Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 15

A Different President

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John Dowson had a different background to previous presidents of the Society. He had grown up in Mosman Park and gone to school in Claremont. His interest in Fremantle was kindled when he was taught Australian history by Geoffrey Bolton at UWA, but it would be many years before he became seriously involved with Fremantle. He taught history for ten years at Australia’s oldest school - Kings School, Parramatta - and got involved with environmental organisations while living in the United States from 1986 to 1990, before deciding to settle in Fremantle. In 1991 John undertook the restoration of the 1901 Adelaide Steamship Building in Mouat Street, which would become his permanent home.

John Dowson at his Adelaide Steamship Building home in Mouat Street. [City of Fremantle LHC]

He had become seriously interested in Fremantle through his long-term passion for collecting ephemera, photographs and books during regular visits to book fairs in London, Paris and the United States and through discovering through family stories that many of his family members had lived or worked in Fremantle.220

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John joined the Fremantle Society committee in 1993, and was vice-president in 1995 before going overseas for a time to run a chateau in France. He was back on the committee in 1998, and took on the presidency on Ralph’s resignation at the end of 1999. Since the Society also lacked a patron with the departure of Gough Whitlam, John persuaded local academic star George Seddon to act in this capacity until the end of 2001 when Society founder Les Lauder took over.

By an interesting coincidence, the Mayor of Fremantle at the time John assumed the presidency was Richard Utting, who was another unusual personality. Richard was a barrister with strong interests in human rights cases, and had run an ABC talkback radio program which quickly improved from very ordinary to extremely good. He had a touch of flamboyance and came in from left field; he liked to wear jeans and disliked the trappings of authority, including the wearing of mayoral regalia. Richard could come across as very cool, particularly when defending some unfortunate youth chained to a tree near Pemberton.

Mayor Richard Utting in typically casual gear. [City of Fremantle LHC]

Jenny Archibald decided not to stand again as candidate for mayor in 1997 after a year from hell being abused by boisterous opponents when the Council had tried to introduce fortnightly rubbish collections. Richard Utting became a strong candidate with a good heritage program and the support of members of the ALP and the Fremantle Society, as well as real estate agent and former football star John Dethridge. The result was a win for Richard against a big field that included Peter Tagliaferri, who would eventually take over from him as mayor in 2001.

John Dowson and Richard Utting had both been educated at Christ Church Grammar School, and both had at one time been taught by Fremantle

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Society stalwart David Hutchison. John’s passionately committed personality and Richard’s determination to win crucial arguments would ensure lively debates and confrontations during the last two years of Richard’s term as mayor.

John expressed his dissatisfaction with the City of Fremantle officers even before he became president. In a Fremantle Herald ‘Thinking Allowed’ he comprehensively criticised the Council staff for taking no action to improve the appearance of Fremantle despite large amounts of money being spent on consultants whose reports he believed were largely ignored:

Our streets remain an unsightly collection of uncoordinated clutter. Nowhere has signage, street furniture or paving improved, and certainly none of the more heritage-orientated suggestions such as historical interpretation for pedestrians with information boards or photos, or blue plaques on famous buildings as in London, or heritage lighting of significant facades been implemented.221

He went on to point out that with the high salaries being paid to council officers Fremantle residents had a right to expect better service.222

Right from the start of his presidency John maintained a very high media profile, featuring almost every week in the local

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papers, beginning with a raft of issues such as whether the proposed maritime museum would be built on the site where Captain Fremantle originally landed,223 the lack of heritage project allocations in the 1999-2000 budget while $2 million was to be spent in upgrading toilets, and the lack of any heritage-related pamphlets for tourists at the Fremantle Tourist Office.224 He also began agitating for the purchase by the City of Fremantle of Victoria Hall, the prospective owner of which was wanting to turn it into a furniture store.225 This was to bear fruit when the Council eventually purchased Victoria Hall in 2000 as a home for Deckchair Theatre.

