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Why does Fremantle's heritage matter?

David Dolan

Dolan, David 2005, 'Why does Fremantle's heritage matter?', Fremantle Studies, 4: 74-84.

Every place where humans have lived and worked and changed the physical environment has a history and heritage of its own, although in some places few physical or tangible embodiments remain as accessible evidence. Fremantle has a lot of physical and tangible heritage in its built environment, as well as much intangible heritage in its community.

It is not necessary for me to attempt a retelling of a potted history of Fremantle: no-one anywhere seriously disputes that Fremantle has a rich and distinctive history as a port (and later a suburb) where European settlers and their descendants have lived and worked for almost 200 years. Before that, it was home for millennia to Indigenous Australians, and as was shown in the Walyalup Dreamings art exhibition and catalogue of 2004, it remains a centre of Aboriginal culture.

So I will go straight to explaining my interpretation of why the heritage of Fremantle is a matter of importance, not only to local people, but also to the state and indeed to Australia as a nation. The history, identity and heritage of Fremantle is inseparable from that of the colony and state of Western Australia. Founded in 1829, Perth remained a fairly small town until the gold-rush boom of the 1890s. Although early Perth had a small riverport function, Perth is unusual in being one of only two Australian state capitals (the other is Adelaide) that had a distinctly separate port town: thus Fremantle was for most of its history a separate town.

Because Fremantle as a town dates back to the beginnings of colonisation in Western Australia, and was a busy and lively place from the start, it has many individually significant buildings: the obvious early examples are the Round House and the Prison. The replacement in the mid-19th century of almost all of Perth’s first generation of buildings followed by the demolition in the mid-20th century of the Pensioner Guard Barracks, means that we now look to Fremantle to find the most important buildings surviving from the Swan River Colony and the convict era: key periods in the state’s history.

During the 1890s gold rush, when Perth expanded dramatically, and Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie came into being, Fremantle also grew dramatically. A name to conjure with is that of the Scottish-trained architect F W Burwell, who followed the gold money here after working in New Zealand (NZ) and Melbourne. The people of Invercargill, NZ, devoted the proceeds of their 1960s fat lamb boom to destroying their collection of Burwell buildings, and the University of Melbourne was recently trying to expand by demolishing relevant parts of Carlton in which examples of Burwell’s work were located. Thanks to these NZ and Victorian vandals, the west end of Fremantle now has the greatest concentration anywhere in the world of surviving buildings by Burwell.

The concentration in Fremantle of heritage places from the 19th and early 20th centuries means that, compared with anywhere else, Fremantle incorporates a disproportionate amount of the state’s and the people’s heritage. Thus, because of its particular history and identity, Fremantle belongs in a real sense to all the people of the state, not just to its local residents and ratepayers. It is also a magnet for tourists.

I have already mentioned that one aspect Fremantle’s identity and importance lies in its unusual history and status as a port town which was long distinct from its capital city. As in the case of Port Adelaide, Fremantle is now joined into the metropolis by suburban sprawl, but consciously asserts its distinct local identity. One symbolic embodiment of this can be seen in the structure of the Australian Football League: in both South Australia and Western Australia the first team in the national competition was state and capital based (the Adelaide Crows and the West Coast Eagles) and the next to enter was based in and named for the port city (Port Adelaide Power and the Fremantle Dockers). If you think this does not mean much, ask yourself if you can imagine Western Australia’s second AFL team being identified nationally with Joondalup or Mandurah?

It is also revealing that in the 1990s when the marketers were establishing an identity for the Dockers, they tried to play on the working class identity of old Fremantle. It was not entirely successful: remember that unattractive lump of a mascot (called, I am told, ‘Grinder’) who cavorted around the boundaries for a few years before being given early retirement, and replaced by the effigy of an anchor as a symbol of shipping. I cannot resist digressing to point out that in traditional Christian religious iconography the anchor is a symbol of Faith, which is certainly demanded of all Dockers supporters.

Back to the built environment and physical heritage: the fact that so much of Fremantle’s heritage has been preserved, despite certain sad losses, is increasingly being perceived as an inspiration to other places and communities. Recently we had a television appearance by the Lord Mayor of Perth, Peter Nattrass, who surprised us by regretting the loss of many of Perth’s fine old buildings to make way for office towers. Dr Nattrass has decided that the 1980s wave of demolitions was a ‘mistake’, and claimed that Fremantle was ‘luckier’ than Perth because it had not suffered the same losses.

