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Finnerty Street, 1861

Designed by Richard Roach Jewell, the centre was constructed by convict labour as the colony’s Lunatic Asylum from 1861. Additions to the building designed by George Temple Poole were constructed in the 1880s and 1890s. The site has a history as:

Fremantle Lunatic Asylum (1861-1908)
Women’s Home + Maternity Training School (1909-1942)
US Naval Submarine Depot (1942-1945)
Fremantle Technical School (1946-1968)
Threat of demolition, Restoration (1958-1970)
Maritime Museum (1970-mid 1980s)
Fremantle History Museum (1970-2009)
Fremantle Arts Centre (1973-today) [FCC page]

Next came the Lunatic Asylum. The history of this event dates from 1958 when a group of people joined together in the single aim of saving the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum from demolition at a time when the last of a series of ‘temporary' users was moving out. That group was led by Sir Frederick Samson, the Mayor of Fremantle, supported by council officers Town Clerk Noel McCombe, City Engineer Ken Bott and Architect Ray Jones; with, amongst others, Marshall Clifton National Trust of Western Australia (NTWA) and President Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAJA); George Seddon, geologist, historian and urban geographer etc., and Ray and John Oldham, journalist and landscape architects. Campbell 2019, citing himself, 1999.

Fremantle Library:
Image #494, 1897, with this caption: Fremantle Asylum, Finnerty Street. Ten acres of land bounded by Skinner, Finnerty and Shuffrey Streets was selected as the site for the asylum. The building was designed by Lieutenant Colonel E.Y.W. Henderson and built with the help of convict labour. Work began in 1861. It was built of local limestone, the blocks being squared but not coursed. The windows were glazed in small diamond panes and the roof was made of hand split shingles of she-oak. W.A. hardwood jarrah was also used and imported iron oregon, redwood and cedar. This section was completed in 1865. The first patients were admitted July August 1864. In 1886-1867 an extra ward was added; designed by George Temple-Poole and built by Robert and Arthur Bunning. In 1890 a two-storey wing was added for extra ward space and accommodation for the matron. Architect G. Temple-Poole, builders Bunning Bros. In 1894 the two final sections were built, one facing south, the other east. Architect G. Temple-Poole. The south section was built by Bunning Bros. and provided more ward space for women patients and a dining room. The east section was three stories: ground floor - doctors and nurses quarters: first floor - four bed wards for private patients: top floor - further nurses' accommodation. Builder John Milne. By 1908 all the lunatics were removed from the Fremantle Asylum and moved to Claremont. From 1909 to 1942 the building was used as an Old Womens Home. The building served 1942-1945 as war-time headquarters for the American Forces stationed in Fremantle (Receiving Barracks U.S.N.) Post-war, it was a temporary venue for technical education classes. 1968/9-1970/2 Restored by architect Mr R McK Campbell. Museum section opened 1970. Fremantle Arts Centre (South wing) opened October 1972. Source: Beryl Porter Fremantle Lunatic Asylum 1865-1984. See also: 362.2 and 725.53 Miscellany File

From a Council tour brochure which gives no source.


Fremantle Library:
Image #168. Underneath the photograph is written: Built originally by convicts as an asylum in 1861, the Fremantle Museum Building has been described as the best example of Colonial Gothic in Australia today. After it ceased to be an asylum in 1909, the building was allowed to run down completely before being converted to a home for women. Then in 1958 the Fremantle City Council resolved to re-instate the building for use as a History Museum and Arts Centre. Government financial assistance was not given until 1965. Restoration of the part of the building housing the Museum began in 1968 and it was officially opened on October 17th 1970. From 1942 to 1945 the building was occupied as US Navy Receiving Barracks.


Fremantle Arts Centre is a multi-arts organisation, offering a program of exhibitions, residencies, art courses and music in a historic building in the heart of Fremantle, Western Australia. The building was built using convict labour between 1861 and 1868 and was used as a psychiatric hospital, initially called the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, and later known as the Asylum for the Criminally Insane. It is located opposite the Fremantle Leisure and Aquatic Centre and also near two schools: John Curtin ... and CBC Fremantle.
Text and photograph (cropped) thanks to Gnangarra, Wikipedia. (Since he took the photo the finials have been restored to the gables, in the renovation shown below.)


Group of inhabitants from the period when the building served as the Old Women's Home (Fremantle Library image #2819, 1924.

