mayor Richard Utting, wanted the silos retained and that the Fremantle Port Authority as an unelected body had no business to make unilateral decisions about heritage buildings which ‘belong to everyone in Fremantle.’205

However, his advice was falling on deaf ears. Heritage Minister Graham Kierath was ignoring the advice of his expert body, the Heritage Council, that the silos should be placed on the heritage register and refused to list them, thus highlighting the shortcomings of a Heritage Act which allowed such political interference.206 The Fremantle silos were demolished; the more recent spectacular refurbishment of similar silos in Bunbury highlights the degree of official vandalism inherent in this decision.

An important local government initiative emerged in the 1990s. There had been debates about community involvement in local government, with scandals and corruption being uncovered in councils at Stirling and Wanneroo. There had been experimentation in North Sydney which had been subdivided into local precincts, with residents’ representatives meeting monthly, being informed about council initiatives in their area and acting as advisory groups to council officers and elected members.

At the end of 1992 Society committee members Les Lauder, Natalie Hug and Anne Rimes, who was also on Council and represented the City of Fremantle, attended a seminar on precinct-based consultation. They submitted a generally very favourable report in the Society’s newsletter, but did not go as far as actually recommending implementation of such a system.207

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However, in November 1996 the City of Fremantle issued a charter setting up a precinct system. This divided Fremantle into twelve precinct areas, and included the Fremantle Society as a non-geographic city-wide ‘virtual’ precinct, focusing on the celebration and management of Fremantle’s heritage. A new era seemed to have arrived in community consultation.

In 1998 Premier Richard Court announced the allocation in the budget of $35 million to finance a grand new ‘Premier’s Vision for Victoria Quay’. The Vision’s primary objective was the construction of a new maritime museum to house Alan Bond’s America’s Cup winning yacht Australia II, but it was planned to include other maritime and multicultural elements too.208 The Society’s plea to use the South Fremantle Power Station for this purpose went unheeded.

Nor could the Society persuade the Fremantle City Council to enforce its West End height restrictions on Victoria Quay. Despite its strategic planning committee’s recommendation that such restrictions should apply, the full Council allowed the projected museum to soar to seven storeys if necessary. Mayor Utting shrugged off protests by precincts including the Fremantle Society and claimed that the museum needed space and that in any case most people would be in favour of relaxing height restrictions.209 The Society and its president Ralph Hoare could do little but accept the inevitable, though Ralph did lodge a complaint that the whole project involved only token consultation with the community before the final museum outcome was decided.210

The museum was not the only looming problem on Victoria Quay. The ‘Premier’s Vision’ also involved a ‘significant site dedicated to the performing arts,’211 a concept enthusiastically promoted by Mayor Richard Utting, the City’s CEO, Ray Glickman, as well as the Chamber of Commerce. The team of consultants employed by the City proposed a $15 million complex behind the Fremantle railway station comprising a four-hundred-seat theatre, a three-hundred-seat adaptable performance space and three art galleries, all under one roof where they would ‘spark off each other.’

Ralph argued strongly that such a large amount of money should be spent directly on the arts or on restoring existing unused heritage buildings and making them appropriate for use as separate theatres and art galleries. A similar position was taken by the precinct representative on the arts project’s steering committee. Mayor Utting, usually in favour of heritage preservation, disagreed strongly in this case, arguing that restoration of old buildings was no substitute for a purpose-built performing arts centre.212

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The arguments resulted in a dramatic showdown. The City of Fremantle had posted the consultants’ report on the proposed new centre on its website and invited comments. When the preliminary draft of the community response was released, the consultants objected to its contents and took legal action. The Fremantle Society was horrified, with Ralph Hoare pointing out that the matter went ‘to the very heart of democracy’ and demanding that the City fund the defence of the community representatives. The Society also rallied round, collecting donations and organising fundraisers to meet the legal costs involved, including a barbeque in the inner-city garden of former councillor and Fremantle Society member Bob Hewitt.213 The City of Fremantle eventually agreed to cover any costs, but it had been an alarming wake-up call, alerting community activists to the dangers of offering opinions when asked for input about projects in the future.

