Let there be light


Not all history is just hot air. Honest.

As we approach the hour of the anniversary of the coming of the Christ child, it seems only right to ask the most significant question about God made flesh: When did Perth’s streets first have Christmas lights?

There were, of course, Christmas lights and decorations well before this time. Individual shops and malls had their own displays, and government buildings were beautified. But we are asking when the streets themselves were decorated.

The answer is, for once, easy to come by. Following the lead of overseas cities and the other Australian capitals, Perth finally put up illuminations in 1961, at a cost of more than £4,000. The above scene shows Murray Street at the Forrest Place intersection. A giant balloon, themed on Around the World in 80 Days, dominated the area. Six metres in diameter, it was made by local Olympic yachtsman and sailmaker Rolly Tasker.

And why the ‘around the world’ theme? Because these decorations were to be dug out of the cupboard, dusted down, and reused for the Commonwealth Games (then known as the Empire Games) hosted by Perth in late 1962.

So, dear readers, next time someone asks you about Perth’s Christmas lights, you’ll know how to answer them.

In praise of Forrest Chase


Before Forrest Chase, the ugly Boans building dominated the streetscape

Today we tell a familiar Perth story. How a potentially great space became a disaster. We’re not talking about the delightful Forrest Chase, complete with detailed precast lattice work. Good lord, no. We mean the vile Padbury and Boans buildings which were there before it.

After the General Post Office was finished in 1923, it was assumed that the Federal Government would turn Forrest Place into a park for local residents. This would link the Railway Station to Murray Street for the benefit of all. A petition went to Parliament, requesting that Forrest Place be reserved only for public purposes.

Instead, the Feds, determined to claw back as much money as they could after the GPO project, gave a fifty year lease to William Padbury to build a shopping centre opposite. Naturally, there was outrage that the “people’s heritage” was to be converted to “brick and stone” simply for the purpose of making a quick buck.

That’s right. To build Padbury’s involved a loss of our heritage. William Padbury was already a rich man, it was pointed out. Could he not work for the public interest and build his hideous shops somewhere else?

Padbury did not see it that way and commenced construction.


This is what William Padbury promised to build.

In a story headed ‘Beauty and the Beast, or How Not to Build a City’, it was noted that Padbury’s would make Forrest Place too narrow. In any case, there were already too many “tawdry structures”, such as the Central Hotel next to the GPO. Padbury’s would just be one more.

But there was a way of saving the situation. One problem with Forrest Place was Boan’s unsightly wall. If Padbury’s had to go ahead, a five-storey building could work in this space, and justify the loss of public space.

However, William Padbury, like any good capitalist, was not going to spend more money than necessary. Since the Feds were in control of the land, not the City of Perth, a cheap two-storey building was erected. Padbury vaguely promised to put up another three storeys in the future, but no one really believed him.


The disaster some predicted

Any two-storey building must be in proportion to its street frontage. Padbury’s, at several hundred feet, was far too wide to have any aesthetic balance. In any case, Boan’s dominated above the low parapets, ruining both Forrest Place and any pretence to architecture Padbury’s might have claimed.

Forrest Place was a tragedy because the Feds simply wanted money. Padbury simply wanted money. And Boan’s was a hideous piece of architecture to begin.

Now tell us you still hate Forrest Chase.

Fur coat and no knickers

GPO, 1929

GPO, 1929

Reader, you and I have grown quite intimate, have we not? We have confessed our thoughts to each other. Whispered those things of which only true friends can speak.

Yet, there is that one matter we have not dared to broach. And now it is time.

I lean over to you and say in a low voice: “Some of Perth’s heritage buildings are quite disappointing.”

There. It is out in the open.

In fact, right across Western Australia are hundreds of boring brick sheds with corrugated iron roofs, and a thin façade of Donnybrook stone glued on the front.

Lipstick on a pig, as the Americans say.

All fur coat and no knickers, as my mother says.

Or, as one critic said of the General Post Office in Forrest Place: “It’s like a lovely face on a baboon body.”

Next time you’re in the CBD, take a look at the sides of the GPO. You will see they would be easily mistaken, as the West Australian said at the time, for the walls of a factory.

Don’t get me wrong. The façade is charming. Really, really enchanting.

But, like so many buildings in this State of ours, the rest of the edifice has no architectural unity with the front. None whatsoever.

When the GPO opened, the Sunday Times was outraged. (Mind you, the Sunday Times was always outraged about something.)

They would never have done this in Sydney or Melbourne, it thundered, but the federal government feels able to “treat Perth with vulgar contempt.”

Sometimes you see a heritage building and think you’re falling in love. But then you realise that it’s just makeup, and there’s nothing behind it. And all your affection falls away.

Dodgy Perth is sorry we had to raise this issue, but you had to know.

Can we still be friends?

Turn me kangaroo round, sport


Is something happening over there?

Dodgy Perth went to Forrest Place and noticed the two coats of arms on the Post Office had been removed. Both the Australian arms (above) and the British royal coat of arms. They’re gone because of yoof who decided it would be funny to smash them up.


Where’s me kangaroo gone, sport?

Anyway, the office got thinking. We’ve heard various stories about why the kangaroo on the GPO’s Commonwealth coat of arms faces the wrong direction. On all the other coats of arms, the two delicious animals face each other.


Burger time

Or to go all heraldic about it: why does the GPO have a sinister kangaroo regardant?

The best theory says because of swastikas, aliens, Masons, the illuminati and witchcraft. We don’t pretend to follow the argument, but we are convinced. Maybe.

Alternatively, the most popular tale concerns a sculptor who never got paid for his work, so the kangaroo looks back at the treasury as a rebuke.

We thought about this for a while.

So… the sculptor cast the coat of arms knowing in advance they wouldn’t get paid. And then no one noticed the sculpture was wrong when they put it up.

We back the illuminati story now.

But… Dodgy Perth is going can be the first to reveal the real, genuine, slightly mundane truth.

Take a look at the Commonwealth arms below:


Are you looking at me, mate?

This is the Old Parliament building in Canberra. It may look ordinary now. That’s because someone cut the head off the kangaroo and turned it round.

That’s right. The coat of arms on the national parliament once had a sinister kangaroo regardant. You were allowed creative licence in your interpretation in those days.

The reason was simple: both animals were looking at the royal coat of arms, which also adorned every Commonwealth building. It would have been rude for either kangaroo or emu to turn its back on the monarch.


God save our unicorn, long live our unicorn

Same reason goes for the GPO.

But the more observant among you will have noticed a tiny problem with this explanation. In Forrest Place, both bird and marsupial face away from the royal arms, which were on the GPO’s right.

Best explanation: the contractors who put them up weren’t told which one went where, and no one noticed on the day. If anyone commented later, it was too late to do anything about it. So for nine decades, kangaroo and emu have been studiously ignoring a succession of kings and queens of England.

Perhaps, now both coats of arms are in for repair, this is the ideal moment to put things back the way they were intended. Or make a republican statement and put them back the way they were.

One way or the other.