Sadly, the Glebe Society’s second president, ‘Peru’ Perumal died on 26 May 2020. Below is a copy of the speech given by Tony Strachan in support of Peru’s nomination for life membership at the Society’s AGM in 2003 (Bulletin 7/2003).
I am delighted to be here today and honoured to have been asked to present the citation for the award of honorary life membership to Peru Perumal. I suspect that everyone thought Peru had been made a life member years ago. Even so, I think it more than fitting that he should be brought to this exalted state in the company of our hero Tom Uren. Perhaps we can have another category of ‘exalted life member’. Peru was elected President of the Glebe Society in late 1972, following the esteemed Bernard Smith. He was re-elected, held the office for the usual two years and thus guided the Society at a most important time, probably the most important time in its history.
The Glebe Society has a lot to be proud of. Not only have its achievements in Glebe and Leichhardt been so noteworthy for the area, but these same achievements did have Sydney-wide and indeed Australia-wide implications. Of course, Glebe and its lively thinkers were not all alone in the early seventies. A big ‘something in the air’ had been building since the late sixties. What gave Glebe, or should I use the old name of The Glebe, its chance were the unique, substantial threats and dare I say, opportunities of the time. Peru must have been with the planning committee of the Glebe Society from the beginning; certainly, he was there when I came along in early 1971. I’m happy to say we have been firm friends ever since, so if I say anything nice, or even bad, about him, you shouldn’t believe the word of a hopelessly prejudiced chap like me. I’ve been looking up some old files – what a hotbed of lively discussion and ideas that time was! It was all very stimulating and exciting. Peru was involved in every issue – whether as a generator of ideas, or later as official spokesman for the Society. Lest, however, Mr Perumal’s head swell too much, I’m sure he would agree that what happened was very much a group effort.
There was so much to do; to have meetings about; to write serious papers about; to lobby about; to get other groups involved. The almost incredible thing is that everything we set out to achieve was subsequently achieved – even if getting the light rail did take 30 years! This is a remarkable historical achievement and I have heard Peru say often over the years that followed how proud he is to have been so intimately involved with the whole process. In retrospect the Glebe Society had some noteworthy people who were well organised and very tenacious. Everything intermeshed. Everything related to the question of how to make a better more involved society. On the ground we had these immediate issues:
- The DMR planned two expressways, which would have demolished around 1000 houses and destroyed the suburb. The Church of England wanted to totally demolish the houses on its estate and build high rise. They had commissioned a plan, which was published, to do this. When they were dissuaded from this, they simply could not grasp the arguments put to them, in meeting after meeting, that these old ‘slums’ had immense historical value AND that there were important social issues involved.
- Developers, operating under planning regulations from the dark ages, were beginning to ruin the fine streetscape with the infamous three storey walkups.
So, ever practical, together with the people of Balmain, we took over the Council. Peru was amongst the door knockers who managed to achieve the election of Eric Sandblom and David Young for Glebe. He was amongst those who sat on the Leichhardt Planning Committee which wrote the most remarkable new town plan of its time. And of course, the revolutionary idea of ‘open council’ is still making waves in local government.
Then came the big chance; a new Government was elected in Canberra! Prior to this, as mentioned, the Glebe Society had put various propositions to the Church to no avail. The position was becoming desperate as the church announced it would sell its estate piecemeal. The Society then wrote the policy adopted by Leichhardt Council. Peru, Eric and I were intimately involved in this. Various advisers to Tom Uren were kept informed. So, one week after the great Labor Party victory, the Leichhardt Planning Committee, sitting on the floor at 35 Arcadia Rd, wondering what on earth to do, made a simple decision – let’s ask the new Federal Government to buy the Glebe Estate! Nick Origlass, the redoubtable Nick, immediately rang Tom who said, surprise, surprise, YES! Thereupon began all the negotiations with the Church, within the Labor Party, and in due course, everything the Glebe Society had formulated in 1971 became a reality.
Peru, later as professional architect, formulated most of the practical aspects of the system used to assess houses for restoration and repair. Together we appeared on This Day Tonight, the television program of the times. They got the lights perfect for Peru, I looked like I had chronic anaemia. In the meantime, lots of other issues were being taken up. In November 1972 Peru wrote the foreword to the Glebe Society monograph no. 1, by David Potter, ‘An Alternative to Inner Urban Expressways’ (https://www.glebesociety.org.au/potter-1972/). A detailed submission was made to the National Trust incorporating a lot of Kate and Bernard Smith’s work, regarding the listing of buildings in Glebe. Later Peru and I, together with Bob Clark, worked on the listing of Glebe as a conservation area by the Urban Conservation Committee of the National Trust. There wasn’t much doubt about this going through – all three of us sat on the Trust Committee. This listing and the methodology served as the basis of the Leichhardt Town Plan later extended all over the municipality.
So, you see Peru was President at a time of great achievement and excitement. He could not have been that bad as the Society leader. I expressly say so, because there was someone who can only be described as evil, who had other views. After the success of the Campaign for Better Council, the two Glebe aldermen and Peru personally, were subject to a campaign of extraordinary vilification in The Glebe newspaper. This did later result in legal action. Today this extraordinary person, one Mr Campbell, may well have ended up in gaol. It may be amusing now to look back at the supposed antics of Captain Midnight Rides Again with Batman and Robin in his wake, but it was not amusing at the time. So, Peru for all his community service, had this absurd extra burden. It says a lot for his strength of character, that he survived, perhaps further strengthened in the process. I commend Peru Perumal to the meeting.
First convenor of the Society’s Planning Committee