Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 7

A Long-term Success Story

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Another area the Fremantle Society involved itself in almost from the start was history, with a Historical Research subcommittee being established in 1974, convened by Society committee members Ruth Wight-Pickin and Marie Scott. The group began by arranging talks by Professor Geoffrey Bolton, writer and researcher Rica Erickson and the curator of history at the WA Museum, David Hutchison, on how to do basic historical research.85 They also informally consulted Dr Tom Stannage from the History Department at the University of Western Australia (UWA) on ways to improve their research methods.86

The group initially scoured the Battye Library for any material relevant to Fremantle, and published some early Gallop family letters in the Society’s newsletter. During 1975 the Society’s newsletter, now formally named Fremantle, featured a regular page entitled ‘Fremantle through the years’ that contained quotes from a variety of early newspapers about matters relating to Fremantle.

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In 1974 the Society successfully applied to the federal government for a grant to enable the Historical Research group to buy two tape recorders and four dozen tapes, as well as some basic history books aoout Fremantle Western Australia and more particuIarly Fremantle.87 The group recorded an irnpressive twenty-two interviews with longstanding Fremantle residents, but could not recruit enough volunteers to keep the project running beyond 1976.

The enthusiastic amateurs were briefly replaced at this point by a high-powered subcommittee which included some professional historians as well as the president of the Society Les Lauder, and was convened by Kenneth McPherson, an academic from the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at UWA.

The group planned to continue oral history and collect photographs, and aimed to produce ‘a composite publication which would concentrate upon the changing pattern and style of life in the city.’ Despite these somewhat grandiose aims its existence was in fact short-lived.88 In 1979 Kenneth resigned from the Fremantle Society committee due to pressure of work, but he also registered a complaint that most committee members seemed to be ‘strangely apathetic' about history. However, he recommended strongly that the oral history program should be continued.89

As it happened, early in 1979 the Society had surveyed its members and asked them to indicate what their interests were. Enough people claimed to be interested in Fremantle history for a meeting to be called in June by the Society’s convenor of activities, Gerda Fowler, who invited Larraine Stevens, librarian in charge of the Local History Collection at the Fremantle City Council Library, to talk to the Society about the aims and methods of oral history.

The timing turned out to be fortuitous. At this time oral history was beginning to be taken seriously by professional historians as a respectable source of formation about the past, and the Oral History Association of Australia (OHAA) had been formed in 1978. Larraine had become interested in getting an oral history project under way for the Local History Collection after taking part in an oral history course run by Jean Teasdale, organising secretary of the OHAA. The renewed interest of the Fremantle Society was an unexpected bonus.

As a result of the meeting a specific oral history sub-group was formed by the Fremantle Society under the convenorship of UWA academic Kathy Power to collect reminiscences by local residents about Fremantle and its history. The

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Fremantle Society joined the OHAA as an institutional member, and several members of the oral history group attended its first national conference, which included workshops on interviewing techniques, and Annual General Meeting in August 1979 at Mt Lawley College in Perth,

At the same time Larraine was asked by the Fremantle Society to take charge of the twenty-two tapes that had been recorded in 1974-75, as the Society had nowhere suitable to store them. Larraine offered to catalogue the tapes and make them available to researchers; no easy task, as the interviewers of the early 1970s had had no guidelines for the recording of oral history. Many interviewees had since died and Larraine had the unenviable task of tracking down relatives to sign release forms for the interviews. There was also no record on the tapes of the interviewers’ names, and these had to be identified by voice by Marie Scott. Eventually, however, Larraine had a good foundation for her oral history project.90

Whatever Kenneth McPherson’s reservations may have been about the viability of the oral history group, from its rebirth in 1979 it continued to go from strength to strength. Kathy Power left Fremantle for Subiaco in 1980 and the group then acquired the convenor who was to remain in that role for almost twenty years, the indefatigable and dedicated Alice Smith. Alice began as an enthusiastic amateur, but attended OHAA workshops and conferences and soon became an expert interviewer. Alice also benefited greatly from the guidance of Larraine, who became an indispensable member of the oral history group herself, and could point out areas where the Local History Collection needed more material.

Through the 1980s the group consisted of between eight and ten members, the most prominent being Alice Smith, Gerda Fowler, Zoe Griffin, Phoebe Freeman and Larraine. Their oral histories were planned around themes, with the first major theme being ‘Entertainment in Fremantle’ in 1983; interviews were recorded with members of Harbour Theatre, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre and Deckchair Theatre, which was then just getting started, as well as with members of bands and orchestras.91 ‘Fremantle in World War II’ followed in 1985, along with interviews done with the staff and original owner of the Fremantle Gazette after its takeover by Community Newspapers. Interviews with the staff of Freecoms grocery store in Adelaide Street were done in 1986-87 and in 1988 the group focused on the horse industry, once very important, especially in South Fremantle. They also did a series of interviews with the staff of the legendary Fremantle department store, Pellews.92

Pellews department store, 1912. [City of Fremantle LHC]

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But by far the most important project the oral history group worked on in the 1980s was its contribution to the 1988 Australian Bicentenary. In 1978 a group of historians and social scientists in the eastern states had decided to produce a series of volumes to describe various aspects of Australian life and history from 1788 to 1988. This project included preparation of a book about life in Australia in 1938 that was to incorporate a lot of oral history. Jean Teasdale was appointed the coordinator for Western Australia, and three areas were selected for study: Peppermint Grove, Subiaco and Fremantle.

