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The Fremantle History Society, 1994-2014

Bob Reece

Bob Reece 2017, 'The Fremantle History Society, 1994-2014', Fremantle Studies, 9: 79-87.

Telling the story of a local historical society's two decades of life might seem somewhat precious to those who are not aficionados of history, but the reason is the same as for any other past activity we want to know about in more detail than our memories will allow. We want to know what it did, at least what was important that it did. Historians have to be highly selective when they reach into the past for information and dust it off for our edification. Telling the whole story is a sure recipe for inducing total boredom.

I was trained as a critical historian to challenge explanations of what happened in the past and why. But how relevant is this academic approach to local history, to the history of Fremantle, the place where we live? Critical history has to do with broader political and economic issues, national and international questions, while local history has more to do with social history, how ordinary — and not so ordinary — people lived from day to day. 'What was it like in the olden days?' is a question a child might ask, but it is by no means a childish question. We all have a curiosity about the past that reflects our need for a perspective in which to see our own lives and make sense of them against the lives of others. Local history is also a way of reaching beyond the family to some sense of community. Humans are social beings and history marks how successful they have been in achieving that experience of community.

One of the first things I did when I came to live in Fremantle with my wife Lesley in January 1978 to teach at Murdoch University was to get started on a book on its history as a way of 'putting down roots'. I like to think that it worked well but it was something I needed to do in order to feel that I belonged here. A Place of Consequence (1982) was a pictorial history, however, and there is still a real need for a comprehensive and detailed account.

Please excuse this personal aside before I go on to talk about the Fremantle History Society as it celebrates its twentieth birthday. This is an important commemorative task and I am flattered to have been asked to take it on. As one of the founders of the Society, as well as Vice-President in recent years, I feel reasonably well qualified to tell how the Society came to be formed, what it has achieved and what else it might do.

The inaugural meeting of the Fremantle History Society was held at the Reception Room of Fremantle City Council on the evening of Wednesday 12 October 1994 with an attendance of more than fifty people. Dianne Davidson, who was the moving force in getting the Society going, opened a discussion of its objectives and there was some talk about possible activities before the meeting was addressed by Vicky Miller, then photographic archivist at The West Australian, on 'The Image of Fremantle'.

With the encouragement of Mayor Jenny Archibald, a ten-person steering committee had been at work for some months beforehand devising a set of aims and a constitution for submission to the Office of Fair Trading for incorporated body status. Anne Brake, then Curator of Fremantle Prison, played an important part in this, assisted by Margaret Anderson of the Western Australian Museum. Instead of using existing local historical societies as models, however, Anne looked to more broadly-based history and heritage-oriented organisations like the Glebe Society in Sydney. There was a determination from the outset not to go down the road of organisations like the Melville Historical Society with its own museum collection. Fremantle already had its own historical displays at the History Museum in Finnerty Street but it could not have been imagined at that time that this would ever be lost to the community.

Announcing that the Society was 'dedicated to the belief that a greater knowledge of Fremantle's history' would enrich individual understanding and 'help foster a sense of community identity and awareness', the steering committee outlined the Society's aims to:

1. encourage involvement in the study of Fremantle history and cultural diversity through research, oral history and writing

2. disseminate information about Fremantle in a variety of ways, in particular through public forums and liaison with other history and heritage groups and schools in the area

3. promote the identification and preservation of historical evidence relating to Fremantle

4. encourage the commemoration of important events, places and people in appropriate ways

5. arrange social gatherings for members

Perhaps the best rationale for what the Society was embarking upon was provided after I asked at the inaugural meeting why a history society had been so long coming. This interesting answer was offered by the late Margaret McPherson:

There really wasn't any need for one [she wrote in the first Fremantle History Society Newsletter]. As a child accompanying my mother to town, I became accustomed to standing while she talked to almost every second person. A lot were relations — my mother was one of twelve and my father the eldest of six. Freo people knew each other, they knew who was married to whom and the family of both parties. They also knew which skeletons were hidden in which closets  As for historical buildings and localities, there was always someone who knew about them  Sadly[,] with the demise of the older generations a lot of this oral history was lost, mainly because we thought we knew it. Demographic changes, decline of the wharf and a new perspective of Fremantle have arisen resulting in a need to retain its history.

J.K. Hitchcock had recognised this when he was preparing the first history of the port town commissioned by the Council as part of the celebrations marking its elevation to city status on 14 June 1929. Sadly, his own collection of historical materials disappeared after his death not long after the publication of his book. However, Margaret McPherson herself did some valuable work on the history of what is now the Arts Centre building that filled an important gap.