Xmas at the Women's Home, 1915

The West Australian, Wednesday 29 December 1915: p. 5
(By an Inmate.)
A most enjoyable Christmas-day was spent by the inmates of the Women's home, Fremantle. It is too fresh an event at the time of writing, to do more than lightly touch upon it, as it is a confused vision of plum puddings, ham and eggs, turkeys. ducks, fowls, and stuffing; of green peas and other vegetables; of soup, cakes, jam tarts, lollies, bottled beer, soft drinks, pipes, tobacco, Chinese lanterns, gramophones, songs, speeches, and good fellowship.
As I sat, at the close of the day, in the large summer house on the lawn, which was lighted with Chinese lanterns, and sur rounded by the inmates, listening to the institution's gramophone, rendering the "Little Grey Home in the West," out of the dim light, "in fancy," I saw the spirit of Charles Dickens, his kindly face, as I knew it, when a child in London. "No ignorant Bumble here," I said. "No spiteful Mrs. Cornish here, to-night; no Stiggens, or no bullying snob, from the board, to breed mischief here, but just a strong, guiding hand; a kindly motherly influence surrounding the aged. the unfit, and the young mothers of the maternity section alike. You will look, spirit, in vain, for the sad and hopeless faces the gloomy surroundings, the dresses of rags, that the jaundiced imagination of an amateur Mrs. Jellaby has informed the world through the Press can be seen here."
One who knows the working of the home, day by day, spoke of the kindly rule of the matron (Mrs. Fraser) and her popular assistant. Nurse Knight. It was unmistakable, the eager response of the women, and the hearty singing, upstanding, of "They Are Jelly Good Fellows."
Hero in this harbour of refuge, the days pass without friction. The guiding idea is rest for the aged, protection for the unfit, and a fresh start for the rested mothers. All this my spirit visiter I think, saw, and approved, ere he faded away. The evening closed by the singing of the National Anthem. The words "Send him victorious" came forth as a prayer from many an aged mother, with her boy at the front, and from many a young mother with a soldier's child at her breast. God grant Christmas, 1916, may be a time of peace abroad, as it has been of peace and good will this Christmas-day at the Women's Home in Fremantle.


Residents of the Women's Home c. 1924, source: ABC

Shingle Dingle

[sic: should be Bingle]

Steve Grant, Fremantle Herald, 29 January 2016:
FREMANTLE council's decision to replace faux shingles on the Fremantle Arts Centre with corrugated iron has heritage experts howling.
Long-retired council architect Rob Campbell, who in the late 1960s convinced then-mayor Sir Frederick Samson to save the centre from demolition and then worked on its restoration, says he’s sorry to see the council’s latest 'essay in maintenance'.
'The material that it replaces was, in 1970, a compromise as it was then not possible to obtain shingles in the quantities required, but the compromise did at least attempt to replicate the colour and texture of the original to maintain the architectural integrity of the whole,' Mr Campbell told the Herald.
Council heritage co-ordinator Alan Kelsall says the old roofing contained asbestos and required replacement to protect public health. The new galvanised iron sheets will also make the roof watertight.
'The use of galvanised corrugated iron sheeting is in keeping with the early practice of using it on buildings, including the arts centre, to provide additional water tightness to timber shingled roofs,' Mr Kelsall says.
'The new roof sheeting will have minimal impact on the existing timber structure and will also allow for the reinstatement of timber shingles in the future if the opportunity arises.'


The Fremantle Arts Centre’s new tin roof (on the right) hasn’t impressed some heritage advocates who say it’s too far a departure from the shingles (still seen on the left). Photo not credited by the paper, so perhaps Steve Grant.

Mr Kelsall says there’s certainty with tin the roof won’t leak, which is not the case with replications.
'It is considered that the predicted overall benefits of the use of galvanised roof sheeting will substantially outweigh any perceived loss of heritage values.'
Fremantle Society president John Dowson sides with Mr Campbell, labelling the re-roofing 'damaging'.
'The roof being replaced was put there by Rob Campbell when he did the restoration of the arts centre in 1972,' Mr Dowson says.
'He spent a year engineering a copy of the original shingles, genuine shingles then being too expensive.
'Now genuine shingles are easier to get, but if they are too expensive then facsimiles should be used, not glaring large sheets of tin, the cheap and lazy way out.
'Many people regard the Fremantle Arts Centre as their favourite building in Fremantle; it has soul, tranquility and a brooding atmosphere, despite its grim early history.'
Mr Dowson says he and former council heritage architect Agnieshka Kiera were devastated to learn this week the Turnbull government had rejected an application to have the centre included on the national heritage list. Ms Kiera had lodged the application when employed by the council.


Fremantle Library:
Image #1723, taken by I.N. Branson from the Bushells building c. 1940, with this caption: The Bushells Building was on the corner of Quarry and Queen Victoria Street. Quarry Street is in front to the left. The Dux Building (front) was erected in 1898 for Frederick William Ross as a bottling factory. In the left background is Skinner Street Cemetery, behind the Lunatic Asylum and its grounds. Note the fives court in the front. [Note that Quarry and QV Streets are parallel and do not meet - except of course at infinity - but they both terminate at a triple junction, or 'corner', with Parry Street. The fives court is that stone edifice in the Asylum grounds against the western wall.]

References and links

Campbell, Robin McK. 1999, Fremantle Museum and Arts Centre Conservation Plan.

Campbell, Robin McK. 2019, 'The Prehistory of Conservation in Fremantle, Revisited', Fremantle Studies, 10: 31-44.

Ewers, John K. 1971, The Western Gateway: A History of Fremantle, Fremantle City Council, with UWAP, rev. ed. [1st ed. 1948]: 192-4.

Lipscombe, André 2008, Fertile Ground: Fifty Years of the Fremantle Art Collection, Fremantle Press.

Fremantle Arts Centre website: history

Wikipedia page

Top photo courtesy of Roel Loopers 2022 (edited). The second photo above is from a Council tour brochure which gives no source.

Old Lunatic Asylum during restoration (FHC photos)

The Asylum was a venue for performances of various kinds 1885-1906, in its 'concert hall', and also its 'large dining room'. See the ausstage dabase entry for details.

Council's 'mysay' page re the FAC Conservation Management Plan. The 32.5Mb file of that plan may be accessed from that page (probably not indefinitely).

Garry Gillard | New: 25 June, 2015 | Now: 15 March, 2022