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Case study for the Shared Heritage theme of ICOMOS GA2020

Agnieshka Kiera, April 2020

Arthur Head

The settlement site of the former Swan River Colony (Australia)

Arthur Head Reserve in Fremantle, Western Australia (WA), only some 600 m from the city centre, is the point where the city meets the sea. Comprising a 400 m long stretch of the Indian Ocean coastline, the Reserve contains the only fully reconstructed beach in Australia.

photo: Agnieshka Kiera

Originally part of the foreshore of Bathers Bay, it is now a designated A Class reserve (WALA 2010), a significant heritage place that is inscribed in the State Heritage Register, listed under the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (DIA 2004) and identified as the land belonging to the Aboriginal owners under the Native Title Act 1993 (Commonwealth). In accordance with the State Register (SHR 2018), ‘Arthur Head and Esplanade is a precinct of exceptional significance within Fremantle’s West End Conservation Area because it contains the site of first settlement in the Swan River colony and the first law and order buildings. It also contains the site of the colony’s first port.’

Swan River Settlement circa 1832 by Jane Eliza Currie, courtesy of the State Library of NSW. – Panorama of the Swan River Settlement 1831.jpg

The land promontory offered partial protection to South Bay from storms and thus provided a sheltered location for shipping in the nineteenth century. So, it was here, in 1829, where Capitan Charles Fremantle ‘set up the first camp in the lee of the ridge and erected a flagstaff on it’ (Dawkins1990). This was Noongar land, in Whadjuk country, and a significant place for trading and ceremonies. Its name, Manjaree, means to ‘fair exchange’ and refers to the headland at the mouth of the Swan River, the only place where the estuary could be crossed (MacDonald 1984; O’Connor and Thomson 1984). The Beeliar family, custodian of this land, was led by Midgegooroo and his son, the charismatic Yagan. In 1833 Midgegooroo was summarily executed and Yagan was murdered by a settler (Dawkins 1990; City of Fremantle 1983a and 1983b).
The colonial planners of Fremantle designated some 10 ha of the coastline as public land for harbours, government buildings, roads, railways and early industry (a power station, boat building yards, a whaling station, and part of the first port’s jetties and facilities), a defence fort, residential area for the harbour’s employees and the integral part of both the original layout of the colonial port town of Fremantle and its townscape. Nestled between the mouth of the Swan River and historic Victoria Quay on the north, which defined Fremantle as the colonial port town, and the Fishing Boat Harbour on the south, Arthur Head Reserve evokes association between people and landscape as a key factor that shapes its heritage values, identity, sense of place and community cohesion. To this day, the city’s most recognisable landmark is the oldest public building in WA, the Roundhouse.

Photo: Agnieshka Kiera

Sitting high up on the headland, the Roundhouse dominates local vistas and gives a symbolic meaning to the largest heritage listed area in WA, the historic West End of Fremantle (SHR 2018).

In 1897, when the harbour moved to the banks of Swan River and the government buildings were relocated closer to the new heart of Fremantle, Arthur Head lost its original appeal. The area, vested in three state agencies responsible for the harbours, none of which accepted full responsibility, became gradually neglected, quarried and filled up with landfill as the Harbour’s depot. By the 1970s, ‘it was redundant, devalued, going nowhere. Ironically it was the neglect that saved the heritage of the area’ (Dawkins 1990).

