Here at Dodgy Perth we’re a little over hearing so much praise for St Edith of Cowan. After all, how seriously can you take someone who named herself after a local university?
Should we save her house? Probably. Should ECU have spent $715,000 on a tent to name after her? Probably not. Because she was Australia’s first female politician should we assume she was Gandhi and Mother Theresa rolled into one? Absolutely not.
What really gets us is the way everyone keeps going on about how much she loved all of the little children? Did she? Let’s take a look.
In 1929 the Government proposed a new law which would sterilise any girl who they decided was ‘mentally defective’. This was needed, it was said, because the ever growing number of mental deficients were “poisoning with their hereditary taints the lifeblood of the State”.
Edith Cowan, who loved children you’ll remember, was outraged and demanded the bill be changed. She didn’t think, of course, the bill was offensive, but that it did not go far enough. The proposed law said parental consent was necessary before sterilisation, and Edith thought this was wrong. Parents were being cruel by letting their idiot children breed, and “the moron girl should be so treated that she would not become a menace by reproducing her type”.
Fortunately, the bill was shelved and before the Government could reconsider it the Nazis had given that kind of thing a bad name.
Edith Cowan did many great things in her life, but she also held some extremely offensive views. Let’s not create a saint from her life story but remember her as an all-too-real complex human being.
Western Australia is famous for many things but, up until now, it has not received credit for its greatest contribution to Australian culture. We invented the word ‘pommy’. Dictionaries like to say the origins of the word are obscure, but they aren’t. It started here.
On the goldfields they liked to play with words. Immigrants got called ‘Jimmy Grants’ because someone thought that was funny. Then it was taken too far. From ‘pomegranate’, Jimmy Grants became Pommygrants. And after that it quickly became the word Pomegranate itself, before getting shortened to Pommy. All this in Western Australia in the first years of the 20th century.
Dictionaries are also wrong when they claim Pommy first appeared during World War I. It is much earlier than that, and even appears in print in WA in January 1912 when immigrant British policemen were referred to as Pomegranate Johns, or Pommy for short. The word quickly spread around the whole country, and by 1913 the whining Poms were claiming it was a racially abusive word and should be banned. A joke from that year went like this:
A canvasser visited a house in Perth, and was referred by the good wife at the door to the “Old Man”, in the garden. He found that the “Old Man” was a Chinaman. “Do you mean to say you’ve married a Chinaman?” he said incredulously to the woman. “Why not?” she replied, “the woman next door married a Pommy.”
Before he died in 1950, John Jones of Leederville used to boast he had invented Pommy while perving on English girls on Hay Street. This is unlikely to be true, but does show that Western Australia has always claimed to be the origin for the word. It is time we were once again proud of our heritage.
The Dodgy Perth team is spending some much needed downtime in Kalgoorlie. Like good historians, we booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel, which was probably much finer when it opened in 1897. Downstairs is the Hoover Bar; upstairs you can stay in the Hoover Suite. In the foyer is the famous Hoover Mirror, together with a copy of a romantic poem he sent to a barmaid at the Palace with whom he had fallen in love.
Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the USA, was a mining engineer on the Goldfields from 1897, just as the Palace Hotel opened. He was a regular visitor to the pub, and when he left town Hoover gave them the magnificent mirror as a parting gift. And the long poem addressed to his local sweetheart, the first verse going:
Do you ever dream, my sweetheart, of a twilight long ago,
Of a park in old Kalgoorlie, where the bouganvilleas grow?
Where the moonbeams on the pathways trace a shimmering brocade
And the overhanging peppers form a lover’s promenade?
They quite like Herbert Hoover at the Palace Hotel, and a great deal of their advertising likes to stress the connection. But, unfortunately (as you’ve probably guessed by now) all the above is total and utter rubbish. Except for the bit about Hoover working on the Goldfields.
