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Fremantle Hospital


Fremantle Hospital occupies all the land between South Terrace and Hampton Rd with Alma St on one side and the Fremantle Oval on the other.

Fremantle Hospital has its history entwined in the local community. The original hospital was housed in a two storied residence called The Knowle, which was built in 1856 by convict labour using stone quarried from the prison grounds. The Knowle became Fremantle Public Hospital in January 1897 when it opened with 52 beds. By 1900, two additional wards and an operating theatre were needed and subsequent additions of medical, surgical, community and paediatric wards were introduced to meet the health needs of the community. In the years that followed, further additions were built at Fremantle Hospital including the Ron Doig Block in 1934 and the William Wauhop Wing in 1960. The Princess of Wales Wing opened in 1976 facing South Terrace and has become one of the area’s most identifiable buildings. In 1985, Woodside Maternity Hospital was incorporated into Fremantle Hospital and Health Service (FHHS). In 2006, services transferred from that hospital to the newly acquired Kaleeya Hospital. Woodside Maternity Hospital is no longer in use and Kaleeya Hospital closed in 2014. Fremantle Hospital (FH) became a specialist hospital in February 2015 following the closure of its Emergency Department and transfer of its main tertiary services to Fiona Stanley Hospital. The history of FH is not merely an account of a proliferation of buildings, it is the stories of the local community and the people who worked at the hospital, striving in their individual lives. It is the history of bubonic plague, typhoid and diphtheria, pneumonic influenza, the effects of accidents, wars and world depressions, of depleted staff numbers and increasing numbers of patients; and, in 1942, the evacuation from the town under threat of invasion. Fremantle Hospital is about skills learned and human worth appreciated together with the people and events that have helped shape the hospital’s reputation in both the community and the country today. (FHHS page)



The original Fremantle Hospital on the site was The Knowle, built by Lt-Colonel Edmund Henderson KCB, Comptroller-General of Convicts 1850-63, as a home for himself and his wife and son. It was used as a hospital from 1897, and is still part of the complex.

After Colonel Henderson's departure from the Colony in 1863, The Knowle was used by a number of Establishment Officers, and then served as an Imperial Invalid Depot. It was handed over to the colonial government in 1886. Through the 1890's, hospital services in Fremantle were still housed in the old Pensioner Barracks on South Terrace. Attempts to arouse government interest in building a new hospital failed, and finally in 1895 the government agreed to a proposal to provide new accommodation in the adjoining Knowle. After some alteration and addition, including a third bay wing, it was opened as Fremantle Public Hospital in 1897. The Knowle is still in use in the middle of the Fremantle Hospital complex, and still retains many of the original features and details - including an elegant verandahed elevation, a prison workshops staircase, metalwork and joinery. Campbell: 6.5.

Fremantle Primary School was on South Terrace from 1904 before the current hospital building, as was Marmion Cottage (1852, aka Government House).


The Fremantle Intermediate School was built in 1904. In 1927 it was renamed South Terrace State School (ie, primary school). The buildings continue to exist as Block A (shown above) of Fremantle Hospital; in 1987 they were used as the Day Care Centre at the NW corner of the complex.

Fremantle Infants School (ie, kindergarten), aka Alma St Infants, was on the NE corner of Alma St and South Terrace; where the corner of Fremantle Hospital with the Emergency Dept was until it was closed in 2014.

Ron & Dianne Davidson 2010, Fighting for Fremantle, Fremantle Society, chapter 5: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

The mid-1970s saw the Fremantle Society enjoying a great deal of success with a significant number of its members being elected to Council and its victory over the retention of the Evan Davies building. It was certainly a clear indication that the tide, in Fremantle at least, was turning in favour of heritage preservation. However, at the same time the Society - and the City of Fremantle - also lost a very important battle.

For some years doctors and clinical staff at Fremantle Hospital had been complaining about inadequate facilities and asking the state government for funds to upgrade these. Finally in 1974 the hospital board was able to announce that $23 million had been allocated by the government through the Public Works Department to build extensions to the hospital.53

An upgrade of facilities was welcomed by everyone, but what the Public Works Department was now proposing was really to turn Fremantle Hospital into a major regional hospital. The extensions consisted of two seventeen-storey towers in South Terrace, and involved the demolition of the South Terrace Primary School. This was not acceptable to many people.

