Western Australia's largest inland town not dependent on mining
Not only can Northam claim to be one of the earliest settlements in the Western Australian Central Wheatbelt area but, today, with a population of over 6,000, it is the largest inland rural town in the state which is not dependent on mining. It is known for its vineyards, cafes and boutique shops and the popularity of hot air ballooning. The weather is ideal for ballooning and it is known for having very hot summers. As early as the 1850s the Anglican archdeacon of Western Australia wrote about how he "rode to Northam in the evening through an atmosphere which felt like that at the mouth of an oven. Horses sweating copiously even at walking pace."
Northam is located 99 km north east of Perth via Mundaring. It is 150 m above sea level.^ TOP
Origin of Name
The townsite, on the banks of the Avon, was surveyed in 1830 and the town was gazetted in 1833. It was named by Governor Stirling, probably after a village of the same name in North Devon, England.^ TOP
Things to See and Do
Northam Visitor Centre
Located on Minson Avenue between the centre and the Avon River, the Visitor Centre is a logical starting place. As a bonus to the maps and guides it also has an interpretative space featuring the “Sense of Place” Migrant Exhibition, Northam’s First People Exhibition, and environmental displays. It also organises walking tours around the town.
The Avon River
The Avon River winds its way through the town. The banks are edged by attractive parks and walkways. The river is home to white swans which, in a state where the emblem is a black swan, are notable and unusual. A notice beside the river points out: "The unique white swans of Northam. The white swan was introduced to Northam in the 1900s. Strangely the Avon River in Northam is the only place in Australia where these large birds have found a natural breeding ground. The swans are cared for by local volunteer wardens. Feeding takes place each morning at 6.30 a.m. on Broome Terrace next to Newcastle Street Bridge. At present there are about 80 of these birds on the river. The swans are a protected species."
Public Art Works
A collection of twelve bronze and iron sculptures -all installed on columns with engraved story plaques written by the Northam Historical Society - are located along Northam’s Fitzgerald Street. They are known collectively as the ‘Northam Historical Sculptures Project’ and are a unique visual tribute to the town’s past. When launched it was noted that “Eight artists with links to the local community have interpreted through sculpture the significance of Northam landmarks and events in history.”
In Bernard Park, near the Visitor Information Centre, there is a Sound sculpture and a horse which were constructed in 1991 by artists Nick Compton, Simon Gilby, Ian Hill and Northam Districts High School Students using scrap metal. And outside the Visitor Centre is an impressive sculpture which celebrates the role of women in Western Australian history.
Flour Mill and Mural
Located just across the Avon River on State Route 120, and built in 1867, the Northam Flour Mill is a major landmark and a suitable symbol to the importance of wheat in the local area. It was an important local employer for over 150 years and the first electricity generator in Northam. In recent times, the artist Amok Island (originally from the Netherlands but now in Perth - he has created murals in over 25 countries and exhibited his work in Australia, the Netherlands and Japan) was invited to paint a mural on the façade of the flour mill. The idea was that Amok Island’s work would use the town’s heritage character as a backdrop to celebrate the white swan and its home on the banks of the Avon River. Before starting the project Amok Island explained: “I am very excited to start my latest artwork installation on the old mill building in Northam featuring a flock of swans taking off from the water. It is rare to be able to paint an artwork on such a beautiful old historic building, and I think these types of canvases often combine really well with my more modern minimalistic style. In my research I found that the river right next to the mill is a spot often visited by the white swan and is used as a nesting ground, so I am excited to start painting and hopefully see some swans fly by whilst working on the mural!” The result is an impressive entrance to the town.
A pedestrian Suspension Bridge crosses the river near the Fitzgerald Street Bridge. It is 117 metres across and, as such, is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Australia.
Bilya Koort Boodja: Centre for Nyoongar Culture and Environmental Knowledge
The Bilya Koort Boodja Centre for Nyoongar Culture and Environmental Knowledge is located on the banks of the Avon River (on Minson Avenue) in the town's CBD. It is open from 9.00 am - 4.00 pm seven days a week. The centre offers an interactive educational experience which explains the rich Aboriginal and environmental presence of the local Nyoongar Ballardong people and highlights the local land management practices which draw upon the knowledge of the land’s traditional custodians. Tel: (08) 9622 2170 or https://www.bilyakoortboodja.com.
