The Hamilton Hill Memorial Hall was built in early 1925, and officially opened in July that year. It was funded by local residents and supplemented by government assistance and bank loans, and served as a memorial to the young men and women of the district who had been sent overseas to serve in the First World War
Need for a hall
‘We are greatly in need of a hall for social functions. Fortunately we are a very neighborly community, and the homes of the settlement are often placed at our disposal for social gatherings. We foregather at one or another of them every alternate Saturday.’
Writing in July 1914, mere weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that would cascade the world into war, a Hamilton Hill
columnist expressed a simple desire for a community hall for the scattered market gardeners and farmers of the sparsely populated district south of Fremantle.
The outbreak of the Great War, with all its tragedy and deprivation, would become the catalyst for the building of just such a hall in Hamilton Hill
Local halls were very important to small rural communities, providing a space to meet neighbours, hold dances and parties, gather for agricultural shows, and generally provide a space for social interaction in a large and sparsely populated landscape.
Memorial Halls were a common way for smaller communities to commemorate the soldiers and nurses who left their district to serve overseas. Where larger, more established towns and cities erected columns or plinths, the money involved for a rural community was better spent on a building that would serve the dual purpose of remembrance and social space.
Raising the funds
Though a hall had been in the minds of Hamilton Hill residents for many years, the war both hindered and focused their efforts. Government funds for buildings and improvements were rarely available between 1914 and 1918, and all work in community fundraising went to helping the war effort.
By 1919, thoughts turned once again to building the long-desired hall, and a slow but steady process of collecting money from the families and farmers of the district began. This time they had a fixed goal in mind: commemorate the sons who left their small enclave south of Fremantle to fight for the Empire, some never to return.
Five years’ fundraising
In 1924, finally ready to go public with their plans, a deputation from the Hamilton Hill War Memorial Committee visited the Minister for Works:
The deputation pointed out that £200 per annum had been collected in the district during the past five years for the purpose of erecting a Soldiers' Memorial Hall, the total sum of £1,000 being represented in a quantity of stone, an acre of land, and cash in hand.
What they wanted from the Minister was a promise of subsidised timber from the State Sawmills Department, supplied on credit with a reduced interest rate. The committee representatives - Robert Kinley, Alfred Isted, and Alfred Lydon - were confident that the hall would be so popular for local people’s gatherings that it would have no trouble in paying back any loans taken out on its behalf.
The Minister hesitated to give any concrete promise of assistance, but commented that he was favourably impressed that the committee owned the land on which they intended to build.
To push their work ahead, the committee planned a grand carnival at the site of the hall in early December. Officially opened by William Watson, the owner of thriving local business Watsonia
, the Black and White Carnival ran for a week from Saturday to Saturday.
The carnival hosted dozens of stalls ‘combined in the form of a huge battleship, so realistically constructed as to deceive the casual observer’
and running competitions, prize fights, and other attractions aimed at bringing in as many paying customers as possible from Fremantle and the surrounding districts.
According to one report, this carnival raised another £250 for the committee, and this, along with positive news from the State Sawmills, finally gave them the boost they needed to begin solidifying their plans.
Building the hall
In February 1925 it was announced that the contract to build the hall had been granted to Mr. R. Rennie, and that he had already begun excavations at the site.
The total cost of the completed hall, it was stated, would be £2360.
In March the foundation stones were officially laid, one by the Governor of Western Australia, Sir William Campion, and the other by Mrs Maud Winfield, the acknowledged driving force behind the Memorial Hall project.
Originating in Victoria and moving to WA to try their luck on the goldfields, and later at Jandakot
, Maud and Walton Winfield had been residents of Hamilton Hill since 1913. Their son Arthur was sent overseas in September 1917, and lived through the war to return home in March 1919.
For her role as a tireless and enthusiastic fundraiser and organiser during the war years, Mrs Winfield had won the Perth charity group the Ugly Men’s competition for Most Popular War Worker. For a woman in a semi-rural district to win such a contest, particularly one who had ‘not the advantage of having the large circle of friends to support her as the other candidates’ was considered quite exceptional.
