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PEOPLE heritage fighter
the way to g o.” Also, as it says in Fighting for Fremantle, many wanted to sweep
away reminders of growing up there in the harsh days of the Depression.
Many in the community and on the Fremantle City Council just couldn’t see
the value or the potential of the old buildings. There were plans to widen High,
Henry and Market streets. In High Street it had already started, with two new
buildings replacing a gold-r ush structure. “I was appalled,” Les says.
One day he commented that someone ought to do something. “Someone
said, ‘Well, why don’t you’?”. As a result, he not only convened the first
meeting of the Fremantle Society, he also became the society’s first president.
He held the position until 1978, then again from 1991-1993. The society
aimed to prevent highrise construction and demolition of heritage buildings,
plus encourage people to live in the city. “We had a fabulous committee...
people from all political backgrounds, from communists through to Liberal
Party people,” Les says. A love of Fremantle helped to keep this disparate
group together, he adds, and “I was the oddball who was prepared to go out
and stick my neck on the block”!
At first, they thought they could just talk to the council “and they’d
suddenly change all their policies – it shows you how naïve we were”, he laughs.
Their ideas were in contrast to the council’s new city planning scheme, he says,
which would sweep away old residential areas for industry and most heritage
buildings, except public ones. So, the society realised it needed a member on
the council and chose Les. He ran a campaign with help from many of the
hundreds of members and won easily, revealing a groundswell of support.
During the 70s, more society members were elected to the council. There
was help from unexpected quarters, as well. “There’s a quote in the book and
it stays with me... [the late] Bill McKenzie, the mayor of the day, was a very
impressive man,” Les says. “And he said to me, ‘I don’t know what you see in
all these old buildings, but I know that what you’re doing is the right thing’...
and he never wavered. He took me under his wing because I was very young.”
The trade unions also helped by putting bans on demolition sites, which
was difficult for the society’s more conser vative members to accept.
By 1979, a new planning scheme had been hammered out, incorporating
much of what the Society wanted. “And that’s really been council policy ever
since. It’s been imperfect from time to time, but largely, we’ve lost very few
significant buildings since,” Les says.
But it was a struggle. In the fight to save the Literary Institute, which now
houses the Dome cafe and is a vital part of South Terrace’s ambience, one city
councillor was strident. “She said you
could fire a gun down South Terrace and
you wouldn’t hit anyone!”
Many buildings were saved “on the
mayor’s casting vote... you needed a
heart of steel sometimes”. The battle
brought out the dark side in some in
the community. One night, Les returned
home to find a rooster with its head chopped off on his doorstep.
“That was a bit startling... what was worse was the phone ringing at 2am and
a voice saying, ‘If you don’t stop your opposition to this project, you’ll be cut up
into little pieces and put into the craypots’. It was scary, but there was an unreal
sense about it because it was like being in a cheap movie,” he says.
The threats only made him more determined. “I was the smallest kid in the
class at school and I never liked bullies,” he says. He was offered big bribes, as
well. “I don’t want to sound too virtuous, but I never considered it... I was a
“... a voice said ‘If you don’t
stop... you’ll be cut into little
pieces and put into craypots”
PEOPLE heritage fighter
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