Arthur Head, 1986. Photographer unknown: courtesy Fremantle Society, John Dowson

Yet landscapes, particularly urban landscapes, are dynamic. They are a part of evolutionary processes and continuous changes. Some of the influences on Fremantle included the 1970s green ban movement in Sydney (the builders labourer’s union refused to work on the destruction of natural and built heritage (Burgmann 2008; Colman 2016); progressive and green candidates were elected to the City Council; the Council’s enlightened City Manager, Stan Parks, appointed non-traditional executives; a local entrepreneur Alan Bond won the America’s Cup in 1983; and the Australian government launched the Australian Bicentennial historical commemorative program, which marked 200 years since first British settlement of Australia in 1788. At the same time, Arthur Head became superfluous to the requirements of Fremantle Ports and the City of Fremantle saw the potential of adapting the area as an integral part of the city. The vision included the reserve’s active role in contemporary society as a heritage site and a public reserve. It was to reveal and constructively address the needs of various groups of people with the assumed ownership and/or interest in the area.
The Fremantle City Council governing over the population of 24 000 was tiny yet had seen itself as the alternative capital of WA forever. It devised a strategy to convince the Government of Western Australia that the poorly managed parcels of land controlled by five different state agencies should be consolidated as an ‘A-class Reserve’ vested in the City of Fremantle. The unprecedented alignment of circumstances, described above, resulted in land controlled by a number of infrastructure agencies being transferred to a local council, itself almost unprecedented. The City then set about securing funding. Its proposal for the Arthur Head Bicentennial Project became the only State-level project to be entrusted to a local government.
Initially, the A class designation was ‘for the purpose of preservation and protection of the Round House and other buildings’ (Griffiths 2011). Following its recently completed transformation, this designation was amended in 2010 (WALA 2010) to read: ‘for the purpose of ‘Recreation, Community and Heritage Interpretation’. Thus, began the 25-year-long incremental transformation of the coast: the Arthur Head Bicentennial Project. Initial funding was relatively modest, $1.5M in 1985 (Dawkins 1990). The City resolved to contribute by establishing the Strategic Planning and Heritage Conservation unit within its Planning Department; the three-member strong team consisted of enthusiastic and experienced heritage and planning professionals, including myself, led by the visionary City Planner, Jeremy Dawkins. My initial role as the Project Architect, was over the years upgraded to Council Architect and, eventually, to the decisively leading role of the City Heritage Architect.
As the result the Fremantle Council became the first in WA to adopt Australian ‘heritage bible’: the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter (1988), as its own heritage policy. Therefore, when planning, designing and implementing Arthur Head Project (City of Fremantle 1983), the City’s Planning Department followed Burra Charter process and guidelines to the letter, and, as a consequence, devoted the initial three years and every subsequent stage as well as a large part of the every subsequent budget of the project’s incremental implementation, to exploring the area’s rich history, meanings and values, before making any decisions regarding its future and necessary conservation works. The heritage approach and methodology proved to be just right for Arthur Head. Over the next 25 years the area’s future and form was shaped by the archaeologists; historians; conservationists; botanists; marine scientists and engineers; urban planners and landscape/heritage interpretation/urban design architects commissioned by the City, often from the national and international pool of highly regarded experts in the field. As a consequence the project has worked to merge the coastal landscape and its cultural dimension by establishing the linkages between the cultural heritage shared by the ethnic communities (mainly Italian), Indigenous traditional owners, the wide range of professionals and scientists, the community of Fremantle and the local, state, national and, increasingly, international visitors.
In those early days, the just enacted Commonwealth Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ITSIHPA 1984) didn’t carry much weight; and the general awareness and appreciation of Indigenous heritage was generally in its infancy at all three levels of Australia’s governments and even less so among the general population. Worse still, Western Australia, with its strong ‘pro-development-at-all-cost’ culture was the last state where the Act gained due attention and prominence. Yet the Fremantle Council of the day with strong working-class affiliations and ethics, including Councillor Gerry MacGill, the then Chairman of Council’s Planning and Development Committee (Dawkins 1990), was supportive of the approach of acknowledging the shared heritage with its Indigenous owners and the ethnic community of fishermen among the settlers.
Interestingly, a number of independent investigations on the significance of the area to Indigenous people have provided revealing insights into its significance as a contact site between Noongar people and the settlers (Gibbs 1988). While initially this was limited to Noongar people congregating around the Whalers Station in anticipation of pickings, their association with the site continued. During the implementation of the project I often observed and greeted groups of Indigenous people congregating within the newly restored coastal landscape, particularly the denser bushes and the cliff caves. I delighted in finding traces of their presence, such as a small rock painting on the restored Whaling Station’s wall, as if their acknowledgment of our work and their association with the place.
It has taken some 20 more years for the Commonwealth to continue updating the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act and to produce the comprehensive list of significant sites to Aboriginal people, including enlisting Arthur Head and Bathers Bay among them (DIA 2004). It has taken just as long to give the real meaning and legislative power to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth). It was only in the early 2000s that the Act obliged the City of Fremantle to consult the last accomplished stage of the Arthur Head Strategy Plan: The Old Port Project, with the Aboriginal Owners.
Noongars were not the only cultural group with a claim to ownership of the reserve. Among the major stakeholders was the Italian community, who’s heritage was strongly related to the development of Fremantle’s fishing industry. Starting with the development of a Whaling Station on Arthur Head in the 1830s (MacIlroy 1986), maritime industries continued to grow until present. After WWII when many more Italian fishermen arrived in Fremantle, they built a thriving fishing industry that resulted in construction of the Fishing Boat Harbour bordering Arthur Head Reserve on the south.
Within the emerging national political context, supportive of heritage in the 1980s, the associated legal framework of the 1990s as well as the thriving local fishing industry, the City of Fremantle proceeded with the staged implementation of Arthur Head Strategy (CoF 1983a, 1983b) with the ongoing commitment to the principle that the place belonged to everybody and the Reserve’s heritage is to be shared.

