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Victoria Hall, 1897, 179 High St, designed by J.J. Talbot Hobbs, was originally the St John's Parish Hall.
Sarah Booth, Spacemarket:
Victoria Hall was built during the goldrush in 1896. It was primarily built as the Parish Hall to accompany St John’s Anglican Church in Kings Square, but was available for community gatherings. The hall was renamed Victoria Hall in 1897 to honour the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was designed by renowned architect and WWI general, Talbot Hobbs who also designed the Weld Club, the Savoy Hotel, Perth Masonic Lodge, and Fremantle's Samson House and Scots Church, to name just a few.
1914 to 1930 the South Fremantle Football Club leased the hall during the football season. Until the mid-30s, a group known as The Happy Hour Club held dances on Friday nights.
Happy Hour Club, Victoria Hall c. 1930 Fremantle Library ref. 1073
Other uses included bazaars, boxing contests, balls, church group meetings and, to the consternation of the church, a meeting of the Communist Party in 1940. By the late 1950s, Victoria Hall was in disrepair and too large for parish requirements. A smaller parish hall was built at the rear of the Old Rectory in Queen Street and dedicated in 1959.
After the Second World War, Bob Wrightson began leasing the hall as a dance studio and eventually went on to buy it. Many Fremantle residents learnt to dance at Victoria Hall (including my own dad!). Bob's brother Norm Wrightson began playing at weekly Saturday night concerts and for over 30 years it was the place to be in Fremantle on a Saturday night. Norm Wrightson recently passed away however he is responsible for really putting Victoria Hall on the map.
This link to an ABC article on Norm paints a great picture of what Fremantle was like at the time.
Absurdly, in 1974, Fremantle City Council approved the demolition of the hall, sparking a public outcry. The National Trust advised it had been classified and the Builders Labourers Federation placed a green ban on the building. It was then protected by temporary heritage status and now is firmly on the State Heritage Register.
The Deckchair Theatre moved into the hall in 1998 and became an iconic place for theatre in Fremantle. The hall has always had its problems though and has long plagued its hirers with mischief (some believe there's a number of different ghosts in there!) In 1999 a storm damaged a large section of the roof. "In 2012, the Department of the Arts announced that it would provide new seating, air conditioning, sound insulation and lighting and sound systems at a cost of $570,000. But the company closed down that year unable to sustain its existence due to lacking of funding and audience support." (freopedia.org)
The Fly by Night club tried to make the hall work as a live music venue when its lease ended at the Artillery Drill Hall, however, (despite much financial assistance from City of Fremantle) Fly by Night couldn't overcome its ongoing financial problems and moved out in 2018. It had been sitting vacant until Spacemarket took it over in November 2019.
The City of Fremantle bought the hall in 2001 and, due to budget reasons, have in recent years tried to sell off this prized asset. Until this point, no reasonable commercial offer has been made.
Spacemarket, with the help of Renato Fabretti of the Fremantle Theatre Company, has managed to sensitively restore the building to good working order, and in 2021 Renato and Fremantle Theatre Company will be taking on the lease permanently with the City of Fremantle. He is currently seeking private sponsorship to ensure the hall does not run into the same problems as its predecessors and I feel positive that he is going to ensure Victoria Hall is returned to its rightful place within Fremantle's rich arts and cultural landscape. (Sarah Booth, from the History Society's January 2021 newsletter, republished with permission)
The building is currently the property of the Fremantle City Council which offered it for sale end 2018. There was no substantial offer, tho the Church of England offered $1 for the ~$3mill building.
The building was offered in 2019 for a peppercorn rent to a suitable not-for-profit organisation. It has been let to Spacemarket (see above).
There was also an unsuccessful application from the Bible Museum to lease the hall to display its collection.
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 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.
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 was not financially viable.
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.
The following email was sent to members by President John Dowson 8 November 2018.
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 Bob 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.
The following article by Jenny D'Anger was published in the Fremantle Herald 11 October 2019.
FREMANTLE’S Victoria Hall will become an arts and community hub as early as next month, after local firm Spacemarket was awarded a two-year lease by council.
The heritage-listed hall in the city’s East End has been empty since the Fly By Night Club moved out in January.
Spacemarket specialises in revitalising empty buildings that are blighting city streetscapes.
“We propose to inject life back into this special building with workspaces for arts and cultural organisations, the re-opening of the tiny bar, and the return of the hall to the community as an affordable venue and event space,” Spacemarket’s Kate Hulett says.
Fremantle mayor Brad Pettit says the company was behind the pop-up MANY, in the old Myer Building, and has a great track record of enlivening disused buildings in the metro area.
“It will be good to have them bringing life back to this much- loved building,” he says.
“Importantly it will offer affordable work and event spaces for arts and cultural organisations to incubate and support the creative side of our community.”
Ms Hulett is hoping to be up and running within the month.
“For the short-term hall booking system we aim to launch in November, so people can start booking events and we can have the broadest audience possible using the space.”
As it’s a short-term licence arrangement there is no commercial rent, but Spacemarket will be responsible for all outgoings.
The 1895 building, once St John’s Parish hall, has had a number of uses over the years including being an op-shop and Deck Chair Theatre.
After the Fly moved out the City of Fremantle wanted to sell the hall, but it only received an offer of $1 from the Anglican Church–well below the $3 million the city wanted.
From the newsletter of the Fremantle Society, March 1974:
At its February meeting the Council reversed the decision of the Town Planning Committee and decided to defer the matter of all street widening for two months.
The owner of the Victoria Hall has persisted with demolition application and the Executive Committee of the Council has raised no objection.
The full Council meeting on March 18th agreed to the demolition by a vote of 10 to 8.
The Society has made representations to the National Trust, the National Estate Committee and the Premier Mr Tonkin with the view to purchase of the building by the State Government. The building is a theatre and none of the theatrical groups operating in the Fremantle area has a permanent home.
The Builder's Labourer's Union 'green ban' on Victoria Hall remains.
Booth, Sarah 2021, article on the Hall in the History Society's newsletter, January (republished above).
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 1974, Vol 2 No 2 1974, Vol 2 No 6 1974.
The photograph of Victoria Hall is from Wikipedia.
'Fremantle's Victorian Hall to be placed on interim heritage register', WA Govt media statement.
Garry Gillard | New: 22 August, 2015 | Now: 31 March, 2021