Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 3

Into the Lion’s Den

The formation of the Fremantle Society at the same time as the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 was a happy coincidence, certainly for the Society. Both had similar views about the importance of communities and of Australian heritage. Even while in opposition, Gough Whitlam had proclaimed in a policy speech that government ‘should see itself as the curator and not the liquidator of the national estate'.21 He also saw Fremantle as being particularly worthy of interest, and is quoted as saying that ‘Fremantle will receive special attention as it is one of the few towns in Australia that retains its historic character and is at the same time a thriving community'.22

The Fremantle Society was quick to cement this potential relationship. Radical unionist Patrick

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Tom Uren (front right) with Bill McKenzie (front left), 1980. [City of Fremantle LHC]

‘Paddy’ Troy, who was on the inaugural committee of the Society, was chosen to write to Tom Uren, newly appointed Minister for Urban and Regional Development, introducing the aims of the Society and asking for the financing of a study aimed at the protection of Fremantle’s ‘character and identity’.23 Paddy Troy, workers’ hero and perhaps the most respected face in Fremantle, wrote in a very formal manner - Dear Mr Minister, Yours faithfully - so his personal relationship with the minister was not revealed. But then Paddy Troy wrote business letters in this formal way too. Tom Uren, heavyweight boxing champion, survivor as a prisoner-of-war of the Burma-Siam railway, witness of the Nagasaki atom bomb, supporter of communities and their heritage, and great bloke, responded with ‘Dear Paddy’ and ‘Yours fraternally’. He was optimistic about an early announcement of a ‘detailed study of Fremantle’s buildings and environment.’24 He was also encouraging - one of his personal staff had recently toured Fremantle with City Manager Stan Parks and Council’s consultant architect Rob Campbell, and had been most enthusiastic on his return to Canberra.25

Union leader Paddy Troy, 1965. [Hazel Butorac]

There was another happy coincidence. The architect and driving force of the Australian Labor Party’s policy for the creation of the new federal Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD), was Dr Pat Troy, Australian National University urban planner and son of Paddy. Pat Troy had been offered the headship of DURD but preferred to be Deputy Secretary with a general responsibility for the department’s programs, including social justice issues. He was determined

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that DURD would be rigorous in its handling of grants to communities, with no favouritism to be shown - but Fremantle was his home town.26

Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour. [City of Fremantle LHC]

The Fremantle Society had been working on a new planning scheme with thirty ideas for Fremantle’s regeneration. It was called ‘Ideas for a City - Fremantle’. This concept plan broke new ground by dividing the City of Fremantle into distinct areas, each with its own character - the West End, Phillimore Street, the Esplanade area, the Fishing Boat Harbour and the residential area beyond Hampton Road. There was a special emphasis on the West End and the need to protect it from the proposed bypass which would involve the destruction of Henry Street. In March 1973 they forwarded copies of this document to DURD, to the state government and to the City of Fremantle.

Here the Fremantle Society hit a stern reality check. The Society believed Council would be won over by the reasoning and good sense behind their

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planning for Fremantle. However, Stan Parks, the ever-wise City Manager, took the Society executive aside and pointed out that rationality was, of itself, rarely enough when it came to planning matters. He said committed Fremantle Society councillors were required in the chamber in order to really make a difference.

However, there were glimmers of hope. The group which had produced ‘Preservation and Change’ (this was now known as the Preservation Group) put out a new document in February 1973, ‘Changing Fremantle’. In this the five members of the group presented their individual views about progress and preservation. Predictably, the City Planner and Engineer Ken Bott and Building Surveyor Eric Morriss produced relatively brief statements generally reiterating their vision of a modernised Fremantle with a minimum of preservation.

The other three were much more concerned about the potential loss of Fremantle’s essential character with the destruction of existing buildings. Murray Edmonds even issued a warning:

If we fail, or simply care too little, then we can sit back and wait - it won’t be a long wait - for that once identifiable, once proudly different place called Fremantle to be renamed what it will inevitably become - Port Perth.27

More importantly, the Preservation Group persuaded the Fremantle City Council’s Cultural Development Committee, of which it was an offshoot, to urge Council to approach the federal Labor government for finance to undertake a study of Fremantle and its special needs. In addition, the Cultural Development Committee recommended that until such a survey had been carried out, all plans to demolish or alter buildings, or to build new ones, had to come before the Council for evaluation. This recommendation was adopted by the Council in February 1973 and a process was put in place according to which all developments would come before the Executive Committee of the Council, and that the Executive Committee in turn would consult the Preservation Group before making recommendations to the full Council.28

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Sydney's ABC television presenter Bill Peach interviews Alross Whittington about life in Fremantle, 1975. [Don Whittington]

In addition, the recently appointed committee for an inquiry into the National Estate, chaired by prominent QC Justice Robert Marsden Hope, visited Fremantle and met with Les Lauder and other Fremantle Society committee members. They were given a tour of Fremantle, and were suitably impressed, describing Fremantle as ‘a gem’ and ‘one of the most intact and significant historic areas left in Australia.’29

These were promising developments, but it was still true that an overwhelming majority of Fremantle councillors were strongly in favour of modernisation and progress, and Stan Parks’ advice to get Fremantle Society people on Council was sound. When Les Lauder heard Charlie Rule - who had represented North Ward since 1947 - calling for the demolition of the Round House, which he described as ‘a nuisance’, he decided there and then that Charlie Rule would have to be the first to go and that he, Les, would stand against him in the May 1973 elections. The Round House, after all, had been chosen as the logo of the Fremantle Society. Les had moved to Fremantle in early 1973 from Cottesloe, so was now eligible to stand for Council.

