On 23 September 1856, the town of Perth in Western Australia was proclaimed a city by letters patent from Queen Victoria.
Perth was founded by Captain James Stirling in 1829 as the administrative centre of the Swan River Colony. It gained city status (currently vested in the smaller City of Perth) in 1856 and was promoted to the status of a Lord Mayorality in 1929.
The city inherited its name due to the influence of Sir George Murray, then Member of Parliament for Perthshire and Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.
Before the founding of the Swan River Colony, the indigenous Noongar people were well established in the southwest corner of Western Australia, hunting and gathering. They called the area on which Perth now stands Boorloo.
Boorloo formed part of Mooro, the tribal lands of Yellagonga, whose group was one of several based around the Swan River, known collectively as the Whadjug. Like elsewhere in Australia, Aboriginal occupation of the coastal plain was unwittingly preparing the ground for European settlement. \
The ground they cultivated, the tracks they passed along, the native plants they cropped and the bush they cleared by fire all foreshadowed the siting and establishment of European settlements and homesteads.
The lakes on the coastal plain were particularly important to the Aboriginal people, providing them with both spiritual and physical sustenance. The swamps to the north of the river provided food, meeting places, shelter, and familiar hunting grounds.
Fish, turtles, oysters, crabs, birds and their eggs, frogs, edible roots, fungi, kangaroos and possums abounded. The waters were fringed with tea-tree, grass trees and paper bark, the last providing shelter. The large flat spaces of the swamp flood plains created natural amphitheatres for ceremonies and camping.
From 1831, there were hostile encounters between settlers and Noongars that culminated in several executions and massacres that lead to the disintegration of the tribes and their retreat to the swamps and lakes north of the river. These were known to them as Boodjamooling, and became their main campsites and gathering places following their dispossession from traditional lands.
Early European exploration
Early European exploration of the area commenced in 1697 with the discovery of the Swan River by Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh. A sloop was dragged over the limestone bar and sandy shoals that blocked the river mouth, and an expedition made up the river. Surveying the area from “high ground” (Mount Eliza), Vlamingh was not impressed.
Similar explorations by the French in 1801, and the British in 1822 left equally unfavourable impressions regarding any potential settlement of the area.The first detailed map of the Swan River, drawn by the French in 1801
The first explorer to gain a favourable opinion of the Swan River was Captain James Stirling, who explored the area in March 1827. With relatives in the powerful British East India Company, Stirling was predisposed to the idea of a West Australian colony with potential for Indian Ocean trade.
With Frederick Garling and the botanist Charles Fraser, Stirling spent 12 days exploring the river, travelling as far upstream as the Ellen Brook junction. The party did not go far enough ashore to see that sandy soil characterised much of the land around the river. As a result, their favourable impressions of the quality of the soil was highly inaccurate, but became instrumental in the decision to establish the Swan River Colony.
In his reports to the Home Office, Stirling acknowledged that previous explorations had found the area “sterile, forbidding and inhospitable” but argued that he had found it superior to New South Wales even, and promoted in glowing terms the agricultural potential of the area.
His lobbying was for the establishment of a free settlement, unlike the other penal settlements at New South Wales, Port Arthur and Norfolk Island. Persuaded that the proposed colony would incur no significant cost on the part of the British Government, and perhaps fuelled by rumours that the French were about to establish a penal colony in the western part of Australia, the Colonial Office assented to the proposal in mid-October 1828.
Founding of the Swan River Colony
The first fleet of settlers arrived in June 1829, disembarking with their possessions on the sandy beaches north of the Swan River. No advance party had been sent, no land had been allocated, and no buildings had been constructed.
Under intense pressure from the settlers, Stirling’s energetic Surveyor-General, John Septimus Roe went to work demarcating the allotments along the river. The fertile locations around Perth did not extend very far from the Swan and Canning Rivers, and the most fertile locations were upstream. The district of Guildford had the best quality soils and was settled in the first year of the colony.