Of course, it was not simply a matter of luck, or at least not of undifferentiated good luck for all. It was more to do with economic cycles and differentials, specifically that Fremantle had a quiet couple of decades before the America’s Cup era. In the words attributed to William Morris over a century ago: too much money has destroyed more good old buildings than too little money. In the first few years of the 21st century, we saw how too much money invested in residential real estate created a serious threat to heritage in Australia, including in Fremantle. Which leads us to the second group of reasons why Fremantle’s heritage, as well as being an inspiration to the enlightened in some other places, really matters. It matters because it is still under threat.

The logic of this claim - that Fremantle’s heritage matters because it is under threat - requires some explication. When the Heritage Council of Western Australia, or its equivalent bodies elsewhere, tries to prioritise places for assessment and possible protection, it is often suggested that assessment of places which are not under immediate threat should be deferred, so effort can be concentrated on those apparently at risk in the foreseeable future. What of the recent and current threats to Fremantle’s heritage and identity?

Notions of community identity are deeply implicated in the rhetoric of heritage, but despite the fact that awareness and assertion of difference has been Western Australia’s main cultural project, this has not generally translated into strong political commitment to heritage preservation. The growth of tourism, usually supportive of heritage preservation in many parts of the world, has had more impact on Fremantle and Western Australia regional centres which have seen tourism as an economic saviour to combat rural decline, than on the City of Perth and its inner suburbs. But despite this, our legal systems for heritage preservation in Western Australia, or perhaps more particularly the political will to utilise them, are terribly weak.

Let us consider three recent and current examples: the Fremantle Silos, John Tonkin’s House in Preston Point Road, and the Ord Street Precinct.

When the Heritage Council recommended the silos for listing in the late 1990s, Liberal Heritage Minister Graham Keirath rejected the recommendation. I will not digress except to state my opinion that the provisions in the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990 which allow politicians to become involved in what should be technical and expert matters of heritage listing, are among the most troublesome aspects of the Act.

Mr Keirath made the mistake of being too honest by stating publicly the real reasons why he refused to list the silos on an economic basis. Heeding community sentiment, the City of Fremantle challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, which reminded the Minister that under the Act his decision could only be made on the grounds of cultural heritage significance. He was obliged to reconsider the recommended listing, but decided this time that in his opinion the silos lacked sufficient cultural heritage significance. They were demolished to allow temporary alterations to the port facility.


John Tonkin’s House, demolished 2004. Courtesy National Trust WA.

In 2003-4, the Heritage Council forwarded a recommendation to Labor Heritage Minister Tom Stephens to the effect that an East Fremantle house, built for former local MP and state Premier John Tonkin and occupied by him for almost half a century, should be listed on the Register of Heritage Places. Its cultural significance derived almost entirely from the undisputed fact of its long and profound association with this individual prominent in local and state history. When Mr Stephens, for whatever reason, rejected the Heritage Council’s advice to put John Tonkin’s House on the State Register, he was quoted to say that the community does not expect every place that was ever associated with a prominent person to be heritage listed. That is true as a generalisation, but it does not go to the issue here. Of course we do not need to preserve every flat that a subsequently famous person once rented for six months as student digs. The point about John Tonkin’s House is that it was built for him and occupied by him for almost the entire period of his record-length term as an MP. Constituents visited him there, and the rose garden he tended for relaxation had a degree of local fame: the relatively modest suburban home reflected the man in many significant respects.

When the new interstate-based owners of the house applied for demolition approval, the local government authority, East Fremantle, refused. The East Fremantle Council was agreeable to the owners enlarging the house by means of a two-story rear addition, which incidentally retained the river views from the front rooms. The owners rejected this option, which involved minimal loss of heritage significance, and went to the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal (TPAT) in July 2004. At the hearing they argued they should be allowed to build the new house they so much wanted. The TPAT grudgingly acknowledged the place had some heritage value, but decided that this was not sufficient reason to frustrate the owners’ wishes, and found against the local government authority (LGA). In September, the LGA was reportedly considering an appeal, but in October 2004 the house was demolished and the site put up for auction as a vacant block. So much for TPAT permitting the destruction of heritage on the grounds that the owners should be allowed to build the new house they so much wanted!

It should be noted that the TPAT decision on John Tonkin’s House was consistent with its prior decisions. Only a tiny fraction of matters coming before the TPAT concerned heritage issues, but I believe that the TPAT never supported a local government initiative to preserve heritage in cases where a place is not on the State Register. This record is a severe disincentive to LGAs trying to do the right thing and preserve heritage in the interests of the community.

