Close Flagstaff Hill; save Fletcher Jones

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Our history: while all hands are on deck to revive the recreated village of Flagstaff Hill, the authentic Pleasant Hill is slowly rotting away.

Analysis – Carol Altmann

It is supremely ironic that so much time and effort is being devoted to reviving the flagging Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, when a critical slice of our authentic history is being left to rot.

Unlike Flagstaff Hill, which was built in the 1970s as a pseudo-colonial tourist attraction popular in that era, the Fletcher Jones factory, silver ball water tower and spectacular gardens have occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of the people of Warrnambool for almost 70 years.

Sir Fletcher Jones was one of our greatest philanthropists and Pleasant Hill was his special gift to the city; a gift that, I am certain, he thought would remain in perpetuity.

But if he were alive to see the site today, his heart would break.

That’s because Pleasant Hill is being ‘preserved’ in the way that Warrnambool seems to do best: coat a run-down heritage property with complex planning conditions, wait for a cashed-up developer to buy the site and then watch as they slowly go broke – or lose interest – because of these same conditions, and, in the final act, see the neglected site bulldozed or burnt down in a mysterious fire.


Some Fletcher Jones wisdom: if he could see his vision today, his heart would break.


We have seen this happen in recent years with the Criterion Hotel, the Grand Hotel, and the ill-fated cottage at 94 Merri St*, yet we still haven’t learnt that the only way to save our icons is to work together: for government bodies (including Heritage Victoria and the Warrnambool City Council), developers and the community to have a clear vision of what should happen with a site as precious as Pleasant Hill and to be prepared to share the cost of its preservation to make sure that it is, in fact, preserved.

And Pleasant Hill is precious because, unlike Flagstaff Hill, the Fletcher Jones story is our story.

As much as we would like to claim the sea-shanty tales captured in Flagstaff Hill as our own, Warrnambool was primarily a place of industry, farming and commerce.

The whaling story belongs to Portland and Port Fairy. The Loch Ard Gorge story belongs to Port Campbell and the entire shipwreck mythology is one that has been built around ships that, for the most part, were passing by Warrnambool on their way to somewhere else.

Hence we don’t have locals sharing tales of their sea-faring great grandfathers, but instead we talk about the Woollen Mill, Swintons, Crammond and Dicksons, Nestles, the cordial makers, millers and brewers, the dairy farmers, potato growers, butchers, bakers and bullock drivers and, of course, Fletcher Jones.


The Fletcher Jones story is our story: generations have grown up under the ‘Silver Ball’.


This is why there is a disconnect between Flagstaff Hill and the local community who, it seems, have stopped visiting or who don’t visit nearly enough.

And tourist numbers are also falling. I suspect one problem is that reconstructed, theme-park style villages have lost their lustre, despite the valiant efforts of the many volunteers involved.

In the face of fading popularity, a review is being held into the future of Flagstaff Hill, with warnings that it could cost between $13-15 million to redevelop.

I have a better idea: close it down.


This tribute to Fletcher Jones by Robert Ulmann sets the scene for what could be a magnificent sculpture garden.


The cold-shower moment is to accept that Flagstaff Hill has had its day and will only continue to chew up funds as it recreates itself to fit changing tourism tastes.

The site could be returned to open space and the $13-15 million directed toward restoring and preserving Pleasant Hill, but as what? The suggestions so far include – god forbid – more housing, retail, offices, or even an aged care facility. How boring.

What about this: transform Pleasant Hill into a combined Warrnambool Art Gallery and Museum. Given FJ’s support for the arts, it is a perfect fit.

The already-squeezed art gallery in Timor St could be relocated and stretch out, including into the gardens that would become an outdoor sculpture park.

The best of the Flagstaff Hill collection could be housed in the museum, which would also include a tribute to Fletcher Jones and artefacts from the factory (much of which, unbelievably, ended up in skip bins before being retrieved by art students).


A table for two please: the ‘Round room’ could be converted into a restaurant or cafe.


The Tourist Information Centre would fit nicely, and the ‘Round Room’ – once part of the FJ canteen – would be perfect as a restaurant/cafe called Fletcher’s. The silver ball can just remain the silver ball: restored and shining.

There is more than ample – and completely unused – parking in the Raglan Parade median strip and a pedestrian overpass would solve the issue of crossing a busy highway.

