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Perth’s History From a Humble Colony to WA’s Powerhouse

Perth’s History: From a Humble Colony to WA’s Powerhouse

Curious how Perth became the fourth-largest city in Australia? Looking to impress your friends with your mastery of history?

Whatever your reasons are, I’m here to help you learn more about my city and its rich history. Join me on a brief tour into the humble beginnings and rapid growth of Western Australia’s very own City of Lights.

A Short Introduction to Perth

A Short Introduction to Perth
Photo credit: TSA Management

Perth is currently the fourth-largest city in Australia, with more than 2.8 million people living within its borders. It’s also the capital of Western Australia and the only major city in the state.

What makes my city unique is that it’s one of the most isolated cities in the world. It’ll always be fascinating to me to know that travelling to Indonesia is faster and cheaper for us compared to travelling to Canberra.

Perth’s status as Western Australia’s only major city has allowed the city to continuously attract the best and brightest people of the state. As a result, we’ve become one of Australia’s best places for technology and the arts.

How did Perth become the biggest city in Western Australia?

How did Perth become the biggest city in Western Australia
Photo credit: Kayak

The reason why Perth became the biggest city in Western Australia is due to the mining booms that occurred around Western Australia during the late 19th century.

Like San Francisco, Perth became a popular destination among settlers once it became known that the lands around it were rich in minerals. The growth of the city continued steadily, especially towards the end of World War 2.

Another strong reason why Perth became Western Australia’s biggest city is its calm climate. The city’s Mediterranean climate makes it one of the most comfortable places to live in the state.

Other towns and cities in Western Australia are too hot or have too few water sources available to be able to sustain a large population comparable to Perth.

The History of Perth

Without further ado, let’s now take a look into Perth’s rich and colourful history.

I’ll be discussing the most important chapters of my city’s history and the significance of these events—how they helped shape Perth into the city it is today.

The Indigenous History (Before 1697)

The Indigenous History (Before 1697)
Photo credit: State Library of Western Australia

Perth was originally called Boorloo by the indigenous Noongar people living in the area. Boorloo is part of the tribal lands of Yellagonga, one of the major groups of indigenous peoples living along the Swan River, collectively known as the Whadjuk.

They were a hunter-gatherer society that relied upon the abundant resources in the area. Most of their diet consisted of kangaroo, seafood, and foraged foods.

The occupation of Boorloo by the indigenous peoples had actually made the area easier to live in for European settlers. A lot of the first homesteads in Perth were built on lands cleared by the natives for cultivating native vegetation.

Perth’s first major roads also follow the dirt tracks made by the Aboriginal people through the lands.

European Exploration and Colonisation (1697 – 1829)

European Exploration and Colonisation (1697 - 1829)
Photo credit: Australian Geographic

European explorers began exploring the indigenous lands after the discovery of the Swan River by a Dutch explorer named Willem de Vlamingh in 1697.

His initial exploration of the area left him unimpressed with its viability as a settlement. The following expeditions sent by the French and the British also led to the same conclusions as de Vlamingh’s.

This all changed when Captain James Stirling explored the area in 1827. He believed that a permanent major colony in West Australia was possible, as it could exploit the lucrative trade in the Indian Ocean.

The captain lobbied hard for the British government to allow him to establish a major settlement in West Australia.

The government reluctantly agreed, as it was promised that the colony wouldn’t be expensive to operate, and they feared that the French would claim the lands for themselves.

Perth’s Early Years (1830 – 1849)

Perth’s Early Years (1830 - 1849)
Photo credit: Fremantle Stuff

And thus, the Swan River Colony was born. The colony was divided into three major townsites: Perth, Guildford, and Fremantle.

Perth was the administrative seat of the colony, Guildford was the agricultural hub thanks to its limited yet high-quality soil, and Fremantle was the designated port city of the colony.

Stirling’s new colony experienced some severe hardships at the beginning. The lands of the Swan River Colony couldn’t sustain a large population easily.

Most of Perth’s lands are sandy, which isn’t great for farming, and the native indigenous people were constantly at odds with the settlers. The population of the colony only reached 5,900 by 1850.

The colony still grew throughout the decades, but its growth was slower than what its founders hoped.

