In mid-2014, Waru Consulting volunteered to undertake a heritage assessment of Gnowangerup’s old police station. Gnowangerup is a quiet rural town situated approximately 300km southeast of Perth and 50km north of the Stirling Ranges.

The century old police station is a problem for the local Shire. Recently, vandals broke some of the asbestos fibre walls creating a public health concern and, without a listing on the WA State Heritage Register, public funding for conservation works is hard to obtain. Understandably, demolition of the old police station looms as a potential solution for the Shire, with only the few members of Gnowangerup’s historical society to oppose the idea.

The heritage value of a place can be determined in many ways. It seems, however, that technical attributes often outweigh other qualities such as individual stories, both historical and contemporary. It is other people’s stories that help us make sense of our community and our lives, and surely that is one of the main roles of heritage. Our proposal was to involve the community by undertaking test excavations that would be open to the public as well as ran an engagement campaign on Facebook.

The Facebook page was set up several weeks prior to the excavation and generated a significant amount of interest from the Gnowangerup community as well as national and international interest. We were able to use the collective knowledge of the people who had engaged us on social media as a research tool. For example, it was a hotel manager from Perth who helped us decipher one of the oldest examples of graffiti on the jarrah lined gaol cells. Others provided opinions on the provenance of a railway sleeper found at the bottom of one of the test pits. We also found that someone has used the page as a forum to vent frustration at the previous demolition of another heritage building in Gnowangerup. The population of the Facebook page also allowed us to promote Gnowangerup’s newly opened and brilliant Noongar museum. As a result we saw an increased number of visits to the page, including many from the Indigenous community.

The response to the public invitation to participate in the excavations was overwhelming. Over the course of three days, more than 150 primary and secondary students from three local schools visited the site in addition to numerous visits from members of the wider community. The students were given a brief introduction to the history of the police station while checking out the gaol cells and exercise yard. From primary historical documents they learnt about how in 1911 Inspector Lappin visited Gnowangerup and reported to the Commissioner on the need for an immediate and permanent police presence at Gnowangerup because of the construction workers building the rail line between Tambellup and Ongerup. Lappin reported that there are, “Complaints of fighting, bad language and two-up schools” and that “the residents are unanimous in requesting police protection”.

The students also heard about Constable Jeremiah John Jones who was stationed at Gnowangerup between 1915 and 1924. He was the son of Ann Jones, and Jeremiah was seven years old in 1880 when the Kelly Gang laid siege to his mother’s establishment, the Glenrowan Inn.

After the historical introduction the students participated in numerous activities including excavating a disused garden bed seeded with ‘artefacts’ and undertaking a transect survey. After some training the luckier students also joined the Waru archaeologists in excavating the three 1m x 1m test puts situated in close proximity to the existing buildings and areas likely to yield subsurface archaeological material. The kids were all remarkably enthusiastic and did everything from checking the spit levels on the dumpy to digging, running buckets and helping sieve the material.

Over the course of three days, hundreds of pieces of cultural material were retrieved from the 3 test pits. In many ways, however, what was actually found is less important in assessing the significance of the old police station than the incredible interaction the public had with the project. We heard from one of the teachers who said that the majority of the kids who had participated in the excavations went home to their parents and proudly proclaimed their desire to become archaeologists. In an attempt to bolster that enthusiasm we ran a creative writing competition and received many great entries from a number of students who were clearly inspired, not only by the archaeology, but also by the numerous historical sources we had collated including sources that had been provided by the local community.

The reaction that the students had when touring the site also reminded us that part of the heritage significance of the police station comes from its decrepitude. The flaking paint and rusting tin of the exercise yard, the cobwebs, rotting timbers and the gloomy jarrah lined cells covered in prisoners’ graffiti all contribute to an eerie and grungy atmosphere. It is an alien environment that gets the imagination firing and builds a certain level of empathy with those unknown people who were locked up there. This empathy was reflected in many of the short stories, with most students taking on the first person perspective of a prisoner.

Our project at Gnowangerup’s old police station shows that a high level of community engagement is not only helpful in resourcing information, but also allows people of all ages to learn and engage with their own local heritage. It also shows that in assessing the heritage significance of a place we should consider what impact it has on people on an emotional and creative level. Furthermore, we should also think carefully about what we lose when restoration works are undertaken on old buildings in the process of deterioration.

Special thanks go to all the staff at Waru Consulting, as well as staff from the Shire of Gnowangerup who were vital in organising the school groups and allowing the project to proceed in the first place.

For further information see the Digging Up Gnowangeraup’s History Facebook Page or email Tristan Bergin on [email protected]

Students listening attentively to a historical introduction to the site
Students listening attentively to a historical introduction to the site.

Example of the graffiti on site
Example of the graffiti on site

Students getting involved in the excavation process
Students getting involved in the excavation process

This blog first appeared in the ASHA Newsletter 2015, vol 45, no 1, pp 7-10.