It will take money, it will take vision and it will take commitment, but in 20 years time, which do you think will have the more enduring appeal: a “recreated” maritime village where people are strolling around in gingham caps and hooped dresses, or a dynamic art gallery and museum housed in one of our most iconic buildings?

We don’t need a crystal ball to predict the outcome: just a silver one.

*The Warrnambool Planning and Heritage Group wrote a report 18 months ago that warned Fletcher Jones faces the same fate as 94 Merri St, which was right across the road from Flagstaff Hill, unless action was taken now. The Warrnambool City Council’s response to the group’s 15 recommendations was tabled at its meeting last Monday: see pp 181-185 of agenda 9/12/13.  Or you can see a summary here.





44 thoughts on “Close Flagstaff Hill; save Fletcher Jones”

  1. I love this idea and it celebrates all of Warrnambool’s history, art and culture instead of just one ‘period’ as depicted at Flagstaff Hill. Why doesn’t Warrnambool have a Museum?
    Flagstaff Hill is never going to celebrate what life was like in Warrnambool in the 50’s or 60’s.

  2. What a brilliant idea. At the moment I am visualising one section set up as a working recreation of the factory producing articles for sale in an on site shop. Would be a reminder to all of us what an article of quality clothing looks and feels like.

  3. What a great idea. It would be a wonderful place to honour Sir Fletcher Jones and it’s part of
    of Warrnambool’s history.

  4. Save a spot for warrnambool dirty angel roller derby team, jump over to our facebook page and you’ll see how we’ve turned one dilapidated old room into an awesome little training venue…We would love to train there permanently but the outer building is falling down around us, if somethings not done within the next 6-12 months warrnambool will lose this icon…Once its gone, its gone!

  5. Fletcher Jones is a part of so many families lives in Warrnambool, both my parents worked there and I remember the fantastic Christmas parties there that included the whole family with every child getting a gift from Santa. Numerous local couples have fabulous wedding photos there. It has so much local history it would be terrible to see it go.

    1. Well written and thought out. Of course you could back it up with all the reports and feasibility studies from the last 40 years. There is a Development Board report from c.40 years ago that says Flagstaff Hill not viable and lists suggested improvements – none of which seem to have been carried out yet. Sometimes the money is only available for the study and in many cases funding will not be considered without a study – Catch 22, with money continually draining down the “employ a consultant” drain.

      Have you read the dubious Thematic History that provides the background for our Heritage Studies? Studies that provide the background for buildings that could/should be retained. None of the suggested corrections have ever occurred.

      Where are the artefacts from the original Mechanic’s Institute museum? (A long and sad story.) David Kelson has done a monumental task in saving Nestle history and artefacts. Woollen Mill and the Co-op items went to the Historical Society and have never been catalogued – are they still there or is the focus now just Family History? Who decides what is sold off? How many items are in private homes for “safe keeping”? Are there funds anywhere to buy the significant items that appear for sale on the internet (a lot seem to be for sale at Killarney)?

      I am away at the moment writing a thesis on vernacular architecture in the dim hope of providing a theoretical basis for saving a more relevant local history. Vernacular is the local, the everyday – in more meaningful terms the contribution and expression of the individual. You people (a vernacular expression!) need to unite. Don’t just form another committee that can be sidelined by becoming associated with the Council, where a lot is put on the back burner (Although some people there do about more than their position, there always needs to be funding or a current grant to get anything done.) Get together and do something positive. I hate to say it but the protests in Warrnambool always seem to take place when it is too late.

      A friend of mine once received enormous criticism for standing in front of a bulldozer but that is the only way destruction can be stopped in your fair city – until after dark and on a Sunday.
      You could join committees and the Historical Society, even get on the Board at Flagstaff Hill but you need to do it “en masse”. Also don’t forget to include the younger generations that are vitally interested, but need guidance and information from Locals, not diversion by statutory bodies.
      As for the Developers/ Despoilers: as you point out Warrnambool is the history of business and industrial development (and decline), but we do not have enough historical precedents to know how to limit the scope of the destruction – unless someone gets all those reports and studies together and changes the futility to meaningful information.
      (Just a very small example – When the Demolition Permit for the jetties at Proudfoots was granted it clearly stated that they were to be reinstated – oh! and an example of the boats left there. Now see how many people you can find under 40 who knew there were jetties and maybe don’t know whale boats were not moored there.)

