perth city

From Struggling Colony to Thriving City: A Brief History of Perth

The city of Perth is located in Western Australia and has been an essential part of the country since it became a penal colony. Today, Perth is one of the fastest-growing cities in all of Australia, and it’s home to more than two million residents. 

Perth, Western Australia, is a beautiful city that has seen many changes over the years. Originally founded as a penal colony in 1829, Perth didn’t really take off until the 1950s with an influx of immigrants and post-war reconstruction. 

The population grew from around 5,000 to well over 1 million people in less than 50 years! I’ll be exploring some of these changes and how they have affected Perth’s culture throughout this blog post series.

In particular, we’ll be exploring how the city was founded as a penal colony, what there is to do for tourists, and why you might want to consider visiting if you’re interested in history or just looking for an exciting vacation destination. Let’s get started! 

perth in the 1800s

The Beginning

Perth’s history is simply fascinating; from the convicts and colonies to the boom and bust economy and the reasons why the city sits on the same site it does, you’ll discover a host of things you didn’t know here.

Whatever your history obsession, whether it’s our indigenous culture, the architecture styles of our buildings or even the men and women behind the businesses and communities that have made Perth the prosperous city it is today, you’ll be sure to find out something significant about our state.

Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh was the first European to explore Western Australia. He landed on Rottnest Island in 1696, naming it “rats nest” because he thought the island’s iconic quokkas were giant rats. 

In early 1697, he sailed up the Swan River, naming it after the black swans. However, de Vlamingh had a largely unfavourable opinion of the land. The Dutch were more focused on trade at the time, so settlement did not occur under British Captain James Stirling’s visit in 1827.

Upon his return to England, Stirling began to push for the establishment of a free settlement in WA. His wish was granted, and in 1829, he and Captain Charles Fremantle founded the Swan River Colony

Stirling, the first Governor of Western Australia, initially founded two towns: the port of Fremantle at the river mouth and the administrative capital, Perth – named after the town in Scotland and located midway between Fremantle and the most fertile areas of the new colony.

Aboriginal people lived in Western Australia for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the British colonists. As the colony expanded, driving the Aboriginals away from their lands, tension and conflict grew between Indigenous Australians and the new settlers.

Many of the settlers found it difficult to grow crops away from the Swan and Canning Rivers and the Guildford area. Struggling to survive, the free settlement became a penal colony, and around 10,000 convicts were transported to Western Australia from 1850 until Britain ended the practice in 1868. Juvenile offenders had been accepted as apprentices to local employers since 1839 but were generally not considered convicts.

Convict labour was viewed as a way to stimulate the economy by building infrastructure and public works. As a result, convicts constructed buildings such as the Perth Town Hall, Government House, the Supreme Court building, St Mary’s Cathedral, the Old Perth Gaol and the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum (now the Fremantle Arts Centre).

However, what really brought wealth to the colony was the gold rush of the 1890s, which resulted in a population explosion in Perth as tens of thousands of diggers headed to Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in the hope of becoming rich.

Sir John Forrest was Western Australia’s first Premier, appointed in 1890 after Western Australia was granted the right to govern itself. Forrest’s government commissioned an ambitious public works program that included the Fremantle Harbour works and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, which were both directed by engineer C.Y. O’Connor.

Forrest was also instrumental to WA joining the rest of Australia in 1901, thus becoming a State. However, the idea of secession – that is, separating from the Commonwealth of Australia – is an issue that is brought up from time to time in WA even to this day. It has been argued that the Federal Government does not always act in WA’s interests and favours the eastern states.

In the 1930s, the secession movement gathered momentum as discontent grew during the Great Depression. In fact, in a referendum held by the State Government in 1933, 68% of voters supported secession. 

The next step was to amend the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in the UK Parliament, which had allowed for the Federation of Australia. However, the House of Commons (British Lower House) eventually ruled that it could not legally give WA the right to secede.

The secession movement gradually lost support, especially as the economy began to recover. Subsequent pushes for secession, including the Westralian Secession Movement party founded by mining magnate Lang Hancock in the 1970s, have been unsuccessful.