Gerda Fowler and Alice Smith, 1980s. [City of Fremantle FHC]

The Fremantle Society oral history group was the group chosen to work on the Fremantle area for this project, and Alice, Larraine, Gerda Fowler, Zoe Griffin and Phoebe Freeman received special and detailed training. They were provided with questionnaires which covered all the details of everyday life in 1938: birth details, names of parents, schooling, work, household organisation, details about houses and inhabitants and how the households worked, courtship, marriage, health care, contact with those of other nationalities, role of Royal Family, and any perceived external threats. In addition, interviewees were encouraged to explore, if possible, more intimate details, such as sexual relationships, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, miscarriage, abortion — with optional anonymity offered.93

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Twenty interviews were carried out by the oral history group, and completed well within the stipulated time, which earned an accolade from Jean Teasdale. Much of the material was incorporated in Australians 1938, which formed volume 4 of the twelve-volume Australians: a historical library, which was published to celebrate the Bicentenary and distributed to libraries throughout the country.

In 1987 the Fremantle City Council Library organised a function at which the Mayor, John Cattalini, presented the oral history group with an official commendation certificate from the City of Fremantle, acknowledging the group’s major contribution to the Local History Collection.94

The oral history group met monthly at various places over the years. Its members listened to interviews that had been done and discussed them, noting what seemed to have worked and what hadn’t, and putting forward suggestions for improvements. It became an important social group for its members, and Larraine remembers her involvement with the group as one of her most satisfying roles during her long service as Local History Collection librarian.

The relationship between this very successful group and the Fremantle Society was curiously ambiguous. It was always listed as an official subcommittee of the Society and from 1982 Alice Smith was also a formal member of the Society’s committee; she also reported regularly in newsletters on the activities of the oral history group. But the group appeared to have its own separate social activities, organising talks, workshops and visits to other groups and places. These were not advertised in the Fremantle Society’s newsletter; instead, the group publicised its functions through community newspapers and radio stations.

During the time when the Fremantle Society was struggling to put together even a newsletter in the mid-1980s, the oral history group was at its peak, and in fact the only substantial issue of Fremantle in 1985 was devoted entirely to the activities of the oral history group.

Alice Smith did preserve an active link to the Fremantle Society proper in organising the Society’s annual walks around Fremantle, with commentary on the history of its buildings, usually held during some significant Council event such as Fremantle Week, Fremantle

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Festival or Heritage Week. These walks usually finished at the Society’s headquarters at Princess Chambers, where there were photos and artefacts on display for people to look at.95

The oral history group’s last major project was the South Terrace Primary School Oral History Project, which ran from August 1994 to January 1995. The group had dwindled by now to half its former size, with only Alice Smith, Daphne Goulding, Zoe Griffin and Phoebe Freeman remaining, with Larraine still taking an advisory role. They interviewed twenty-one former students, while eight other students produced written recollections of the original school, which is now part of Fremantle Hospital. A front-page story in Fremantle when the project was completed noted that ‘All former students referred to the original South Terrace Primary School as the “Big” school, and the then adjoining Alma Street School as the “Infants” school.’

Tapes and recollections were stored in the Local History Collection, with copies in the Fremantle Primary School library.96 Nearly ten years later a very successful book was produced by the school’s P & C Association that must have drawn heavily on this invaluable resource.97

But the group’s energy was running out, and while members continued to meet regularly for a few more years the meetings became more social events than business sessions. The group finally disbanded in 1999, after twenty years of dedicated service to Fremantle history.

It was certainly one of the Fremantle Society’s most valuable and lasting contributions.

South Terrace Primary School Oral History Project members, 1994. From left: Daphne Goulding, Phoebe Freeman, Alice Smith, Zoe Griffin. [Fremantle Society]


85 Fremantle Society Newsletter, vol. 2, no. 1, January-February 1974.
86 Fremantle, vol. 2 no. 6, October-November 1974.
87 Fremantle, vol. 3, no. 3,1975.
88 Fremantle, vol. 5, nos 1 & 2,1977.
89 Kenneth McPherson to Secretary, Fremantle Society, no date.
90 Larraine Stevens, interview with Dianne Davidson, 7 March 2009.
91 Fremantle, vol. 13, no. 3,1985.
92 Larraine Stevens, interview with Dianne Davidson, 7 March 2009.
93 ibid.
94 ibid.
95 ibid.
96 Fremantle, April 1995.
97 Karen Lang & Jan Newman, Wharf Rats and other stories: 100 years of growing up in Fremantle, Fremantle Primary School P & C Association, Fremantle, 2004.

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Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2020 | Now: 19 June, 2021