Rich layers to Head’s heritage

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BOB REECE is Professor Emeritus in History at Murdoch University and President of the Fremantle History Society

“IT’S just a cliff!’ The first casualty of Fremantle council’s campaign, together with Sunset Events, for a tavern at historic Bathers Beach is the truth about Arthur Head’s heritage significance.

Mayor Brad Pettit reportedly made this off-the-cuff remark to a group of students at Notre Dame in early September.

Whether he actually did or not, it is a fair summary of the attitude that most elected members and officers have been taking since the enlarged tavern proposal was sprung a year ago.

Guiding their response appears to be the council’s own heritage advice to the effect that Arthur Head is not a “pristine site” and therefore developments such as the tavern cum brewery pose no threat to its drastically diminished heritage importance.

This is a straw man argument that completely misses the point about what constitutes a heritage site.

Arthur Head’s defenders have never claimed it is a “pristine site” substantially resembling what greeted Captain Charles Fremantle’s eyes when he first came ashore at Bathers Beach in May 1829 and built his first camp there with its palisade and ditch to deter “the natives” from attacking.

What was a substantial limestone bluff in May 1829 was drastically pared down over time by quarrying and excavation for a wide range of purposes. The first of these was as early as 1830 to provide stone for the building of the Round House lock-up itself, the Swan River Colony’s first substantial building and an icon that continues to attract swarms of tourists as well as provide the people of Fremantle with a much-loved symbol of their town’s unique identity.

Subsequent quarrying for the first court house, the whalers’ tunnel, the harbour master’s house and lighthouse, excavation for gun emplacements in two wars and extensive reclamation of the foreshore at the northern end for the power station in 1905 have drastically altered Arthur Head’s topography to produce the modest eminence that it is today.

The point is that these historic uses (and abuses) of Arthur Head have actually endowed it with the rich significance that everyone except elected members, council officers and Sunset Events’ proprietors appreciate.

Astonishingly, council officers have even suggested the whalers’ tunnel be used as an access point for the tavern.

That all of its historic buildings except the Round House and the latter-day pilots’ cottages have disappeared is seized upon to claim “there is nothing there any more” at Arthur Head. In fact, its richly layered historical associations over what will be two centuries in 2029 are good reason for calling it a “heritage landscape” with its own unique set of stories.

This is the site known as Manjarree to the Nyoongar people who hunted wildfowl in the nearby wetlands and camped near the freshwater spring at it base, incorporating it in their Dreaming stories; where Captain Fremantle proclaimed the western third of the continent for King George IV; where the half-starved first colonists gathered to catch sight of a life-bringing sail on the horizon; where bay-whalers made their base for two decades and generations of shipbuilders plied their trade.

How can this unique place that we call Arthur Head best be utilised? As a cultural and historical resource and leisure area that also helps us define who we are as Fremantleites and Western Australians? Or as yet another outdoor booze and loud music place accompanied by predictable anti-social behaviour?

As an appointed member of Western Australia’s heritage council, the mayor should be taking his cue from its properly appreciative citation of Arthur Head rather than from Sunset Events’ aim to turn a cultural landscape into nothing more than a backdrop (‘It’s just a cliff’) for the consumption of yet more alcohol.

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