Victorian Gothic

perth-town-hall-1917-1919-henri-b-van-raalte-city-of-perth-collectionA Victorian Treasure

Suitably scaled, well detailed and clearly articulated, Perth Town Hall is a fine example of an imposing civic building of the second half of the 19th Century. Perth Town Hall is the only Australian town hall designed in a medieval style. Its architectural style is called Victorian Free Gothic. How did a Victorian public building come to be designed in a medieval style?

In the 1860s most of the other Australian colonial capitals and other major cities were designing and building town halls, some commemorating the 30th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign. A number of styles were used: Sydney Town Hall is in the French Second Empire style, Launceston Town Hall is in the Victorian Academic Classical style, Hobart is Victorian Classical Revival, and Melbourne is Victorian Classical. Adelaide Town Hall is considered Victorian Free Classical, while Port Adelaide follows the Victorian Italianate style.

At the time, the Perth City Council lacked the funds to build a town hall. Unlike the other colonial capitals, Perth had no other major city in the colony to compete with. Yet it was clearly essential that the elected head of the town should be able to receive formal visitors in surroundings that reflected credit on the town. In 1867 the funds and labour to build the hall were eventually provided by the Governor, rather than the city, and the architectural expertise was drawn from the public sector. The main architect, Richard Roach Jewell, was Superintendent of Public Works. James Manning, who designed the hammer-beam ceiling, was Clerk of Works to the convict establishment.

Gothic Revival

Since the planning of the great cathedrals in medieval times, Europeans have never stopped building in the Gothic Pinnaclestyle. Several of the most important men in the colony–Governor Hampton, the colonial secretary W.A. Sanford, and Dean Pownall, seem to have shared a taste for Gothic architecture. All were apparently admirers of A.W.N. Pugin, an influential English architect who helped to design the English Houses of Parliament after the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. Pugin was a leader of the Gothic Revival in architecture. He believed that Gothic was the true Christian architectural style. Under Governor Hampton, Perth’s Government House was decorated with furniture and wallpaper apparently designed by Pugin.

The Town Hall’s chief architect, Richard Roach Jewell, was probably influenced by these men. The original Pensioners’ Barracks, of which Barracks Arch is all that remains, was also designed by Jewell with elements of the Gothic style, as were the Cloisters, the Wesley Church and the Deanery next to St. George’s Cathedral. (Jewell also designed the old courthouse and gaol, the hall of the old Legislative Assembly, the old Masonic lodge and the Treasury building.)
At this time, the major public buildings in Western Australia were mainly made of brick in the Free Gothic and Tudor Gothic styles. It is said that the colony’s citizens tended to think of their city more as the administrative centre for the surrounding farmland-sort of an idealised English county seat–rather than a 19th century industrial city.

A public and civic venue…

Perth Town Hall follows the pattern of what is sometimes called the Italian Town Hall- that is, an assembly hall raised above an arcade or undercroft. This pattern first developed in Medieval Italy-the Broletto at Como, built in the 1200s, is considered the prototype. Built on similar patterns are the town hall of Stralsund, Germany (late 1300s); the Palazzo Pubblico at Pienza, Italy (mid 1400s); and England’s Abingdon Town Hall (1677). Perth Town Hall has also been compared with the Middle Temple Hall, part of London’s Inns of Court (1572). Both have a grandly scaled hall on the upper level, with a magnificent hammer-beam roof.

Town halls were traditionally built as monuments to civic pride. Like most town halls, Perth Town Hall was built in a prominent central location to house the civic functions of the new city and show that Perth was the developing centre of an established British colony. This idea was further enhanced by the tower. In medieval times the watchtower had an important purpose-to look out for enemy attack and help to defend the town-hence the arrow slits and crenellations. Perth Town Hall’s tower was used only for public timekeeping and signaling via the flagpole (a special flag was run up to announce the arrival of the mail ship in Albany) but it did form a major landmark on the main street.

Every town hall needed some kind of lavish public hall space which was made available to the citizens for a variety of social functions–especially concerts, but also balls, banquets, meetings and exhibitions. The Perth Town Hall’s Main Hall has always been used in this way, to the present day.


…not an administrative centre

A town hall generally also houses the city Council chambers-in fact, the words “town hall” or “city hall” are often used to mean the city government. In every other Australian capital city, the town hall or city hall houses the Council chambers.

The Perth Town Hall has never been not well suited for use as an administrative centre because it does not have enough different rooms to serve specific administrative functions. After the idea of using of the Undercroft as a marketplace failed, the Council adapted it to house the Fire Brigade, The Inspector of Weights and Measures, the Town Clerk , and other municipal officers plus a few paying tenants.

In the 1880s the Council had the south parapet, a sort of balcony, raised and roofed to form a meeting room. However, with a low roof and no windows, the room was not popular. By 1925 the Council had moved to the Strelitz Building. The Council has never since used the Town Hall as its regular meeting place, and in 1953 built Council House on St. George’s Terrace to serve as both an administrative centre and Council chamber.

On the other hand, the City continued to use its Town Hall as the grand and dignified venue for major civic events, including, for instance, a luncheon in honour of the visit of HRH The Prince of Wales in1920, and a dinner to commemorate the opening of the Narrows Bridge in 1959. Memorabilia for these events are on display in the Town Hall’s Upper Foyer. After 1960 most civic events were relocated to the reception suite in Council House.
The Town Hall was closed in 2001-2002 and again in 2004-2005 for restoration works. At the completion of the final stage of restoration, the Town Hall was re-opened on 12 August 2005 with “Perspectives in Time”, an exhibition of art works featuring the City of Perth, including many depicting the Town Hall. Since then the Town Hall has regularly hosted civic events, including a reception in 2006 honouring Nobel laureates Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, and a special Council meeting and a banquet both commemorating the 150th anniversary of Perth’s being made a city. It is regularly hired by third parties for banquets, public forums, weddings, dances and other events.


Adapted from Perth Town Hall Conservation Management Plan 6.96 by Forbes Fitzhardinge and Woodland, and Allom, Lovell and Hocking 1996