Fremantle Stuff > Buildings > Victoria Hall

Victoria Hall

Victoria Hall, 1897, 179 High St, by J.J. Talbot Hobbs, was originally the St John's Parish Hall.

The building is currently the property of the Fremantle City Council which intends to offer it for sale end 2018.

victoria hall

Photograph of a painting by Toby Leek, courtesy of the artist.

The Parish Hall recently erected by the vestry of St. John's Church, Fremantle, to be known as the Victoria Hall, will be formally opened by His Excellency the Governor and Lady Smith on September 28. The Hall is built on an excellent site in High-street; it is well proportioned and lofty, while the elevation is particularly striking and effective. We understand that it will be used primarily for Church of England purposes, but that it will also be available as a public hall. A strong committee is now busily engaged in organising a series of inaugural entertainments which will extend over five evenings, commencing the 28th prox. The West Australian, 11 August 1897, from Wikipedia.

victoria hall

Victoria Hall located on High Street, Fremantle designed by J.J. Talbot Hobbs was built between 1896 and 1897 as St John's Parish Hall and renamed for the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. It was opened by Governor Smith and his wife on 28 September 1897.
After the Second World War, Bob Wrightson leased the hall for use as a dance studio; some years later he bought it.
Victoria Hall, one of few goldrush buildings remaining in the east end of High Street, sits in a predominantly 1960s streetscape. In 1974 a plan to widen High Street meant that Victoria Hall would be demolished, but a green ban put in place by the Builders Labourers Federation prevented this from happening. Wrightson still owned the building at this time.
The building is listed on the Register of the National Estate. Wikipedia.

Story of the preservation of Victoria Hall as told by Ron Davidson in Fighting for Fremantle

From about 1973 there were strong moves to demolish Victoria Hall, the neo-classical church hall in High Street designed by prominent architect J.J. Talbot Hobbs. it featured a vaulted ceiling of polished wood which could almost be ‘played’ like a musical instrument by those who knew how to ‘throw’ their voices. Later Victoria Hall was where Fremantle bands played and Fremantle kids learned to dance. The hall was owned through the 1960s and 1970s by Norm Wrightson, bandleader and barber (six chairs, no waiting) and his brother Bob who had recently been crowned ballroom champion of the world. The brothers wanted to replace Victoria Hall with a single-storey office block.
For the Fremantle Society the plan represented a double threat: there was the loss of one of the few original buildings still left east of the Town Hall, and more importantly, any demolition and new building would spur the widening of High Street by more than 5.2 metres on either side. That requirement had been on the books since the Stephenson-Hepburn plan came out in 1955.
Renowned environmental activist and president of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation Jack Mundey had visited Fremantle a year earlier. He had strong connections with the Society; Les Lauder had met him through the National Estate Committee, and he was also a friend of the Society’s Vice-President Helen Mills. Jack Mundey and Helen were both councillors for their respective states of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and had met at a conference in Melbourne. He was a famous advocate since the 1960s of the use of Green Bans to save buildings for the community. The Society wrote to the current secretary of the local Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) to ask for help to get a Green Ban placed on Victoria Hall. By the time the letter arrived a young Kevin Reynolds had wrested the secretary’s job from the incumbent. Reynolds wanted evidence that there was strong community support for a Green Ban on Victoria Hall. BLF organiser Bob Olsen set out to produce such evidence.
Olsen was a member of the Fremantle Society committee, but this night he wanted to remain anonymous. He disguised himself and his trailer numberplate with soot and oil, threw aboard some picks and shovels and parked his Simca and trailer outside Victoria Hall. Then he proceeded to make the noises of a demolition gang; he knew these noises well.
Fremantle was, at that stage, in a state of high alert for any late-night (unauthorised) demolitions. It seemed that here was one. 'Get moving with those floorboards. The truck arrives soon,’ called Bob. Someone heard this and shouted, ‘Ring Les!’ Mobile phones were still twenty years in the future. A crowd soon gathered to stop the apparent demolition of the hall. Bob Olsen disappeared into the night. Next morning there was a meeting on a BLF site and Bob could report the public interest demonstrated the previous evening. The Green Ban was applied.
Nonetheless, at a full Council meeting in March 1974 it was decreed by a vote of 10-8 that demolition of Victoria Hall could proceed, and the owners organised an auction to be held on 26 June. The auction was going well and the auctioneer was about to drop the hammer and sell the hall when two figures emerged from the crowd and announced that there was a Green Ban on the building. One was Society Vice-President Helen Mills, pushing her baby in a pram and holding a toddler by the hand; the other was BLF organiser Bob Henry. The crowd dissolved. There was no sale.
From time to time over the next twenty-five years Victoria Hall remained under threat, once as a cane furniture shop, until it was bought by the City of Fremantle in 2000 and serious restoration of the building began under the supervision of the Council’s heritage architect Agnieshka Kiera. Then in 2005 it became home for the Deckchair Theatre. (Davidson: 40-43)