Dianne Davidson must be given full credit for initiating the Society, but its formal establishment needs to be placed in the context of other similar initiatives. On 1 October 1992 David Hutchison had called a meeting of half a dozen people who became known as the Fremantle History Group. David (former Curator of History at the Western Australian Museum), Lenore Layman of Murdoch University, Graeme Henderson of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, Bill Latter (former trade unionist and Fremantle Councillor), Larraine Stevens of the Fremantle City Library, and Ken Posney (Director of the Council's Community Services), met again on 24 January 1993 and shortly afterwards the first Group Newsletter appeared. Nothing more materialised, however, because its members were not keen to embrace an institutional structure. While they believed that a 'clearing house' for Fremantle-related research was needed, they did not contemplate meeting more than once or twice a year. They hoped instead to see the establishment of a 'Fremantle Studies Centre' which they could support, and the Fremantle History Society filled the bill. Some became members of its first committee.

An earlier initiative by veteran Fremantle resident and Fremantle Society member, Alice Smith, in 1975 had seen the lunching of an oral history project recording the memories of elderly townsfolk. This was about the time when Jean Teasdale's Oral History Association of Australia was getting off the ground and the idea of 'history from below', of ordinary people as the makers of history, was being embraced enthusiastically by academic as well as local historians. Over two decades, Alice's group of oral history workers deposited 136 interviews with what is now Fremantle City Council's Fremantle History Centre, originally known as the Fremantle Local History Collection. These were added to subsequently under the supervision of Local History Collection librarians, Larraine Stevens and Alison Gregg, producing an invaluable historical resource for future use.

An important initiative in the late 1970s had been the Fremantle Local History Collection itself, built on a collection originally started by Librarian John Birch at the Evan Davies Library in the 1960s and curated from November 1976 by Professional Assistant Larraine Stevens as one of her responsibilities at the newly-completed Fremantle City Library. The Fremantle History Society was to keep the momentum going by arranging tape-recorded talks by local personalities like Rusty Christensen and Larry Foley who provided entertaining insights into popular but thinly documented subjects such as growing up in Fremantle and World War Two in Fremantle.

The birth of the Fremantle History Society was not warmly welcomed in all quarters, it has to be said. Some Fremantle Society members felt that its own programme of oral history recording under Alice Smith and its photographic survey of buildings was the kind of work that the History Society would only duplicate. History was seen to come under the umbrella of Heritage and not the other way around. More seriously, the Society's then President, Ralph Hoare, and some committee members felt that the History Society was being 'set up' through the active encouragement of Mayor Jenny Archibald as a foil to the Fremantle Society in the latter's battle with the Council over such vexed issues as the location of the Fremantle Dockers' new club rooms. When Council Officer Ken Posney applauded the Fremantle History Society's recent establishment at a Council meeting, suspicions were only fanned. Ralph Hoare went so far as to complain to the Office of Fair Trading about the Fremantle History Society's name being too similar to that of the Fremantle Society, but in the event his objections were rejected. The two organisations were subsequently to enjoy a friendly relationship, partly due to the increasing pattern of dual membership and co-operation on heritage issues such as the Prison café, the synagogue, South Fremantle Power Station and Heritage Week.

Names mattered, nevertheless. It had to be the Fremantle History Society rather than the Fremantle Historical Society because there was a concern among some members not to be seen as a junior version of 'the Royals', the prestigious Royal Western Australian Historical Society with its Vice-Regal patronage and perceived 'high society' connections. In many ways, the pattern of the History Society's activities was set during its first year of existence. The first issue of the quarterly Newsletter appeared in June 1995, carrying reports of talks and research as well as intriguing anecdotes and enticing snippets of historical information that made it a 'must read'. All this has made it an important historical resource in its own right and a collector's item. Its production during the first years by Dianne Davidson and Anne Brake at Fremantle Prison has been vividly recalled by Dianne:

The Prison only had primitive copying equipment — all double sided printing, collation and folding had to be done by hand. The old photocopier was a hand-me-down and quite cantankerous. It often needed much cajoling and the odd expletive to get it going.

A competition arranged by the Society at John Curtin Senior High School in mid-1995 produced a fine neo-classical logo designed by graphic arts student, Melinda Ricci, to give the History Society its own iconic representation. And on 4 May 1996 came the first Fremantle Studies Day, a half-day seminar or symposium of four speakers delivering papers on different aspects of Fremantle history. Bill Latter, better known as a trade union historian, examined the accuracy of the locally-born and educated novelist Xavier Herbert's memoir, Disturbing Element; Tony Fletcher looked at the Fremantle wharves during World War Two; Ann Delroy talked about women workers at Mills and Ware's biscuit factory; and Patricia Brown looked at other forms of women's employment between 1900 and 1940.

