Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 4

The Battles Begin

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When the first dedicated Fremantle Society councillor was elected there had been on Council’s books for some months a development proposal for a sixteen-storey glass office tower on the north-east corner of Kings Square. The development was backed by a collection of Fremantle notables.

The Fremantle Society had already lodged formal protests against the tower in February and April of 1973, pointing out its unacceptable bulk and scale. It had received an assurance from Stan Parks before the May Council election that the project had not yet come before Council, and was still in a very preliminary stage. However, it was soon given elements of a Crystal Palace and presented to the new Council with a glittering commentary. No superlative was left unused: the glass tower ‘will restore what is fast becoming a dead heart which will be abandoned at night to the drunken brawls of the class of people that frequented East Perth ten years ago’; their ‘Victorian style building will make Fremantle one of the tourist attractions of the Southern Hemisphere’ and without it ‘Fremantle will languish as a small fishing village.’ And to clinch the argument

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the developers assured councillors that ‘the Golden Age of Architecture in this city is yet to come.’ 35

According to Les Lauder, when the Society rejected these arguments and continued to resist the building, financial inducements were offered. These offers failed to move him, so there were late-night phone calls threatening to cut him up and use him as craybait; and of course the beheaded rooster mentioned at the beginning of this book.

The debate within Council also turned nasty. Full Council was asked to remove from the Planning Committee Denis Sowden, the colourful butcher who used a converted Rolls-Royce as his delivery van. His Fremantle credentials were impeccable. His great grandparents had walked off the Long Jetty carrying their cases and found a room in South Fremantle. Despite this background Denis was to be punished for campaigning vigorously against the glass tower: he was subjected to bitter personal abuse from the proponents of the tower before being kicked off the Council’s Town Planning Committee on a 9-7 vote.

Stan Parks, 1972. [City of Fremantle LHC]

Finally Stan Parks took the leaders of the debate aside, mentioned the possible dangers of a police investigation for some of them, then commented on their behaviour. He told them in a characteristically blunt turn of phrase to ‘pull their heads in’. Rob Campbell suggested a compromise and proposed the height be pruned to four storeys on the street frontages with an eight-storey tower in the rear. The Planning Committee unanimously backed the compromise, but full Council was evenly divided on the proposal. It was carried on the casting vote of Mayor Bill McKenzie - the first of more than ten occasions when the mayor’s casting vote saved the day on a Fremantle Society issue. The proponents, including Deputy Mayor Ron Warren, Councillor Bill Hughes and his son-in-law Alan Bond, initially refused to accept the scaled-down version but eventually a four-storey building went up.36

Fighting them on the beaches: Les Lauder, Moss Cass and Helen Mills at Leighton Beach, 1974. [Helen Mills]

In 1974, a year after being elected to the Council, Les Lauder was also appointed to the newly formed Interim National Estate

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Committee which the Whitlam government had created to assess applications for restoration funding pending the creation of an Australian Heritage Commission. Les believes he was probably chosen on the recommendation of Paddy Troy, but the appointment was a real coup for the Fremantle Society.37 The National Trust (WA) had also been strongly involved with the Hope Inquiry into the National Estate, putting forward submissions, forwarding its heritage registers and escorting members of the inquiry around National Trust sites, as well as advising the state government on its dealings with the inquiry. A representative from the National Trust would have been a more obvious choice for a Western Australian appointment to the Interim Committee, but clearly Les and the Fremantle Society had acquired a higher profile with the Whitlam administration. Interestingly, with the change of the federal government at the end of 1975 the Court Liberal government recommended the replacement of Les by a more Liberal Party oriented National Trust representative.38 However, in the meantime Fremantle benefited greatly from Les’ appointment; almost half of the initial 1973-74 National Estate grant sum of $325,000 was specifically allocated for work in Fremantle.

Fremantle Society’s link with the Whitlam government was further demonstrated when Federal Minister for the Environment and Conservation Moss Cass visited Fremantle and was taken on a guided tour by Les and Society Vice-President Helen Mills. He was appalled by a huge pile of scrap metal dumped on Leighton Beach by the Fremantle Port Authority and horrified by the plan to run a freeway through the West End of Fremantle that he had just inspected. Les and Helen discussed with him the need for affordable housing in Fremantle, especially for old people, and raised the issue of possible federal funding for the Council to acquire and restore old properties. Dr Cass advised an approach to the Federal Minister for Housing, Les Johnson, and the Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren.39 This resulted in 1975 in a grant of $120,000 from the National Estate to the City of Fremantle to establish a rolling fund for a small houses scheme.40

