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No secret handshake required

There are secrets behind the walls in Fremantle – clubs and societies off limits to most, offering camaraderie, history and, most importantly, cheap beer. A stroll down High Street will reveal the tradition of ‘social clubs’ is still alive in Fremantle.

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Many of these members-only social and leisure clubs have occupied the historic buildings of the West End since the early 1900s. While some have closed or relocated over the years, the Buffalo and Navy clubs continue to stand proud and serve their loyal members today.

They are keeping their traditions alive and sharing stories passed down by members and long standing staff, who see their club as one big extended family. Not a lot has changed over the years, but this is part of what makes these places so special.

Each year, the City of Fremantle hosts its annual Hidden Treasures live music series, which brings a new audience into the old clubs, along with some other historic venues along High Street.

Creative producer Bruna Chiovitti has been involved since the event’s inception 10 years ago and shares that there’s something special about the annual migration to these spaces that is Hidden Treasures.

“Usually, dedicated members line the bars of the Buffalo and Navy, but Hidden Treasures brings in a new audience who are excited to be in a venue that they may not often frequent. Hidden Treasures provides the impetus to see what lies inside these interesting buildings.”

Other than the Buffalo and Navy clubs, Hidden Treasures will also take place at contemporary art gallery PS Art Space, the Fremantle Tram and the National Hotel, which has many colourful stories of its own enduring four fires in its history.

Combining history and music is something that reflects the unique fabric of Fremantle and brings new life to these historic venues, offering some much-needed support.

BUFFALO CLUB

The Buffalo Club sits on High Street in a distinctive green building with a buffalo skull emblem looking out to the street. The Club’s duty manager, Vicki, who has been there for 33 years, tells me the building has existed long before they occupied it in the late 30s.  

It is believed to have some connection with the ‘Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes’, which originated in England in the early 1800s. To this day, the Fremantle ‘Buffs’ still have their meetings every second Sunday with members from all walks of life.

The Club has a distinctly retro feel, with dartboards, pool tables and a ‘lucky wheel’ used to draw the meat raffle on Fridays. You’ll also find old photos of founding members dotted around the place.

While not in use at the moment, upstairs is a hall with an ornate bar that was once owned by Persian royalty Aga Khan – we’re told it was once in one of his hotel rooms for private entertainment during the America’s Cup. Once all the sails and splendour were over, he sold it to the Buffalo Club.

There are plenty of quirks to discover at this unique venue– they even claim to have the coldest beer in town!

NAVY CLUB

The Navy Club has to be one of the best-kept secrets in Fremantle. Once you make it past an unassuming entrance and ‘the world’s slowest lift’ you’ll find yourself sipping on a beer taking in some of the best views in Fremantle.

Dating back to 1948, the Club was originally formed by a group of ex-serving Navy members, although it has never been a prerequisite to have any association with the Navy to become a member. The Club’s current location was previously a Chinese restaurant before they purchased the top two floors in ’93. 

As we sit up at the bar, the Club’s manager Kate tells me about the memorabilia they display.  “You’ll find that a lot of people have some naval history in their family, so our collection of memorabilia is of interest to a wide range of people.”

The Club hosts an ongoing program of events including open mic nights and also Voicebox poetry, which help to grow their member base. Kate says that Hidden Treasures provides a ‘boost’ and helps spread the word about this Freo gem.

THE NATIONAL

The National Hotel has a rich history filled with many colourful stories and interesting characters. It was built in its current form in 1903 but existed as The National Hotel for about 20 years prior in a two-storey building that was demolished.

Many will recognise the distinctive boxing kangaroo on the building’s side, which is said to be the only surviving artwork in Fremantle from the America’s Cup. The turret is also an iconic part of Fremantle, which has now been repurposed as a bar with sweeping views of the West End and Port.

There have been four fires in the building with the last one in the ‘70s destroying the whole top floor. Owner Karl Bullers has lovingly restored the building and recently introduced 12 boutique hotel rooms – a nod to the building’s original use as a residential hotel.

Entry to the Navy and Buffalo clubs is yours for the price of a social membership or a ticket to Hidden Treasures, which will take place every Thursday night in September. View the line up and purchase pre-sale tickets here.  

Word: Sarah Langley

Imagery: Sarah Langley