City of Fremantle 1983

During almost a quarter of the century from the first project, using both, the municipal budgets and funds obtained from the external sources, the City successfully completed implementation of the strategic plan for the area. It was done in incremental steps drawing on the values-based process (Godden MacKay Logan 2005) involving mapping, drawing, monitoring, field data collection, assessment, planning, designing and physical reconstruction, restoration, adaptation, land reclamation and upgrade of the area for public use - until the formerly degraded bay area and the remnant of the original headland were faithfully revived as the 1870s coastline, heritage precinct and a much loved public reserve (Donaldson and Warn 2004).

Looking back, I find it unusual for the local authority to maintain such consistency in its commitment to a strategic plan and its implementation. The ongoing support of the Council was absolutely critical to continuing with the strategy implementation, yet local councils are often affected by the elections and the associated changes of the political configurations. Fremantle is no exception. I know of many strategic plans that have been abandoned or ignored and are sitting on shelves, collecting dust. Luckily in the case of Arthur Head Strategy Plan, the support for its ongoing implementation continued under the chairmanship of Councillor John Dowson, particularly after the departure of Jeremy Dawkins, then the Director of Planning and Development, in 1988, and I was left in charge of the reduced Heritage Section consisting practically of two staff members, including myself. I became successful in raising funds for the Council’s projects from the external sources. These two factors combined allowed us to continue implementation of the Arthur Head Strategy well into the 2000s.

The most significant markers of the ‘in depth’ consultation process, as far as the sharing of heritage is concerned, include two particular proceedings: The City of Fremantle’s 2010 reconciliation of the Old Port Project with the two key communities with strong associations and connections to the area: Aboriginal Owners of the Noongar community, and the owners and managers of the adjacent commercial marina, the Fishermen Boats Harbour. The former involved two boat trips along the Swan River and one meeting on Bathers Beach between myself and the Elders of the combined Swan River and Swan Coastal Plains and Darling Rangers Native Title Holders and Traditional Owners. The negotiations with the fishermen were carried over a number of meetings with the Fishermen Boat Harbour’s official sponsor, the Department of Transport, which I attended on behalf of the City. The meetings also involved representatives of the Cicerellos and Kailis Bros, both with long involvements in the tradition and growth of the fishing industry. The older generation representatives of Cicerello and Kailis families often displayed the healthy distrust of authorities, which at times, made the negotiations both tense and time-consuming. One example of the dispute included the ideological discrepancy between the priorities of the project. Our commitment was to provide a meaningful link between the town and the Old Port area reminiscent of the original connection, now severed by the railway. The heritage-based connection designed by the architects, Donaldson and Warn, was based on the Local Identity and Design Code (Kiera 2011). The engineers from Department of Transport contested its potential impact on the railway crossing. So, the negotiations were often confined to clashes between the practicalities of vehicular access/parking/regulations and our commitment to reduce impact of those requirements on the Reserve’s significance and/or conservation principles, which were often perceived by the other parties as impractical if not fanciful.

Members of the Noongar Community who were consulted on all aspects of the Old Port Project: the long-term conservation strategy, the physical conservation, heritage interpretation and upgrading works, contested practically nothing. Their support was immediate and complete and has been extended into the ongoing use and management of the area.

Photo: Agnieshka Kiera (selfie)

The very popular Manjaree Walking Tours (Sherriff 2006) are managed and run entirely by the traditional Owners through the Walyalup Aboriginal Cultural Centre located in one of the former Pilots cottages in Captains Lane. The heritage interpretation of the area (Donaldson and Warn 2005 and Coupe 2008) provides two-way communication between the visitors and the community that stimulates curiosity, allows multiple interpretations and enables hosts to tell and share their own stories.

In addition to Aboriginal owners and the Italian fishermen with both, legal and perceived ownership of the area, there are two distinct categories of interest groups who come to mind during all 25 years when I was involved and managed the staged implementation of the Arthur Head Strategy Plan (City of Fremantle 1983): those who occupy the reserve as the City of Fremantle’s tenants, and the external interest groups. The group of occupiers/users of Arthur Head include:

The second category of custodians with a strong sense of the perceived responsibility for the shared heritage of Arthur Head Reserve include the following groups (FICRA 2014):

All these major stakeholder groups were consulted throughout the staged implementation of the Arthur Head Strategy Plan with the depth and extent of consultation increasing with time.