The poem isn’t by Hoover at all (who, like many engineers, couldn’t write lyrically if he tried) but by Texas poet Hilton Ross Greer in 1906. It was originally set in Mexico and addressed to Carita. Someone, probably someone who had never visited Kal since it now contains references to things that were never there, simply substituted local allusions for the original:
Do you ever dream, Carita, of a twilight long ago,
When the stars rained silver slendor from the skies of Mexico?
When the moonbeams on the plaza traced a shimmering brocade,
And the fountain’s tinkling tumult seemed a rippling serenade?
As for the mirror, it’s never mentioned until after a major redevelopment of the Palace in 1936, where it suddenly becomes advertised as a tourist attraction. Originally just described as a ‘banksia-framed mirror’ in the dining room, a couple of years later it had obtained a new story about its origin.
The manageress, Mrs V Cook, spun a tale about how it had been made in Florence in the 1850s, shown at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880, cost £1000 to make, had originally been covered in gold leaf, could grant wishes, and had been painted brown by her late husband to fit in with the rest of the furniture. Actually, we believe that last bit.
The mirror looks 19th century, and is certainly magnificent and worth the trip to Kal just to see it. Even more so now they’ve stripped off the brown paint and restored it to its original (gilt-less) beauty. But, sorry Palace Hotel, it has nothing to do with Herbert Hoover. Nor does the poem.
Sometimes, being a historian is a bit like telling kids about Father Christmas.
Bloody Muslims, coming over here with their history of centuries of trading with Western Australia before Europeans arrived, having been an accepted part of local society since the birth of the colony, and demanding to be treated with the respect the law has always shown them.
Wait, that last one can’t be right can it? Well, yes it can.
The earliest reference to someone swearing on the Quran is from 1833 when Sumud Alli did so to testify against his racist attacker, the appalling John Velvick. The newspaper report didn’t make anything of this oath, other than to mention it in the same way it noticed anyone else who was sworn in, so the journalist didn’t think this was very unusual. By the way, Velvick got his comeuppance at the hands of the law and later met his death at the hands of Yagan.
By the early 20th century, the Supreme Court respected Islamic tradition by ensuring its copy of the Quran was first wrapped in canvas and then covered in colourful silk handkerchiefs. This way, it could be handled by court officials and still be considered acceptable to Muslim witnesses taking the oath.
And in 1918 the Supreme Court was even willing to allow a case between two Muslims to be adjourned so it could be settled using customary processes. A dispute over who owed what for a sale of camels was resolved when the defendant went to the William Street Mosque, washed himself in the presence of his Imam, put on clean clothes and then swore on a certain passage of the Quran. The judge accepted this and was happy with the outcome.
What’s with these people demanding the respect we used to accord them all the time?
Western Australia was always the one that really didn’t want to go to the club after midnight, it just wanted to go home to bed. But everyone else insisted they’d have a great time. So WA went and hated every minute of it. And it never stopped complaining about the steep cover charge and the price of the drinks.
We’d only gained independence (of a sort) in 1890, so it’s not surprising that a mere decade later no one really wanted to give it up to be controlled by the Eastern States. WA dragged its heels and muttered a bit about not really wanting to join the party. Which is why the Australian Constitution doesn’t mention WA at the start, only in passing later on:
and also, if Her Majesty is satisfied that the people of Western Australia have agreed thereto…
Well, we didn’t want to agree to nothing, but the goldfields got grumpy and announced that if WA didn’t join Australia then they’d secede and none of the lovely gold money would be coming Perth’s way. In the end, the bullies won and we were dragged kicking and screaming to a nightclub we knew we’d dislike.
When the Depression hit hard in the early 1930s, WA decided enough was enough. All of our hard-earned money was going to support the Eastern States and very little of it was flowing back west. (Doesn’t this sound very familiar?) Or, as the great William Lathlain so eloquently put it:
Thirty years ago we all boarded the good ship Commonwealth for a lifelong voyage, with the full assurance that there would be only one class for all passengers. During the voyage we found, to our great surprise, that there were four classes. Victoria and New South Wales had secured all the saloon cabins; South Australia and Queensland the second class; little Tasmania was put in the steerage; while Western Australia is compelled to work her passage in the forecastle.
