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Perth Old Courthouse

Early Days

The Old Courthouse is Perth's oldest remaining public building and was the most prominent building in the early days of the Swan River Colony.

For the first six years of the Colony, court was held in the Anglican Church of St James - a small building with rush walls and thatched roof.

In 1836 Governor Stirling called for tenders for the construction of a new court and accepted the lowest bid of ₤698. The building was designed by the Colony's Civil Engineer, Henry William Reveley.

When it opened in 1837 it also served as a church for all denominations and a schoolroom.

Concert Hall

The Old Courthouse was important in the early musical life of the colonists and was the scene of the first public concert. In 1846 Dom Salvado, a Spanish Benedictine Monk, gave a piano recital in the courtroom to raise funds to develop a mission. Salvado walked more than 100 kilometres to Perth from near New Norcia and gave a Bellini recital to a packed audience in the ragged clothes he arrived in.

Trial of John Gavin

The trial of John Gaven, the first European executed in the Colony, took place in the Old Courthouse in Perth in 1844. Gaven, a petty thief, was fifteen years old when he was transported from Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight and apprenticed to the Pollard family in the South West.

Within a few months of his arrival he was accused of the murder of 18 year old George Pollard. The tool with which George Pollard was killed was an adze (an axe-like tool used for smoothing rough-cut wood). 

He was found guilty in the Old Courthouse and was sentenced to be hanged and suspended in chains until dead. This occurred just three days later outside the Roundhouse in Fremantle on Easter Saturday.

As for John’s confession there’s a lot of conjecture. The following is an extract from the Perth Gazette, The Western Australian Journal, Quarter Sessions, Saturday April 6, 1844:

The substance of the confession was, that the first thought of committing the crime arose in his mind within five minutes of the execution of the deed, that it was a sudden instigation which had been paralleled, but not frequently.  The boy sat down to dinner with his victim without the thought harboured in his mind of harm towards him.

He had made up his mind to murder the mother of the family that afternoon, and as he commenced his work about the farm while the lad Pollard was sleeping, the thought flashed across the mind of the prisoner, that, if he murdered the woman first, then a lad stronger that himself remained on the premise able to take him prisoner, and that to secure the fate of the woman, and his own alibi, he must first kill the lad.

In explanation of the circumstance of his clothes being wet, the unfortunate lad stated, that he went to the river, not to drink, nor to wash the blood from his clothes, but to drown himself, but that his courage railed him, such as his felling and remorse at the act he had committed.  He could state no possible reason why he compassed the death of Mrs Pollard.

Convicts

In February 1849 a meeting of State importance was held in the Old Courthouse. In response to a labour shortage, farmers and merchants called a meeting at which a motion was passed in favour of a full penal colony. The following year convicts began to arrive.

Representative Government

The Old Courthouse was the venue for a public meeting to demand Representative Government. The demands were unsuccessful until 1870.

Arbitration Court

From 1905 to 1964 the State Industrial Arbitration Court proceedings were held in the Old Courthouse.

Law Society of Western Australia

From 1965-1987 the Old Courthouse served as the Law Society offices.

Today

In 1987 the building was refurbished and opened to the public and named the Francis Burt Law Education Centre and Museum - a community education centre for legal history and one of the few law museums worldwide.


Last updated: 1-Sep-2015

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