I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?
In my book, Cordelia and her friends start their degrees at the University of Western Australia in 1965. At the time, the Uni was more than half a century old, having grown from 184 students when it opened its doors in 1913 to 3,800 students in 1962.
As the student population grew, so did the need for off-campus residential halls. St George’s College was the first to open in 1931 and within the next two decades four more colleges had opened. Located directly across the road from the university, the string of residential colleges were often referred to as ‘College Row’ hosting inter-college events and competitions.
Separating the colleges from the main campus was busy Stirling Highway, a multi-lane road which still acts as one of the main thoroughfares between Fremantle, the western suburbs and the Perth CBD.
By the mid-60s, it was estimated the 750 students of College Row made as many as 4,000 crossings every day, and while there were traffic lights, they were for cars only, and not designed to assist pedestrians.
In 1967, a 19 year old student was hit and killed by a car on Stirling Highway as she attempted to cross back to her residence at St Catherine’s College. She was the second student to die in as many years and many others had been injured.
Students began to lobby the authorities for a safe underpass crossing, but no progress had been made when another student was almost killed two years later in 1969. Tired of waiting for formal lobbying to bring results, the students of UWA took a different approach and staged a sit-down protest on the afternoon of Friday 28th March, 1969. Hundreds of bodies created a major roadblock for peak-hour traffic and an even bigger headache for university officials and police. Apparently, some students even brought along shovels and tools and began digging their own tunnel to further hammer home their point.
The subsequent furore and widespread support from both the media and community led to an underpass beneath Stirling Highway being constructed and opened for use by September 1970.
The underpass was built too late to be of any help to the characters in my story, so they had to run the gauntlet of peak hour traffic when heading to the bus stop, but it was an interesting piece of history that deserved to be shared.
Have you ever used the UWA Underpass?
Image of the UWA underpass circa 1975 sourced from https://www.web.uwa.edu.au