Campaigns to protect the environment within Australian cities have a long history. In this excerpt from Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle Lenore Layman provides an account of Perth’s first two major conservation campaigns, the preservation of Kings Park bushland and the survival of Mounts Bay.
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In an archetypal image, the protester stands defiantly, seemingly alone in the face of a gigantic and relentless machine, mounting a challenge to the overwhelming power of opposing forces. In Perth this symbolic confrontation calls to mind an oft reproduced photograph of an old woman – eighty-nine years of age at the time – warmly dressed against the drizzling rain in coat, hat, gloves and wielding an umbrella, standing bare-footed at the water’s edge in the face of a looming Bell Brothers tip truck which is depositing infill into the Swan River at Mounts Bay. This roadwork is creating the Narrows interchange linking the Kwinana and Mitchell Freeways and, in that process, Mounts Bay is disappearing altogether. It is April 1964 and the protester is Bessie Rischbieth.
Bessie was already renowned as a leader of the women’s movement, her community activism beginning around 1906 and continuing until her death sixty years later. She led the early twentieth century fight for women’s rights and social reform to raise the status and improve the welfare of women and children, particularly through the Women’s Service Guilds and the Australian Federation of Women Voters.
She was a crusading First Wave feminist and a well-known public figure, who did not retire from public conflict as she aged. Rather, she threw herself into two early nature conservation struggles – the preservation of Kings Park bushland and the survival of Mounts Bay.
These were Perth’s first major nature conservation campaigns in which a conservative defence of nature’s status quo became a cause for protest activism. While Western Australians’ belief in the necessity for economic development and improved amenity continued strong, limits to development’s acceptability were becoming evident. Not everything needed improvement and not all unused bushland was wasteland; aesthetic, scientific and historical values could on occasion override the promise of material progress. A new language of ecology and conservation was in its beginnings and these campaigns saw a merging of old and new discourse and action. Old activists such as Bessie Rischbieth joined young conservationists such as Vincent Serventy to fight for the park and the foreshore.
A series of proposals to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool on bushland in Kings Park led to immediate opposition and the establishment in 1956 of a Citizens’ Committee for the Preservation of Kings Park with Bessie as chairman. ‘Hands Off Kings Park’ was the message. The Women’s Service Guilds had been active from the 1920s in its opposition to any further excisions of Kings Park bushland for development and so they initiated this resistance. The scientific, naturalist and historical groups who joined with the guilds in the fight were all seeking to conserve what they especially valued: a metropolitan A Class Reserve, the last city remnants of native flora and fauna, the lungs of the city, the character of Perth or the wishes of the forefathers. Together they made effective appeal to Western Australians’ pride in and respect for the park, waging sustained resistance to the determination of Lord Mayor Howard and the Perth City Council to situate their planned pool with its attendant large car park in the Park.
The Citizens’ Committee deluged politicians, government and the media with protest letters and proposed alternative sites. At a public meeting in 1957 they won the media battle by unfurling a large banner from a balcony proclaiming ‘Burswood, not Kings Park’. They organised to ensure that two parliamentary votes on the proposal, in 1957 and 1959, were lost, the latter despite the blandishments of new and influential Minister Charles Court. ‘Kings Park Remains the People’s Park’, their celebratory sign read.
While this campaign was an important nature conservation victory, the looming battle to save river frontage from an entirely new type of road was an altogether tougher one. Town planning and road experts advised that the USA’s express highways and Germany’s Autobahnen were civilisation’s future. The state government determined in 1953 that Perth would have its version – a six lane controlled access highway with a speed limit of 60 miles (97 km) per hour from the developing industrial area at Kwinana to Spearwood and on to Perth via either the Causeway or a new bridge over the Narrows. The Stephenson–Hepburn Plan for the Metropolitan Region (1955) mapped that highway along the length of the Como foreshore, crossing the river at the Narrows, proceeding north through an interchange covering Mounts Bay and cutting a swathe through West Perth to reach the northern suburbs. Large areas of the river were slated for reclamation and foreshores sacrificed for high speed roads and their feeders.