Layout of the principal towns
Septimus Roe laid out the townsites of Perth, Fremantle and Guildford. Fremantle was to be the port city, and entry into the colony; Guildford was the loading point for agricultural produce that was to be shipped down the Swan River; and Perth was the administrative and military hub. All three towns developed slowly in the early years.
The boundaries of the capital Perth were defined by the Swan River to the south and east, by the promontory of Mount Eliza to the west, and by a chain of swamps and lakes to the north. The site was chosen for its access to fresh water and river transport, the availability of building materials, fine views of the Darling Scarp and the shelter offered by Mount Eliza from naval bombardment.
The official foundation ceremony took place on 12 August 1829 with the chopping down of a tree by Helen Dance, the wife of Captain William Dance of the Sulphur. This event is commemorated by a plaque set in the footpath of Barrack Street at the approximate location.
Early years (1830 – 1850)
As much of the remaining land turned out to be quite sandy and unsuitable for agriculture, the first reports of the colony were not as glowing as Stirling had been led to expect. These reports, along with the difficulty of clearing land to grow crops, was a factor in the slow growth of Perth during the first two decades. Agriculture developed away from Perth in places like the Avon Valley, and along the southwest coastline.
Transport in the early years was primarily along the coastline and river system, and one of the earliest projects was the construction of a 280-metre (920 ft) canal creating Burswood Island. Two years later, in 1833, the first dirt track between Perth and Fremantle was cut through the bush. Other tracks from the towns to the districts of Canning Bridge, Kelmscott, Guildford and Mandurah followed. The first bridge was the causeway across the Swan River, little more than a primitive timber bridge, but connecting what is now the suburbs of East Perth and Victoria Park.
Early building activity laid the administrative, institutional and social foundations of colonial society. In 1831 the Round House was completed, providing the colony with its first prison; the Court House was opened in December 1836, doubling as place of worship until St George’s Church was built in 1842.
This wasn’t the first church however; that honour goes to the All Saints Church in the Swan Valley, north-east of Perth, completed in 1841. The colony’s first brewery, Swan Brewery, was established at the corner of Spring Street and Mounts Bay Road, near the base of Mount Eliza in Perth.
Relations between the Europeans and local Aboriginal peoples were not always amicable, and sometimes resulted in violent skirmishes. On 11 July 1833, a senior warrior named Yagan, of the local Aboriginal tribe near the Swan River, was murdered after a bounty was issued for his capture following the slaying of a couple of settlers.
By 1850, the population of the colony of Western Australia had increased to 5886, while the population around Perth was still only about 1940, approximately equal with that of Fremantle.
Convict era (1850 – 1868)
In 1849, after a decade and half of meagre growth, Perth became a penal colony and in the next 16 years received an influx of over 9000 convicts. This significantly changed the social and economic dynamics of the colony. The convicts were involved in the construction of a large amount of infrastructure and this shaped the character of the city.
Perth’s early buildings had been rudimentary and simple, however with the arrival of labour in the form of a convict workforce, new buildings of colonial authority arose. These embraced the culture and aspirations of Empire in a remote settlement, and were largely constructed in the Gothic style so much in vogue in England at the time.
Constructed of locally harvested clay bricks, mellow in colour and soft in texture, the public architecture of the colony was relatively small-scale as befitting a new settlement. Buildings constructed during this time include the Fremantle Prison, Government House, the Perth Town Hall, The Cloisters, Perth Gaol, and the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute.
The convict workforce led to an improvement in the prospects of the colony, however Perth’s underlying identity as a remote and rustic frontier town remained unchanged. Despite being proclaimed a city by Queen Victoria in 1856, fourteen years later a Melbourne journalist could describe Perth as:
“…a quiet little town of some 3000 inhabitants spread out in straggling allotments down to the water’s edge, intermingled with gardens and shrubberies and half rural in its aspect … The main streets are macadamised, but the outlying ones and most of the footpaths retain their native state from the loose sand – the all pervading element of Western Australia – productive of intense glare or much dust in the summer and dissolving into slush during the rainy season.”
This village-like atmosphere of scattered single and two story brick or stone residences, surrounded by gardens, remained unchanged until the 1880s and 1890s.