History of the Old Court House

Early Days
The Old Court House is Perth’s oldest 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 a 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 as a schoolroom.

Concert Hall
The Old Court House 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 Gaven
The trial of John Gaven, the first European executed in the Colony, took place in the Old Court House in 1844. Gaven, a petty thief, was 15 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. He was found guilty in the Old Court House and was hanged three days later outside the Roundhouse in Fremantle on Easter Saturday.

Convicts
In February 1849 a meeting of State importance was held in the Old Court House. 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 Court House 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 Court House.

Law Society of Western Australia
From 1965 to 1987 the Old Court House served as the office of the Law Society of Western Australia.

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

Heritage Site
In 1992 the Court House was listed by the National Trust as a Heritage Site.

Old Court House Law Museum
In 2011 the Francis Burt Law Education Centre and Museum was renamed the Old Court House Law Museum.

Redesign of the Museum
Thanks to funding support from Lotterywest, the Old Court House Law Museum has been undergoing a redesign since 2009.

To begin this redesign, an interpretation plan was commissioned and was completed in 2010. Following recommendations in the interpretation plan the Museum completed stage 1, an audio tour, in 2011.

Stage 2, the exhibition Small Court House, Big Stories: The first 50 years of law in Western Australia was completed in 2012.

Stage 3, People and the Law was installed in 2014 and the design for the stage 3, From Past to Present: The changing face of the law, is now complete.

The final stage of the redesign is expected to be completed by late 2016 subject to obtaining funding.

For more information about the museum’s history please read The Old Court House: A Brief History.