Perth, as the capital of Western Australia, continued to grow during the 20th century. Multi-storey buildings sprung up in the city from the 1930s. Perth Airport was built in the 1940s with a new international terminal unveiled in 1986. New cultures began to emerge in Perth after World War II through immigration. 

The mineral boom in WA during the 1960s and 70s led to further urban development in the city of Perth. In 1983, Australia II representing the Royal Perth Yacht Club successfully challenged the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year dominance of America’s Cup, taking the trophy out of the United States for the first time.

Over time, Perth has developed into a unique, thriving city and is continuing to evolve today.

Indigenous history

The Noongar people are the traditional owners of the Perth region and the Swan Coastal Plain in particular.

At the time of colonisation in 1829, Perth Noongar people were composed of four principal groups – Mooro, Beeliar, Beeloo, Weeip – loosely determined by the Swan River (or Derbarl Yerrigan). 

Mooro country stretched from the Swan River northwards beyond the limits of the current metropolitan area. The main sources of food were the sea, the river and an extensive system of freshwater lakes.

The river is a sacred place for the Noongar people, and they preserved many stories of the Wagyl, a water-serpent understood to be responsible for the creation and maintenance of the river and most of the water features around Perth. 

The Noongar moved with the seasons, travelling inland in winter and returning in late spring to capture games such as wallabies, kangaroos, and possums. Their main camp was at what is now Kings Park. They also frequented the mudflats, which later became Heirisson Island, as it was a productive fishing spot.

Before Captain James Stirling’s arrival, the Noongar had contact with various seafaring visitors, including the Dutch and the French, who colonised the region for the British in 1829. However, relations between the settlers and the Aboriginals were not always harmonious as the latter were dispossessed of their land and subjected to sometimes harsh and unsympathetic colonial rule. 

Fast forward to December 2009 when the State Government signed a framework agreement with the representative body, the South West Aboriginal and Land and Sea Council, aimed at resolving six Noongar Native Title claims over Perth and the southwest of Western Australia through negotiation.

You may also be interested in the ‘Karla Yarning: Stories of the home fires’ self-guided walk maps.

perth european settlement

European Settlement

The city of Perth had its origins in 1829 when the Swan River Colony was established by the British Government. The area is also home to the Aboriginal Noongar people who have lived in the southwest region of Western Australia for more than 35,000 years. In the city precinct itself, the traditional owners are known as the Whadjuk Noongar people.

The first colonial Governor, Capt James Stirling, named the new settlement after the Scottish birthplace and parliamentary constituency of the then British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir George Murray. When surveying the area previously, Captain Stirling was said to have been stunned by the beauty of the Swan River and the fertile land around it.

Since water transport was vital to communications in the new colony before roads were built, the meanderings of the Swan River determined the site of the first towns. Governor Stirling decided that the site for the colony’s capital would be situated on the river 18km from the seaport of Fremantle. 

On 12 August 1829, Mrs Helen Dance, wife of the commander of HMS Sulphur, drove an axe into a tree (near the current Perth Town Hall) to mark the colony’s foundation.

The city site was mid-way between the sea and the farming areas of the Upper Swan. However, the early years were difficult financially for the colony, and in 1850, it was decided that convict labour would be beneficial in that regard. 

Between 1850 and 1868, almost 10,000 convicts were transported from Britain. Due to the influx of convicts, many public works were completed during the period from 1856-79, notably the Perth Town Hall. However, until 1856, Perth officially gained ‘city’ status when it was declared a Bishop’s See by Queen Victoria.

The first meeting of the Perth City Council was held on 10 December 1858. Rich gold discoveries in the Kalgoorlie region in the early 1890s brought a new era of prosperity for the city and many impressive buildings, some of which still grace the streets to this day. 

The city also experienced significant population growth. Representative government evolved in Western Australia in the second half of the 19th Century, and in 1901 Western Australia federated with the other Australian States to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Perth experienced another mining boom in the 1960s, and the wealth it generated could be evidenced by the city’s changing CBD skyline.

Perth became widely known as the City of Lights when U.S. astronaut John Glenn told the world he had seen the city’s lights during his historic orbit around the Earth in February 1962. 