Reclamation of Perth’s foreshores had been ongoing since the 1880s – first the Esplanade, and then Langley Park, Heirisson Island and Point Belches – the aim of successive public works projects being to eliminate backwaters, straighten shorelines and build up swampy flats. In 1908 Chief Justice Parker wrote to Perth City Council regretting that ‘the naturally picturesque appearance of the north shore of Perth Water had been destroyed by the perfectly straight line formed by the reclaiming wall’ and asked for the Council’s intervention to stop government dredging then threatening to straighten the curved shoreline of Mounts Bay.
The beauty of the river is enhanced by the irregularities in the contour of its shores, and the many little bays and points which Nature has created … The Public Works Department apparently is under the impression that Nature should be corrected.
The Department’s engineers insisted they were not ‘a pack of Goths and Vandals’ and the curved sweep of Mounts Bay and its reflection pool survived for another five decades to be much admired and photographed from Mount Eliza and appreciated by those travelling Mounts Bay Road.
Nonetheless, reclamation of Perth waters continued. In the 1930s South Perth foreshore was infilled behind a retaining wall built to enable the construction of Riverside Drive. A few disgruntled residents wrote letters to the editor: ‘A beautiful natural beach has been converted into an eyesore.’ Infills had left ‘a dreadful wilderness of sand’, ‘a glorified rubbish tip’. The only organisational opposition to the reclamation came from the WA Historical Society in 1937 when Millers Inlet at Mill Point was infilled, preventing future interpretation of the workings of the Old Mill. Protesting alone and to no avail, the Society proposed instead cleaning and improving the natural feature. At this time Perth residents seemed mostly torn between the promise of clean-ups of unsightly and smelly neglected areas and the threat of wholesale destruction of river frontages.
The end for Mounts Bay came in 1954 when the government resolved to begin construction of the long-anticipated bridge across the Narrows. According to planner Gordon Stephenson, who was commissioned to produce an ambitious new plan for the entire metropolitan region, a bridge with adequate approaches to the north and south was urgently needed; dredging and reclamation began in October. In the next five years as the bridge was built, 70 acres (29 hectares) were reclaimed from the river. Protest continued to be muted and minor: a few letters to the editor. The WA Historical Society, led by the convenor of its Monuments Committee, Joe Sewell, waged a successful campaign of letter writing and persistent lobbying to save South Perth’s Old Mill from the bulldozer but, beyond that, no organised opposition emerged. Many viewed the developments sadly as the cost of progress. Vincent Serventy recalled that ‘The planners were determined to let cars devour Perth’.
More opposition was generated over the size and route of the northern interchange that would link the new bridge to the city and the northern suburbs. Minister for Works John Tonkin explained that a network of roads surrounded by landscaped gardens would replace the ‘odorous and stagnant’ Mounts Bay. But Mounts Bay with its small boats, water reflections and sweeping avenue of mature flame trees was a pleasing element of the river landscape familiar to Perth residents. A spaghetti pie of feeder radial roads was not an appealing replacement. To make matters worse, following advice from American engineers, the size and spread of this interchange were increased.
In December 1963, the Brand government, without notice and on the last day of the parliamentary sitting, authorised 8 hectares of river infill to begin the project. Protest followed immediately, although those opposing the development were caught unprepared by the sudden announcement. The newly renamed Citizens’ Committee for the Protection of Kings Park and the Swan River was reinvigorated, springing into action in January 1964 with similar campaign tactics to those it had used previously with success – a blitz of letters to politicians, deputations, newsletters to rally support, press releases, public meetings and leaflets. A petition containing 3500 signatures was presented to parliament. The committee set out the conservation case, pointing to the future problems that increased car usage would bring, the better alternative being improved public transport and rail’s extension. Planning, it was argued, involved more than road engineering solutions. Not surprisingly, overseas experts and road engineers ruled supreme; they were the planning experts with an enticing vision of Perth’s future modernity.
