One of the things that we got heaps of recommendations for was to visit the Fremantle Prison. It’s a historically rich gem that opened in 1855 and during its 136 years of operation, it housed over 350,000 convicts and prisoners.
The Gatehouse is where you enter and prior to the prison’s closure in 1991, it was all that the public knew of the maximum security prison. These days, visitors can wander in and out and check out the art gallery, gift shop, visitor centre and café, but the best way to see the prison is on one of the great tours they offer.
We did all the tours – each one telling a different story – and we learnt so much about the history and inhabitants of the prison, how it was built, the riots, the executions, and the daily life behind bars. It was an amazing experience and we highly recommend a visit to the Fremantle Prison.
The history of the Fremantle Prison is the most fascinating thing about the prison – how it was built, how the prisoners lived, were punished, and died, the riots they started and the spooky stories from the night officers.
It all started with a severe labour shortage within the Swan River Colony in the early 1800s. Because of the collapsing infrastructure, many were heading east to New South Wales and Tasmania for greener pastures and a better life and by 1840, only 6,000 settlers remained. In the meantime, the British Government was dealing with overflowing prisons so a deal was made to send some convicts over to Australia.
During the 1850s, thousands of convicts arrived for labour to build the roads, bridges, buildings and helped to establish the colony as a permanent settlement. They also built their own house – The Convict Establishment – and it is the largest convict-built structure in Western Australia. Carved out of a limestone hill, the establishment was completed in 7 years and in 1855, the first convicts moved in. A few decades later, an onsite reservoir was built by convicts using around 200,000 bricks. It holds 1.5 million litres and fed the prison and half of Fremantle before a diesel spill in 1988 seeped into the reservoir and contaminated the water.
Over time, the Convict Establishment needed to start letting colonial offenders into the prison, particularly when the Gold Rush of the 1890s saw an influx of crime. During World War II, the prison acted as a military detention centre.
The prison was finally decommissioned in 1991 and reopened in 1992 as a cultural, historical and educational attraction. The Fremantle Prison was added to the National Heritage List in 2005 and gained World Heritage status in 2010.
During the Doing Time Tour, they had set up a row of cells in one of the divisions to demonstrate the evolution of living conditions over 136 years. We strolled from room to room, amazed by the simplicity and lack of space. We definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be inmates in this prison.
From when the prison started in 1855, cells were 1.2 metres by 2.1 metres and included a hammock, stool, fold down table and a poo bucket. By the 1860s, poor plumbing led to drippy pipes and insect infestations and in 1870 a Royal Commission recommended that the size of the cells be increased, so they doubled the size of all the cells by removing a shared wall between two cells.
Oil and kerosene lamps were replaced by electricity in 1907, and in the 1950s, hammocks were replaced by simple, metal frame beds, which were then replaced with bunk beds in the 1960s. In the 1980s, power points were installed in cells so prisoners could plug in electrical goods like small TVs and radios. Poo buckets were never replaced by flushing toilets… ever.
Painting and drawing on cell walls was strictly forbidden up until the final year of the prison’s operation. There was one exception to this rule – Pegleg Pete, who was incarcerated for brutally violent crimes against women. He was allowed to have the artistic outlet of painting on his cell walls because it made him noticeably calmer and more compliable. Here are a few images of his cell, as well as another cell painted by another aboriginal inmate, and drawings from James Walsh’s cell.
Riots were a rare but furious occurrence and usually broke out over the poor conditions. In 1968, prisoners were sick of food covered in maggots and grease so they made demands for a prison menu and sweets. When the Superintendent refused, the prisoners rebelled, but the situation was diffused fairly quickly.
The last riot in the prison happened on a 42 degree day in 1988. Two prisoners were carrying buckets of boiling water for afternoon tea when they suddenly poured the water over a few prison guards. The guards were taken hostage and the prisoners started to burn things, which eventually set the jarrah wood roof on fire. The fire brigade was stalled because their trucks couldn’t fit through the gates of the prison, and after 18 hours and $1.8 million worth of damage, the prisoners backed down and released the hostages.
