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Chief Secretary’s Office/Public Health Department

Few places of this size can have housed so many civil service departments over its lifetime as a government building.  Built in the Federation Free Classical style, with its fine detailing and a distinctive Donnybrook stone façade the Chief Secretary Office became a landmark building in Murray Street.  Its quality of design and execution also represented the important role of government institutions held in society at this time and the respect given to the public sector.  

Designed by Public Works Department Chief Architect, Hillson Beasley, construction on the two-storey building started in mid-1911 and was completed in 1912 in time to host the first State Public Health Congress.  On the ground floor were offices for the Public Health Department (or Central Board of Health) which was the main tenant, and the Department for Aborigines and the Department for Fisheries were also later housed on the ground floor. The first floor had a large lecture hall and library, along with a ‘museum’, bacteriological laboratory and dissecting rooms.  The building also had a basement for storage and developing photographs. 

While the Department of Aborigines were located in the Chief Secretary Office, one of the most prominent civil servants there was the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville.  As a result, this building has become synonymous with the plans made for the implementation of Government policies towards Aboriginal people, leading to the Stolen Generation. 

After the State Government stopped using the building in 1992, it was eventually restored by the National Trust, and since 2016 has housed the Curtin University Law School. It remains an important building on Murray Street and a fine example of government offices constructed prior to World War I. 

Detailed Description

Few places of this size can have housed so many civil service departments over its lifetime as a government building, for which Chief Secretary Office was used between 1912 and 1992.  

Plans for the building were drawn up by the Public Works Department, which at that time was headed up by Chief Architect, Hillson Beasley.  Construction started in mid-1911 and it was completed and opened in October 1912 just in time to host the first State Public Health Congress.  It was built by S. B. Alexander, who was also the proprietor of the Donnybrook Freestone quarries hence the use of the distinctive Donnybrook stone for the façade.    

Designed in the Federation Free Classical style, the exterior features a handsome symmetrically designed façade of Donnybrook stone with a central loggia of rock-faced stone, a balcony with an iron balustrade and large windows.  Internally, the building featured many elements of Arts and Crafts detailing that was favoured by Beasley, including ornate moulded ceilings, clear leadlights and fine timber details including the staircase and fireplace surround.  These external and internal elements combined make this a particularly fine example especially of Beasley’s work as well as the PWD. 

It was built primarily to house the fledgling Public Health Department (also called the Central Board of Health) and therefore provide appropriate accommodation for the first Commissioner of Public Health, Dr James Hope. However, housing so many other government departments during its 80 years of government use, it soon became a key administrative State Government building and important part of the Murray Street east precinct.  This historic precinct extends from the intersection of Pier and Murray Streets to Victoria Square and includes various other significant buildings such as the former Government Printing Office, the Salvation Army Congress Hall, Young Australia League, Fire Brigade No. 1 Station, the Chest Clinic and early buildings associated with Royal Perth Hospital.  

The building comprised two storeys as well as a basement for storage and developing photographs. On both sides of the central entrance were offices for the Public Health Department, including a boardroom, general office space, and recordkeeping. The Department for Aborigines and the Department for Fisheries were also later housed on the ground floor.  The first floor was mainly occupied by a large lecture hall and library, along with a ‘museum’, bacteriological laboratory, dissecting rooms and, being government offices, yet more recordkeeping rooms.  

When the Chief Secretary Office opened in October 1912, the first use of the upper floors was for pathology lectures during a Health Congress attended by delegates from all over the State.  

The reorganisation of housing for various government departments caused by the new building, meant that the State Government started to plan for future development. This included an offer to Perth City Council of £35,000 for the Town Hall on Barrack Street, so it could be demolished, and new offices built in its place. Obviously, these plans did not come to fruition. 

While the Department of Aborigines were located in the Chief Secretary Office, one of the most prominent civil servants there was the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville, who occupied a room from 1926 to his retirement in 1940. As a result, here plans were made for implementation of Government policies towards Aboriginal people, leading to the Stolen Generation. These policies included the removal and assimilation of children of mixed descent and the resettlement of Aboriginal families at settlements such as Moore River. 

At different times, other departments occupying the Chief Secretary Office have included: the Chief Secretary’s Department; the Factories and Early Closing Office; State Hotels, the Inspection of Liquors and State Tourist Bureau; the Rottnest Control Board; the School of Hygiene; the Royal Sanitary Institute; the Nurses’ and Midwives Registration Boards; the War Funds Council; the Minister of Police; the Prisons Department; and the Occupational Health, Clean Air and Noise Abatement Division (later the Environment Protection Authority). 

The National Trust negotiated for its retention in the 1980s when the building was under threat of demolition and the remainder of the site was cleared for development.  After the State Government stopped using the building entirely in 1992, it was eventually restored by the National Trust, and entered onto the State Register of Heritage Places in 2001.  Since 2016 it has housed the Curtin University Law School. It remains a landmark on Murray Street and a fine example of government offices constructed prior to World War I. 

 

Kalgoorlie Miner 22 May 1911 

Daily News 8 June 1911 

Sun 30 July 1911 

West Australian 23 August 1912 

Western Mail 4 October 1912

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