The protesters came from diverse backgrounds to coalesce around a conservationist ethic. The Women’s Service Guilds and other women’s organisations (for instance, the Housewives’ Association, Business and Professional Women’s Club, Country Women’s Association and Labor Women) provided the core. They used Bessie Rischbieth’s maxim:
There are women on the warpath
And we mean to make it plain
That dictatorial parties
Won’t get our vote again.
Environmental groups, such as the Naturalists’ Club, and young conservationists, notably Dom and Vincent Serventy, were also strong supporters. Mabel Talbot from the Tree Society was active, as was architect John Oldham. The cause attracted several well-known public figures – Harold Boas, Sir Charles Latham and Mervyn Forrest. The list of committee members indicates the community spread of those who rallied to fight.
In April 1964 a public meeting drew 300 people and heard Councillor Florence Hummerston report that the city council opposed the reclamation. Full public debate was needed before work proceeded, the meeting resolved. A few days later Bessie Rischbieth staged her one-woman river protest for the camera, Vince Serventy later commenting admiringly that, ‘Today she would have 10 000 companions but in those days conservationists were more timid than they are today’. While the photograph became iconic it did not change the course of things.
The reclamation had become a party political issue, with Labor opposing it (although its own record in the area was no better than the government’s). But this divide did not assist the Citizens’ Committee for it had to remain assuredly non-partisan or lose supporters. Despite a growing flurry of letters to the editor and another large public protest meeting the government was unmoved. Developmentalist ideology drove its agenda and, at this stage of its political life, determination to achieve economic change made it uncompromising. As well, cars were king, unsurprisingly when they were becoming available to the average family for the first time. Transport development planning was seen at this time as value free and there was widespread naivety about the coming congestion, especially as public transport was neglected.
The campaign to save Mounts Bay had failed; in Bessie Rischbieth’s words, ‘The rape of the river’ proceeded.
Despite their losses, those seeking to preserve Mounts Bay learnt from their campaign. In 1965 they formed a permanent organisation, the Society for the Preservation of Kings Park and the Swan River, claiming 1000 members, to replace the ad hoc Citizens’ Committee.
Bessie retired as president and became patron, a position she held until her death in 1967. Preservation-minded architects and planners joined, bringing needed professional knowledge. The Society also formed alliances with new community groups, for instance, the Southern Foreshores Protection Society and the Nedlands–Crawley Residents Association. Inaugural Perth city planner Paul Ritter persuaded the council to oppose the inner ring road scheme thus saving Perth from another riverside freeway. These were signs of change and were followed in 1967 by the formation of the Nature Conservation Council (later the Conservation Council of WA), which signalled the emergence of a conservation identity. Conservationists realised that effective resistance to dominant developmentalism required stronger and more coordinated responses than they could deliver as individuals or through a multiplicity of organisations. They needed one voice and one plan of action. At the same time residents’ groups began to form at the local level to fight for local places threatened with destruction. Conservationists increased in numbers, creating an intertwining network of people and organisations.
The Kings Park and Mounts Bay campaigns were significant steps in this shift to a conservationist identity and to widespread activism. Interest in the natural environment and its protection became no longer the province of scientists and naturalists alone. Bessie’s pioneering protest against the earthmovers was repeated many times as direct action was increasingly utilised in the 1970s as a weapon, particularly in struggles to protect native forests against wood chipping and bauxite mining.
As for preserving Perth’s foreshores, never again have conservationists faced a threat of the dimensions Bessie and her fellows confronted in the mid 1960s.
About the Book
Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle is a book containing 34 stories of radical moments in the two cities’ past, from as long ago as the 1890s to as recent as the Occupy Movement. It is part of radical not-for-profit publisher Intervention Books’ Red Swan series, which covers radical West Australian labour history and politics and brings to life stories from the workers’ movement and social movements. The book can be purchased here.
- Activists - Stories_Accounts about/by Individuals
- Australia - Western Australia - Perth_Boorloo
- Direct action
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- History - Australia - Western Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti development - Western Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Environment_Nature
- Movements_Campaigns - Environment_Nature - Western Australia
- Women activists