Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 2
Wouldn't It Be Marvellous?

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Les Lauder was a boy from the bush - he grew up in the Northampton-Geraldton area. He was largely raised by his grandmother, who had come from South Australia to teach in a bush school. Les describes her as ‘a cultured woman from a German family’12 who instilled in him a love of history, culture and the arts as well as an appreciation of the beauty of old buildings.

He remembers working in Perth in the 1960s and watching the progressive destruction of St Georges Terrace:

I remember being, horrified at the demolition of the T & G building on the corner of Barrack Street and St Georges Terrace, which was a late Victorian Gothic fantasy of about six floors with a cupola and fancy arches and decorative brickwork and the whole Victorian gold rush thing, a remarkable building which people would fight for now.13

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T&G Chambers, corner of Bar rack Street and St Georges Terrace, Perth, demolished in the 1960s. [WA Newspapers]

By 1972 Les had completed a degree in psychology at UWA and was working in Fremantle as a guidance officer at the John Curtin High School, Hamilton High School and Bicton Primary School. He had yet to get a driver’s licence and became aware of the relative intactness of Fremantle in comparison with Perth as he walked and bussed from workplace to workplace. He recalls his mixed feelings:

I’d come as a child to visit other relatives in Fremantle, and I suppose in the very early days I shared some of the prejudices against Fremantle. It seemed very run-down and grotty and uninviting. At the same time I was aware of the vestiges of its former glory. I particularly remember Queen Victoria Street and its great houses that had fallen on hard times and become boarding houses. So I was certainly aware of quite a lot of what Fremantle had, and I became conscious of the fact that much of Fremantle was intact and that Perth was clearly losing its intactness and losing its soul.14

One of Les Lauder’s colleagues was Barbara Bennetts, who was involved with the York Society. This group had been formed in 1968 after the Department of Local Government had issued an order that all verandah posts be removed from Avon Terrace, where buildings had remained virtually intact since their construction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was enormous community opposition to this order, and while many posts were indeed removed, the conflict had seen the rise of a strong heritage conservation movement in York.

During the August-September school holidays in 1972 Les and another teacher friend, Keith Sinclair, visited Barbara Bennetts in York, met with other members of the York Society and heard about their work. They were very impressed. Keith remembers that when they returned to Cottesloe Les was full of enthusiasm and said: ‘You know, the York Society is doing such good things. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if there was a Fremantle Society?’ And Keith’s response was instant: ‘There could be a Fremantle Society - and you can do it - but you’ve got to get the mayor on side. You have to make an appointment tomorrow to see Sir Frederick Samson.’15

Sir Frederick was a Fremantle legend. Grandson of pioneer settler and liquor merchant Lionel Samson, his ancestors in England were connected to wealthy banking families like the Rothschilds; however, Sir Frederick himself was regarded as a ‘rough diamond’ by his contemporaries. His family had already produced

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Top: Sir Frederick Samson meets members of the Craft Guild. 1971. [WA Newspapers]

two mayors of Fremantle; he himself became the third, serving as mayor from 1951 until he retired in 1972. He had a passion for Fremantle, and regarded Perth as something of a foreign country. He was always singing Fremantle’s praises, and eventually became generally known as ‘Mr Fremantle’.16 Sir Frederick was chiefly responsible for the retention and restoration of the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, yet he could at the same time announce the death of Fremantle as a residential area. He saw nothing wrong with demolishing the Johnston Memorial Church, built in 1877, and replacing it with the ugly Johnston Court high-rise apartment block in Adelaide Street in the centre of the city. He also saw the striking art deco Oriana cinema pulled down in 1972 when he was secretary of Hoyts, and replaced by single-storey shops set back from the original building line in accordance with the overall plan for High Street. He told Ron Davidson that city housing should be removed because ‘people brought the rats’.

Such was the short but powerful, charismatic and contradictory figure on whose support Fremantle heritage depended. Despite some reservations about what he had let himself in for, Les pressed on.

Sir Frederick received him cordially and thought the idea of a Fremantle Society a good one. However, he reminded Les that he had just retired as mayor, and thought an approach should be made to current members and council officers. So Les sought out Murray Edmonds, the Deputy Town Clerk and one of the promoters of ‘Fremantle: Preservation and Change’. While in Edmonds’ office at the Council Chambers Les looked out the window at the handsome three-storey brick and limestone warehouse opposite. This was precisely the sort of building that should be preserved at all costs, he said. Edmonds said he should look quickly; that building was to be demolished in a couple of weeks to make way for the Myer building.