Somewhat bemused, Mayor Bill McKenzie, who generally agreed with the Fremantle Society’s aims and plans, protested that Charlie Rule was ‘quite a nice bloke’ and should be allowed to keep his seat. However, he did nothing to prevent Les standing, and even provided him with advice and tips on campaigning - like not to forget fences and footpaths.

The campaign was massive. An elaborate card system was prepared for

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each ward member. Les doorknocked the entire North Ward, campaigning on a program of stopping further industrial expansion at the expense of residents, removal of offensive industry and reviving North Fremantle as a place to live. With voting being optional, his aim was to get the vote out. Doorknocking to get the vote out started early and did not finish until just before 8 p.m., when polling stopped. Many non-voters were not pleased to have their evening disturbed, but still, Les got a very favourable reception overall.

He also encountered a lot of hopelessness. North Fremantle people told him they had tried petitioning Council to change its policies but had got nowhere, and the councillors currently representing the area could also see no way of reversing the damage being done to local communities by the mania to industrialise at all costs.

Thankfully, there was no shortage of volunteers to help Les. Membership of the Fremantle Society was by then over five hundred, and many were full of enthusiasm and eager to do something. There were also some notable names from across the political spectrum who came to help on the actual election day: Kim Beazley Senior, ALP federal member for Fremantle and successor to John Curtin, the family of then Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck, Paddy Troy and other union members all turned up. Sir Frederick Samson (who had authorised Les’ campaign pamphlets) handed out how-to-vote cards. The result was a record voter turnout (over 70%) and a landslide victory for Les, who got twice as many votes as his opponent.

During his campaign Les Lauder had promised local residents to call a public meeting on the future of North Fremantle. After his record win he was determined to deliver on his promise, and organised such a meeting at the North Fremantle Town Hall in July of that year. A very large number of people came, and Les presented them with a petition he had drawn up. This called for Council to drop its existing planning scheme for North Fremantle, and rezone the area to protect residential properties. The petition was enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed by the meeting, and large numbers of volunteers distributed it around the North Fremantle area. It ended up being signed by ninety per cent of local residents.30

Always partial to a bit of drama, Les presented the document to the full Council. In his words: ‘I think I flung it on the table, and people were rather stunned when I read it out and mentioned the numbers of people I spoke for.’ It was received with some hostility by City Planner Ken Bott, whose vision for North Fremantle was being attacked, and by Councillor Esme Fletcher, who shared her husband’s

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views about Fremantle being only fit for bulldozers.31 However, by the end of 1973 the Fremantle Society newsletter could announce that almost the whole area east of Stirling Highway had been rezoned residential, as had the area southwest of Quarry Street in the city section of North Ward. The industrialising blight had been arrested.32

Les managed to get on the influential Planning Committee immediately and began a campaign to get rid of the City Planner and his industrialising vision. He found allies in Mayor Bill McKenzie, and City Manager Stan Parks, but generally Council attitudes were hostile: long-serving Councillor and member of a notable Fremantle merchant family Bob Higham demanded to know what right Les had to talk about Fremantle, when he had only been there ‘five minutes’. Les had his response ready: ‘I chose to come. You chose to leave.’33 The relationship did not improve over the years.

Les Lauder entered Council at a crucial and interesting time. A preliminary survey of Fremantle buildings and an assessment of how Fremantle should develop had finally been done. The federal government had established the Cities Commission to work with the Department of Urban and Regional Development and with the newly formed Hope Inquiry into the National Estate to come up with a five-year plan for national development and conservation. As part of its inquiry, the Cities Commission appointed a private company, Maunsell & Partners Pty Ltd, to do an initial study of Fremantle’s historic sites. This study, ‘Fremantle Historical Buildings - Initial Study’, was submitted in July 1973. It acknowledged and largely supported the arguments contained in the Fremantle Society’s ‘Ideas for a City - Fremantle’. It also recommended a thorough study of Fremantle’s inner city area and a review of Council regulations to ensure that development could be controlled to protect existing buildings and streetscapes.

Fremantle City Council, on the urging of Stan Parks, applied for and received funding from the federal government to undertake such a study. Maunsell & Partners, in conjunction with Assistant City Planner Rob Henwood and Council’s

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consultant architect and Preservation Group member Rob Campbell, were commissioned to do this follow-up study. This was finalised and presented in September of the following year, as ‘Fremantle: Guidelines for Development’, and essentially confirmed the principles outlined in ‘Ideas for a City - Fremantle’. It proposed a Town Planning Scheme which included as one of its objectives ‘the conservation of the unique historic and architectural character of Fremantle’ and recommended strict height restrictions.34

These developments augured well in the long term for the Fremantle Society’s vision for the future of the city. In the meantime, however, major battles loomed.


21 Andrea Witcomb & Kate Gregory, From the Barracks to the Burrup, National Trust of Australia (WA), University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2010, p. 271.
22 Fremantle Society Newsletter, March— April 1974.
23 Correspondence between Patrick I. Troy and Hon T. Uren MHR, 11 April 1973 and 28 May 1973.
24 ibid.
25 ibid.
26 Personal communication, Patrick Troy to Ron Davidson, 7 January 2009.
27 City of Fremantle, ‘Changing Fremantle', February 1973, p. 6.
28 Bizzaca, ‘A history of the development of the heritage movement', pp. 43-45.
29 Fremantle Society Newsletter, August 1973.
30 Les Lauder, interview with Dianne Davidson, 23 May 1991.
31 ibid.
32 Fremantle Society Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 6, November—December 1973.
33 Les Lauder, interview with Dianne Davidson, 23 May 1991.
34 Bizzaca, ‘A history of the development of the heritage movement’, pp. 45-49.
35 Fremantle Society Newsletter, August 1973.

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Garry Gillard | New: 16 June, 2020 | Now: 19 June, 2021