      More professional writing featuring Warrnambool’s dubious decisions. Take a look at “Hunters and Collectors” by Tim Griffiths and “The Colonial Earth” by Tim Bonyhady. We make it – as examples of demolition and destruction. (Original museum, Clovelly – first hotel, Tower Hill.)

      Here in Tasmania roadside crosses and official markers record injuries and death, perhaps the same could be done for buildings in Warrnambool and surrounds. Not a picture of what was there but a symbol that is an indication that this is where wanton destruction occurred.

      1. Hi Coralee,

        I have just set up the Save the Silverball and Fletcher’s Gardens Facebook group as a forum to help unite the people! I would love it if you would join and share it through your contacts.
        Thanks to the wonderful articles like this one from Bluestone there has been added interest and concern about The Fletcher’s Site. Hopefully we can create enough momentum to provoke change before it’s too late

  6. Fantastic idea. This is a great space and should be utilised not lost. It is a wonderful local story and great space and one we should treasure.

  7. Great article Carol! Like so many people in Warrnambool my family history is connected to this icon. Every time I drive past, the state of the place makes me cringe. So many memories crumbling like so many of our town’s historic places. A glaring statement to our ‘great city council’ of their wrong priorities.

  8. Controversial article Carol, dare I say. so love it! Hope this article gets picked up by The Standard and gets people talking. It really is a “big” conversation we ought to have.

  9. Demolition by neglect or implementing this fantastic idea? There shouldn’t be any question about it. There will be major regrets in the future if this area is left to rot.

    1. Yes a great idea. Why wasn’t it considered years ago in one of the numerous reports? Isn’t there a Council Plan that just had public feedback? There isn’t another one for 4 years.
      Shouldn’t it focus on an overall heritage strategy rather than individual projects? (Which are not outlined in the brochure.)

  10. Spot On. Great foresight. I absolutely love this idea and I think you’re right when you suggest momentum has to start now.
    I’ll support it all the way.

  11. ‘Not By Myself’ the Fletcher Jones memoir is such a nice read too, particularly to gain an appreciation of the importance of this site to Australian manufacturing.
    Don’t know if its in print but I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow.

  12. this would be a fantastic outcome for the site, the gallery, everyone really but i can only think of one maybe two councillors who might have the necessary foresight and gumption to actually get behind such an idea. come on wcc – step up to the crease.

    1. Everything needs finding. Has anyone thought of approaching the Japanese where FJ got many of his ideas?

  13. I’ve got to say this a perfect idea. I’ve always wondered why Warrnambool’s gallery is so small yet we have such a artistic community, having a local hub that we can hang out / feel very comfortable in would be fantastic! I’m starting to see the trend you mentioned about mysterious fires, everything old and of heritage the city council doesn’t give two hoots about.

    If this is lost, what else is there left in warrnambool to show off our history and attract tourists…

    I for one think it’s a lovely looking factory compared to a modern factory today. It’s a master piece that just needs some love and attention.

    Save Fletcher Jones history, name and building don’t let it have the same fate as the Criterion Hotel!

    1. There is another Catch 22 here. More tourists – where do they park?
      Not around FJ where there is no room. Of course a few more tree roots could be obstructed on the highway! Forward planning needed.
      There are also a few other treasures that I will not name because money has more meaning than the heart. Read the City Plan (it is online if you don’t have one.) and ask yourself how real are these words.

  14. What a fabulous idea. I love it. A combined museum and art gallery is such a great use of this space that is just going into disrepair. I, like many Warrnambool children of the 70’s went to a Christmas party in the gardens there. Have photos taken there. Loved wandering around the garden and looking at the fish as a child. Save this great building.

  15. I have just stumbled upon this story as I sit here looking out my lounge room window looking at the ill fated Fletcher Jones.The alarm still on the wall in my front porch as my Father,Mother,Sister and brother all worked there.My father was the caretaker truck driver and also drove Lady Aida and Sir Fletch as he was affectionately know in our home.Some of my memories include. The factory being our playground as we did the rounds with dad.Often being taken up to the canteen as kids by Sir Fletch or George Dorian to get an ice-cream from Funny face.Getting ball-bearings and wood from the workshops to make go-carts but we weren’t allowed to go in to the workshops because of the calenders on the walls(haha).The Christmas parties in the gardens were an amazing family event not to be missed.Sir Fetch left a wonderful legacy to this city and to watch it crumble would i’m sure be heart breaking to him.