TPAT has subsequently ceased to exist as its functions have been taken over by a new all-encompassing appeals tribunal, but the precedents it created have worrying implications. As the National Trust of Australia (WA) has pointed out to subsequent Heritage Ministers, any ministerial decision to reject a Heritage Council nomination to the State Register risks condemning a place of local heritage significance, as it is so difficult for LGAs to provide protection, unless or until they formally integrate their municipal inventories into their planning schemes.

The totally unnecessary loss of John Tonkin’s House focuses attention on a factor which has added to the heat of public debate in the very early 2000s. A nationwide housing price boom meant that many suburban house blocks became more financially valuable than the historic domestic buildings that stand on them. Fuelled by a variety of forces including generous taxation treatment of family residences and investment properties, an unprecedentedly high and unsustainable proportion of the nation’s available investment capital was poured into housing, much of it spent on ill-advised modifications. Although beneficial to builders and some established property investors, this caused a number of social problems such as excessively high prices for first-home buyers and a shortage of affordable accommodation for low-income families.

In the first few years of the 2lst century, some people became increasingly resistant to having their old houses listed on any heritage register for fear it would prevent them from maximising their investment in the land. Some sections of the real estate industry stirred up clients with exaggerated and baseless claims that heritage listing was always detrimental to property values. I have heard people who are normally sensible and rational, and who understand a range of restrictions on property use in other contexts (eg fire safety, noise control) claiming in a frenzy that heritage protection is like communism (or fascism), that the government is taking away their property if it is registered, that they won’t be allowed to change the colour of their curtains, etc, etc.

Unfortunately, this hysteria was whipped up at the time when the Heritage Council, which initially in the 1990s had concentrated more on public and commercial buildings, was beginning to look at houses and suburban streetscapes. The unedifying anti-heritage campaigns waged in several Perth suburbs in 2002-4 inspired media coverage predominantly negative towards heritage, establishing for a time an almost hysterically hostile environment for any possible revision and strengthening of protective legislation.

Although many residents of Fremantle have presumably chosen to live there at least in part because of its heritage and character, Fremantle became caught up in this hysteria. In mid-2004 the Heritage Council contacted owners of properties in the Ord Street Precinct, to advise that a precinct listing was under consideration, and seeking their comments as is standard procedure for all possible registrations.

Usually in such situations, a few are strongly supportive, and the majority of owners express no objection, while a minority react aggressively, and this was the initial scenario here. However, the hostile minority can wage a campaign of fear, doorknocking and letterboxing until some of those who are uncertain, ill-informed or easily influenced become worried or threatened. The same hostile minority also are more active in contacting politicians and the media, and make the most noise at meetings, creating an impression that opposition is widespread. This occurred at Fremantle, most notably at a public meeting held on 8 September 2004.

There is an urgent public education task to be done by those who believe that the heritage of Fremantle does matter. The Heritage Council and the National Trust can do only so much, but many people resist being told what to do or think by government or community agencies perceived as ‘the authorities’ or ‘outsiders’; so it is better if understanding of heritage values and support for preservation is based in the local community. However, community education and action at the local level needs to be grounded in a broader understanding of the issues, so allow me to provide some context.

In public utterances especially, most participants in local affairs express support for the general principle that the heritage and character of a town should be sustained. However, when it comes to decisions on particular places and development proposals, there is almost always a reason why a given heritage item should not be conserved. The argument goes: “Yes, of course heritage is worth preserving; however this particular demolition or redevelopment is a special case because it is part of a larger scheme, or will create jobs, or encourage investment, or allow a property-owner or speculator to maximise retums; so we should let this one go.” The cumulative effect of this process is a constant attrition of heritage assets, as historic building stock is sacrificed one item at a time, always for a reason, until little or nothing is left.

At some point in the process of destruction of an area’s heritage a backlash may set in, but this usually, by its nature, occurs only after substantial and irreversible losses. The formation of conservation-minded community groups, and the passing of heritage legislation, frequently come too late to protect more than few isolated ‘iconic’ buildings and back-street precincts (in Perth’s case, King Street) which escaped the initial waves of demolition.