Later that year, there was also international attention on Perth when the British Empire and Commonwealth Games were held in theIn addition,  city. Commonwealth leaders from around the world converged on Perth when it was the venue for the successful Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on 28-30 October 2011.

The City of Perth is the fastest growing local government area with a population approaching As a result, it,000. It has ranked consistently among the Top 10 most liveable cities globally, as surveyed by the highly regarded Economist Intelligence Unit. 

Once again, the wealth generated by the State’s natural resources is driving the city’s development. The difference is that many companies and businesses are choosing to make Perth their home.

perth founding of perth

Founding of Perth

Perth was founded by Captain James Stirling on Whadjuk country as the capital of the Swan River Colony in 1829.

It was the first free-settler colony in Australia established by private capital. From 1850, convicts began to arrive at the colony in large numbers to build roads and other public infrastructure.

On 25 December 1826, Major Edmund Lockyer, in the brig Amity, established a military outpost at King George Sound (now Albany), known locally by Menang Noongar peoples as Kinjarling, ‘the place of rain’.

Lockyer had been sent out from Sydney by Governor Ralph Darling. A few months later, he also despatched Captain James Stirling, commander of the Success, to reconnoitre the Swan River region for a settlement site.

Stirling, accompanied by Charles Fraser, colonial botanist of New South Wales, arrived at Rottnest Island on 5 March 1827.

Setting out three days later, Stirling and his party navigated around 54 kilometres up the Swan River, assessing the land for its suitability for agriculture and settlement.

When Stirling returned to Sydney, he reported his findings to Governor Darling. He enthusiastically described the strategic merits of a colony at Swan River. At the same time, Fraser praised the region’s rich soil based on his observation of the greenness of the vegetation and the height of the trees.

despite Stirling’s glowing report, endorsed by Darling, colonial administrators in Britain initially rejected the proposal, baulking at the expense of setting up a new colony.

Stirling, who had briefly returned to Britain and had ambitions to govern the new colony, argued that the financial burden on the government could be limited if Swan River was established as a free settlement funded by private capital.

Stirling’s efforts to convince the government were helped by enthusiastic reports in the London press (some fed by Stirling). These reports fuelled interest in the potential colony, especially among Britons eager to start new lives in Australia untainted by the stain of the convict colony of New South Wales.

Investors were also attracted to the prospect of new lands. The most prominent of these was Thomas Peel, cousin to the then Home Secretary and later Prime Minister, Robert Peel.

The government was flooded with letters from would-be emigrants and finally agreed to the establishment of a Swan River Colony on the understanding it would receive minimal public funding, which meant no convicts would be sent to provide labour.

Prospective settlers were cautioned that emigration would be at their own risk and cost and that they would have to develop the land they were granted to obtain its title.

Thomas Peel received a commitment to grant 500,000 acres if he successfully landed 400 settlers by 1 November 1829. In the event, Peel arrived after this date and with fewer settlers than promised. Moreover, his private colony was beset with problems and branded a failure in London. As a result, Peel’s land grant was reduced to 250,000 acres.

On 2 May 1829, Captain Charles Fremantle, commander of the Challenger, raised the British flag and claimed the west coast of Australia for Britain.

Shortly afterwards, the first Swan River settlers arrived on the Parmelia and the Sulphur.

The colonisation of Whadjuk country began with the reading of an official proclamation at Garden Island on 18 June, naming James Stirling as lieutenant governor.

Stirling soon realised that the soil on the coast was not suited to agriculture.

He decided to establish two towns in the new settlement: a commercial port at Fremantle and a capital – which he named Perth after the Scottish city – about 19 kilometres up the Swan River.

On 12 August 1829, a large party travelled through the bush to lay the foundation stone for Perth. Not finding any suitable stones ‘contiguous to our purpose’, Mrs Helena Dance, the only woman in the party, marked the occasion by cutting a tree with an axe.

By early September, the Surveyor-General, John Roe, had laid out Perth’s roads, public spaces and building lots within the three-square-mile site reserved for the town, and the first parcels of land had been allocated to settlers.

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