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Bold, William Ernest (1873–1953)

by Tom Stannage

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Ernest Bold (1873-1953), town clerk, was born on 6 May 1873 at Birkdale near Southport, Lancashire, England, son of Charles Bold, secretary to the Leeds Canal Co., and his wife Elizabeth, née Turner. Educated in Lancashire and later at the Haberdashers' School, London, he was an apprentice electrical engineer on the Forth railway bridge at Queensferry, Scotland, in 1888-90. Returning to London he taught himself shorthand and worked as a clerk-typist with an Australian mercantile firm in the Baltic Exchange. At the suggestion of a relation in Fremantle, he migrated to Western Australia in 1896.

Bold worked briefly with a merchant, and late in 1896 he was clerk-typist to the town clerk of the city of Perth, becoming known as his assistant. He became acting town clerk on 27 November 1900, after the forced resignation of the inefficient H. E. Petherick. The council initially rejected his application for the vacant office and appointed a Melbourne candidate, who resigned ten days later; indeed, Bold's reappointment in an acting capacity in April 1901 was approved only after long debate and a close vote. On 30 September he was appointed town clerk, the youngest in any Australian capital, and when he resigned forty-three years later he was the longest serving.

Bold's first problem was Perth's most flamboyant mayor, W. G. Brookman, mining speculator, urban landlord and social visionary, who dreamed of Perth as 'a fairer Athens', but regularly failed to attend ordinary council meetings. In the opinion of councillors Brookman dipped into the entertainment fund too often and too deeply and allowed the lady mayoress too much say in the affairs of the city. As the bearer of unwelcome messages from the council, Bold suffered at the mayor's hands but it was he, not Brookman, who lasted beyond 1901. The mayoralty went to less troublesome men and the council became less faction-ridden.

Bold needed also to boost the morale and efficiency of the staff, for both his predecessors had been poor managers. Using as a model the technically efficient Birmingham of Joseph Chamberlain, he soon expanded the size and improved the quality of the staff and streamlined its operations. Working from an increasingly sound administrative base with a relatively inexperienced council and mayors who were not strong leaders of opinion, Bold became a powerful driving force in policy formation, not only preparing detailed reports for councillors but even intervening often and at length in council debates. By 1905 it could be written of him that 'he comported himself like the boss Panjandrum'; he was 'the real mayor and [mayor] Brown merely his easy going factotum'.

Bold was a strong advocate of municipal socialism and described its advantages in his presidential address to the Western Australian Municipal Officers' Association in 1906. He and the mayor T. G. Molloy, a kindred spirit, partly convinced and partly tricked the council in 1908 into buying out the Perth Gas Co., which produced both gas and electricity; a costly and controversial purchase at the time, it eventually proved a valuable asset to the city. In 1912 Molloy and Bold also fought hard to secure the tramways company, but were outmanoeuvred and outbid by the Scaddan Labor government.

After several reports by Bold had failed to induce the ministry to create a 'Greater Perth' authority and pass a town planning act, the council sent Bold in 1914 on a tour of Britain and North America to gather information about municipal experiments and improvements. In London he attended both the Imperial Health and Town Planning and the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association conferences; he also inspected innovative cities, towns and suburbs in both Britain and the United States. On his return he refined his 'Greater Perth' concept to embrace satellite garden and seaside suburbs, a redeveloped civic centre like Chicago's, and an overall plan on 'City Beautiful' lines.

The 'Greater Perth' movement made some headway during World War I when Leederville, North Perth and Victoria Park voluntarily joined the city; the inner suburb of Subiaco resolved to remain independent. In 1917, on Bold's recommendation, the 1300-acre (526 ha) Limekilns Estate was bought, adjacent to western seaside endowment lands already owned by the city. Despite opposition from works minister W. George, an old council enemy of Bold's, (Sir) James Mitchell's government passed the City of Perth Endowment Lands Act in 1920 which empowered the council to develop and sell the land in its trust. In the mid-1920s the council, at Bold's suggestion, invited the architects Hope and Klem to design satellite towns on the new lands. Floreat Park, Wembley Park and City Beach owed much to Raymond Unwin's writings and the 'City Beautiful' movement. Early homes there were functional and cheap enough for the thrifty worker, for Bold was a strong advocate of 'national efficiency'.

Another of his dreams was fulfilled in 1928 when the first Australian town planning Act was passed by the State parliament. It owed much to the work of the Town Planning Association of Western Australia, established in 1916. Its principals were Bold, Carl Klem, and the architect and city councillor Harold Boas. In 1930 Bold and Boas persuaded the council to establish a town planning committee.

Bold's ideas prevailed in the 1920s, but in the 1930s he was less successful. The creation of Riverside Drive in 1937 enhanced the city foreshore but public criticism of his administration culminated in 1938 in a royal commission. His chief critic was David Davidson, the first town planning commissioner appointed under the 1928 Act, who alleged that health and building regulations were not being observed and that there were far too many slums. Bold's contention that there had been only minor irregularities was accepted, but the commission recommended immediate revision and updating of the by-laws. Though it described him as 'very efficient and conscientious', the report recognized that in pursuing his 'City Beautiful' ideals he had become a little careless in his administration of the central city area. In his long typescript reminiscences, written in 1944, Bold did not mention the royal commission, though it had dominated his life at the time. At the request of the mayor and council, he deferred his retirement through World War II and, although ill, resigned only after he had trained a successor. An autobiographical address to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society was published in its journal in 1946.

Bold is generally acknowledged to be the founding father of town planning in Western Australia. Uniquely among Perth's town clerks he developed a vision of his ideal city, much of which he brought into being. Yet he was formally honoured with a C.B.E. only as late as 1948. Most mayors recognized his ability and some spoke of him as a friend. Many other people were openly hostile. His severest critic was Thomas Walker, editor of the Sunday Times. Edwin ('Dryblower') Murphy, who wrote verse for that paper, characterized him as 'Beau Brummel Bold' and as 'a toffy young spark'. The Times spoke for that 'temper, democratic; bias, offensively Australian', which found Bold's appearance and manner intolerable. He always wore a top hat and morning coat with a stiff, high-collared shirt, and in council was bewigged. He was formal, rather unbending and, unlike his predecessor and several of his mayors, he was abstemious. He had been organist and choirmaster at the Hornsey Road Methodist Church, London, in 1892-96; he became assistant organist at St George's Cathedral, Perth, and from 1897 organist at Wesley Church and later at St Aidan's Presbyterian Church, Claremont. He was also a Rotarian and, at one time, a Freemason.

Bold had married Nellie Cooper, daughter of Nicholas Jeffrey of Eaglehawk, Victoria, on 9 October 1907 at Claremont; they had three children. He died at Tresillian Hospital, Nedlands, on 25 November 1953 and was cremated. His estate, valued for probate at £7927, was left to his family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1938, 2 (20)
  • R. Clark, ‘The city beautiful’, and ‘Garden City Movement’, Architect, 10 (1969), no 2, 4
  • M. Webb, ‘Planning and development in metropolitan Perth to 1953’, Perth City and Region, Australian Planning Institute Congress (Perth, 1968)
  • West Australian (Perth), 28 Nov 1900, 10, 24, 30 Sept 1901
  • Western Mail (Perth), 30 Oct 1930
  • R. E. Robertson, W. E. Bold (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1970)
  • H. Boas, Bricks and Mortar (1971, State Library of Western Australia)
  • Minute books and reports, and records connected with Royal Commission, 1938 (Perth City Council).

Citation details

Tom Stannage, 'Bold, William Ernest (1873–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bold-william-ernest-5282/text8907, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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