The Victoria Hall was used by Norm Wrightson and his Orchestra for Saturday night dances for thirty years from 1949, and by his brother Bob Wrightson as a dance studio. More recently, it was the home of Deckchair Theatre until 2012 when the lighting rig was deemed to be dangerous and the play in rehearsal (Ingle Knight's The Fremantle Candidate - a play about John Curtin, whose statue is 100 metres away outside the Town Hall) was moved to the Perth Cultural Centre, after which Deckchair Theatre closed permanently. The Hall was leased to the Fly by Night Club until early 2018, but it's not financially viable. The City Council intends to offer the Victoria Hall for sale in September 2018.

Physical Description
A stone building with brick quoins and reveals. It has been re-roofed with zincalume, the roof having a Dutch gable behind the parapet of the front facade. The front facade has paired Corinthian columns flanking the entrance. Classical pediment with a dated florid tympanum. Denticulated moulding three circular windows with stucco drapery as detailing timber sash windows with restrained stucco architraves. Above the windows are moulded pediments. Continuous sill moulding forming a dado. Fluted pilasters define the ends of the facade. Articulated parapet interrupted by half piers. Rusticated stone base. Double doors. The lintels of the windows of the side elevation consist of a three course radiating arch. Much of the internal decorative finishes and detailing is intact. Heritage Council.

Fremantle Society
The following email was sent to members by President John Dowson 8 November 2018.

Victoria Hall - Deja Vu

The mayor has made a video promoting Victoria Hall, and it features on YouTube, where it has soared to 31 views. However, nowhere does he state that he intends to sell it. In today's West Australian, again it is promoted for sale, with Fremantle Council saying it is 'proud' to be selling Victoria Hall. But, it should be ashamed. Here is why:

In September 1897 Victoria Hall, built by the Church of England, opened in the presence of the Governor. With its handsome Corinthian front and Austrian bentwood chairs it could seat about 700 people, almost equal to the Town Hall. The church had the admirable intention of providing a useful venue for community use. As the Western Mail opined: "It had been judged that with the rapidly growing population of the town and colony, society at large must, for the time being, be a community of disintegrated atoms. By providing a central rendezvous, such as the Victoria Hall was intended to be, it was hoped to gain a system of common aid and sympathy" (Western Mail 1 October, 1897).

Victoria Hall served the church and the community well for the next 100 years, despite a tough and successful battle by the Fremantle Society to save it from demolition in the 1970s.

Council's own documents state that "Historically, it is highly significant as one of the more distinguished works of the noted architect and military hero of World War 1, Lt General Sir JJ Talbot Hobbs who ranked with Monash in military achievements, in the European theatre. The hall's very name reflects the City's Victorian heritage, its most marketable cultural tourism theme. It is a landmark within this history."

But from 1985 it was being used by the Salvation Army as a second hand shop. The year before, Paula Silbert had done a report for the council reviewing the arts scene including performing arts. It established the need for a theatre and in 1987 the government bought the Old Customs House, and the Fremantle Arts Foundation under Priscilla Shorne moved in, with the Building Management Authority drawing up plans, of turning the ground floor into a theatre.

