In the Nyoongar language the area around modern day Fremantle is known as Walyalup – meaning place of the Walyo or Woylie, a small brush-tailed bettong or kangaroo rat. The local Whadjuk people, part of the larger Nyoongar Aboriginal nation, have been its custodians for over 45,000 years.
The Whadjuk people had their traditional camping grounds in and around the areas known as Fremantle Park, East Fremantle Oval, Tradewinds Hotel, Fremantle Cemetery, South Beach and Coogee Beach.
The Traditional Owners hunted, fished, traded goods, passed on their creation stories (dreamtime), sang, danced, underwent rites of passage and mourned their dead. They lived with an affinity to the land and a respect for the environment, observing and following the seasons and living in harmony with the natural world.
While some of their sacred meeting places may look very different now, that doesn't lessen the significance these sites still have to local Whadjuk people.
Kings Square was an important feature in the first plan for Fremantle which was drawn in 1833 by John Septimus Roe.
In 1839, property owners around the square petitioned the State Governor for a church to be built in the square. This was approved in 1840 and construction works began with the foundation stone being laid on 6 April 1842. St John’s Church of England opened on 4 August 1843 and was consecrated on 16 November 1848. The church was a modest limestone building with a timber shingle roof. A fence of stone piers and timber railings enclosed part of the square around the church but this was not a graveyard.
St John’s Church faced east towards the Roundhouse atop Arthur Head and created the interesting dynamic of having a jail at one end of Fremantle’s main street and a church at the other. Local Historian David Hutchison described this well as ‘a house or retribution at one end of High Street and a house or redemption at the other.’
In 1876, the church applied to the Fremantle City Council for a strip of land, adjacent to the church wall, to be granted to the Church of England, for the purpose of building a new church on the site and to improve the amenity of Kings Square. In this application, all of the land in Kings Square was claimed to have been previously granted to the Church of England, though in later years this was seen to be controversial.
This application was refused, as the strip was used for storing and preparing stone (for use in road works), and some councillors believed the church had enough land already. One year later, the church made a second proposal, offering the council land for a right of way for the extension of High Street through the square and the triangle of land to the south of the right of way in return for the strip of land and 500 pounds. The council accepted, subject to minor modification.
Construction started on the new limestone church with timber shingle roof in 1877, it was consecrated in 1882 and the bell tower was added in 1907. The grounds were enclosed with an iron palisade fence and Moreton Bay fig trees were planted around the church in the 1890s by Mr. Webster. The original St John’s Church was demolished in 1884 to make way for High Street.
In 1887 Kings Square became the civic heart of Fremantle when the council constructed a substantial town hall and auditorium at the western end of their recently purchased half of Kings Square. The council works yard was located behind the town hall on the corner of William and Newman Streets. The remainder of the land was sold and by 1905 all the lots facing High Street had been developed with commercial buildings including the two storey Town Hall Chambers and Central Buildings and a parade of four small single storey shops on the corner with Newman Street.
In 1924 the church signed an agreement with the council whereby they would maintain the church grounds in return for the church allowing public access to their land for passive recreation – and arrangement that has remained in place up till the current day. At this time the rusty iron fencing was replaced with decorative concrete bollards and chains, gravel paths were laid, lawns planted and seats installed under the shady Moreton Bay fig trees. One of these trees became a popular meeting place for pensioners and was nicknamed ‘the tree of knowledge’.
In 1929 the council constructed the Centennial Buildings on the corner of William and Newman Streets to provide extra office accommodation for the adjacent town hall, tenancies for several statutory authorities and more commodious public toilets.
In the 1960s the character of Kings Square changed dramatically. The council demolished all the buildings on the southern triangle except for the Fremantle Town Hall and constructed the Civic Administration Building, the Exhibition Hall and, on the eastern corner, a large carpark.
The section of High Street running through the square was closed to through traffic at this time and also used for car-parking. In 1966 a fountain designed by the Architect Raymond Jones was constructed at the corner of William and Adelaide Streets. Two extra floors were added to the Civic Administration Building in 1973 and the municipal library was installed on the ground floor of the building.
During the 1980s Kings Square was renamed St John’s Square but the name did not stick and by 1991 the historic name was reinstated.
In 1984, following Fremantle’s nomination as the location for the defence of the America’s Cup, the City of Fremantle undertook a major project to upgrade Kings Square, the Fremantle Town Hall and the Administration Buildings. As a part of these works the 1960s fountain, carpark and landscaping was removed and Newman Street was closed and incorporated into the square as Newman Court. Archaeological investigations uncovered the location of the first St John’s Church.
After more than a decade of public consultation and planning, the Kings Square Renewal Project officially kicked off in September 2017 when ground was broken on the redevelopment of the old Myer and Queensgate sites.
The demolition of the City of Fremantle’s old administration building followed in October 2018, with sod-turning ceremony held in April 2019 to mark the start of construction on the Walyalup Civic Centre.
In July 2021, following an extensive community consultation process, Kings Square was officially renamed Walyalup Koort. The new name means ‘Heart of Fremantle’ in the local Whadjuk Nyoongar language. To find out more about the renaming process click here.