Northam Heritage Centre
Located at 425 Fitzgerald Street in the Old Railway Station, the Northam Heritage Centre is home to over 1,200 items including 200 photographs, interesting railway artefacts, antique appliances and memorabilia from the railway station. A vintage steam engine and carriages is on display within the museum. It is open 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm on Monday and Wednesday, 11.00 am - 1.00 pm on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday and 12.00 pm - 3.00 pm on Sunday. Tel: (08) 9622 2100 or check out https://www.westernaustralia.com/en/Attraction/Northam_Heritage_Centre/56b2673ad5f1565045daa7c3.
Northam/Katrine Heritage Trail
There is an excellent and very detailed Northam/Katrine Heritage Trail booklet (available at the Visitor Information Centre) which includes three trails: a 2 km town walk which includes the Post Office, Town Hall, Clearview House, St John's Church, the Northam Club and Shamrock Hotel; a 4 km town drive which includes the Flour Mill, West Northam Station Museum, St James Anglican Church, the Club Tavern, Byfield House and Mitchell House; and a 16 km drive along the banks of the river to Katrine, a nearby township which once vied with Northam for importance but died when it was bypassed by the railway.
The highlights include:
Wellington Street Conservation Area
The Wellington Street Conservation Area comprises a total of five buildings:
(a) St James Anglican Church and Parish Hall
Located on the corner of Wellington and Morrell Streets, St James Church was built in 1911. It is listed by State Heritage which notes: "St James' Anglican Church is a red brick building with a parapeted gable, a steeply pitched corrugated iron roof, wall buttresses, and narrow windows." For more information check out http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/c8a357e5-43f2-434e-b5ff-ac1a22340040.
(b) Northam Post Office
Located at 33 Wellington Street, the old Northam Post Office was built between 1892-1873. The unique design (a combination of Victorian, Georgian and Federation Free Style architecture) of was, in part, created by George Temple-Poole, Principal Architect of the Public Works Department. It was built by local Thomas Wilding who was sub-contracted by George Throssell. The building was later used by the Department of Defence and the Army in World War Two. In 1979 Prince Charles visited the centre and planted a tree. It was restored and renovated in 1986. See http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/74ee6d62-bd03-4d46-9091-f23ee8df34b8 for more information.
(c) Northam Police Station and Court House
Located at 114 Wellington Street East, the Northam Police Station and Court House were built between 1896-1910. It comprises four "four single-storey, brick and iron Federation period buildings, including Courthouse (1896), Cell Block (1897), Police Station (c.1910), and Police Quarters No.3 (1910)." The buildings were designed by prominent architects - George Temple Pool, Robert J Haddon and Hillson Beasley. The Register of Heritage Places notes of the buildings: "Northam Police Station and Courthouse is significant for the high level of building craftsmanship and decorative elements displayed in the Federation Free Style of the Courthouse and Federation Classical / Bungalow Style of the Police Station, and more modest vernacular style of the Cell Block and Police Quarters No.3."
(d) Town Hall and Lesser Hall
Located in Wellington Street, the Town Hall which was designed by Henry Proctor and opened by Sir John Forrest in 1898. It cost £3000 and is typical of the Italianate excesses which was common in Western Australia in the wake of the gold discoveries. Next door is the Lesser Hall which was designed by P.W. Harrison, constructed in 1936 and cost £1783 to build. They are both listed on the Register of the National Estate and classified by the National Trust. It is described as "Northam Town Hall, a brick structure including two-storey main hall and single-storey lesser hall, with rendered pilasters and pediments and corrugated iron roofs."
St John's Anglican Church
St John's Church at 11 Wellington Street which was consecrated in January, 1890 and severely cracked in the 1968 earthquake. It is possible to see the cracks in the stained glass windows. The Waymarking site (see https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMKZ0P_St_Johns_Anglican_Church_Northam_Western_Australia) notes: "St John's Anglican Church was built in 1889 in the Gothic Revival style of local stone. The church has a distinctive stone bell tower topped by a battlement. The roof of the church was replaced with shingles in 1928, repaired with sheoak shingles after a fire in 1944, and replaced with asbestos shingles in 1977. A vestry was added in 1971."