When a sale of Victoria Hall was mooted in 1996 after the Salvation Army moved out, the Victoria Hall Association rallied behind Mick Vodanovich and others to keep it for community events. They leased it and ran "Irish step dancing, ballet and tap dancing, drumming, circus skills and children's theatre, with social functions on the weekend."

Meanwhile council under Mayor Utting and CEO Ray Glickman was distracted by a ludicrous plan to have a $20 million performing arts  box somewhere in Fremantle. No money was in the budget for it, no location could be decided for years, and no money had been promised by the government. Meanwhile, existing facilities like Victoria Hall, Princess Theatre (Market Street) and Majestic Theatre (High Street Mall) were ignored as being part of a solution. Over $500,000, and years, were wasted on a flawed plan.

Premier Richard Court had written to Mayor Utting on 11 December 1998 suggesting he forward a conservation and business plan for Victoria Hall to government which could "be used to prepare a submission for Cabinet consideration, seeking funds to purchase Victoria Hall." But, no letter was written to the government until the end of the next year!

In 2000 furniture retailer June Rae sought to purchase the hall from dance king Bill Wrightson. It had been on the market for several years with a price tag of $850,000, though the replacement cost was estimated at over $1.5 million. Tenant Deckchair Theatre, who shared the hall with the Walalyup Reconciliation Group,  were understandably upset, though Jo Fazio offered Deckchair space in his converted warehouse at 5 Beach Street, which he planned to turn into a theatre with a cider bar. Deckchair's David Gerrand was highly critical of Fremantle Council for not buying the property themselves the year before when they had right of first offer: "That's short sighted of them. They should have bought the building, done it up, placed caveats on its future use and sold it. In the process they'd have saved it for the community" (Herald Feb 2000).

Deja Vu - The Fremantle Society was back in action fighting, along with Deckchair, to prevent Victoria Hall being turned into a furniture showroom with apartments out the back, under a change of use sought by June Rae.

It was North Fremantle Councillor David Johnstone who steered a series of deferrals through council until a very close vote of 6-5 prevented a change of use. For the record, the councillors who voted to allow a change of use were Crs Douglas, Miosich, Italiano, Cinquina, and Mackay.

As Murray Slavin wrote (Herald 22 July, 2000) "This decision should be seen as a major turning point in the history of the future of the city. Even if the change of use had been limited to adding the residential units, this would have limited the future performance capacity of the remainder of the building in terms of noise and hours of operation."

That was not the end of the battle. There was an appeal to Planning Minster Graham Kierath, who promptly overturned council's decision.

Meanwhile the Fremantle Society campaigned for:

a) Formal council assessment of the Victoria Hall Conservation plans (still not done)

b) Council purchase and restoration of Victoria Hall.

When June Rae's own plans fell through, council raided, and drained, its own heritage fund to find $680,000 to buy Victoria Hall. Deckchair had a secure home and David Gerrand can be seen celebrating in the picture at the top of the page in 2001. Council spent $2.2 million in subsequent years on restoration.

Now in 2018, Council is selling Victoria Hall with none of the caveats mentioned by David Gerrand. The hall's heritage fabric has been well looked after by heritage advocacy, but Council have been poor managers, not effectively promoting the hall as a venue for weddings or events, and unable to extract rent from the tenant they installed, the Fly by Night Club. But, by selling it without clear caveats, they are putting this acoustical masterpiece in peril.

The Fremantle Society hopes that the Church of England wins the tender, which closes on 25 November, as they have promised to keep it as a community and performing arts venue.

But developers are sniffing around, and none of them will buy it without wanting concessions for development at the rear, something the Fremantle Society fought against twenty years ago.

Deja Vu.

References and Links

Davidson, Ron & Dianne Davidson 2010, Fighting for Fremantle: The Fremantle Society Story, Fremantle Society.

Heritage Council page

Heritage Council assessment documentation

Notes in Fremantle, the newsletter of the Fremantle Society: Vol 2 No 1 1974Vol 2 No 2 1974Vol 2 No 6 1974.

The photograph of Victoria Hall is from Wikipedia.


Garry Gillard | New: 22 August, 2015 | Now: 17 November, 2018