The First 50 Years – A Brief History of the Albany Historical Society (Inc)
A group of alarmed Albany Residents met in early 1962 to discuss their concerns about the destruction of Albany’s built heritage. Mrs. Judith Gleeson, one of the group, was chosen to write a letter to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society outlining the group’s concerns about what was happening in their town.
The reply to Judith’s letter led to a meeting of around 40 local residents on 4 June 1962 at 8 pm in the Country Women’s Association Hall in Serpentine Road, Albany, with His Worship, Mr. Charles Johnson, Mayor of the Town of Albany, in the Chair. It was resolved at that meeting to form the Albany Branch of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society. This had been one of the options for the group outlined in the letter received from the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.
One of the new group’s prime concerns was to ensure the safety of the little cottage in Duke Street. This building was to become known as ‘Patrick Taylor Cottage’ and, although deserted and run down, it was luckily being cared for, to some extent, by next door neighbours Bonnie and Adeline Hicks, a mother and daughter who would feature large in the recording of Albany’s history with many writings and publications to their credit. These ladies had for many years shown interested people around the little old house. However they and others were concerned that the cottage was living on borrowed time and the wrecking ball was moving ever closer.
The little cottage also held a very important secret that very few people knew about, in that it was the oldest surviving dwelling in Western Australia, being built in 1832 by early settlers the Morley Brothers, who sold it to Patrick Taylor on his arrival in Albany in 1835. The cottage was soon to open to the public with generous donations of articles, photographs and artifacts from the townspeople, not to mention the tireless work of the members of the newly formed group. Albany now had its first museum and tours were conducted by arrangement, led by keen members of the group and, of course, the Hicks ladies.
Within a short period of time the new branch of the RWAHS Albany, had started to attract attention as a proactive group who would not sit idly by and allow the historic built heritage of the town to be redeveloped without challenge. It would be fair to say they were not well thought of by some developers who proposed the bulldozing of old buildings. These people saw them as a thorn in their sides, to say the least.
On 11 May 1967 at 8.10 pm, the Albany Branch of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society creased to exist, as the incorporation of the Albany Historical Society (Inc) had been approved under the Incorporations Act.
At 8.30 pm on 11 May 1967, the Albany Historical Society (Inc) was born, with the transfer of all assets and office bearers (including the membership of the Albany Branch of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society), to the new body, from thereon known as the ‘AHS’.
On 31 May 1968, the Society now known as the Albany Historical Society (Inc) received the title, under a management order from the Crown, for the Old Albany Convict Gaol. Along with the excitement of this major asset for the Society, came the huge responsibility of somehow repairing this almost derelict building and turning it into a Folk Museum.
On 21 July 1970, an event occurred that would cement the future of the Albany Historical Society as one of longevity and strength. On this date, the Society’s long serving Vice-President Homer White was elected as President of the AHS. This event would ensure the next 16 years’ stability and growth. It is fair to say that no President or member of the AHS has given as much of himself as Mr White. For many years he had always been there to clean gutters, mow lawns, wash floors, and even clean toilets, as well as attend to the more Presidential roles of his office. Over much of the 1960s he chaired meetings in the absence of the President, Father Newbold. He and his wife Mrs. Ethel White (the Society’s Secretary for many years) had even mortgaged their home to put a new roof on Patrick Taylor Cottage, as Society funds could not cover the cost of the roof.
One may have argued that the AHS might have had more money available, if it had not sent invitations to monthly Committee Meetings to members on gold embossed invitation cards. These invitations outlined the place time and date of the meeting, along with the dress code of lounge suits for men and evening wear for ladies.
Homer White’s achievements in establishing the Gaol as a Museum and his tireless efforts on behalf of the Society are far too many and varied to mention here. It is for these reasons that his sudden departure from the AHS is made more poignant. It is most unfortunate to relate that Homer was accused of stealing from the AHS. The item in question was later found in one of the Society’s venues. The real shame lies in the fact that the then Committee of the AHS decided that too much water had passed under the bridge and did not apologise to Homer, in case old wounds were re-opened. It is most regrettable that Homer passed away without receiving that long overdue apology.
So, for what it is worth, the Committee of the Albany Historical Society (Inc) takes this opportunity to put on record their unreserved apologies to Homer, his family and friends for something that should have never happened. The AHS sincerely regrets that they were unable to give this apology to Homer during his lifetime.