One of John’s first projects as president was the production of a special Collector’s Edition of the Society’s newsletter Fremantle, which was designed to promote interest in Fremantle’s heritage and to celebrate the City’s Heritage Week in June 2000. It included a potted year-by-year history of the Fremantle Society, many historic pictures and information about various important Fremantle sites. It was also very critical of Fremantle City Council and its apparent lack of interest in heritage and urban design.

This caused a furore. The Heritage Week organisers refused to recognise the publication as part of the festival for various reasons, but mainly because of the criticisms of the Council that it contained. City heritage architect planner Agnieshka Kiera pronounced that the festival was ‘about celebrating heritage, not about debate.’ John Dowson was very disappointed, but promptly arranged for 16,000 copies of the publication to be distributed throughout Fremantle, Cottesloe and Claremont.226

Another snub was to follow. Mayor Richard Utting wrote to John announcing that he wished to have no further communication with him, and that any future contact should be with the past president or the vice-president of the Society. This was unprecedented. The Fremantle Herald reported the mayor as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter how much we do, the Fremantle Society will never be satisfied,’ and that the Collector’s Edition of Fremantle had simply been the last straw. John Dowson hit back at once, saying community members were sick and tired of being on committees and taking part in consultations, all to no effect. He claimed the Society had recently sent submissions to Council on the budget, on an environment plan and on Victoria Hall, all of which had been either ignored or lost.227

However, all this was not as disastrous as it seemed; communication was maintained with the City’s CEO, Ray Glickman, and in fact the mayor and John

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Dowson were often seen chatting at functions.

In an interview ten years later, when asked about the tactics behind his frequent attacks and always being on the front foot, John reflected: ‘I may have been coming across as something of an attack dog. I needed to modify my act.’ This foreshadowed the softer approach he was to take after his election to Council in 2005.228

Conflicts with the mayor and Council aside, other issues loomed. John was concerned about what he called the ‘monoculture’ developing in the West End with the University of Notre Dame Australia buying more and more properties. The original Denis Horgan plan had been to bring a lively commercial and cafe culture to the West End; while this had not eventuated, Notre Dame authorities reacted angrily to John’s condemnation, claiming that when the university moved in, the area ‘was mostly derelict buildings and ruins.’

In the 1990s Clydesdales Baron and Bill, with driver Stephen Lockhart, still had hotels to visit around High Street. [Fremantle Herald]

John Dowson acknowledged that the restoration of buildings purchased had been exemplary, with architect Marcus Collins in charge. He also thought that having a university in the West End was a good thing; but only if it brought people

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and life to the area, particularly at night. He was most alarmed at the purchase by NDA of all the West End hotels, only one of which, the Orient Hotel, was retained as a functioning business. The others - the Cleopatra Hotel (originally Coakley’s Hotel), P&O Hotel and the Fremantle Hotel in High Street, and His Majesty’s Hotel (including the popular restaurant His Lordship’s Larder) in Mouat Street - all closed their doors to the public.

John felt that NDA was ‘swallowing up’ the West End, and shutting out the local community. It had not encouraged other businesses to start up there, or made existing ones viable or even welcome; he complained that the environment being created was ‘as stifling and boring as a pine forest,’ and that there was no reason for anyone to come to the West End on weekends except to use the area as a parking lot.229

Then in May 2000 Premier Richard Court officially released the Fremantle Waterfront Masterplan, which included pedestrian promenades linking Cliff and Pakenham streets to the waterfront, marine-related educational opportunities and new commercial developments.230 John Dowson almost immediately expressed serious concerns about the projected commercial development near the railway station, which was designed to house one thousand office workers, be a ‘landmark building’ with no height restrictions, and to include a car park for two hundred cars.

