Skip to content

Fremantle Prison: A Haunting Glimpse into Australia‘s Convict Past

Looming ominously on the outskirts of the lively port city of Fremantle in Western Australia, the limestone walls of Fremantle Prison stand as a stark reminder of the country‘s grim convict history. As the largest intact convict-built prison in Australia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fremantle Prison offers visitors a fascinating and haunting look at the lives of the men and women incarcerated here from 1852 to 1991.

Building a Prison with Convict Labor

The construction of Fremantle Prison began in 1852, shortly after the arrival of the first convicts from Britain to the Swan River Colony. Under the direction of Captain Edmund Henderson, the inaugural Comptroller-General of Convicts in Western Australia, the prisoners quarried limestone on site and slowly erected the main cell block, perimeter walls, and officers‘ quarters.

For seven grueling years, teams of convict laborers worked from dawn till dusk in the blazing Australian sun, building their own grim place of confinement. Tragedy struck in April 1855 when one of the prisoner work crews discovered the skeletal remains of a warrior killed in an indigenous battle years before. Nonetheless, the work continued, and by 1859, the main structure of Fremantle Prison was complete.

Life Behind Bars: Cramped Cells and Cruel Punishments

The living conditions inside Fremantle Prison were intentionally harsh and spartan to punish inmates and deter criminal behavior. Prisoners were confined to tiny cells measuring just 7 feet by 4 feet (2.1 m by 1.2 m), with nothing more than a straw mattress and a bucket toilet. They were let out only for work, meals, and a brief exercise period each day, all conducted in strict silence to prevent communication between inmates.

Year Number of Prisoners Number of Cells Average Cell Occupancy
1860 583 500 1.17
1880 379 500 0.76
1900 552 698 0.79
1920 263 698 0.38
1940 555 698 0.80
1960 795 698 1.14
1980 644 698 0.92

Punishments for misbehavior were similarly brutal. Floggings with a cat o‘ nine tails, time spent in irons or solitary confinement, and ration reductions were common disciplinary measures. Records show that in 1903 alone, 178 floggings were carried out, with some prisoners receiving up to 100 lashes in a single session.

The ultimate punishment was execution, and between 1888 and 1964, a total of 44 prisoners (43 men and 1 woman) met their end at the gallows of Fremantle Prison. Martha Rendell, the sole woman executed at the prison, was hanged in 1909 for the murder of her three stepchildren.

Working the Workshops and Gardens

Convict labor was a key component of Fremantle Prison‘s operations from the very beginning. In the early years, prisoners worked in various workshops within the prison walls, manufacturing furniture, clothing, shoes, and other goods for government use. The prison also had its own printing office, which produced official documents and government gazettes.

As the prison population grew, so too did the industries within its walls. By the early 1900s, Fremantle Prison boasted a full range of workshops, including a bakery, bookbindery, tailoring shop, shoe shop, carpenter‘s shop, and blacksmith‘s forge. Prisoners also worked in the extensive prison gardens, growing vegetables and tending livestock to feed the inmate population and reduce operating costs.

Industry Year Established Number of Prisoners Employed (1920)
Bakery 1854 12
Printing 1864 8
Tailoring 1865 26
Shoemaking 1870 18
Bookbinding 1875 6
Carpentry 1880 14
Blacksmithing 1885 10
Gardening 1858 30

According to a report by the Comptroller-General in 1920, the total value of goods and services produced by prisoner labor at Fremantle that year was £12,674 (equivalent to roughly $1.1 million AUD today). This income helped offset the cost of running the prison and provided valuable job training for inmates.

Escapes, Riots, and Infamous Inmates

Over its 139 years of operation, Fremantle Prison saw numerous escape attempts, riots, and disturbances within its walls. One of the earliest and most famous escapees was Joseph Bolitho Johns, better known as the bushranger Moondyne Joe. Sentenced to 10 years at Fremantle in 1865 for horse theft, Johns made several daring escapes over the next decade before being released in 1871.

The most serious disturbance in the prison‘s history occurred over five days in January 1988, when prisoners staged a dramatic riot to protest poor living conditions and the state government‘s plans to privatize the prison. The rioters lit fires, smashed windows, and caused extensive damage to the cell blocks and workshops, prompting a massive police and military response. The incident caused over $1.8 million AUD in damage and accelerated the push to close the outdated facility.

Other notorious criminals who spent time at Fremantle include serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, the "Night Caller" who terrorized Perth in the 1960s; Martha Rendell, the only woman executed at the prison; and John Button, who served 19 years for a murder he didn‘t commit before being exonerated in 2002.

From Colonial Jail to World Heritage Site

As attitudes toward crime and punishment evolved in the late 20th century, Fremantle Prison‘s aging facilities and harsh conditions came under increasing scrutiny. In 1983, the state government announced plans to decommission the prison and transfer its inmates to more modern facilities.

The prison finally closed on November 30, 1991, after the relocation of the last prisoners to the newly built Casuarina Prison. In recognition of its historical and architectural significance, Fremantle Prison was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 as part of the Australian Convict Sites group.

Today, the prison is one of Western Australia‘s top tourist attractions, drawing over 200,000 visitors each year. Guided tours led by knowledgeable docents take guests through the cell blocks, solitary confinement units, exercise yards, and gallows, bringing the site‘s fascinating and sometimes disturbing history to life.

Tour options range from a basic Prison Day Tour to more immersive experiences like the spooky Torchlight Tour and the underground Tunnels Tour. Visitors can also explore the Prison Gallery Museum, dine at the on-site Convict Café, or even spend the night in a converted cell through the YHA hostel located within the prison walls.

As one TripAdvisor reviewer raved, "The tour guides are amazing, and their stories really bring the place alive. It‘s incredible to think of all the history that happened within these walls. A must-see in Fremantle!"

Visiting Fremantle Prison Today

Getting to Fremantle Prison is easy thanks to its central location just a short walk from the Fremantle Train Station and the lively shops and restaurants of the Cappuccino Strip. The prison is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, with extended hours during peak periods.

Admission prices for tours start at $22 AUD for adults and $12 for children, with discounts available for families and concession card holders. It‘s recommended to book tours in advance, especially during busy holiday periods, to ensure a spot.

For history buffs, thrill seekers, or anyone curious about Australia‘s convict past, a visit to Fremantle Prison is an unforgettable experience. As you walk through the echoing halls and cramped cells, you can almost feel the presence of the thousands of men and women who lived and died within these walls over the centuries. It‘s a chilling yet fascinating reminder of how far our society has come, and how much we still have to learn from our past.