At the referendum for #Wexit in 1933, WA voted by a majority of two to one to separate from the Commonwealth. Only the tyrant overlords out east rudely told us we weren’t going anywhere.
So the following year a petition was presented to the King, the House of Lords and the House of Commons asking England to set us free from our oppressors and let us live rich, contented lives in the State of Excitement. It took until 1935 before England got back to us, and they used legal trickery to decide that the petition was “not proper to be received”. In other words, you made your bed, now lie in it.
Strangely, though, 1935 was a year marked by buoyant trading conditions and decreased unemployment. Everyone in WA got happier and the idea of #Wexit was gradually forgotten by most people. Until the 1970s, but that’s a different story for a different day.
This is a story about a very Australian approach to life. The one where we have a complete disregard for expertise and just adopt the ‘she’ll be right, mate’ attitude. Only, in this case, she wasn’t right at all. Welcome to Midland Town Hall.
As you can see from their design above, architects Hamilton and Upton planned a single clock face right over the main entrance. Had they had the money and competed the building, the citizens of Midland would now have one of the greatest town halls in Western Australia. But they didn’t have the cash, so the design had to be trimmed back, and one of the losses was the clock.
After WWI every local area collected money for a memorial to the fallen. Many places decided not to put up a statue, but to erect something useful for the district and call it Memorial Something-or-Other. So WA is full of Memorial Halls and Memorial Gates and the like. In Midland they decided they needed a clock, so people knew when to catch their train. And not just any clock. But a really big and heavy clock, with four faces.
(There is a local myth that the clock was a rejected one intended for Midland Post Office—even the Heritage Council repeats this story—but there is no truth to this at all.)
In early 1923, the Memorial Committee asked the council to build them a tower to hold their clock. But when the council realised how much it would cost for a good tower, they proposed simply knocking the top off the Town Hall dome and sticking the clock there. Unfortunately, the architects told the council the brickwork wouldn’t take the weight, since it was never designed to have a clock on top of it.
Like any good council should, they ignored the architects and turned to a local builder, who told them he could put the clock on top of the dome really cheaply, and he was sure the Town Hall would be fine. Plus, he didn’t even ask for any money for himself, which saved council a bit more. And so the skilled architects were ignored, and plans quickly knocked up.
And so the top of the dome was cut off and the clock placed on top, completely disfiguring the look of the Town Hall, since it doesn’t fit and to this day looks like a job done by cowboy builders. Which it was.
One problem was that the clock hardly ever worked, so people kept missing their trains anyway. It required constant maintenance, for which there was no budget, so a local man agreed to look after it, for free, to the best of his ability. Which doesn’t seem to have been a great success, but at least it occasionally told the right time.
A couple of years after the clock had been installed large cracks started appearing in the Town Hall’s brickwork. Some were so large you could actually put your finger between the bits of brick. Guess what? The architects had been right all along and 5.5 tonnes of clock, casing and steel struts were ripping the building apart.
So another architect had to be called in, the great Edwin Summerhayes. His report was damning. There was no structural support for the clock, it had been badly installed anyway, and it desperately needed a framework put in to carry the weight down to the foundations. Since this would destroy the Mayoral Chambers, Summerhayes said the only solution was to remove the clock and put it in its own tower, just like the Memorial Committee had originally requested. Failing to do so, risked the whole building falling down.
Everyone agreed that the clock would have to come down, but no one was willing to pay for it to do so. Instead, the council decided to drop the matter and just hope no one was killed by falling brickwork. And that’s exactly what happened. More money was spent over the next couple of decades patching up the dome and Town Hall than it would have cost to move the clock. But that’s how councils often work (or don’t work).
Today, the clock still ruins the look of a beautiful town hall. Just to save a bit of cash.
You may have seen in the media about the poor deli owners in Scarborough who have been forced into a rooftop protest to save their business. It is due to be knocked down at some point to make way for yet more high-rise apartments. Read all about it here.