Furthermore, the demolition and redevelopment process feeds on itself, like the tagging of graffiti. When the integrity or coherence of a street or precinct has been compromised by a couple of unsympathetic developments, it can be argued that there is little or no point in keeping isolated surviving historic buildings which have lost their context. Owners of the last remaining historic buildings ask why they should not be allowed to reap the immediate economic benefits of redevelopment like others before them: “Why should we be punished financially for retaining our old building longer than our neighbours did?” Sometimes, previous demolitions, even if regretted by many, are used as precedents. During public debate, an inappropriate proposal for a taller development adjacent to the Lance Holt School was defended on the grounds that it was no higher than the (underutilised) Myers development, as if that was a good model to emulate.

The dire situation in which some heritage places find themselves in the early 21st century, results partly from the lack of coherent whole-of-government policies. The irony is that while the Heritage Council is itself a state government agency, some state government agencies are among the greatest threats to heritage. State governments are inevitably often involved in large-scale development activity, and sometimes governments create powerful agencies especially for the purpose of development which may be inimical to heritage. One such powerful agency is the Fremantle Port Authority (now Fremantle Ports), vanquisher of the silos.

It does not seem to occur to some agencies that they should be responsible custodians of their own and the people’s heritage. This irresponsible mentality has been encouraged by the organisational restructurings which have been undertaken by governments of all political persuasions. The fashion has been for agencies to be corporatised, put into futile competition with one another, and given short-term goals and ‘mission statements’ which focus on narrowly defined ‘core business’ without reference to proper stewardship of heritage assets or the broader public good. Chief executives are awarded Order of Australia recognition and/or pay bonuses for achievement of quantitative targets framed as financial or development outcomes, with little or no thought for a ’triple bottom line’ which might have qualitative and environmental components.

Consider the policy of competition between ports. Rather than having a policy which addresses the total import and export workload of the state’s various ports, taking planning and environmental issues into consideration, and assigning port activity accordingly, the port authorities are positioned as competitors; each trying to increase their share at the expense of the others.

In this climate, some government agencies become hostile to heritage concems when they are perceived as blocking or slowing their current grand scheme. They resent and try to evade mechanisms such as the state government’s own Heritage Property Disposal Process, intended to provide some future security for the heritage values of places being sold off. The behaviour of some government agencies can be as rapacious as the worst commercial entrepreneurs who gave development a bad name in the 1980s.

In this context, certain government agencies - and the port authorities have been openly active in this - lobby strongly for weakening of heritage controls whenever heritage legislation is being reviewed, as in Western Australia in 2002 and 2004. They argue that government projects should be exempt from the controls imposed on private owners. This, in turn, leads to accusations of unfaimess from the corporate and private sectors, who think they should be treated the same; ideally, untrammelled.

Because of its unique status, Fremantle not only has a great concentration of heritage assets, and great cultural importance to the state as a whole, but also a great concentration of money and power focussed upon it. Heritage conservation is about taking the long-term view, which does not come naturally to governments at either the state or local level. Commercial and development pressures are felt in the immediate present, and elected governments are more influenced by present-day lobbying than by what history and future generations will think of them.

In this situation, local government is under heavy pressure. In the cases of the silos and John Tonkin’s House, the Heritage Council and the local government authorities tried to do the right thing by heritage, but politicians resiled. It is a commonplace that local government prides itself on its closeness and accessibility to the people, in supposed contrast to state and especially national governments which are frequently perceived to be remote from everyday concems. But the system puts obstacles in their way on those occasions when they try to fight back.

Furthermore, local government is famously volatile. We get frequent changes in Cabinet (three Heritage Ministers in the first term of the Gallop Labor government) but overall policy changes more slowly - or less dramatically - at state government level. In local government, elected councillors often serve only a brief time in office, and mayors come and go. At any given moment, a city council is likely to have several members who are inexperienced and/or focussed on short rather than long-term issues, as well as several who may be beholden to special interests or committed to pet projects.


The Freemason’s Hotel (now the Sail and Anchor), no date. Courtesy National Trust WA.

The corporate memory and professional expertise of local governments resides predominantly with the staff: senior managers and planners. They advise the mayor and elected councillors, but are sometimes frustrated and over-ruled by councillors especially when it comes to the latter bending the rules to confer short-term benefits (real or perceived) on noisy persistent individuals or powerful government agencies and corporate players. Not everyone has equal access or influence on local government. Organised lobby groups and financial and business interests can have more power than individuals - even in the mass.