Despite these breakthroughs and despite their acceptance of the published ‘Fremantle: Guidelines for Development’ many Fremantle councillors were still unconvinced about Fremantle’s worth as a historic port city, and in 1974 Ken Bott was still pushing for the demolition of Fremantle Markets to make way for a set of traffic lights at the intersection of Henderson Street and South Terrace. The requirements of traffic flow would necessitate that the intersection be moved

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Reopening of Fremantle Markets - Don Whittington at his spice stall, 1975. [City of Fremantle LHC]

southward, and the Markets building was the only one owned by the Council. This move was strongly opposed by Stan Parks and the Fremantle Society, who believed that the Markets should be restored and revived. Les remembers that he was about to leave for a meeting of the Interim National Estate Committee in Canberra, while Stan Parks was rushing through a plan for restoration of the Markets together with a request for Commonwealth funding. It was not ready by the time Les had to leave for the airport, and the Deputy City Manager ‘arrived panting at the airport just as I was about to board,’ carrying the completed submission.41 The funds were granted, the Markets were restored and there was a triumphant reopening in October 1975.

From about 1973 there were strong moves to demolish Victoria Hall, the neo-classical church hall in High Street designed by prominent architect J.J. Talbot Hobbs. it featured a vaulted ceiling of polished wood which could almost be ‘played’ like a musical instrument by those who knew how to ‘throw’ their voices. Later Victoria Hall was where Fremantle bands played and Fremantle kids learned to dance. The hall was owned through the 1960s and 1970s by Norm Wrightson, bandleader and barber (six chairs, no waiting) and his brother Bob who had recently been crowned ballroom champion of the world. The brothers wanted to replace Victoria Hall with a single-storey office block.

The Happy Hour Club inside Victoria Hall at 179 High Street, c. 1938. [City of Fremantle LHC]

For the Fremantle Society the plan represented a double threat: there was the loss of one of the few original buildings still left east of the Town Hall, and more importantly, any demolition and new building would spur the widening of High Street by more than 5.2 metres on either side. That requirement had been on the books since the Stephenson-Hepburn plan came out in 1955.

Jack Mundey, 1970. [Helen Mills]

Renowned environmental activist and president of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation Jack Mundey had visited Fremantle a year earlier. He had strong connections with the Society; Les Lauder had met him through the National Estate Committee, and he was also a friend of the Society’s Vice-President Helen Mills. Jack Mundey and Helen were both councillors for their

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respective states of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and had met at a conference in Melbourne.42 He was a famous advocate since the 1960s of the use of Green Bans to save buildings for the community. The Society wrote to the current secretary of the local Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) to ask for help to get a Green Ban placed on Victoria Hall. By the time the letter arrived a young Kevin Reynolds had wrested the secretary’s job from the incumbent. Reynolds wanted evidence that there was strong community support for a Green Ban on Victoria Hall. BLF organiser Bob Olsen set out to produce such evidence.

Victoria Hall detail [Fremantle Herald]

Olsen was a member of the Fremantle Society committee, but this night he wanted to remain anonymous. He disguised himself and his trailer numberplate with soot and oil, threw aboard some picks and shovels and parked his Simca and trailer outside Victoria Hall. Then he proceeded to make the noises of a demolition gang; he knew these noises well.

Fremantle was, at that stage, in a state of high alert for any late-night (unauthorised) demolitions. It seemed that here was one. 'Get moving with those floorboards. The truck arrives soon,’ called Bob. Someone heard this and shouted, ‘Ring Les!’ Mobile phones were still twenty years in the future. A crowd soon gathered to stop the apparent demolition of the hall. Bob Olsen disappeared into the night. Next morning there was a meeting on a BLF site and Bob could report the public interest demonstrated the previous evening. The Green Ban was applied.

Victoria Hall, 2003. [Michal Lewi]

Nonetheless, at a full Council meeting in March 1974 it was decreed by a vote of 10-8 that demolition of Victoria Hall could proceed, and the owners organised an auction to be held on 26 June. The auction was going well and the auctioneer was about to drop the hammer and sell the hall when two figures emerged from the crowd and announced that there was a Green Ban on the building. One was Society Vice-President Helen Mills, pushing her baby in a pram and holding a toddler by the hand; the other was BLF organiser Bob Henry. The crowd dissolved. There was no sale.

From time to time over the next twenty-five years Victoria Hall remained under threat, once as a cane furniture shop, until it was bought by the City of Fremantle in 2000 and serious restoration of the building began under the supervision of the Council’s heritage architect Agnieshka Kiera. Then in 2005 it became home for the Deckchair Theatre.