In the capable hands of David Hutchison, Fremantle Studies Day was to take on a more formal character, stimulating in turn the appearance of a biennial journal, appropriately called Fremantle Studies, in 1999. The journal is a shining example of how proper standards of writing and referencing need not come at the cost of readability and popular relevance. It also shows that, contrary to accepted wisdom, doing things by committee can work The collective that edits Fremantle Studies maintains an exemplary standard. The launch of Volume 8 demonstrates yet again that Fremantle history is a rich seam to mine, more than repaying the investment of time and labour that research, Writing and editing involve. Unlike most history journals, each volume has its own index. (Treasurer Pam Harris is in the process of completing a digitised index to the Newsletter, which will make it easier to use.)

Some volumes of Fremantle Studies have taken on a thematic character, for example, Vol. 2 with articles by Kristy Bizzaca on the heritage movement in Fremantle 1955-1982, David Hutchison on aspects of heritage, Bruce Bott on Bateman's houses and an interview with Fremantle Society former President, Les Lauder. Vol. 4 also contained discussions of heritage issues by David Dolan and Geoffrey London. Another theme that has featured strongly is women's history in the contributions of Patsy Brown, Phyl Brown, Ann Delroy and Geoffrey Higham. Dr Deborah Gare's article in Vol. 8 may well be the beginning of a new wave of interest in the subject.

The Newsletter and Fremantle Studies are tangible outcomes of the History Society's work that we can feel justifiable pride in, but we must not undervalue the less tangible aspects of the History Society's work. Although many members would not readily acknowledge it as a political organisation, the History Society has taken a strong stance on some important local issues, scoring some significant wins and of course some defeats. When the future use and management of the decommissioned Fremantle Prison was being looked at by a firm of outside consultants in 2002, the Society set up its own committee under David Hutchison to prepare a submission and was congratulated for its input to the Fremantle Prison Heritage Precinct Master Plan. The Society subsequently called for proper community representation on the Fremantle Prison Trust, something which is still a vexed issue. In more recent times, the History Society has taken a strong public stand on such issues as the Esplanade skate park, heritage classification of the amenities building at Victoria (Quay, and the recently proposed tavern at Arthur Head's J Shed. This activism has not endeared it to Fremantle City Council, but the Society is not beholden to it or any other body when decisions are made that affect the whole Fremantle community.

On the issue of the John Curtin statue now located next to the Town Hall, underneath what was the original balcony used for civic occasions, the History Society invited the public to its regular monthly meeting in order to canvass community opinion. It had earlier pushed for the restoration of the balcony, used for ceremonial occasions in the past, notably the proclamation of the City in 1929. While approving warmly of the commemoration of John Curtin as Fremantle's Member of Parliament and wartime Prime Minister, many people felt that his portrayal as a ranting demagogue was a caricature that completely failed to capture the dignity of the man. The official retort that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' they felt was an inadequate response to an historically and aesthetically based criticism. The battle was lost, but it could never be said that John Curtin was without his loyal defenders in the History Society.

Another lost battle was the closing of the Fremantle Social History Museum on 31 July 2009. Starved of funds by successive state governments and with displays dating back to the late 1960s, it was not attracting many visitors and this was used to justify its closure. By contrast, massive funds were expended by the Court government on the construction of a new Maritime Museum at Victoria (Quay whose fine displays, like those of the old Maritime Museum, have only minimal relevance to Fremantle. Appeals to Arts and Culture Minister John Day met deaf ears and Society members could only meet and drown their sorrows at a 'wake' held at what was then the Davilak Hotel in South Terrace.

The History Society has continued to give its strong support to the Council-sponsored Fremantle Heritage Week with talks and other activities. Combining with the Fremantle Society in 2011, it sponsored 'Songs and Stories with Bernard Carney and Friends' at the Town Hall, 'Lunatics and Art' at the Arts Centre with John Dowson and Rob Campbell, Open Heritage House at a number of locations including Samson House and the National Hotel, 'Heritage Q and A.' at the Victoria Hall, Greg James on 'The Making of Maria Montessori', 'Fremantle Club Crawl' with Ron Davidson and Don Whittington's 'Tram Tours'.

