On this day (11 February) in 1922 Marrickville’s new Town Hall was opened with much fanfare. We shall be presenting a number of stories about its life and times over the last 100 (+28) years.
Part One: Let’s get this party started
Marrickville’s first Town Hall was built on Illawarra Road in 1878. At that time the centre of Marrickville was considered to be Chapel Street. But the town had been growing rapidly, doubling in size in the 1870s and taking flight in the boom of the 1880s. The aldermen (councillors) had added a second story to their Town Hall to accommodate community gatherings in 1883, but Marrickville’s march was relentless.
This was supercharged by the extension of transport systems. The Bankstown line was being created and would be completed in 1895. The Marrickville station would be renamed Sydenham so that the new station further down Illawarra Road could be recognised as Marrickville’s.
The tram line ran down Victoria Road and turned into Marrickville Road. Previously known as Gannon’s Road it now signalled where Marrickville really stood. A new Post Office was built there in 1891 and the Police Station just around the corner in Gladstone Street in 1895. With transport close to hand, just as today, people and businesses settled around these transport lines. Chapel Street and the Town Hall became outliers.
All this progress weighed on some aldermen who now looked to build a Town Hall closer to the hustle and bustle, and one more befitting a vibrant and progressive municipality. Late in 1893 Aldermen Morehouse and Gross moved for council to buy “land in a central location”, while the land was still relatively cheap. They didn’t argue for a new Town Hall but suggested one could be built later. And with that simple suggestion a 28-year struggle began.
Those familiar with local government politics will have some idea of the arguments. Some wondered why a new Town Hall was needed at all; the old one was perfectly fine for running the municipality. Others thought it wasteful to spend money on a hall when so many roads and footpaths were in poor condition. And others saw it as favouritism to the South Ward and considered themselves hard done by. Although ads were placed in newspapers for suitable blocks of land, by November 1893 the idea of buying land for future use was dropped. The motion was rescinded.
But not for long. The next year the council was considering the idea of a Public Library. The unstoppable Alderman Morehouse put forward his earlier motion again, this time arguing that the Town Hall and Library could be on the same site (very forward thinking of him, this would happen in 1948). But again, the motion was lost because of the expense.
By 1898 reality was starting to bite and the council authorised their General Purposes committee to look for eligible sites. This successfully ‘kicked the can down the road’ for another five years.
By 1903, ten years into our saga, some Marrickville residents were getting restless. A new Town Hall was needed “in the centre of the business portion of the borough”, they said. The council was lagging behind its residents on this. It decided that there was some disagreement to the idea so it would hold a vote. The vote would be taken at the next municipal elections. I cannot find the outcome of this vote but assume it was negative, because the next year Marrickville’s Ratepayers and Progress Association was agitating again.
Mayor Thomas England (from the North Ward) was adamant; no Town Hall on his watch. It was too expensive and the money could be better spent on the roads. Although the discussion was stalled, the idea of a site was growing stronger in the community mind. A select committee of the council recommended buying land at the north-west corner of Marrickville and Livingstone Roads owned by the Smith family of Shrublands Estate (now St Brigid’s Church). They could have the land for £600 and the building for £6,000. Again, Thomas England (now ex-mayor) led the intervention to stop this happening.
Soon another champion emerged alongside Mr Morehouse – Alderman Thornley. In 1907 he tried to have another referendum at the council elections but the anti-Town Hall aldermen managed to get it delayed another year. As ‘The Daily Telegraph’ drily noted: “The question whether Marrickville is to have a new and more centrally-situated town-hall appears as far off as ever”.
At the February 1908 municipal elections a motion was put that was almost identical to the one put 15 years earlier. “Are you in favour of a more central site being purchased and a new Town Hall erected?” We do know the results of this vote; 774 said yes, 661 said no and there were a staggering 104 informal votes. It would seem that Marrickvillians were just over the whole thing.
Unfortunately, Mrs Smith of ‘Shrublands’ advised that the land previously sought was no longer available but she did have a block on the corner of Marrickville Road and Fletcher Street. The hall was moving ever closer to its final resting place. That resting place on the corner of Marrickville Road and Petersham Road would be finalised in 1912.
Any action on the referendum result was now held up with financial wrangling. Council under the new mayor, Mr Thornley, wanted to borrow £50,000 to pay £20,000 of outstanding debts, £9,000 for the new Town Hall, £9,000 for a garbage incinerator (known as a destructor) and the rest on new footpaths. Mr Thornley thought he had everyone covered, but alas no. The local government branch of Public Works wanted to see full estimates, plans and specifications for the Town Hall and the destructor before they okayed the loan. This was difficult as the council had only just held a competition for the best Town Hall design. The prize of £25 was won by architect and City of Sydney Alderman, E. Lindsay Thompson.
A campaign of public protest against the loan, or more specifically the Town Hall portion, was led by a number of aldermen; Messrs Webster, Richards, Southwick, and Henson. They succeeded in having yet another referendum, this time about the loan. About 1,000 voters took part and voted by large majorities to fund all the projects, except for the Town Hall.
Marrickville was now in turmoil over the issue. Fractious meetings were held, with pro- and anti-Town Hall aldermen arguing. Marrickville’s Progress Association, which was pro-Town Hall, lost members, including Alderman Webster, who just wanted nice streets and footpaths.
The manoeuvrings of the two sides were about to enter farcical terrain. In the middle of the WW1 new Mayor John Ness proposed yet another referendum on the building of a new Town Hall. For those not counting, this was referendum number four.
Now that the land had been secured, Mr Ness proposed asking if ratepayers were in favour of building a new Town Hall upon it. He promised not to raise a loan until the war was over. He was also concerned that the land was lying unused and thought the least the council could do was put a few benches on it and treat it like a park. Mr Ness was also floating the idea of the Town Hall taking the form of a memorial structure for “our soldiers”.
As expected, the opposition were not impressed. They didn’t want another referendum. “It is not the time”, Alderman Southwick said. “The Empire was engaged in a terrible war with no certainty as to the result.” It was quite possible that “a party of Germans might be seated around the (council) table next year”. Paradoxically, his associate Alderman Webster thought they should do the roads first. The war dragged on.
At its end Alderman Ness had his memorial structure in the form of the “Mourning Victory” statue by Gilbert Doble, now known as “Winged Victory”. And the pro-Town Hall lobby had a fait accompli. There was now a Fire Station, the Cottage Hospital and a war memorial between Livingstone Road and Petersham Road. There really needed to be a Town Hall.
In March 1919 a special council meeting was held and a proposal was put to borrow £80,000. As usual the plan was to give the citizens good footpaths, good roads (£50,000), clean drainage systems (£15,000) and beautiful healthy parks. But they were also going to put £14,000 aside for “a new town hall on a site near the fire station in Marrickville Road.” The final irony in this saga was that Mayor Richards, long-time opponent of the Town Hall, made the proposal.
This time, the council supported the motion unanimously. However, the inevitable referendum was a close run thing. After 28 years, only a majority of 28 ratepayers agreed to borrow the money for a new Town Hall.