The Convict Era (1850 – 1869)

The Convict Era (1850 - 1869)
Photo credit: Fremantle Prison

The Swan River Colony had only experienced meagre growth until 1849. By 1950, it became another penal colony and had received more than 9,000 convicts until 1969.

The Convict Era led to the steep rise of the Swan River Colony as a major colony. Before the arrival of convicts, the colony only had limited infrastructure to support its population.

The convicts provided the necessary workforce to transform the colony into a modern city for the era. Perth had started to look like the cities in Europe as buildings inspired by Gothic architecture started to rise in the area.

Perth’s modernised infrastructure had significantly improved its prospects as a major colony. In 1856, Queen Victoria issued a proclamation declaring Perth a city.

Despite its new status, Perth was still considered a remote town too far away from other major cities. This all changed, however, after some significant events in the next two decades.

The Rise of Perth and its First Mining Boom (1885 – 1901)

The Rise of Perth and its First Mining Boom (1885 - 1901) 1
Photo credit: ABC

The latter half of the 19th century served as a huge turning point for Perth. Communication with other major cities became easier with the completion of a telegraph line between Perth and Adelaide in 1877.

The colony also continued to grow quickly as more government offices were built in Perth. A railway line was also built between Guildford and Fremantle, which sped up Perth’s development into a metropolitan city.

However, the biggest contributor to Perth’s growth was the gold rushes between the 1880s and 1890s. The gold deposits discovered in Kimberley and Kalgoorlie led to a massive influx of immigrants arriving in the city.

The Rise of Perth and its First Mining Boom (1885 - 1901) 2
Photo credit: Visit Perth

Perth’s population had tripled from 8,500 in 1891 to more than 27,000 by 1901. This sudden change in population led to a period of rapid expansion and development of the city’s infrastructure.

Electricity became available in the city by 1893, and electric tramways started operating in the city by 1899. The Fremantle Harbour was opened in 1897 to support the growing trade of the city.

Perth’s Involvement in the Two World Wars (1914 – 1945)

Perth’s Involvement in the Two World Wars (1914 - 1945) 1
Photo credit: Military History Now

Perth continued to grow thanks to the high number of immigrants arriving in the city. However, its isolation from most of the world didn’t save its people from the horrors of the two world wars.

A noticeable portion of the city’s population was drafted in World War I to serve under the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces.

Most of these men fought in the bloodiest battles, like the Gallipoli Campaign, and in the trenches of France.

After the war, Perth experienced a short period of prosperity and massive growth. However, the Great Depression severely affected the city’s economy, like most other cities around the world.

Perth’s Involvement in the Two World Wars (1914 - 1945) 2
Photo credit: Fremantle Ports

Fremantle as a submarine base

The city wouldn’t be able to get out of this economic slump until the Second World War. During the war, Perth’s men once again served under ANZAC to help the Allies defeat the fascists in Europe.

The entry of the Japanese Empire into the war in 1941 led to fears of a potential Japanese invasion. Fremantle became a base for Allied submarines operating in the Pacific Theatre until the end of the war.

Post-war Reconstruction and the Second Mining Boom (1947 – 1972)

Post-war Reconstruction and the Second Mining Boom (1947 - 1972) 1
Photo credit: Western Australian Museum

A photo of immigrants arriving in Perth

Europe was severely devastated by World War II. Perth experienced another rapid growth in its population between 1947 and 1970 due to the immigration of many Europeans.

By 1970, more than 21% of Perth’s population were immigrants from countries like Italy, Germany, and other European nations.

The post-war reconstruction era saw some massive improvements in the city. One of those was the construction of the Narrows Bridge, linking the northern and southern sides of the city, which were separated by the Swan River.

Post-war Reconstruction and the Second Mining Boom (1947 - 1972) 2
Photo credit: Perth Mining Consultants

Perth’s continued economic growth in the 1950s slowed down as Western Australia’s economy started to stagnate by 1960. This stagnation was short-lived, however, as the second mining boom happened in 1961.

The rise of global manufacturing has led to increased demand for minerals like bauxite and nickel and natural gas. Western Australia is rich in these resources.

The second mining boom had a profound effect on Perth’s development, as the city’s first skyscrapers started rising during this era.

