A visit to a prison may not be high on everyone’s travel bucket list, but when it is an old prison, full of interesting stories, beautiful architecture and colourful characters then that is enough to push prisons to the top of my ‘must do/must see’ list.
Welcome to the Fremantle Prison…
Fremantle Prison commands a prominent position on top of a small hill overlooking the very heart of Fremantle. I can imagine in the old days, when there were less trees and much smaller buildings, that the Prison positively loomed over people and provided a constant reminder of a place not to be, and additional encouragement to stay on the straight and narrow.
Construction of the Prison started in the 1850s with the arrival of 10 000 convicts. They were tasked with building a whole range of public infrastructure, including their own home. Workers, and people in general, were so scarce in the Swan River Colony that convicts were imported to provide a cheap source of labour. Western Australia (WA) was the last of our states to trade in convicts. Australia’s eastern states had seen the light a little earlier, realising that transportation of convicts was quite inhumane, but WA was desperate for labour, and was quite prepared to put aside any moral qualms just to get the job done.
Interestingly, one of the last convict groups to arrive in Fremantle were 65 Fenian rebels. Obviously England wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to get rid of troublemakers AND political opposition.
Constructed from coastal limestone quarried in the region, the convicts made good progress building their new home-away-from-home. Fortunately for them they found the limestone quite soft and easy to work with, which also meant it was quite easy to tunnel through and escape! Unfortunately for them, the limestone was so uniformly white and bright, that many convicts suffered from blindness created by the glare of the harsh Aussie sun reflecting off the stone.
The Fremantle Prison is an easy, short walk from the heart of the town. The front courtyard of the Prison is free for everyone to visit and there is a small interpretive centre, a gallery, coffee shop and gift shop open to the public.
For a more in-depth visit to the jail, consider joining one of the themed walking tours to access the inner prison and grounds. I joined the Convict Prison Tour ($22pp) and there were four other tours running on the hour or just after.
While the Prison has the usual array of flogging racks and solitary confinement cells, it is the human stories that really bring the place to life. In some cases the wardens and overseers were just as colourful as the inmates.
The Prison has the unenviable reputation as a hive of unrest and rioting. In 1988 the inmates protested the primitive living conditions by setting a wing of the prison on fire and capturing some guards. Considering the Prison was fully-operational until 1991 with a large number of prisoners still in residence, no flushing toilets or heating or cooling, it is little wonder that the prisoners were unhappy.
Amidst the hardship of the prison, there are patches of beauty. One cell in particular is covered in the most expert and delicate pencil drawings of angels and other religious iconography. The origins and author of these artworks are a mystery as they were only discovered when sections of the old plaster fell away to reveal the treasure underneath.
Operating continuously for 136 years, Fremantle Prison is the largest public building constructed by convicts in Western Australia. In 2010, it was the first heritage building in WA to be included in the World Heritage List.
While Fremantle, or Freo to the locals, is known as party-central with an abundance of watering holes, restaurants and cafes to support its hip vibe, the historic side of Freo makes it a deeply fascinating place to visit.
Just don’t step out of line while you are there. Perhaps there is a cell at the Fremantle Prison with your name on it!
What other prisons do you think are worth a visit?
What: Curious about the Fremantle Prison? Pick a tour to satisfy your own individual curiosity – Convict Prison, Behind Bars, True Crime, Tunnels, and Torchlight.
Where: The Prison is a short walk from the centre of Fremantle and an easy 20-minute walk from Fremantle Railway Station. Find the Prison at The Terrace, Fremantle WA 6160.
When: The Prison is open daily from 9am-5pm. Tours start at 10am. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Why: For a fascinating insight into our convict, colonial and criminal history.
How: Hop on the train from Perth to Fremantle ($4.90pp one way).
Who: Children would love the ghoulishness of some of the Prison stories. For people who do not like heights, you may not enjoy the walk inside the cell blocks and climbs up to the top floors.
Related Posts: For more convict and criminal history in Australia, you cannot mention those words without including the words ‘Port Arthur’. Let’s hop across the ditch to Tasmania.
Related Blogs: And here is someone taking their love of convict history to a whole new level.
Read About It: For a fabulous read about early colonial Australia and convict life, grab a copy of For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clark. Go straight to Book Depository.
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