  16. my family heritage and the kind of work and life style of my ancestors related to things at flagstaff hill.
    if you go and walk around flagstaff hill and see how it represents what life would have been like years ago. it represents what kinds of jobs people did and how a small sea town would look. my family heritage fits into what flagstaff hill represents and you say you want to just drop that?
    well Carol Altmann none of my family ever worked on a clothing factory. that is what it is an old clothing factory. how dare you suggest that they drop flagstaff hill that i can relate to so many things and replace it with an old factory full of asbestos, the ball and the gardens and maybe some of the sandstone structure could be incorporated into a new more modern facility.
    my grandfather was a wheelwright and blacksmith. his father was a black smith. when i go down to flagstaff hill i can relate to those jobs because when i was a boy i got to see my grandfather at work. how many people can relate to things down there. and you just want to drop that for an old clothing factory.
    and tell me what part of flagstaff hill does not represents our history? so many areas i cant even start to list it.
    i am insulted buy your suggestion to abandon flagstaff hill.
    i am also insulted by all the comments that have family history to this old factory yet have no family history to what flagstaff hill represents. you all want to just disrespect peoples family history that is represented by flagstaff hill and represent your own family history.
    there is a word for that. “Disrespect”
    the gardens are there and costing money to maintain, the ball is there and need some fixing up, and there are some parts of the factory face that can be maintained for heritage purposes.
    everything behind that is not usable for anything except a clothing factory and even then worksafe would most likely not approve of it as it was shut down long before worksafe was born.
    yes save the bloody thing if you want but do not even suggest to just throw away a tourist spot that represents so many different styles of family history.

    do tell me what part of that old factory could you utilize to represent a black smiths work shop without it burning to the ground every day of the week?

  17. Fabulous idea. But knowing the powers that be, no action will take place and the FJ Factory will be left to rot.
    Great article Carol

  18. What a wonderful discussion this piece has prompted. For the sake of clarity, I must point out to Michael that my suggestion is to co-locate the best of the Flagstaff Hill collection with an Art Gallery-Museum at Fletcher Jones, not “throw away” that history. The harsh reality is that Flagstaff Hill is under review because it is losing money – and the question is whether to throw more money into this site, or to put the funds toward transforming the FJ site as suggested. It appears that a lot of people support the latter.

  19. As a regular visitor to Warrnambool I would love to see the Fletcher Jones site preserved and developed, my family and I would love a reason to explore our way throuh the hallways. Last year we went and wandered around the gardens and market like shops there. We went with friends and would have loved tobe able to sit at tables and have afternoon tea. The site is such a local icon and as such should be preserved and enjoyed before people don’t know the FJ name anymore.

  20. I was back in Warrnambool recently and was appalled at the state of Fletchers. This is a great idea Carol, but will anyone listen?

  21. This sounds like a great idea, but again it is up to the council. Has this been proposed to them?

  22. What a brilliant discussion. I think your vision is spot on Carol. There are only three councillors who will share your vision. I have attended many open council meetings. The ones who have vision and ask questions find themselves frozen out. I wish the citizens of Warrnambool good luck.

  23. Carol I am not sure if we had this discussion but I have been saying a similar thing for quite a while now. My suggestion is not to close Flagstaff Hill but to move the tourist information centre to Fletcher Jones.
    The round Cafeteria building would make a great info centre and there would be room for local produce, plants from the gardens etc.. for sale the small outdoor buildings which were workers cottages could be a cafe and then we could all enjoy the amazing garden and legacy of Fletcher Jones.
    I have written to council with my ideas after visiting Palm Springs California where Mid Century Modern Architecture is being Saved and embraced by the city council. Talk soon.

    1. I agree Trudy, it would be absolutely perfect for the tourist information centre and associated activities and you are so right about other cities having already caught on to the importance of preserving these type of mid-century buildings. While it is probably not possible or feasible to preserve the whole FJ site, the iconic elements, such as those you mention, should be a top priority. Let’s see what the council does over the next six to 12 months – I think it is an opportunity for Mayor Neoh to create a legacy of his leadership, so I guess we shall see if the council is up to the challenge.