At its meeting in July 1975 the Fremantle City Council rejected the plan, arguing that while an upgrade of Fremantle Hospital was certainly necessary, a large modern regional hospital should be built on a site near Murdoch University to serve the entire Rockingham-Fremantle-Armadale area. Fremantle was not the geographically appropriate place for such a hospital, which should be situated in the centre of the region and have ample parking and easy access. It called for an Environmental Impact Statement.54

The Fremantle Society agreed, pointing out that the Council had been trying to revive the area for residential purposes, and that the proposed extension would involve the demolition of shops, dwellings and a school. A Society spokesman was quoted by the West Australian as saying that it was ‘idle for the hospital board to be disconcerted by criticism when it consistently fails to consult the community and formulates its plans in secrecy with the Public Works Department.’55 The Society also emphasised that it wanted Fremantle preserved ‘not as a museum, but as a thriving, intact community, capitalising on its history and its unique character.’55 There was strong support for immediate action to develop a regional hospital near Murdoch University, and a deputation which included Mayor Bill McKenzie and the charismatic Mayor of Melville, Jack Howson, waited on the Minister for Health, Norman Baxter, to urge that this be done. A public petition organised by the Fremantle Society also supported this proposal, and called for a public meeting to discuss this issue.57

The Fremantle Hospital Board protested that it had long been criticised for not ensuring that its facilities kept up with demand, and now it was being criticised again when these shortcomings were about to be remedied. It pointed out that the proposed extensions, which had now been reduced to eleven storeys with only eight above ground level, would provide ‘urgently needed beds, outpatient clinics, administration, pharmacy and pathology departments.’58

The public meeting called by the Fremantle Society’s petition was held in Fremantle Town Hall on 11 March 1976. The town hall was packed, and the tone of the meeting was set by Mayor McKenzie when he opened proceedings by attacking the Minister for Health, Norman Baxter, who was present at the meeting to answer questions about the hospital.

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Baxter had appeared on television the night before and had suggested that McKenzie was calling the public meeting for political motives, as there was a mayoral election in May and a state election the following year. Bill McKenzie strongly objected to this insinuation, pointing out that he had no intention of standing for the Fremantle seat, and that he was obliged to call a meeting when a ratepayers’ petition demanded it. He condemned the minister’s remarks as ‘snide’.

Things went from bad to worse. Opponents of the extensions pointed out that the excessive enlargement of the hospital would involve resumption of desperately needed inner city housing as well as causing traffic problems, noise pollution, and parking difficulties while also inappropriately dominating the city skyline. They also strongly objected to what they called the ‘secrecy’ surrounding the extensions and the lack of consultation with the public.59

Two resolutions were overwhelmingly passed at the meeting. One, moved by Councillor Dick Cotton, was ‘that an environmental impact study of the proposed extension be undertaken immediately.’ The other, moved by Councillor Les Lauder, was a several-part motion calling for ‘an early start to the Lakes Hospital, and a restriction of work at Fremantle to that necessary for the Fremantle community’s needs.’60

The minister’s response was uncompromising. He said he would take no notice of the resolutions, and was ‘not prepared to mess about any longer with environmental studies.’61 He held aloft a large plan, the latest version of the hospital, demanding, ‘Now isn’t that a good building?’ ‘No. It’s horrible,’ came the reply, along with intermittent booing. The minister exploded. He threw the plans on the floor, stamped on them and threatened to leave the meeting. He took particular exception to a cartoon drawn by architect and Society member Geoffrey London that showed a hospital bulldozer demolishing a Fremantle church. ‘Bulldozers are never bigger than churches,’ said the minister dismissively.

The minister was not at his best that evening. Earlier he had made a comment about being surprised at the ‘strange’ and apparently sinister voices he had heard attacking the hospital extensions. A number of the speakers had recognisably English accents, one of these being Councillor Gerard MacGill, whose distinctive northern speech the minister had apparently found unacceptable.62

The crowd erupted. The meeting passed a motion of no confidence in the minister with loud cheers, whistles and foot-stamping. Deputy Mayor Dick Cotton summed up the feeling of the crowd: ‘I don’t think any fair-minded person here tonight could be anything but utterly disappointed with this minister. The way

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the minister has behaved tonight is an insult to the people of Fremantle.’63 While the meeting had seemed like a triumph for the Society, there had been straws in the wind to suggest otherwise. Two women spoke of how the their daughters had been saved by prompt action by the hospital staff. Others mentioned the hospital pay cheques.

The Fremantle Society’s position was unequivocal: ‘Expanding Fremantle is a panicky, interim, stop-gap, attempted solution to this crisis. Not only is disastrous for Fremantle, it is of doubtful value to the region and only evades the real issue: the provision of a proper regional hospital at the proper place - the Lakes site, near Murdoch University, where over two hundred acres is set aside for hospital purposes.’64 It also announced the formation of a Lakes Hospital Action Group, convened by solicitor Peter Batros and consisting of Mayor Bill McKenzie, Councillors Les Lauder and Gerard MacGill, architect Geoffrey London and Melville Councillor Terry Lockwood. It was to argue its case before the Premier and the Metropolitan Regional Planning Authority.65

