Professor BOB REECE, emeritus professor of history at Murdoch University, is a former president of the Fremantle History Society and a Fremantle Society member. He has written extensively in the past on the Round House and its architect Henry Willey Reveley. In this THINKING ALLOWED he says there must be a co-operative approach to preserving Arthur Head.
SINCE 1829 Fremantle’s Arthur Head has been an iconic landmark of Britain’s settlement of WA, first known as the Swan River Colony.
Visible from thirty miles out to sea and dominating the historic town centre, the limestone bluff with its sparse coastal vegetation has long been a focus of interest and affection for visitors and townspeople and a reminder for Aboriginal people of the area’s rich traditional meanings.
The Round House, WA’s oldest “European” building (completed in early 1830), crowns the site with its unique architectural design. Over the years it has had various uses ranging from lock-up to whaling station.
Together with other buildings on Arthur Head – some long since demolished but well documented like the lighthouse – it has helped to create a ‘heritage landscape’, possessing what the late George Seddon would have called a unique ‘sense of place’.
Significantly reduced in size by a long history of quarrying and other destructive activities, Arthur Head today is a fragile remnant of our historical and environmental heritage, which is now under serious threat of further damage by man and nature itself.
Nor has any agency been prepared to take on the responsibility of saving and conserving it for the benefit of posterity.
Valuable support has been given in the past by the Round House Guides, the Fremantle History Society, the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and the WA Museum, all of which could be called upon again to assist.
Fremantle council, as the responsible body, is well aware of the problem and has carried out basic maintenance in the past but is balking at the cost of remedying the current crisis.
At various times, FICRA, Fremantle History Society and the Fremantle Society have lobbied Fremantle council, the Fremantle Port Authority and federal and state governments to take on the increasingly urgent task of saving this unique piece of our past.
But the potential cost has proved to be much more than was expected.
Estimates of the expenditure involved range as high as $1.8 million for the stabilisation of the cliffs alone.
It is time for these bodies to come together in what might be the last opportunity to join forces in a properly conceived and adequately funded campaign to save Arthur Head from the very real threat to its structural integrity.
The process of external erosion of the limestone is already advanced, as any casual visitor can see, and the council’s commissioned report on its geological condition points to the possibility of water causing internal erosion that would be difficult to repair.
What is needed is a concerted collaborative effort to drive this important initiative and see it through until Arthur Head itself is no longer at risk and confident plans can be made for its future beneficial use.
The History Society and the Fremantle Society can be part of this effort as they were in the long-drawn-out campaign to overturn the plan to build a tavern at Bather’s Bay, something that was in clear contravention of Arthur Head’s status as an A class reserve intended for recreational purposes.
The battle against the commercial use of Arthur Head has been won for the time being, but this will be of little significance if its geological structure is allowed to deteriorate further.
It is time for action to be taken and people are looking to Fremantle council to provide the leadership that is so sorely needed.
There is no point in ‘activating’ (talking up) this valuable part of our unique local heritage as a tourist destination or an ’arts hub’, if in the meantime it continues to go to rack and ruin. A great deal has been said about Fremantle’s history and heritage, and Arthur Head is its obvious focus.
Securing its future for the city’s residents as well as for visitors ought to be a ‘no-brainer’.