So, Victoria Hall is up for sale. Your chance to buy history subject to Ts&Cs

Have you been following the Victoria Hall sale saga?

Victoria Hall, 179 High Street, Fremantle, 2024. Credit Fremantle Shipping News

Well, less a saga and more a continuing Fremantle story.

City of Fremantle, the owner of Victoria Hall, has sought expressions of interest from would be purchasers. You need to get your EOI in by 30 April, just a week away, if you’re interested, as specified in the City’s notices.

Here’s some of the history of the building which was once a Church Hall, a 1930s entertainment venue for Freo’s well-frocked, then a beacon of the ‘70s conservation struggle for Fremantle and the emerging Fremantle Society, after which it eventually fell into Freo Council ownership at the turn of this century and became an entertainment venue once again. And now it comes up for sale once again.

Ron and Dianne Davidson tell the story of Victoria Hall and its saving from the wrecker’s ball in the ‘70s so beautifully, and vividly, in their Fighting for Fremantle: The Fremantle Society story (2010), that we can do no better than repeat their telling of it here –

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.

The Happy Hour Club inside Victoria Hall, c 1938. Credit City of Fremantle LHC

In more recent times, FTC – Fremantle Theatre Company – has occupied the Hall and delivered many fine productions to Freo people and the wider public alike.

City of Fremantle has recently advertised for expressions of interest to purchase Victoria Hall.

Here’s the Property as described in the City’s materials.

If you are thinking of lodging an EOI, be aware that Terms and Conditions apply, principally, to sign-up to a Heritage Agreement with the Heritage Council of Western Australia in respect of the site.

The current occupancy arrangements with FTC are also to be respected.

Let’s hope a well-heeled, Freo-spirited, heritage-minded buyer is waiting in the wings!

Perhaps they might reinstitute The Happy Hour Club inside Victoria Hall!

By Michael Barker, Editor, Fremantle Shipping News


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