The Northam Advertiser
Located at 245 Fitzgerald Street, the Northam Advertiser occupied this building from 1919 until it closed in 2005. The paper was established by John Thomas Reilly in 1893. The building had been constructed the 1880s and the rather flamboyant Federation Free Classical style facade was added in 1906. For more information check out http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/212d37f3-23fb-42da-83f0-e8505bbeac65. The sign outside the building, with a frieze of a journalist with a pencil behind his ear, notes: "J.T, Reilly published the first newspaper in Northam in 1893 changing its banner to Northam Advertiser in 1895. His style of editorial over the period was largely in support of the wealthy conservative opinions in district politics. While his early headlines upbraided the Japanese and Chinese workers as 'The Yellow Agony' and 'Asiatic Swine' one must recall the context of the times when widely held racial beliefs were common. Reilly sold to Hal Colebatch in 1905 and following Hal's election to parliament, his appointment as Colonial Secretary and later (1923) as Agent General London his son Harley took control in 1919."
Located on the corner of Gordon and Chidlow Streets, Byfield House was built for James and Elizabeth Byfield in 1902. James Byfield had arrived in Northam in 1869 and over the years became a successful wheelwright, flour miller, coach builder, builder and sawmill owner. He was the owner of the first car in Northam, a 1904 Oldsmobile. The army leased the building during World War II. It was damaged by the Meckering earthquake in 1968 and it wasn't until 1982 it was repaired and renovated and became a gallery and restaurant. It is currently a private home. It is listed by State Heritage who note: "The facade is centred around a double height tower, central on the symmetrical frontage. The tower includes a porch with a rounded arch opening at ground level and balustraded balcony above. The ground level verandah is covered with a bullnose roof while the main roof is tiled with closed eaves and decorative terracotta saddle ridge and hip capping. Vertical dormer windows with timber finials and decorative barge boards flank the upper level balcony. Other features include face brickwork, quoined corners, turned timber verandah balustrades and decorative metal valance." Check out http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/PrintSingleRecord/0fa22872-1cdb-400f-98cf-686548016cd5 for more information.
Located on the corner of Duke Street and Gordon Street, Stone Court was originally Northam's Masonic Hall which explains its highly unusual "combination of face-cut stone, classical motifs and moulding". It is listed by the State Heritage Register which describes the building as "Single storey masonry (blue stone) construction. The main facade has an irregular coursed stone parapet wall with two light coloured stone string courses. There are white square pilasters and quoin edging to complement the cornice mouldings which cap the parapet wall. A part of the wall which extends towards the street is embellished with an entablature and small spherical finials." Check out http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/5c0f8ae4-1d66-4f15-aebf-724c55b75bb5 for more details.
Mitchell House, on the corner of Hawes and Duke streets (15-17 Hawes Street), is a handsome Italianate mansion which was built in 1905 for Sir James Mitchell. it is a sumptuous house set in beautiful gardens. "Mitchell House has some features reminiscent of colonial Georgian architecture in its simplicity. Quoined window and door openings are embellished with entablature."
The history of the house is fascinating. State Heritage explains: "James Mitchell came to Northam in 1891 as manager of the West Australian Bank. In 1903 Mrs Clara Mitchell purchased three blocks of land on the hill considered to be Northam's "nob hill", the most prestigious area in the town. Mitchell won a seat in the Western Australian Parliament in 1905 (-1933). Mitchell House was used as a family home and as the venue for garden parties. Mitchell was Premier of WA from 1919-24 and 1930-33. He was influential in securing post-primary education for Northam, in 1921, the year he was knighted. In 1933, he was Lieutenant Governor of WA and moved to Perth. Next were Hal Colebatch, the editor of The Northam Advocate and his wife, Theodosia (nee Mitchell), until 1953. In 1978 a Centenary Celebration for Northam Primary School was held there, and during the 1980s Mitchell House was the venue for balls, large formal dinner parties and fetes." An unusual political connection is that Sir James Mitchell eventually lost the seat to Bert Hawke, the uncle of future Prime Minister, RJL Hawke. See http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/e41b73f9-6b46-4ca0-8b0f-b3a94cc7204b for more information.
Link Theatre (Presbyterian Church)
Located at 89 Duke Street East, the Old Presbyterian Church was purchased in 1976 and The Northam Theatre Group converted it into the Link Theatre. The Northam Theatre Group grew out of the Northam Repertory Club which was formed in 1896 and makes reasonable claims to being the oldest theatrical company in Australia. The theatre's website explains "The foundation stone for the Presbyterian Church was laid in 1908. This church building makes up the auditorium which today makes an intimate venue for 100 patrons. The original structure of the church has never been altered. Patrons can still appreciate the ornate wooden fretwork and the original oregon beams and ceiling boards. Negotiations to purchase the building took several months and the purchase was facilitated by a self-supporting loan from the Town of Northam." Check out https://www.northamtheatregroup.org.au for more information about future productions.
