Fremantle’s social clubs have been a significant part of the city’s historic West End for more than 100 years, but their future is increasingly uncertain.
As you walk along High Street in the West End, you are never far from an old members’ bar tucked behind the historic streetscape.
While the clubs have drifted to the background of modern Fremantle culture, with one, the R.S.L. Wyola Club, shutting its doors for good during the sourcing of this story, their historic influence and importance should not be forgotten.
Notre Dame University associate professor of history Deborah Gare has worked and lived in Fremantle for nearly two decades.
“For much of the last hundred years the club spaces were profoundly important,” she said.
“The clubs and the unions drove a lot of the social and political action of the town.”
Associate Professor Gare said the fading importance of the clubs was a result of significant reduction of waterfront workers, and the changing population.
Before forklifts and cranes there were thousands of ‘lumpers’, who carried a tin billy to work, dangled large cargo hooks from heavy leather belts, and had a thirst for beer.
The lumpers represented a large part of Fremantle’s workforce, and a large portion of membership at the clubs in the West End.
“I think that unfortunately a lot of [the clubs] retained the values, the makeup and the mission of the 1970s community, and haven’t been able to take themselves beyond that,” Associate Professor Gare said.
“This isn’t a statement about Fremantle, this is a statement about generational change.
“It is very unlikely that those clubs will have a sustainable future, unless they change themselves.”
Fremantle is better known as a good place to take the family for an ice cream on the weekend, or meet up with friends for a barista made coffee on the café strip.
The State Heritage Office is considering a proposal to add the 200,000-square-metre West End precinct to the WA heritage list, which would make it the largest listing in Western Australia.
Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt said the heritage listing would attract people back into the West End.
“Heritage is best protected when it is used, and when it is actually part of people’s lives,” Dr Pettitt said.
“Knowing that this is the biggest state listed heritage precinct of buildings anywhere in WA, I think will be a reason for people to be reminded about it and re-explore it.
“By getting more people into that part of Fremantle, they will also go into those clubs, which are pretty unique places.
“There is a good reason for people to rediscover those places as they rediscover the West End.”
Dr Pettitt said the goal of the council was to make Fremantle a vibrant, liveable city in the twenty first century.
“I think there is a danger in making the perfect the enemy of the good, because you sometimes end up with nothing, and I think we have got that balance right,” he said.
The Fremantle Society president John Dowson, pictured left, disagreed and said if the listing proposal did not include strict design guidelines, then it would all be for nothing.
“You look at the [new] properties that have been approved in the West End, they are very damaging,” he said.
“I think psychologically if people think, ‘okay, the whole of this area is heritage listed’ it will perhaps offer some more protection.”
Mr Dowson said it was unfortunate that the clubs seemed unable to make themselves attractive to younger generations and new residents in the area.
Ron Davidson, an author of numerous books about Fremantle, said that drinking and socialising in the clubs were a big part of Fremantle culture in the twentieth century.
“I think the changing nature of Fremantle meant that they were no longer really relevant for anyone,” Mr Davidson (pictured, right) said at his heritage listed home not too far from the high stone walls of Fremantle Prison.
The loss of blue collar employment at the prison, the wool-stores, and the Robb Jetty abattoir have all had an impact on club membership.
“What you have got there now is probably the end game, but it is an interesting snippet of what life was like,” Mr Davidson said.
The Workers Social & Leisure Club
The Fremantle Social Workers & Leisure Club’s original premises on Henry Street, were previously owned by the Fremantle Club, and it was a symbol of the rich merchant class who ruled Fremantle in 1887.
The purchase by the the club, known to most Fremantle locals as the ‘Workers Club’, in 1914 signalled the increasing influence of the working class in Fremantle.
In the 1950s the Workers Club thrived in the post-war economic and industrial environment.
But by 2011 the club’s membership had reduced to 426, and the doors of the West End clubhouse were closed.
The club has now found a temporary home at the South Fremantle Football Club.
Workers Club president Don Whittington has been a member for more than 30 years, and became president in 2011, when the club was really struggling.
“I think I’d have to say it was due to poor management rather than falling membership,” he said.
“The place was not being well run.”
Mr Whittington said collaboration with other clubs was the way forward for the Workers Club.
“What we are going to do is retain our identity, and retain our own membership, but share a new facility on Fremantle Park with two other clubs that are, like us, over a hundred years old,” he said.
“I am referring to the Fremantle Tennis Club and the Fremantle Bowling Club.”
Mr Whittington said numbers had dropped by a few hundred since the club left the West End, but he was confident the club membership would grow once they moved into their own premises.
The Buffalo Club
The Fremantle Buffalo Club opened on High Street in 1951.
Unlike many other clubs, the ‘Buffs’ as it is affectionately called, has never changed premises.
Buffalo Club secretary manager Lyn Gray has been involved with the club for nearly 25 years.
“When I first started it was full on,” she said.
“We had three or four staff working behind the bar.
“[There were] still a lot of members coming in, but not as busy as it used to be.”
Ms Gray said live music and events would play a big part in the club’s future.
The club is also hoping to renovate the second floor of the building and use it for functions in the future.
Buffalo Club duty manager Vicki Roberts said, like most other clubs, the Buffalo had struggled with membership over the past 10 years.
“We are having a lot of the older members passing on,” Ms Roberts said.
“Younger people won’t come in because they look at the Buffalo Club and they think, ‘what is the Buffalo Club?’”
The club’s traditions originate from the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a social order formed in Great Britain in 1822, exclusively for men.
Ms Roberts said the Buffaloes were similar to the masonic lodge.
“Poor man’s lodge they call it.”
However, the Fremantle Buffalo Club is far more inclusive these days. Downstairs at the bar there is a strong, and welcoming community.
“The struggle that it is, in the end it is all worth it for the members that are involved today,” Ms Roberts said.
The Navy Club
The Navy Club was established in a naval warehouse on Cliff Street in 1947.
Its founding members had mostly served in the fleet of allied destroyers based in Fremantle during the Second World War, and the club was formed to maintain friendship among service-men.
Today it continues on the two top floors of a building the club purchased in 1991, at the corner of Pakenham Street in the West End.
The members often refer to the club as Fremantle’s best kept secret.
The main members’ bar has an amazing view across the rooftops of Fremantle, with the tall cranes at the port standing high in the distance.
The small group of regulars, sipping their beers, have a laugh at the bar.
Navy Club general manager Sharon Pratt said the club was trying to remain viable by using the space on the lower floor as a function room.
“We can actually offer something to the Fremantle community with this function area,” she said.
“We have done the Fringe Festival. That was early this year. I think over the eight days we had something like 35 acts.
“We also do the Fremantle Arts Festival that has just finished in Easter, and the Fremantle Heritage Festival which is coming up at the end of May.”
The function room also houses the Fremantle Jazz Club, which plays every Sunday to a large crowd.
Navy Club lifetime member Steve Hobbs joined the club in 1971, and said he would like to see it continue into the future after he is gone.
“We need the younger demographic to come in, that is why we advertise on the street as we are, and that is why we are having to change our management system and promote more functions,” he said.
“So it is not a matter of being sad, glad, or happy, it has got to happen to survive.
“We have got to adapt to the times, everybody has got to.”
It is clear that each of the clubs is facing its own battle to keep the doors open.
While things will never be the same for the clubs in Fremantle, many have accepted this and set their eyes to the future.
Photography: Jonathon Daly