Princess Theatre in Market Street. [City of Fremantle LHC]

Then the Fremantle Ports effectively vetoed the use of Victoria Quay as a venue for the performing arts centre, citing safety concerns and possible dangers to visitors, as well as the need of a buffer zone for the port. The projected building was now to be constructed on the site of the Italian Club, which was keen to take part in this joint venture.214

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In any event funding for the performing arts centre never materialised. There was an election looming in a little over a year, and Jim McCinty had warned that there were no votes in spending money on performance centres, only on health and education. Meanwhile Minister for Education Colin Barnett was pushing for a performing arts space to be incorporated in the John Curtin High School.215 This eventually happened, and the galleries were forgotten altogether.

The Fremantle Society was also involved in an ongoing protest against a yet again expanding Fremantle Hospital. The hospital had given constant reassurances that it would not expand further and yet from the early 1990s continued to quietly acquire houses on the southern side of Alma Street for hospital use, thus progressively destroying the residential nature of the street despite strong opposition from residents. In late 1995 the Fremantle City Council and the hospital engaged consultants to prepare a study of the Alma Street precinct.

The resulting report alarmed the Society, as it appeared to show no regard for the wants and needs of the community and recommended that the hospital should continue buying houses on Alma Street ‘to form a buffer’. The Society newsletter commented angrily:

A buffer to what? Alma Street is already the buffer. These houses are the homes of Fremantle residents who enjoy living where they are without the unacceptable threat of being acquired to enable the Hospital to expand.216

The Society raised the alarm among locals, who quickly formed an Alma Street Action Group with the support of the Society. The group was able to gain the acceptance and cooperation of the City of Fremantle, but despite strenuous efforts was denied access to the Minister for Health. The Society vowed to ‘remain ready to do battle to preserve this tiny neighbourhood,’ but its chances were slim. Experience had shown before that hospitals win over community concerns.217

Two major milestones occurred during Ralph Hoare’s presidency. In 1994 the Fremantle Society received the annual heritage award from the Heritage Council of WA - the first time the award had gone to a group rather than an individual. Founding president Les Lauder accepted the award on behalf of the Society, outlining in his acceptance speech its history and achievements. Current president

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Ralph Hoare pledged the Society’s continued enthusiasm and vigilance.218

The second was the Society’s Silver Jubilee in 1997. The year before, Bryn Davis had suggested a major exhibition of Fremantle artworks to mark the City’s Heritage Week, but it was decided that a quiz night would be easier to organise. However, Bryn’s idea seemed perfect for the Jubilee, and a subcommittee was set up to oversee the celebration, headed by committee member and local bookshop proprietor Judith Wheeler.

The exhibition, ‘Fremantle 6160’, occupied the entire Fremantle Arts Centre, which was also celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and contained new and old artworks commemorating Fremantle and featuring its history, heritage and lifestyle. The exhibition, which was also supported by the City of Fremantle, was officially opened in style on 19 October 1997, and featured a giant cake in the shape of the Society’s longstanding logo, the Round House.219

In 1999 the Society’s patron since 1994, Gough Whitlam, suggested to Ralph Hoare that his time as patron might have come to an end and urged the Society

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to find a new patron who could be more involved with its activities and offer it better support. By coincidence Ralph Hoare had also decided that he had served his time - he had been the longest-serving president since Les Lauder - and handed over the reins to a new style of chief, John Dowson.

The Round House as seen from High Street, looking west, c. 1973. [Michal Lewi]


200 Minutes of Fremantle Society Annual General Meeting, 1996.
201 Fremantle Gazette, 5 January 1993.
202 Fremantle Herald, 21 February 1998.
203 Fremantle, July 1995, May 1997.
204 Minutes of Fremantle Society Annual General Meeting, 1997.
205 Fremantle Herald, 13 June 1998; Fremantle, May 1997.
206 Minutes of Fremantle Society Annual General Meeting, 1999.
207 Fremantle, February 1993.
208 Fremantle Herald, 2 May 1998.
209 Fremantle Herald, 12 June 1999.
210 Fremantle Herald, 31 July 1999.
211 Fremantle Herald, 2 May 1998.
212 Fremantle Herald, 28 August 1999.
213 Fremantle Herald, 9 October 1999.
214 Fremantle Herald, 15 April 2000.
215 Fremantle Herald, 11 September 1999.
216 Fremantle, July 1996.
217 Fremantle, October 1996.
218 Fremantle, May 1994.
219 Fremantle, August 1998.

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Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2020 | Now: 21 June, 2021