Old Methodist Church and Hall
Located at 103 Duke Street East, the Old Methodist Church and Hall " comprising a stone and iron Hall (1892, 1901, 1954) and a red brick and iron Church (1901, 1924), both ... are fine demonstrations of the Federation Gothic style of architecture; specifically, the Church is an exuberant example of the style, while the Hall is a more vernacular example."
Located at 70 Katrine Road, Morby Cottage which was built out of mud brick and hessian sacking in 1836. It is the oldest building in the area (and one of the oldest in Western Australia) and was built by John Morrell, the first settler in the district. Morrell was the first person to import livestock into the district and the first person to send produce to Perth from Northam. In its early days it was also the town's first church, school, courthouse, and retail and postal outlet. The cottage is currently run by the Shire of Northam. It is open on Sundays from 11.00 am - 3.00 pm. For further details contact (08) 9622 3881 or check out https://www.northam.wa.gov.au/recreation-attractions/art-culture-heritage/morby-cottage.aspx.
Other Attractions in the Area
Located 15 km north of Northam, at 986 Irishtown Road, Buckland, the Buckland Estate is a Victorian Georgian manor house which was first built in 1836 and finally completed around 1872. At the time it was one of the grandest and most expensive private buildings and was regarded by many as the most majestic home in the state. It has a colourful history as a social centre for the Avon Valley and over the years has played host to both national and international dignitaries. Today it is a private residence set on 21 hectares and is used primarily as a wedding venue and as a retreat destination. It is surrounded by extensive gardens. For details tel: 0407 194 001 or check out https://www.bucklandestate.com.au.
The new Western Australian Silo Trail starts (or finishes) in Northam before continuing on to Merredin, Katanning, Pingrup, Newdegate, Ravensthorpe and ending in Albany. The works in Northam (they are located on the vast wheat silos on Toodyay Road and, because it is a working silo complex, they are not accessible to the public - view them from the road) were created by the American artist, Alex Brewer (known as Hense) and London-based Phlegm, a Welsh-born underground cartoonist. The silos were painted in 2015 with Phlegm creating whimsical characters while Hense produced abstract patterns in bright fluoro colours. Check out https://www.publicsilotrail.com/northam for more information.
* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to the Ballardong people of the Nyoongar First Nation.
* The area around Northam was first explored in 1830 when a party of colonists led by Ensign Robert Dale journeyed from Perth and reached the Avon Valley.
* A townsite, on the banks of the Avon, was surveyed in 1830.
* Northam was gazetted in 1833. It became a point of departure for explorers and settlers who were interested in the lands which lay to the east.
* Boundaries for the town were established in 1836.
* In 1847 land lots were surveyed.
* By 1849-1850 land was being offered for sale.
* With the arrival of the railway in 1894 Northam became the major departure point for prospectors heading east to the goldfields.
* In 1914 the first Kim Beazley was born in Northam.
* In 1915 Captain Hugo Throssell, the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, arrived home to a hero's welcome only to inform the adoring locals that he had become a deeply committed socialist. In her novel Child of the Hurricane his wife, Katherine Susannah Prichard, describes the scene: 'On that dark night, speaking in the street to the crowd which had assembled, [he] described with deep feeling the horror and misery of war, and his sorrow that so many fine men (some of whom had been boys with him in Northam) would not be coming home to their wives and families. It was a dramatic moment when he announced that as a result of the suffering he had seen, 'the war has made me a socialist'.'
* In 1933 the town's entire Aboriginal population 'were rounded up by police and dumped in the Moore River Settlement. The Northam Shire Council said they "had scabies and were a health risk."
* In 1941 the 118th Battalion Military Hospital was opened in the town.
* In May 1949 the military hospital became the Holden Commonwealth Departmental Immigration Accommodation Centre. Thousands of refugees were accommodated there.
* The Immigration Accommodation Centre closed in 1951.
* The Shire of Northam council was created in 2007.
* In 2010 the old Immigration Accommodation Centre was reopened as the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.
* In 2018 a riot broke out at the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.^ TOP
Northam Visitor Information Centre, 2 Grey Street, tel: (08) 9622 2100. Open 9.00 am - 4.00 pm daily.^ TOP
The official local website can be accessed at https://www.northam.wa.gov.au/visit-northam.^ TOP