  24. Warrnambool needs tourism. It is a holiday destination for families and Flagstaff Hill forms a large part of the attraction, as does Lake Pertobe, Tower Hill, etc. So Flagstaff hill must remain but also must innovate to attract local families as well as visitors.

    FJ’s is facing a slow death. What are the heritage restrictions placed on it? Would it not make sense to preserve the garden area and front facade while allowing the building itself to be developed into something usable?

    If the council could commit to getting rid of the asbestos and looking after the gardens to some extent with a graduated handing-over term, it might actually be an attractive proposition for someone to make a buck out of it and stop the place from rotting into extinction.

  25. i am appalled at your grossly ill informed article .council are not considering any extra monies to flagstaff hill the 13million is from state tourism funding that is available to tourism enterprises every year .flagstaff hill is not only self supporting but also funds the tourist nnfomation centre as well ,which by the way visitors find is very well run and the staff and volunteers most helpfull, after all it is for them.sir fletcher jones was one of the original instigators of flagstaff hill and he and his staff donated some of the funds to purchase the loch ard peacock which is viewed daily by people from all over the world .the two lighthouses and the lighhousekeepers cottage have been on that sight since 1872,just a little older than a clothing factory.
    All 70.000 artifacts are digitally catalogued and include maritime items not found anywhere else in australia
    Anyone from anywhere in the world can access this information .our white australian history can be found in our shipping histories .at present we are the only maritime museum in victoria where this research can be found .
    the era that is represented by flegstaff hill is from 1835/1900 the education program provides a broad spectrum of topics and is widely used by schools from all over victoria costume are researched and prduced as authentically as possible.
    Flagstaff hill is an internatinal interactive facilty that shows not only historical but social aspects of everyday life in the nineteenth century .
    do you really think that should be scrapped for a building that was built as a buisness to make a good life for one family?

    1. Thanks for your interest in this piece, Pat, but I do need to clarify a couple of points. I did not suggest council would have to pay $13-15 million, but that the Flagstaff Hill review identifies that an upgrade would cost up to this much money.
      Irrespective of where the money comes from, it is all taxpayer funds and so the question is where it could be best used.
      It is also important to note that Flagstaff Hill is not self supporting. It is losing money, hence the review.
      There is no suggestion that the valuable maritime history stored at Flagstaff Hill be ignored – my suggestion is to co-locate the best of this at a combined Warrnambool Art Gallery and Museum at Pleasant Hill.
      And yes, the original lighthouses have been there for a very long time, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether we continue to maintain the replicated village round them.
      I think it is also interesting to note that a community feedback questionnaire on the future of Flagstaff Hill was met with disinterest – locals don’t have a connection to the site, like they do to Pleasant Hill.

  26. Warrnambool’s first harbourmaster, Benjamin Helpman was the great grandfather of Sir Robert Helpmann, co-director of the Australian Ballet in the 1960’s with Dame Peggy van Praagh. The harbourmaster’s house on Flagstaff Hill has a plaque stating this connection.
    Warrnambool has been home to many interesting historical figures whose influence and character have shaped Australia, from the harbourmaster of the 1860’s to Fletcher Jones, the manufacturer of the 1960’s.

  27. In regional cities visitor information centres should be located where visitors can find them easily. I really like Carol Altmann’s vision for Fletcher Jones site.
    Flagstaff Hill is of the same concept basically as Sovereign Hill – we loved colonial re-creations in the seventies and we watched television programs like Rush and All the Rivers Run, but that involvement in our colonial era has literally become so … last century.
    A visitor information centre located in the same building as the Flagstaff Hill Village and shipwreck sound and light show is not going to attract more people to go into it just because it’s under their nose. Those who want to see Flagstaff Hill will pick up the information from a visitor information centre in a more accessible location.

  28. This sounds like a great use of the Fletcher Jones site, but I have to say I do have a connection with the Maritime Museum as my Great Grandfather was Peter J McGennan and there is a replica of his Cooperage there, but if the numbers are dwindling maybe money could be better spent somewhere else. What would happen with all the historical memorabilia there though, that certainly has a place in the History of Warrnambool.

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