The Rise and now the Fall of Victoria Hall
In an ominous move from a cash strapped group, it has been announced by Fremantle Council that Victoria Hall will be sold.
Given that this Talbot Hobb’s masterpiece is a high quality example of a community hall saved several times for the community, the question must be – to be sold to whom for what?
Built in 1897 as a parish hall for St John’s Church when the dynamic Archdeacon Watkins was building a Church of England empire in Fremantle, which included also building ten cottages in Cantonment Street, Victoria Hall has been an important part of the community. It is a special property. As one observer noted: “Victoria Hall is like a Victorian musical instrument – it has wonderful acoustical qualities… you first need to know how to play it.”
Unlike today when the Church of England is invisible and impotent in the very city it owned the centre of, the church back then played an important social role. There were many uses for Victoria Hall. Between 1914 and 1930 it was used by South Fremantle Football club during the season.
As parishioners moved further out of Fremantle, the hall was leased to the Wrightson brothers for dances and was narrowly saved from demolition by the Fremantle Society in the 1970s with the help of Jack Mundey and a union Green Ban.
By 1985 it had become a Salvation Army second hand shop. When they pulled out in 1996 and a sale was mooted, a community group, the Victoria Hall Association, rallied to lease the building for community events, and Mick Vodanovich was installed as resident caretaker. That didn’t last long and the owners sought a change of use to a furniture showroom with apartments built at the rear. David Gerrand of Deckchair and John Dowson mounted a campaign against such a change of use which would not only have taken the building away from community events, but irreversibly damaged it with apartments. Fortunately Councillor David Johnston supported the campaign, and council raided their own heritage fund for $680,000 to get the money to purchase it.
The funds were taken from a heritage fund set up as a revolving fund for buying buildings, doing them up and selling them and reinvesting the proceeds in further similar projects. However Fremantle Council has not implemented that plan, and after the purchase of Victoria Hall, years of work and $2 million were required to get the building restored and ready for a new life as a theatre, a life the then council wanted to support.
Given Fremantle Council’s recent poor record at defending heritage, of allowing for example development at the nationally significant Warders Cottages contrary to the Conservation Plan, and damaging works to the Atwell and Mannings Buildings, there is no reason to believe that Fremantle Council will do anything to protect Victoria Hall from inappropriate development and use in the hands of a private owner.
There are far too few community theatres and performing spaces left in Fremantle. Victoria Hall has been saved several times in the past for the community. Who will save it now?