The Dodgy Perth team are not usually ones for taking sides in property disputes, so we’ll restrict ourselves to the simple question: is this deli a heritage building? And like all simple questions, there is no simple answer. And there’s no simple answer right now because no one has done the leg work to find out.
Once you could find these corner shops everywhere, but in an age of late-night supermarkets and 24-hour garages they are becoming increasingly rare. This Scarborough deli was built around 1940 and was thought of as a very modern shop for its time. After World War II, the owners added an asbestos residence next door with lounge, two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, laundry, garage and (of course) yet more asbestos for a roof.
Looking at a historic photo, the building has remained much the same as when it was built, except for the inevitable loss of its cantilevered verandah. The shopfront windows are particularly interesting, because they seem to be identical to the original (or may even be original!).
Is this enough to make a building a heritage place? This Scarborough deli is not, by any stretch, a fascinating building. In fact, it’s quite ordinary as a corner shop. But that might be exactly what makes it have heritage value. It is typical of its era, typical of its type, and could probably tell a thousand stories of its owners and customers.
And delis were often run by New Australians and women, and New Australian women for all we know. Do we have enough heritage places where we can tell their stories? Could a real-life and still open deli not be a great place to have heritage and a coffee at the same time.
If you feel like trying to save it, give the State Heritage Office a call on 6552 4000 and say you’d like to nominate the deli on the corner of Brighton Road and Hastings Street in Scarborough. They’ll make you fill out a form (it is a government department, after all), but it’s not difficult to do. And then at least we’ll know if this place is worth saving.
As a good Western Australian parent, you wouldn’t want your child to read ‘The Carnival of Crawling Doom’, would you? Let alone ‘Dead Tongues of Terror’ or ‘The Little Walking Corpses’. Of course not. Because you are a good parent, and you know Perth led the way in having such stories banned.
The federal Customs Act 1901 meant anything obscene, indecent or blasphemous or seditious could (and usually was) banned. Better still, the public was rarely told what was forbidden, and almost never the reasons behind such decisions. Like in 1933, when Aldous Huxley’s obscene Brave New World was prohibited. For some reason or other.
Over the next few years, people (read: the press) began to fret about American pulp fiction being imported into Perth. Enter Special Magistrate Alwyn Schroeder, who had his finger on the pulse of 1938. When one person pleaded to him that their “downfall” had been caused by an overseas nudist magazine, Alwyn decided something had to be done.
“I am not a prude,” Alwyn said, somewhat unconvincingly. After all, he had seen action in Egypt during WWI, which was somehow relevant in his mind. But it was quite clear to him that all the current social problems of immorality and depravity were directly linked to young boys and girls reading American magazines. Especially ones with horror and crime stories.
Alwyn demanded Canberra do something and, unfortunately, they listened to him. One month later, the Daily News declared ‘Perth Gives Lead to Canberra on Magazine Ban’. The Commonwealth Government started banning any title they disliked without having the inconvenience of mentioning which ones were now prohibited. The secret list grew month by month. By August 1938, 49 magazines were illegal and that was just the start.
Perth boys and girls were now safe, thanks to ‘Weird Tales’ being on the list, from reading H. P. Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Bloch, and their eyes were saved from seeing illustrations for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry.
We should thank Alwyn Schroeder for the great care he took in protecting us from such evils, and call upon the government to do even more to stop us reading horror, crime and Romantic poetry.
Dodgy Perth thanks Chris Nelson’s amazing zine, Mumblings from Munchkinland (August 2012) for having inspired this post. Also, Alwyn Schroeder appears as a character in Deborah Burrows’ recent Perth-based novel, Taking a Chance, which is all about crime. So you probably shouldn’t read it.
What has the opening of the Town Hall on Barrack Street got to do with feminism? Give up? Well, let Dodgy Perth mansplain it to you then.
Everyone needs to tell stories, about themselves, their family and their community. For most of the last two centuries, the (white) people of Western Australia have told their history using one word: ‘progress’. And every new building, no matter how boring or ugly, was welcomed as yet another sign of the progress of this great state.