A number of Fremantle Society members who came from conservative leafy suburbs like Dalkeith, Nedlands and Claremont were not happy to see union muscle being applied to stop workmen from using their muscles on demolitions. It is reported in Fremantle Impressions that Bob Olsen went (anonymously) to Norm Wrightson’s Hairway for a shave and Norm was running the cutthroat razor over Bob’s throat. At the same time he was telling the man in the next chair what he would do if he came across ‘those union people’.43

It was the second time that such conservative members had had reason to be unhappy. On the first occasion a councillor, John Green, wanted to demolish

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Dalkeith House at 160 High Street and replace it with ‘a state of the art' funeral parlour. Councillor Green already had a funeral business in Fremantle; he also had no idea of the history of the house he wanted to demolish. Dalkeith House had been the iconic home of James Gallop Jr and it had a considerable history involving trade union militancy. In 1952 there had been a large demonstration when all the tenants, mostly workers on the wharf, were evicted. Two thousand unionists from the Seamen’s Union, the Waterside Workers Federation, the Railways Union and Paddy Troy’s old union, the Painters and Dockers, threatened strike action to close the wharf. The Painters and Dockers were deregistered over this threat. When he heard of the threat to number 160 in 1974, Paddy Troy declared it ‘was sacred territory’ because of the earlier action and could not be touched.44 The following year Councillor Green died suddenly and the threatened building became a community school for a while, then a home for the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, incorporating a padded soundproof screaming room for therapeutic purposes. It eventually became the home of Jenny Archibald while she was president of the Fremantle Society and later a

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councillor and then mayor of Fremantle. Since 1994 it has been the local base for the Dharmapala Buddhist Centre.

Fremantle Fire Station, 1974. [Michal Lewi]

The Fremantle Society had another success when the old fire station in Phillimore Street was destined for demolition in 1974, to be replaced by a new building which would be out of sympathy with the very intact Phillimore Street precinct. The Society recognised that the facilities at the fire station were inadequate and that a new building was needed for the Fire Brigades Board to operate satisfactorily. However, they advocated strongly that the old building be retained, and a new fire station be built on railway land next to the existing building. Mayor Bill McKenzie agreed to negotiate with the state government about this, and eventually won agreement that the land should be released for this purpose. The old fire station remained, and is currently home to the Bengal Indian Curry House.45

The clash between the self-styled Fremantle Council modernisers and the Fremantle Society supporters was intense and extended from 1972 to 1976. However, Les won a decisive victory after much lobbying and consultation with Stan Parks and Mayor Bill McKenzie: in late 1974 his nemesis Ken Bott was replaced as City Planner by his former assistant, Rob Henwood. Henwood had done a similar world port city tour to that undertaken by Murray Edmonds, and had also returned full of enthusiasm about the preservation and restoration of buildings.46

In 1974 the City of Fremantle received $151,000 from the National Estate Committee for various restoration projects, including the Round House and Fremantle Markets. This grant was also to be used for an inquiry into the future use of Fremantle Prison to be conducted by Rob Campbell. Additional grants that benefited Fremantle were made to the National Trust for restoration of the Scots Church and of the Community Education Centre for Princess May School. There was also a grant for the restoration under the auspices of the National Trust of a private dwelling in Norfolk Street, Fremantle.47 This was highly unusual, and was only possible in Western Australia because of the existence of a National Trust Covenant which ensured that future owners could not demolish or alter the property in question without the permission of the Trust. This arrangement did not exist in other states.48

The City of Fremantle grant also provided $3000 to assist in a study of the feasibility of restoring the Evan Davies Library building in South Terrace and converting it for permanent use as a theatre. Part of the building had been used

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for some time by an amateur drama group, the Harbour Theatre, and this group had made the submission to the Department of Urban and Regional Development for the National Estate grant.

Initially the Council, by a slender majority, actually voted to reject this grant. There had been repeated attempts to tear down the historic building. The modernisers wanted an emphatic win — a demolition — to reassert their dominant position within the Council. They mocked its usefulness. You could fire a shotgun down South Terrace and not hit anyone, strident moderniser Esme Fletcher told Council.49 The Society felt it was at a turning point in Fremantle’s fortunes and pulled out all stops to save it, even though the building was not in the main historic precinct of the West End.