Four hundred and fifty public submissions on this development had expressed the same concerns, but there was no indication of how these would be addressed.231

He was even more appalled when the Fremantle Port Authority applied to the Heritage Council for permission to demolish the immigration building and the C.Y. O’Connor Centre on Victoria Quay to make way for its proposed commercial development on the grounds that the immigration building

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had ‘only moderate heritage significance.’ He immediately contacted Fremantle Society member and Murdoch historian Prof. Bob Reece to help him research the real significance of the Victoria Quay buildings.232

The Fremantle Port Authority was also required by the Heritage Council to fund a study of the importance of these buildings, and commissioned heritage architect Alan Kelsall to report on their architectural significance. Dr Nonja Peters, an academic specialising in immigration history in WA, worked with Alan to produce the final report.233

It was a standing joke among Society members that John Dowson never slept; or if he ever did it was only briefly. This enabled him, despite a full-time teaching job, to turn out a 100-page booklet on the rich Australian immigration story to complement the Kelsall-Peters report. Instead of concentrating on the buildings John focused on the social aspect of the immigration story, and included the history of migration through Fremantle, people’s personal stories and experiences, and many photographs. The study showed the important role played by the immigration buildings in the development of the state and called for full heritage protection of the buildings and their restoration as a museum of immigration as was provided in other states.234

However, when advance copies of the booklet were offered to Mayor Tagliaferri and councillors the response was tepid. Only three councillors asked for copies. John Dowson found the lack of interest in the immigration story by Fremantle’s civic leaders depressing.235 Nevertheless, his view was vindicated when the Heritage Council ruled that the immigration building was historically significant and could not be demolished.

Similar protection was not extended to the C.Y. O’Connor building, however, and as serious planning for the commercial development on Victoria Quay began in 2002 John Dowson voiced his concern that the building could well be demolished. Fremantle Ports (formerly the Fremantle Port Authority) assured the Fremantle Gazette that the proposal would not involve the demolition of any

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buildings on the quay, and that community consultation would be an important part of the project.236

John’s worst fears about Victoria Quay seemed to be justified when Gerard MacGill, convenor of the North Fremantle Community Association, released to the paper what he had managed to find out about the real bulk and scale of the proposed development on the quay. The Fremantle Herald in May 2004 showed a vast hulk looming over the railway station, blocking the view of the port, the ships and even the huge cranes on the waterfront.237

A public outcry followed, despite soothing statements from the Fremantle Ports CEO Kerry Sanderson that ‘plans are still in the development stage’ and that there would be public consultations once approvals were being sought. The image was horrific, and few agreed with Chamber of Commerce chief John Longley’s view that it was more important to have continuing regional status and increased commercial activity than ‘pleasant views of cranes and ships’ funnels’.238 Many residents strongly disagreed in letters to the Herald, pointing out that such ‘pleasant views’ was what made living in Fremantle different from living in the suburbs.

However, by this time John Dowson was moving into another phase of his life. In late 2003 the book he had worked on for a long time was published by UWA Press titled Old Fremantle: Photographs 1850-1950. This went on to win the City of Fremantle heritage award for published work as well as the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award (PBA) for non-fiction.

New horizons were beckoning, and John decided not to stand for re-election as president of the Fremantle Society, throwing the Society into something of a crisis.


220 John Dowson, interview with Ron Davidson, 14 December 2009; John Dowson to Ron and Dianne Davidson, 3 May 2007.
221 Fremantle Herald, 10 April 1999.
222 ibid.
223 Fremantle Herald, 20 December 1999.
224 Fremantle Herald, 8 February 2000.
225 Fremantle Herald, 15 May 2000.
226 Fremantle Gazette, 6 June 2000.
227 Fremantle Herald, 17 June 2000.
228 John Dowson, interview with Ron Davidson, 14 December 2009.
229 Fremantle Herald, 10 November 2001.
230 Fremantle Herald, 13 May 2000.
231 Fremantle Gazette, 13 June 2000.
232 Fremantle Gazette, 12 December 2000.
233 Kelsall & Peters Heritage Assessment of Victoria Quay, April 2001.
234 Twentieth century immigration through Fremantle: the Fremantle Society Report, June 2001.
235 Fremantle Herald, 23 June 2001.
236 Fremantle Gazette, 10-16 February 2004.
237 Fremantle Herald, 15 May 2004.
238 Fremantle Herald, 29 May 2004.

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Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2020 | Now: 7 November, 2022