For the next decade after Homer left the Society, the AHS continued to sort and catalogue its growing collection with the help of many hard working and very dedicated volunteers. It also concentrated on ensuring the two prime venues were able to open to the public on a daily basis, as they very much formed the backbone of the tourist experience available in Albany at that time.
1990 saw the start of a project to restore the Old Gaol to its former glory, with Mrs Joan Blight, the Society’s first female President overseeing the restoration. The Society had secured a grant from the National Estates Programme. The work was divided into four stages and saw a major overhaul of the entire site. Work was completed in 1994. The Society is most thankful to Joan Blight and others for their attention to detail and tireless work in the overseeing of this mammoth project over several years.
In the early 1990s the Society managed to achieve the acquisition of its third property, with the lease from the City of Albany of the Old Westrail Barracks on the Corner of Frederick and Spencer Streets. This building had been built as the P&O Co-operative Store in 1870 and had seen many and varied uses over the subsequent years. The Society intended to utilize this building as a storage and display museum, however it would not see this building open to the public until 2010. Whilst the AHS had for many years used the upper floor for office and meeting space, the lower floor was full to overflowing with a collection that was unable to be displayed at either the Gaol or the Cottage.
The 21st Century saw the Society with its first computers, complemented with specially designed museum software. This went a long way to making the cataloguing of the entire collection a much more efficient and user-friendly system and was light years ahead of the old paper system that had seen our members spend thousands of hours over previous years writing manual accession cards.
In late 2004, Andrew Eyden joined the Society as an attendant at the Albany Convict Gaol. Within a short period of time he had become the Society’s Secretary, a role he would fulfill until his appointment as the Chief Executive Officer in 2007. Under Andrew’s leadership, the Society has become enlivened and has matured to higher levels of professionalism. It is now seen as a major player in the tourism industry of Albany. Under Andrew’s leadership, the Society has seen the acquisition of its fourth property, with the State Government granting AHS the Management Order for the old Police Sergeant’s house in Duke Street. This building is in front of Patrick Taylor Cottage. The Order also covers what was a vacant block of land to the side of the Cottage (where the Hicks’ family home was once located). With the aid of several grants, successfully acquired by Andrew Eyden, the Society has been able to revamp, not only the Police House into a modern fully functioning administration office and meeting room, but, in 2008, successfully applied for and obtained a grant from the Federal Government in the amount of $121,000 to redevelop the unused block of land into Albany’s first Botanical Park.
In 2006, the Society took on the management and daily running of the Brig Amity on behalf of the City of Albany. This has seen us acquire at least 14 more volunteers to open this attraction on a daily basis to the public.
The Society now has approximately 80 volunteers expending in excess of 27,000 man-hours per year in service to the AHS, making the Society the largest affiliate in the State to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.
Looking to the future, the Society is working to acquire the lease over Mouchemore’s Cottage (the old fishing house located opposite the Brig Amity). This building, built in 1852, has been under lease to the West Australian Museum for many years and been used as a storage facility. The AHS is hoping to open it as a Museum dedicated to relating the story of the local fishing industry and as a fitting tribute to Mouchemore family.
The Society continues working towards securing funding for the renovation of the P&O Co-operative Store that will require in the vicinity of one million dollars in grant funding restoring the building to its original condition.
The Society is now taking a far more pro-active role in concerning itself in the development of Albany. This is something we have regrettably become a little lax about over the years. The AHS has, in the last thirty years, become so immersed in the management of its assets that as a consequence it has, to an extent, lost sight of some of the major issues that confront Albany in relation to the development of its built heritage. From its inception, the AHS was a very loud and proactive voice in ensuring that Albany retained its historical significance as the first settlement in Western Australia. It is now more imperative than ever before that a watchful eye is kept on the development of this, the most special of places.
To end this brief history, the Society would like to pay tribute to the many hundreds of people who currently, and in previous years, have given so freely of themselves to make the Albany Historical Society what it is today. Each and every one of them should be proud of what they have contributed to making the Society’s position one of strength and longevity. The AHS will, hopefully, continue to prosper for another 50 years and evolve to be the benevolent educator, guardian and protector of Albany’s amazing heritage.
50th Anniversary Dinner
This article is featured in the current issue of the Albany Historical Society members' newsletter.
The newsletter, published quarterly, is one of the benefits of membership of the Society.