However, the Society was shocked when Deputy Mayor Dick Cotton (who was also a member of the Fremantle Society) moved from being a leading opponent to a very public supporter of the hospital extensions. He was by then on the Fremantle Hospital Board and had changed his mind on the issue. He moved a motion at Council which said ‘the development was urgently required to provide the upgraded hospital facilities so badly needed for the people of Fremantle and its near neighbours. It was not feasible for the building to be altered - except for a minor modification - and construction should start without delay. The overall planning by the Medical Department rightly gave priority to the Fremantle extensions because of its current hospital needs.’66 He explained his change of attitude: ‘Initially I had some misgivings about the extent of the hospital development. Later I saw the people most concerned at the hospital and I changed my mind. I make no apologies for doing so. What I saw led me to believe that the Council has no option but to support the project because of the substandard accommodation and overcrowding at the hospital ... What is more important, the aesthetic appearance of a building or the hospital services the city so badly needs?’67 Councillor Cotton’s motion failed to pass by just one vote, with another hospital supporter absent. The close vote meant Society supporters would have trouble getting Council to mount

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a costly injunction against the state government, which had been their much advertised tactic.

The once useful weapon of union bans was also becoming problematic. The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union had put a ban on the Fremantle Hospital extensions a couple of months before Councillor Cotton moved his motion. However, the Trades and Labor Council was simultaneously asking the state government for ‘urgent action on sixteen building projects, including hospital extensions, to ease unemployment.’ With building jobs becoming hard to get, union enthusiasm for such bans was waning.68

Another blow to the anti-extension lobby was dealt by the Director of the Department of Conservation and Environment, Dr Brian O’Brien, who prepared an environmental issues report that came out in favour of the extensions. He stated that while ‘environmental factors should be an integral part of the design of such projects’ he felt that the hospital’s surroundings were presently unattractive, and, interestingly, that ‘ugly buildings can be tolerated.’

He summed up his findings in a letter to the Commissioner of Public Health:

In summary, while there may reasonably be objections to the proposal on the above environmental issues, none is sufficiently compelling, in my opinion, to justify intervention and delay in providing urgently to the community additional hospital facilities which your medical advisors clearly believe are needed.69

The Fremantle Society was outraged at what it saw as a ‘betrayal’ of the Fremantle Council and community when at the end of 1976 it was announced that the state government had awarded a contract for coordination and management of $25 million worth of additions to Fremantle Hospital. It was claimed that the improved hospital would work closely with the future Lakes Hospital which would I eventually become the regional and major teaching hospital south of the river.70

The Society was disgusted at the lack of consultation, claiming that the building had been ‘designed in a vacuum without reference to the local authority, MRPA or anyone else’71 and that no concessions had been made to the local environment. It also hit out at the opinions expressed by Brian O’Brien:

For this space scientist to make such a statement about a complex architectural and town planning issue on the basis of one afternoon's

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discussions is to abuse the trust the public places in him as Director of the Department of Conservation and Environment.72

The Society sounded an interestingly contemporary note when it criticised the excessive emphasis on hospital building and treatment at the expense of preventative medicine and promotion of healthy living. It also expressed the opinion that with this very large expansion of Fremantle Hospital, the Lakes Hospital would get put on hold.73

The Fremantle Society was right. It was not until 2006, thirty years later, that the State Minister for Health, Jim McGinty, announced that a regional hospital was to be built at the Lakes site at Murdoch.

Stopping the massive extensions to Fremantle Hospital proved beyond the Fremantle Society despite them winning most of the arguments about the project between 1974 and 1976. Hospitals are different from other developments. They are seen as good per se, regardless of how hideous they may look and however geographically wrong the chosen site may be for a regional hospital. Medical politics always beat resident politics. And so it proved.

Endnotes for the Davidson chapter

53 West Australian, 19 February 1974.
54 Fremantle, vol. 3, no. 3,1975.
55 West Australian, 18 December 1975.
56 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 6,1976.
57 ibid.
58 West Australian, 17 February 1976.
59 West Australian, 12 March 1976.
60 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 2,1976.
61 West Australian, 12 March 1976.
62 Recollection by Ron Davidson, who was present at the meeting.
63 West Australian, 12 March 1976.
64 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 2,1976.
65 ibid.
66 Daily News, 17 August 1976.
67 West Australian, 23 September 1976.
68 West Australian, 5 June 1976.
69 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 3,1976.
70 West Australian, 7 December 1976.
71 Fremantle, vol. 4, no. 3,1976.
72 ibid.
73 ibid.

References and Links

Campbell, Robin McKellar 2010, Building the Fremantle Convict Establishment, PhD, UWA (Faculty of Architecture). Available online to download (not from this site) as a 40MB PDF.

Davidson, Ron & Dianne 2010, Fighting for Fremantle, Fremantle Society, chapter 5.

Garrick, Phyl & Chris Jeffery1987, Fremantle Hospital: A Social History to 1987, Fremantle Hospital.

Top two images from Google. Others my snaps.

Garry Gillard | New: 29 November, 2014 | Now: 3 June, 2020