Perth’s Continued March Forwards (1972 – Present)

Perth’s Continued March Forwards (1972 - Present) 1
Photo credit: Hello Perth

From 1972 onwards, Perth continued to grow strong thanks to the strong mining industry in the region.

The city suffered from some economic problems like the 1987 stock market crash and the 2008 financial crisis, but overall its economy continues to trend upward.

By the start of the 21st century, Perth had become one of Australia’s fastest-growing cities. The city continues to expand as more immigrants continue to arrive in search of new opportunities in the city.

Perth’s Continued March Forwards (1972 - Present) 2
Photo credit: 6PR

Some of the most notable events that happened in this period were the construction of Perth’s first desalination plant and the construction of Elizabeth Quay to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Overall, I can confidently say that my city will continue to improve moving forwards. Perth’s healthy economy and welcoming culture to immigrants make it one of the best areas to invest and live in Australia.

How significant was Perth to Australia’s national history?

How significant was Perth to Australia’s national history
Photo credit: Culture WA

Perth was actually a significant part of Australia’s national history right from its inception.

The city began as a colony that was intended to serve as a major stopping point for trading ships crossing the Indian Ocean.

It also further strengthened the hold of the British empire in Western Australia by preventing the French from establishing their own major colony in the area.

In the late 19th century, Perth rapidly grew as it became another penal colony. The gold rush also turned it into the most important settlement in Western Australia.

How significant was Perth to Australia’s national history 2
Photo credit: Museum of Perth

The city contributed significantly to Australia’s war efforts in the two world wars. A lot of its population served under ANZAC, and the city became a harbour for Allied ships operating in the Pacific theatre.

In the modern era, Perth’s significance continues as it’s the hub of the booming mineral trade of Western Australia. A large portion of Australia’s GDP comes from the hardworking citizens of this city.

According to SGS Economics and Planning, Perth is the third highest contributor to Australia’s GDP among the country’s major cities.

Where can I find more resources to know more about Perth’s history in detail?

The city has some great museums and historical places you can visit to learn more about Perth’s history in detail.

Here are some places I highly recommend you visit sometime to see some artefacts and learn more about my city’s history:

Perth Cultural Centre

Perth Cultural Centre
Photo credit: The West Australian 

Address: Roe Street, Beaufort Street Francis Street &, William St, Northbridge WA 6003, Australia

The Perth Cultural Centre is one of my city’s most important places when it comes to history and culture. It has some of Perth’s famous buildings, including the State Library of WA, the WA Museum Boola Bardip, and the Art Gallery of WA.

I love to visit this place from time to time, as it has a great collection of historical artefacts and literature. I actually learned a lot about Australia’s indigenous people from the WA Museum Boola Bardip’s exhibitions on Aboriginal culture.

The State Library of WA is also one of the city’s prime destinations if you’re looking to learn more about Australia’s history.

The Old Mill

The Old Mill
Photo credit: City of South Perth

Address: Melville Pl, South Perth WA 6151, Australia

If you want to see what life was like back in the colonial days of Perth, then I recommend checking out The Old Mill.

This mill is one of the last surviving structures from Perth’s colonial era. I actually learned most of the stuff I talked about here about Perth’s colonial origins from the guided tours offered in The Old Mill.

So if you’re looking to know more about what life was like back in the colonial days, make sure to not miss out on The Old Mill.

Museum of Perth

Museum of Perth
Photo credit: Museum of Perth

Address: The Atlas Building, 8-10 The Esplanade, Perth WA 6000

The Museum of Perth, unlike the other two I mentioned, is entirely focused on the history of the city itself. It contains a wide collection of artefacts and documents about the rise of Perth from its humble beginnings back in the early 19th century.

Here you’ll find a lot of cool photos captured back in the older days of the city. The museum even has some preserved artefacts on display.

My favourite exhibition was Perth’s History of Cycling, which featured some cool bikes used back then.

Other Historical Sites

Other Historical Sites
Photo credit: TPI Association WA

Still in the mood to check out more historical places around the city? Then I recommend that you visit the war memorial in Kings Park and the local museums like the Claremont Museum and the Fremantle Prison.

Our website also features more historical landmarks we’ve visited, like these ones about Fremantle and Cockburn.

FAQs about Perth’s History

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