The Evan Davies Civic Library, 1971. [City of Fremantle FHC]

The Evan Davies building was a carryover from the days of working-class education and literary institutes. In the 1950s, it had been the state’s first free municipal library, for which Councillor Davies had been a passionate worker. In November 1972 the Fremantle City Council resolved that the library site ‘be developed as parkland when the building is no longer required for library services.’ It would have to be a very small park. The library moved into a new building beside the town hall in 1974. In August 1975 Councillor Warren wanted the earlier resolution reaffirmed. But in the 1975 elections two more Fremantle Society committee members had been elected to Council: Gerard MacGill for North Ward and Don Whittington for Hilton. When Councillor Warren moved adoption of the 1972 motion, councillors Lauder and MacGill played for time and moved to refer the matter back to the original committee, the Executive Committee. To everyone’s surprise this was carried.50

It was by now a complex motion with a couple of negatives to negotiate along the way. Was this part of the plan? Certainly some modernisers may have thought they were voting to demolish the building when they supported the motion. Over the next year there were further attempts to demolish Evan Davies, through the Executive Committee claiming that parkland would provide far greater amenity for the citizens of Fremantle. But Mayor McKenzie, as chair of the Executive Committee, refused to move the motion. Les Lauder and Gerard MacGill again quickly moved the matter back.

Led by Les Lauder, Gerard MacGill and Don Whittington, the Society and Harbour Theatre lobbied relentlessly to have Council accept the National Estate grant and fund the study. In record time Rob Campbell produced a favourable report on the building which included a notional design developed by theatre

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design consultant Peter Parkinson. This design assumed that the whole building would be made available for theatre use.

Petitions were also organised; by August 1975 the Council had received two petitions from the public. One, with eighty-two signatures, came from local traders and shoppers who asked that the building not be restored. The other, presented by Les, carried 2742 signatures from people wanting it restored and turned into a theatre.51

Mayor Bill McKenzie called a public meeting on the matter in October 1975, which was attended by several hundred people. Discussion largely concentrated on the expenses associated with restoration. Fremantle Society representatives argued that if Fremantle destroyed a historic building classified by the National Trust it was unlikely to receive grants in future from the National

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Estate. In the end the meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the building, and requested that Council staff prepare a financial report.

Fremantle City Council, 1976. Front row (left to right): Gerard McGill; June Boddy; Les Lauder; Sadie Stone; Mayor Bill McKenzie; Amelie Whittington; Jack Sowden; Esme Fletcher; Oscar Stack. Back row: Frank del Rosso; Kevin Gleeson; Bob Higham; Mark Staniford; Peter Newman; Dick Cotton; John Cattalini; Don Whittington; Joe Minervini; Ron Warren. [City of Fremantle FHC]

Despite the large petition and the feeling of the public meeting, the modernisers persisted in moving the motion for demolition. However, they were swimming against the tide. In May 1976 four more Fremantle Society members were elected to Council: Amelie Whittington, Peter Newman, Mark Staniford and June Boddy. The numbers were shifting. By late 1976 the Fremantle Society newsletter could announce that the Evan Davies building was safe at last. It had been saved on the casting vote, once again, of Mayor Bill McKenzie, and the Council had accepted a $35,000 National Estate grant for its restoration.

After the victory Bill McKenzie told Les Lauder: ‘I don’t know what you see in most of these old buildings but I know that what you are doing is the right thing.’52


35 Fremantle Society Newsletter, August 1973.
36 Les Lauder, interview at Fremantle Studies Day, October 2001 in Fremantle City Library, Local History Collection.
37 Les Lauder, interview with the authors, 25 February 2009.
38 Witcomb & Gregory, From the Barracks to the Burrup, p. 279.
39 Fremantle, vol. 2, no. 6, October-November 1974 (NB This Is the first time the Society newsletter appears with a name).
40 Fremantle, vol. 3, no. 2,1975.
41 Les Lauder, interview with the authors, 25 February 2009.
42 Helen Mills, interview with Ron Davidson, 28 October 2009.
43 Ron Davidson, Fremantle Impressions, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle 2007, p. 158.
44 Personal communication, John Troy to Ron Davidson, 6 October 2008.
45 Fremantle Society Newsletter, January-February 1974; Fremantle, October-November 1974.
46 Bizzaca, 'A history of the development of the heritage movement’, p. 50.
47 Fremantle, no. 1,1975.
48 Witcomb & Gregory, From the Barracks to the Burrup, p. 276.
49 ibid.
50 Fremantle City Council minutes, 21 August 1975.
51 Fremantle, vol. 3, no. 4,1975.
52 Les Lauder, email to authors, 2 December 2009.

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