Another intangible but valuable aspect of the Society's work has been its social life. Down-town Fremantle pub lunches in winter have been extremely popular and the annual dinner has always attracted good numbers. During the amiable Bob Woollett's Presidency from 2000 to 2004, the Society flourished as a social institution, the all-time high point being 'Christmas Capers' at the Fremantle Tennis Club on 2 December 2003 when everyone had to bring along something to read or recite. Subsequent annual dinners (always at a different venue) witnessed the challenging 'Freo Quiz'. Bob Woollett is immortalised in the now-legendary Society raffle which he instituted and ran until recent times. Fay Campbell, Jenny Patterson and Joan Donaldson must also be mentioned as the ever-resourceful and good- natured organisers of afternoon teas and suppers for appreciative members.

One of the most important contributions by Bob Woollett during his Presidency from 2000 to 2004 was the History Society's hosting of the annual State History Conference of Affiliated Societies from 16 to 18 September 2005. On that occasion, Fremantle City Council, largely through the instrumentality of Ken Posney, generously provided venues and logistical assistance. The dinner for more than one hundred delegates in the Town Hall (Professor Geoffrey Bolton providing the after-dinner speech) was a great success. That the Society netted a $2,500 profit from the Conference is a measure of Bob Woollett's careful financial management. He continued to be the liaison person with the Affiliated Societies, keeping the History Society in touch with wider developments.

One of the most memorable social occasions in recent years was the 'Wake' at the Fremantle Club on 24 April 2007 for the recently burnt out 'Nash', or National Hotel, which has since been restored almost to its former glory on the corner of High St and Market St. On that memorable occasion when more than eighty people turned up, Kerry King reminisced about working as a barmaid and Milton Baxter talked about selling newspapers in the 1940s. According to the Newsletter, 'he told the crowd how the National corner was the best spot for a paper boy; how he managed to get past the bar manager to sell papers in the bars; and how the sellers would shuffle with the change to extract a penny tip'. This is the kind of detail that provides the spice of local history.

These social functions have served, among other things, to fulfil the Society's purpose as a community organisation designed to bring people together through a common interest in, even love for, history. In the fragmented society that we live in today where Fremantle is no longer a village of people who are related or know each other from work or school, the good fellowship offered by the History Society can help foster the sense of community that still makes Fremantle feel like a place of its own.

What the History Society should do in the future is a good question to consider at this point. A new President succeeding the redoubtable Anne Brake in July 2015 will bring his or her own ideas. However, one area of the Society's work that could certainly be strengthened is outreach to the local high schools where history, particularly local history, languishes. The Society's newly-instituted research scholarship looks to a more mature audience but there is a need to encourage interest in local history at secondary school level. Unless it can attract members of the new generation to carry on its work, the History Society itself will become History. At the same time, it needs to think about what can be done to replace the Fremantle Social History Museum, which was so important in helping to define the city's unique identity. It seems extraordinary that a place with Fremantle's long historical span should have no dedicated collection of artefacts on public display other than those associated with its maritime and military heritage. What will it take to put this issue on the political agenda?

On the positive side, the digitisation at Fremantle Council's expense of Fremantle's first regular newspaper, the ex-convict-owned and edited Herald (1867-1886), has made available a rich resource that sheds light on that neglected period of Fremantle's history from the end of convict transportation in the late 1860s to the gold rushes and the building of the port in the late 1890s. The era of the 'merchant princes of Fremantle', so well described by Patsy Brown in her book by that name (1996), has been overshadowed by the tradition of Fremantle as a port and industrial centre with a strong working class culture. It needs closer examination if we are to properly understand Fremantle's historical evolution.

The broad question we have to address is: what still needs to be done? We have had the benefit of J.K. Hitchcock's and Ewers' histories (1929; 1971), together with John Dowson's Old Fremantle (2003), Ron Davidson's whimsical Fremantle Impressions (2007), Paul Arthur and Geoffrey Bolton's collection of essays, Voices From the West End (2012), but there has to be a strategy that sets future priorities. Studies Days and scholarship awards should be guided by that strategy. At the same time, there is a need for a basic narrative account of Fremantle's history that is easily accessible to younger readers, new residents and visitors and embraces the indigenous owners.

It would not be possible to bring a review of the Fremantle History Society's achievements to an end without dwelling on the extraordinary fact that for half its twenty years of life (1994-97 and 2005-2010) it has been guided by Dianne Davidson as President, assisted of course by committee member Ron Davidson. Dianne brought to the job a degree of dedication, determination and efficiency without which voluntary organisations like the Fremantle History Society could never survive.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2014

Garry Gillard | New: 18 August, 2017 | Now: 16 December, 2018