So it should come as no surprise to find that on the official opening of the Town Hall in 1870, a huge banner was put across Barrack Street with the word PROGRESS on it, for people to march under on their way to the new building.
But there’s a problem with this word. It doesn’t just apply to new buildings, but also to society. Little things like women’s rights, for example. If the fair sex keep hearing about how we’re progressive, they might decide they would like a little of this progress too.
At the Town Hall ceremony, there wasn’t much sign of this progress. The hall itself was filled only with the important men of Perth while the womenfolk were consigned to the gallery. The men feasted and drank the booze, while their wives simply looked on without even a sandwich.
But still, this whole progress thing had to be dealt with, and it fell to the Colonial Secretary, Frederick Barlee, to spell it out. Proposing a toast to the health of the ladies, like every misogynist before and since, he announced that no one could be more devoted to women.
As a lover of ladies, Fred continued, he well knew the power and influence they had over men. (Even if this did not extend to getting anything to eat or drink.) Recently he had been reading about something called “women’s rights and female suffrage”, and worse about women entering professions and becoming scientists. Not, of course, in Perth, but elsewhere in the world.
But, said Fred, addressing the gallery, none of the good and true women here would wish to see any such nonsense brought about. After all, they already knew how much power they had without needing legal rights. Nor did women need the vote, since all men did was vote the way they were told by their wives anyway.
The Colonial Secretary then called upon all present to drink to the health of the ladies by gulping down nine large mouthfuls of booze. Well, not all could drink of course. Some were in the gallery.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was what 1870 called progress.
In this secular age it is hard to remember that Perth residents were once a very spiritual lot. A number of rituals, some last performed only recently, made up significant aspects of their lives. Although the meaning of many of these rites is now forgotten, it is important we preserve some record of this non-tangible heritage for future generations.
The Temple Visit
Once a week, usually on a Friday, someone from each household was tasked with carrying out one of the most bewildering (to us) rituals.
They would drive to a temple known as a ‘Blockbuster’ and, for generation after generation, the same sacred exchange would take place with the high priest behind the counter:
Do you have a VHS copy of Lord of the Rings?
Sorry, we’re all out at the moment.
Okay then, I’ll borrow a Will Ferrell movie instead.
There are a number of theories as to the meaning of these words, but none are satisfactory. However, there is general agreement that the name of God was so sacred the phrase ‘Will Ferrell’ was used in its place.
Speaking with God
In a simpler age, before the advent of modern science, Perth people actually believed that a 12” piece of plastic would allow them to hear their gods singing to them, most notably the Madonna herself. Despite repeated evidence this did not work, the rite of placing the blessed circle on a potter’s wheel and lowering a blessed ‘needle’ was undertaken over and over again.
All they ever heard was a strange noise, after which the ancient words “Bloody kids have scratched it!” would be uttered in a peculiar voice.
Some radical anthropologists have speculated that in the long-distant past it was possible to hear the Madonna communicate to them. Others even suggest that if you wait three hours she will actually turn up herself.
The Role of the Priest
With modern communication techniques it is easy to forget it was once difficult to speak to people who were far away. Early Perth residents were fooled into believing one of their gods, Telstra, could send voices along thin pieces of copper. Some historians venture this was a pre-cursor of science, but we prefer to take a Marxist reading.
Recognising the desperation of some people to communicate with a loved one, the high priests of Telstra forced Perth people to stand in one spot with a bizarre contraption on their ear and, this always comes a surprise to those who haven’t studied religion, a wire linked to a heavy weight known as a ‘telephone’.
The similarities between this and the Medieval imprisonment technique of ‘ball and chain’ make to all-too-obvious that the purpose of the ritual was not communication but control of the worshipper. While frantic to speak with a beloved, the body was held firmly in one position, and thus was easier for the high priests to begin to control other aspects of the believer’s life.
We here at Dodgy Perth firmly believe that more research should be undertaken into Perth’s religious history before this knowledge is lost forever.