Laying the foundations
At the Foundation Stone ceremony the State Governor, Sir William Campion, made a high-minded speech noting that war memorials were important as ‘people were of short reverence and were inclined to forget too soon’. He discussed the sacrifices made for the Empire, and took a long digression around the concept of class distinction:
There was a horrible word which should be wiped out of existence and that was the word "class". Class distinction was practically unknown at the front and friendships had been made through the medium of war which probably would not have been made in times of peace.
Presumably he was trying to appeal to his audience, whom he must have considered a group of humble market gardeners who had no time for Sirs and social classes.
William Watson, present as always at his hometown celebrations, was now a Federal Member of the House of Representatives. He gave a warm speech, taking the same points as Sir William that memorials were necessary, though he knew some saw these sorts of structures as glorifying war:
No great movement or event could succeed unless it was achieved by sacrifice. It was all very well to suppose that children would grow up peaceful if we kept from their minds anything appertaining to war. They might, but would the children of other nations grow up the same? Once the spirit of sacrifice was lost, it would be good-bye to our Empire.
The rest of the hall was built in three months, and at a grand ceremony on Sunday 19 July 1925 it was officially opened. The Fremantle Naval Band played, and speeches were made by several political and military dignitaries, including the president and secretary of the WA Returned Soldiers’ League (RSL). Wreaths were laid on behalf of the mothers of the district, and the honour board was unveiled by Mrs Dixon and Mrs Poole, both of whom lost sons during the war.
The hall was ‘packed to the doors’ for the occasion,
and the Sunday Times commented that it was ‘doubtful if any district in this country will put up, in proportion to its population, a finer tribute to its fighting souls.’
Paying down the debt
With the hall finally open, the Memorial Hall Association’s work was nowhere near complete. They now had the administration of a popular local facility, as well as the debt to pay. In August 1925, this debt was set at £2424, of which £1563 had already been raised by the committee over their years of effort.
The hall proved so popular, and Mrs. Winfield’s committee so adept at raising money, that this was not considered any kind of problem at all. At the Christmas carnival later that year, a local joker noted that ‘these ladies excel in the art of painless extraction from their visitors’ pockets’.
No sooner was the hall open than the committee was holding fancy dress balls at a 1-shilling entry fee, attracting guests in their hundreds. Another Christmas carnival, this time Japanese-themed, brought visitors from all over Cockburn and Fremantle.
With admission fees, raffles, and the ingenious idea to sell advertising space on the stage curtains (bringing in £115 the first year alone), the committee was financially very confident.
By early 1926 there was a regular dance evening run every Wednesday from 8-11pm at the Hall, with an orchestra and refreshments.
An Infant Health Association nurse from Fremantle Hospital set up in the front two rooms of the hall on Wednesday afternoons to give support and advice to mothers in the district. Political candidates, including the ever-present William Watson and newcomer John Curtin, hired the hall to speak to the voters.
1926 also saw the first films being shown in the Memorial Hall: The Runaway Express
and In Fast Company
were shown as a programme, and were most likely the first films shown anywhere in the Cockburn district.
All paid off
Dances with entertaining themes like the ‘Freak Ball’ in 1928, agricultural shows, seasonal carnivals, and regular bookings all contributed steadily to the paying down of the hall’s debt, which was finally achieved in 1938, thirteen years after the hall was completed.
In October the committee held a banquet in the hall to celebrate ‘the liquidation of the hall debt’.
A large crowd gathered, and after speeches by some of those involved, Mrs. Winfield laid a wreath on the honour board, and the rest of the night was given over to dancing.
Until the mid-1950s, the Hall played host to a cinema on Friday and Saturday nights, with refreshments provided by Cecilia Lazenby’s Hamilton Hill store all throughout the war.
In 1963 its management was taken over by the Shire of Cockburn. This coincided with the shifting of other public buildings like the Spearwood Agricultural Hall
to the ownership of the council. The reason given for that building’s transfer was that the committee that ran it could no longer afford its upkeep, and wished to ensure the hall was kept for the use of the community. It is likely that the same story is true for Hamilton Hill.
In 2004, work began on the refurbishment and expansion of the Hall, restoring the original building to its former glory and constructing a modern addition, completed in March 2008. Today the hall hosts local theatre groups and art exhibitions and is available for hire by the public.