These are facts of life, and this is the context in which we all must work, including those who believe that the heritage of Fremantle really does matter. The work of the Fremantle Society, and activities like these Fremantle Studies Days and the Fremantle Studies journal are contributions to public education and the enhancement of community identity. If you believe that the heritage of Fremantle matters, and you care about the long-term future, you need to become more influential at both state and local government levels. Unless understanding of heritage values and support for preservation is firmly based in the local community, neither local nor state governments will be effective in resisting the processes of destruction and attrition, in Fremantle or anywhere else.

Fremantle Studies Day, October 2004


The preceding text is an edited version of a talk given at the Fremantle Studies Day on 24 October 2004. Later that day, several people who had been interested in the references (above) to the architect Burwell, mentioned that they were concerned that a demolition application had been made to the City of Fremantle in respect of a house known as ’Simla’ in Tuckfield Street which Burwell was believed to have designed and occupied himself. These concerned citizens said that they had been told that the Heritage Council’s Register Committee had decided that the house did not deserve assessment for consideration of its possible entry in the State Register, which they thought absurd in view of Burwell’s international career and especially his role contributing to Fremantle’s built form and character. The house was also interesting for its unusual use of materials, pioneering experimental design for the hot climate, and as an architect’s own home; a building category which is extensively studied around the world.

In response to local representations, the National Trust wrote to the Hon Ljiljana Ravlich MLC, who was then the Heritage Minister, asking her to immediately place a Conservation Order on the house, and to request the Heritage Council to undertake a full assessment as a matter of high priority in order to determine whether its cultural heritage significance justified the protection of the Act.

The minister promptly agreed to the latter request, but several months elapsed before action was taken. It emerged from discussion in meetings of the LGA that the owner of Burwell’s house had already obtained Planning Commission approval for a subdivision conditional on the demolition of the house. The LGA refused to permit the demolition, but was challenged in the tribunal hearing on 31 May 2005.

In the cabinet reshuffle following the state election of February 2005, Ms Ravlich was appointed Minister for Education and Fran Logan MLA became Heritage Minister. Despite the time that had elapsed, and the urgency, consideration of whether the house needed full assessment was deferred at least once, and it finally returned to the Heritage Council’s Register Committee agenda for 29 April 2005. A few days later the National Trust as the referring party was advised in writing that - incredible as it may seem - it had been decided not to proceed with assessment of Burwell’s House on the grounds that it was unlikely to meet the threshold of state significance. That meant that once again a Municipal Inventory listing became the only hope of protecting a significant heritage place, and at the time of writing there was widespread concem that Burwell’s house would soon become another loss to the heritage of Fremantle.


Australia ICOMOS, ‘The Burra Charter’, revised 1999

Janey Dolan and Sharyn Egan, Walyalup Dreamings, shown at the Moore‘s Building Contemporary Art Gallery, June-July 2004

Clive Forster, Australian Cities: Continuity and Change, Oxford University Press, Melboume, 1995

Heritage Council of WA, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 8 November 2002

Interview for ABC-TV WA Stateline program, aired 6th and 7th August 2004

J Mane-Whecki, ‘City of Magnificent Edifices’, Historic Places, Historic Places Trust of New Zealand, July 1995

Susan Marsden, Urban Heritage: the rise and postwar development of Australia ‘s capital city centres, ACNT & AHC, Canberra, 2000

Amy Nancarrow, ‘Throwing Out the Past: the Pursuit of Modernity in Post-War Perth’, Graduate Diploma thesis, Curtin University, 2004

Ray & John Oldham Western Heritage, Lamb Publications, Perth, 1961

George Seddon and David Ravine, A City and its Setting, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1986

Town Planning Appeals Tribunal, Appeal No. 76 of 2004: Lenehan and Sims vs. Town of East Fremantle

The West Australian, 11 September 2004

Dr David Dolan

Dr David Dolan, Professor of Cultural Heritage at Curtin University, was previously the Manager of Collection Development and Research at Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and before that was Fine Arts Adviser in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra. Since coming to Western Australia in 1995 he has been actively involved in community museum and heritage work, as author of numerous reports, conservation plans and interpretation strategies. As a member of the Heritage Council of WA from 1996 to 2001, a councillor of the National Trust (WA) since 1995 and its Chairman since 2001, he has an inside view of many of Perth’s recent heritage debates and campaigns.

David has supervised and examined Masters and Doctoral theses and has been invited to speak at history, heritage and museum conferences in Australia, England, Germany, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the USA. He has also published articles in professional journals in a number of these countries as well as Canada. His latest book, co-authored with Christine Lewis, is The Fairbridge Chapel: Sir Herbert Baker’s Labour of Love (API Network, 2004).

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