Perth Town Hall
One of Perth’s heritage jewels, the Town Hall took some time to construct. The foundation was laid on 24 May 1867 by Governor Hampton, but it was not opened until 1 June 1870 by Governor Weld. The design was a joint production of James Manning and Richard Roach Jewell. Manning was responsible for all of the woodwork, including the magnificent roof, while Jewell designed and supervised the erection of the main building.
All of the woodwork was constructed by prisoners in Fremantle, and the huge circular ribs for the roof were conveyed from the prison to Perth on a carriage specially constructed for the purpose. Convicts also assisted with the hard work of raising what was then Perth’s tallest building.
What is now the ground floor was originally intended to be for markets, although the City Council was forced to convert some of the bays into offices. In 1875 explorer Ernest Giles arrived and his camels were parked in the undercroft while he attended a welcoming party in the main hall. The same year a horse-drawn fire engine began to be garaged underneath the Town Hall.
In addition to Council activities, the Town Hall has also hosted concerts, exhibitions, bazaars, lectures, dances, skating, and stage shows. It was also the place that generations gathered every 31 December to hear the New Year rung in by the bells of its clock.
In 1850, following much controversy, the first convicts arrived in the Swan River Colony. With an increased, and cheap, labour force, a number of public buildings could now be erected which would previously have proved too costly. Perth Town Hall was one such building.
The major works planned by Governor Hampton were the completion of Government House, a Barracks for the Pensioner Guards, and a Town Hall. In 1867 Governor Hampton told Perth City Council he intended to build a town hall and present it to the city. A site on the corner of Hay (then called Howick) and Barrack Streets was selected, and ground work began in April 1867.
Originally known as the Town Hall and Market Place, the newspapers eagerly awaited its completion. The Inquirer reported:
“As the Town Hall has for some time past created much interest among the citizens, we now give a description of the building. The style of architecture is that of Scotland of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, more generally known as the Tudor style. The building over the Market Place will consist of the large Hall, 92 by 46 feet [28m x 14m], with two rooms for officials at the east-end, and one at the south-west angle. The tower, which will be one hundred feet in height [30.5m], with its four-faced illuminated clock, will be visible for a long distance. Two designs were prepared by the architect, Mr. Jewell, the rejected style being that known as the English Gothic of the fifteenth century. The one to be adopted, after being partially approved of by His Excellency, was courteously submitted to the City Council on Wednesday last, and also met with their unanimous approval.”
Richard Roach Jewell was Clerk of Works of the Colonial Establishment, and was responsible for designing a number of Perth’s public buildings, including Perth Gaol and Courthouse, the Pensioner Barracks, and the Central Government Offices. He worked closely with James Manning from the Convict Establishment. A memorial plaque on the Town Hall records that Jewell and Manning were joint architects, although each had different responsibilities. Jewell was in charge of the main structure, while Manning designed the roof beams and all the other woodwork. The actual work of creating the roof beams and other timber fittings was carried out by prisoners at Fremantle Prison, and their creations carted up to Barrack Street.
The foundations for Perth Town Hall were laid by free tradesmen employed by builder William Buggins. On 24 May 1867, the Queen’s birthday, Governor Hampton laid the foundation stone in the ground, commenting: “Gentlemen, you have done your part well, it but now remains for me to do mine and that is to show what can be effected by convict labour properly directed.”
By September 1868, it was clear that things were moving very slowly. The original contract had called for completion in twelve months, but this was now extended to three years. During this time, Governor Weld had replaced Governor Hampton and several problems meant the building had to be changed from the original design. The ceiling of the Gallery was altered, and the tower, which was originally going to be 100ft high, was raised to 125ft [38m], with an iron railing added on the top for visitors. Over the years many photographs have been taken from the top of the tower, providing an amazing record of the development of Perth. The clock in the tower came from Thwaites & Reed of Clerkenwell, London, one of the oldest clock makers in the world.
On Foundation Day, 1 June 1870, Perth Town Hall was officially opened. The ceremony was led by Bishop Hale and attended by upwards of 900 people, although only men could attend the dinner, while women were made to look on from the balcony. The final cost of the building was £4,567, exclusive of convict labour.
The Legislative Council Chamber was built in the courtyard at the east end of the Town Hall, and on 5 December 1870, the first Legislative Assembly was sworn in at the Town Hall. Early in 1871, the first meeting of the Perth City Council was held at the new hall.
The undercroft, created by open arcades and piers, was designed to house markets like similar buildings in Europe. Although a daily market was opened in 1872, it only lasted a few years, and was very unpopular since the space was gloomy and dark. As a result, the undercroft soon began to be enclosed for other uses. In 1875 explorer Ernest Giles arrived and his camels were parked in the undercroft while he attended a welcoming party in the main hall. The same year a horse-drawn fire engine began to be garaged underneath the Town Hall. During the 1880s, the undercroft was converted into offices for lease as well as for Council staff.
Around 1900 there was the first suggestion that the Town Hall should be demolished to make way for improved accommodation. Such calls became a regular thing over the next few decades as it was quickly realised that the building was not adequate for a modern city council. In 1924, City Councillors proposed demolishing the tower, or covering it with cement render, because they considered it unsafe. That same year others wanted to demolish the whole thing and construct a modern five-storey office building. However, even at this early stage the Town Hall was loved by many Perth residents and they protested when such extreme measures were proposed.
As a result, the Council relocated to buildings in Murray Street, and converted the ground floor of the Town Hall to shops. The brick arcades were removed in 1925 and replaced with steel columns and beams to form shop fronts. These included pharmacies and lunch bars. At the time of its centenary in 1970, the ground floor was still full of commercial businesses.
Perth Town Hall was restored in the late 1990s which saw the restoration of the interior and the gothic arches at its base. Today, Perth Town Hall is one of Perth’s most loved historic buildings, and is used for public events and conducts regular tours of the interior for residents and tourists.
State Heritage Office assessment, Perth Town Hall
‘New Town Hall and Market Place,’ Inquirer, 10 April 1867