Out of the ‘external interest’ category, the Fremantle Society remains the most involved. The Society has been a tireless promoter and defender of the area throughout the project. Especially in light of the occasional external attempts to ‘redevelop’ Arthur Head Reserve by the various local market players, with the support of now, diametrically changed, political forces on Fremantle Council. Those attempts in the last decade included such proposals as the conversion of the whole reserve into the arbitrarily declared ‘Bathers Beach Art Precinct’ and the most controversial of them all, the Sunset Events’ proposal to establish the venue for live concerts for 100,000 people, including the necessary eviction of the local artists from J shed and its proposed conversion into a pub, serving the live concerts’ audience. The community opposition became so strong that the proposal was eventually defeated. With my departure in 2012 from the City of Fremantle, the support for maintaining the same highly professional and conservation focused approach to maintenance of the reserve has been significantly reduced. In response the Executive Committee of Fremantle Society has stepped in and established the Arthur Head subcommittee for the reserve to ensure that the City of Fremantle is under sufficient scrutiny to maintain the reserve as a community asset.

These days, Arthur Head continues to be used as a much loved public beach and recreational reserve; museum; home for local artists; art by the sea exhibitions; a limited residential area; part of a broader foreshore heritage trails network; a place to celebrate important events, including Australia Day and Reconciliation Day; home to Arthur Head Guides. The reconstructed/restored/upgraded Arthur Head’s cultural coastal landscape completes the previously missing link of the ‘whole’ i.e. the historic foreshore formed by the Fishing Boats Harbour, Arthur Head Reserve and the historic, heritage listed, Victoria Quay. The transformation of the former waste land into the 1870s coastal landscape and a cultural site have ensured continuity of the intangible heritage shared by the local stakeholders. In addition to the above listed celebrations, the area is used by section of the community who continues the traditional festivities such as Blessing of the Fleet, celebrated each year by the Italian community (

The restoration and upgrade of the whole area has also provided stimulus to the surrounding commercial venues and businesses and has resulted in a considerable private investment and revival of the adjacent businesses’ facilities and operations: the former Fishermen Co-op building and Fishing Harbour’s restaurants and fish market to the south and, across Fleet Street, the establishment of Marine Research College and the new Maritime Museum on Victoria Quay. While a number of earlier individual projects of the strategy plan have received conservation awards, the last Old Port Project has also received the WA chapter of the Australian Institute of Architecture Awards, 2013 for Urban Design (RAIA 2013).

‘A new terrain has been created. Old Port of Arthur Head Reserve. Upgrade received an Architecture Award for Urban Design. ….. We are delighted to announce that our commitment to those values has been rewarded at the WA chapter of the Australian Institute of Architecture Awards for 2013. We thank the client for the opportunity and our consultant team for helping achieve a successful project for the ‘exemplary landscape design and upgrade’. (Donaldson and Warn 2013)

The success of sharing Arthur Head’s heritage through the 25 years long implementation of the Arthur Head Reserve Strategy Plan can be attributed to the strict implementation of the ICOMOS’s recommended strategic approach to conservation of heritage places; to adoption from the outset of value based and pro-active policies and practices that engage and empower local stakeholders; to commitment to reveal and understand the relationship between the space and all its meanings and ‘the politics of designing space or interpreting its message’ (Dawkins 1990); to research and analysis and well thought through responses to needs of the areas concerned, and to promotion of the identities of resident communities in a positive way (Millar 2014).

Having said that, Arthur Head Reserve has eventually become the site of conflict regarding celebrations of Australia Day. For a long time, it was there where the celebrations took place, fireworks and all. Yet several years ago, Fremantle City Council resolved to abandon celebrations of Australia Day and started instead to organise the ‘One Day’ celebrations i.e. 'Australia for Everyone Day' on the 25th January. While the long-term resolution of this recent, divisive conflict remains uncertain, the celebrations of the shared intangible heritage still takes place on Arthur Head Reserve. The fact that these painful issues associated with reconciliation and conflict are also taking place on Arthur Head reinforces the main massage that the reserve has become a living landscape, where its associations with people become a place of the evolving community cohesion through reconciliation. We have restored the area for Aboriginal people, the Fremantle’s ethnic communities and for the general public. Arthur Head now represents and belongs to everybody.


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FS publications > Agnieshka Kiera.

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