Old Courthouse Architectural Information

The Henderson Street courthouse and police station which were originally a series of buildings designed and constructed in the 1850s by the first captain of convict labourers, Edmund Yeamans Walcott Henderson (for whom the street is named for) and J Manning (Clerk of Works). These buildings were renovated by John Grainger, Chief Architect with the Public Works Department, from 1897 and were opened for use in 1899. The area included the courthouse, the police station, accommodation buildings, the artillery drill hall, and the lock-up. The economic boom, related to the gold rush of the late 1890s in Western Australia allowed for Grainger’s architectural designs of the Federation Academic Classical style along with the distinctive Fremantle limestone and Cottesloe stone walls. The contractor who carried out the work was Mr Thomas Bates. 

The courthouse was again renovated and updated in the 1970s by architect R.J. Ferguson; he also designed the 1978 police station.

The courthouse was part of the original land grant for the Fremantle Convict Establishment in 1851, with the barracks and warders’ cottages located nearby. As such, it is linked to the Fremantle Prison visually through land and similar building materials.  

The courthouse is a significant part of Fremantle’s history, originally built by convicts, to enforce the laws of the land until the current Fremantle Justice Complex was completed in 2001. 

The Henderson Street Courthouse was officially registered as a permanent heritage building in 2003. 

1899 Opening

On Thursday 15 June 1899, several local newspapers including, The Daily News and The West Australian reported on the opening of the new Fremantle courthouse which provides details on the furnishings and details of the buildings. The West Australian stated that:

For years past the inadequacy of the accommodation at the Fremantle Courthouse has been the subject of general public complaint, and there can be no question that they have long since outlived their purpose.

The magistracy and the legal profession have on many occasions referred to the discomforts of the primitive structure in Marine-terrace where, if the Court happened to sit late in the day, messengers had to be sent out in search of candles with which to illuminate the premises. Only recently the spectacle was witnessed of the Coroner summing up to a jury from behind a row of candles, with glass bottles as extemporised holders. These inconveniences will, however, no longer be suffered, for to-day the new courthouse in Henderson-street will be occupied for the first time, and justice will be dispensed from a building which will add to, rather than detract from, the dignity of the Bench.


The West Australian provided a description of what the courthouse looked like on opening day:

An inspection of the premises shows that the contractor has done his work faithfully and well, and the completed structure is a decided ornament to Henderson-street. The material used is Cottesloe stone, with rock face work and cement dressings. The style of architecture is Ionic. The main entrance is handsomely collonaded [sic], and floored with Marseilles tiles, and there are perches leading on the right to the Civil Court, and on the left to the Police Court. There is a main corridor 8ft. wide, and a cross corridor 6ft. wide. Each court room is 44ft. long by 28ft. in width, and has a height of 18ft. from floor to ceiling. The ventilation and lighting of these rooms have been specially provided for, and they are both commodious and comfortable, while the plastered cornices and mouldings around the ceilings and walls, and the centre flowers in the ceilings lend quite a handsome effect. The fittings throughout are of jarrah, and are most substantially made. 

Convenient entrances lead from the Police Court to the cross corridor, the charge room, the office of the clerk to the Police Court, and the magistrate’s retiring room. The comfort of the legal profession and the members of the Press has been studied to a very appreciable extent, and indeed the arrangements as a whole could not easily be improved upon. In addition to the rooms mentioned there are the public office in connection with the Police Court, the office of the Chief Clerk of Courts, the jurors’ retiring room, the Resident Magistrate’s office, the solicitors’ room, and separate waiting rooms, for male and female witnesses. Safeguards have been provided in case of fire, two 1½in, hoses being available. There is a fireplace in each room, and the building will be illuminated with gas. 

The building had been built to the satisfaction of the Public Works Department by Thomas Bate, ‘whose tender was £3,500, but several items have been struck out, making the cost of the building somewhat lower than the figure mentioned’.  The West Australian reported that ‘Fremantle has waited long for its courthouse, but patience has been well rewarded’.  The Daily News stated ‘Altogether the building is an important addition to the architecture of Fremantle, and, though not beyond the requirements of the town, the accommodation should be sufficient for many years to come’.

First Crimes Tried in the Courthouse

The papers also reported on the first crimes to be tried at the courthouse. On that day the bench was occupied by Mr James Lilly, acting Regional Magistrate and Mr Elias Solomon, Justice of the Peace. 

The Daily News stated ‘there was a light list for them to deal with. Owing to the occasion justice was tempered with much mercy, and only in one case was there a conviction’.  

George Woods was charged with the larceny of a quantity of bones from a colored man named Henry Wilson, and was allowed his liberty on agreeing to pay his informant the value of the bones and the costs of the present proceedings.

Joseph Kidson was then arraigned for having made use of obscene language at Plymton.  He was in the midst of an explanation about someone in his domestic circle having upset him, when the bench cautioned and let him go on paying the costs of the proceedings.

Francis Elkin then pleaded guilty to a charge of having been disorderly on the previous Saturday afternoon at Chesterfield. When the constable who laid the information against the accused explained that the disorderly conduct amounted to indecent exposure a fine of 5s. was inflicted, the accused expressing his regret at what he had done.

More Coming Soon

Make sure you visit again soon as we me have more information coming regarding key figures in the history of the Old Courthouse including magistrates, those behind the building and of course a few notable people making an appearance in the court.