In 1848, Joseph Bolitho Johns was convicted for stealing bread, several cheeses and some bacon and was sentenced to 10 years. After a few years in UK prisons, he was shipped over to Western Australia and arrived in Fremantle in 1853. He served two years before being released for good behaviour and he went to live in the rugged bush in the Darling Range, in an area the Aboriginals called Moondyne.
In 1861, Joseph was found guilty of stealing a horse and got locked up in jail, only to escape with the stolen horse using the magistrates bridle and saddle to ride off into the night. He was caught the next day and sentenced to three years.
After a few more escapes and recaptures, Moondyne was transferred to Fremantle Prison where an inescapable cell was built especially for him – stone walls lined with jarrah sleepers secured with over 10 nails. Funnily enough, he managed to escape again while doing stonework in the yard and disappeared for two years before being discovered, drunk as a skunk sipping stolen wine in the cellar of Houghton Winery in the Swan Valley.
After a few more escape attempts, he was finally given a conditional pardon in 1873 and became a respectable stockman and carpenter and married in 1879. About 20 years later, he was admitted to the Fremantle Asylum for senile dementia and died in 1900.
Convicted in 1852 for forging a request for goods, he was sentenced to 15 years and transported to Australia, arriving in Fremantle in 1854. After 5 years in the convict establishment, he was conditionally pardoned, but reconvicted four months later for forging a one pound note and got another eight years.
During this time, he decorated his cell with the most intricate drawings, covering them up with porridge and whitewash so he wouldn’t get punished for marking his cell walls. His cell was on display and the drawings reminded us of those from Michelangelo and Leonardo – just beautiful!
There are four tours available – Doing Time, Great Escapes, Torchlight and Tunnels.
We loved the Doing Time Tour! It gave us great insight into how the inmates lived their lives inside the prison. From the initial processes of strip, shower and search which was jovially demonstrated on Dave (assume the position!), to living in the small cell, punishment and the final walk to the gallows, we were shown how the prisoners spent their days. If you prefer break out stories, the Great Escapes Tour reveals all the grand plans and opportunistic escapes of both convicts and prisoners. Learn about famous inmates like Moondyne Joe and the Fenian convicts, and marvel at the bravery and determination, or the foolishness and silly mistakes.
For a real spooky experience, come back after dark for the Torchlight Tour and walk around the prison grounds in the dark. Probably not the best choice if you’re afraid of the dark, ghosts, scary stories, cold shivers running down your neck or unexpected surprises that make you scream. The amount of times Juz jumped and grabbed onto Dave during this tour was just funny.
The Tunnels Tour is perfect for the adventurous types and goes 20 metres underground into 1000 metres worth of tunnels that were built by the prisoners. Juz was a bit squeamish about going underground so Dave did this tour on his own and he loved it! The tunnels are only accessible by boat and Dave got to share the lead boat with the tour guide, Karl. At one stage during the tour (you’ll know when you get to it!) Dave and Karl heard a kafuffle behind them and stopped to allow the rest of the group to catch up. A few seconds later, they appeared – one group ended up backwards while another group had lost their oar, which was later found in someone else’s boat. One of the great features of this tour is a plaque that commemorates convict labour. It is the only plaque that celebrates the hard work that the prisoners did, and it’s deep down in the tunnels. This tour is best suited for the physically fit who aren’t afraid of heights or enclosed spaces.
The Fremantle Prison is on The Terrace and is open 7 days a week from 10am and it is an absolute MUST for anyone visiting Fremantle.
The space is also available for functions and events such as receptions, Halloween parties, art exhibitions, murder mystery nights and Christmas Parties. It can also host weddings because the prison chapel is a bonafide, consecrated church – just in case you’re interested in starting your life sentence in at the Fremantle Prison.
Phone: 08 9336 9200
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