In the middle of Fremantle you can find the convict built prison that is now a World Heritage site. First built in 1855 for the ever increasing number of convicts being sent from the British Isles. First named the Convict Establishment, criminals were put to work in a limestone quarry, the materials from which went into the very walls.
I was honestly very excited to visit this prison, never having had the opportunity to visit a completely conserved 19th century prison before and the reviews for the tours were really positive. Scottie and I arrived just after they opened on a very very hot Sunday morning and quickly booked onto all three of the main prison tours.
The first of these tours, the Convict Prison tour, covers the beginnings of this huge place right from its inception up until 1886 when it came under local control. Between 1855 and 1868, just shy of 10,000 convicts were housed within the walls. Up to 1868 the majority of its residents had been imperial convicts until transportation stopped. The year prior to this the prison was renamed Fremantle Prison.
The next twenty years were slower, with fewer that 60 inmates being housed there; this lasted until the Perth Gaol closed which causing a new wave of convicts being sent to the prison. The majority of this tour was spend in the cell blocks, where they have several of the tiny rooms open for viewing. We also took a detour out to the solitary confinement in one of the yards.
The inside of several of the cells, with the central belonging to notorious escapee Moondyne Joe. After several successful attempts, he was housed in a jarrah sleeper lined cell, although he ultimately escaped again from the yard in 1867.
The next tour was the Behind Bars tour which took us up to the closure of the prison in 1991. We started by heading through the prison kitchens on the south side of the compound and out into the courtyards out the back. Prisoners would have be allocated a period of time in which they spent outside, however the yards offer very little shelter, creating an uncomfortable heat we definitely felt that day. The guide then took us through to the gallows, where 44 individuals met their end.
Sitting in the centre panel of glass is rumoured to be an imprint of Martha Rendell, the only woman to be hung at the prison.
As the prison population again increased, in 1907 New Division was built on the north side of the property. This allowed new prisoners to be held here for the first three months of their stay and also housed death row and the private cell of David Birnie. It was New Division that was used by the Australian Army to house military prisoners during WWII.
The inside of solitary confinement, with the only light in the cell coming from my camera.
West of New Division is the Women’s Block, although any women were transferred to Bandyup Prison in 1969. Throughout the 20th century, very little was done to update the prison and conditions remained dire and overcrowded. Riots became more frequent, with the largest occurring in 1988. The majority of main block was set on fire and several officers were taken hostage until the situation resolved the following day. While several recommendations had already been made to shut the prison down, it wasn’t until 1991 that the remaining convicts were moved to Casuarina Prison.
The gallows were first built in 1888, with the final execution being of Eric Edgar Cooke in 1964.
The final tour, True Crime, covered the lives and incarceration of several notable inmates, including Martha Rendell, the only woman executed here, Erik Edgar Cooke and David Birnie.
Some of the prisoners housed here were incredible artists, with the renovations following the prisons closure unveiling some beautiful artwork.
Inside death row in New Division, with the separate cell of David Birnie in the top left corner.
If you’re in Fremantle, the prison is definitely a must see. All of our tour guides were incredible knowledgeable and covered the vast history of the establishment neatly and succinctly.
Access is available to all through the majority of the prison. There are some sections in the higher levels which will be inaccessible to those with mobility issues.
Tickets are all timed, and can be bought online or at the front gate. They ring a little bell prior to each tour start.
There is a wonderful little cafe on site as well as toilets.
There is a small section of paid parking just outside the prison, with other paid parking dotted around the city.
Fremantle Prison (2020a) A Brief History. Available at: https://fremantleprison.com.au/history-heritage/history/a-brief-history/ (Accessed: 17 May 2020).
Fremantle Prison (2020b) Fremantle Prison Timeline. Available at: https://fremantleprison.com.au/history-heritage/history/fremantle-prison-timeline/ (Accessed: 17 May 2020).