Bottom: Helen Mills and Marny Lee outside 1 Burt Street, 2010. [Michal Lewi]

Les came away from the meeting with Edmonds with a sense that urgent action was needed, and put together a steering committee to discuss the possibility of forming a Fremantle Society, and to work out its possible structure and objectives. The committee consisted of Les’ colleague Barbara Bennetts; another teacher,

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Marny Worth (now Marny Lee); Roy Edinger, a pharmacist from Bicton; Jenny McNair, who acted as secretary for the group, and architecture student Warren Kerr, who went on to become national president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 2004. The committee was chaired by Les, and met at John and Marny Worth’s house in Burt Street to plot the next steps.

Les also wrote to the Paddington Society in Sydney, the North Adelaide Society and the Emerald Hill Association in Melbourne to seek their advice on the best way to proceed. All three organisations responded enthusiastically, agreeing that Fremantle was worthy of preservation, and that the formation of a Fremantle Society was very important. They also provided advice on dealing with Council, stressing the importance of producing well-researched documents drawn up by people with relevant expertise. The Paddington Society and the North Adelaide Society also sent copies of their constitutions, which included official statements of their objectives.

Encouraged by this positive response, Les wrote to the City of Fremantle requesting that their Exhibition Hall be made available for a public meeting to be

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held by the Fremantle Society, outlining its aims as:

1. To provide a responsible voice on matters affecting the overall character and development of Fremantle and to encourage the interest of residents in civic affairs.

2. To improve the Fremantle district as a desirable residential and commercial area without destroying its unique character.

3. To encourage the retention and restoration of buildings of historic and aesthetic value.

4. To encourage the further beautification of the district through more tree planting etc.

5. To foster the development of the city as a major cultural and entertainment centre.17

Despite some reservations about the appropriateness of the time of year for public meetings, the City agreed that such a meeting could be held on 6 December 1972. The steering committee swung into action, putting up posters around the city and talking to as many people as possible, urging them to attend and to spread the word.

Poster for the meeting to form the Fremantle Society, December 1972 [City of Fremantle LHC]

Les had prepared a speech, but was terrified at the prospect of having to deliver it, having had little experience of public speaking. And it seemed briefly as though he would be let off the hook: the meeting was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., and by 7.45 p.m. only four people had arrived. Others started trickling in, however, and in a short time about four hundred people packed the hall. Most were not from Fremantle itself, as relatively few restorations of old homes had started. There were some members of the National Trust (WA) present, including the Trust’s secretary, Mollie Lukis, and some members of the Royal WA Historical Society, but most of the crowd was composed of residents of East Fremantle, Bicton, Cottesloe and other nearby suburbs. Les recalls that:

There were people from all sorts of walks of life, and of all sorts of ages, who came to the meeting. A few I knew of, and a few when they identified themselves were obviously well-known people, such as Paddy Troy, the union leader.18

Kevin ‘Rusty’ Christensen, c. 1972 [Rusty Christensen]

The meeting was chaired by prominent local personality Kevin ‘Rusty’ Christensen, whose family had lived in Fremantle since the late nineteenth century. His grandfather had been a sail rigger, his father a lumper and Rusty had worked as a roof carpenter and then in real estate. It quickly became obvious that all those present were concerned about the future of Fremantle and were very much in favour of forming a Fremantle Society. It was an enthusiastic crowd, and Marny Lee remembers it as a very exciting evening, where ‘it felt as if we could actually do something — change our community for the better.’19 She nominated for the committee, as did Paddy Troy, UWA lecturer in architecture John White and lecturer in English and flamboyant actor Neville Teede.

So did lots of other people. Les recalls that the nominations just kept coming; when the number on the executive and committee reached twenty-two he felt he had to call a halt, and invited other interested people to leave their names and addresses. Les himself was unanimously voted in as inaugural President.

There was a humorous moment when Neville Teede challenged Rusty Christensen on his pronunciation of Fremantle. ‘Fremantle!' he declared. ‘Not Fremantle' (which was a favourite of commercial radio announcers). That dispute still continues, although someone did say at the meeting that Captain Fremantle had often spelt his name ‘Freemantle'. Then there was a difference of opinion over the joining fee for the Society; twenty dollars was suggested but Paddy Troy insisted that membership should be accessible to everybody. Paddy won the day, and two dollars was decreed to be the joining fee. A hundred people joined on the spot.20

The meeting also unanimously agreed to pursue aims which would be in direct conflict with the City of Fremantle’s official planning policies. Battle was about to be joined.


12 Les Lauder, interview with Dianne Davidson, 23 May 1991.
13 ibid.
14 ibid.
15 Keith Sinclair, interview with Ron Davidson, 28 July 2008.
16 Lois Anderson, ‘Sir Frederick Samson: the Mayor’, in Lyall Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits, UWA Press, WA, 1979.
17 Les Lauder to Fremantle City Council, 2 November 1972.
18 Les Lauder, interview with Dianne Davidson, 23 May 1991.
19 Marny Lee, interview with Ron Davidson, 8 January 2009.
20 ibid.

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