Fremantle Prison

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Fremantle Prison
Fremantle prison main cellblock.JPG
Location Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia
Coordinates 32°3′18″S 115°45′13″E / 32.05500°S 115.75361°E / -32.05500; 115.75361Coordinates: 32°3′18″S 115°45′13″E / 32.05500°S 115.75361°E / -32.05500; 115.75361
Status Museum
Security class Maximum
Capacity 800
Opened 1855
Closed 8 November 1991
Managed by

Government of Western Australia

Type: Cultural
Criteria: iv, vi
Designated: 2010 (34th session)
Part of: Australian Convict Sites
Reference No. 1306
State Party: Australia
Region: Asia-Pacific

Fremantle Prison, sometimes referred to as Fremantle Gaol or Fremantle Jail, is a former Australian prison on The Terrace, Fremantle, in Western Australia. The six-hectare (15-acre) site includes the prison cellblocks, gatehouse, perimeter walls, cottages, tunnels, and prisoner art. It was initially known as the Convict Establishment or The Establishment, constructed as a prison for convicts, using convict labour, between 1851 and 1859. The prison was transferred to the colonial government in 1886 for use for locally-sentenced prisoners. Royal Commissions were held in 1898 and and 1911, and instigated some reform to the prison system, but significant changes did not begin until the 1960s. The government department in charge of the prison underwent several reorganisations in the 1970s and 1980s, but the culture of Fremantle Prison was resistant to change. Growing prisoner discontent culminated in a 1988 riot with guards taken hostage, and a fire which caused A$1.8 million worth of damage. The prison closed in 1991, replaced by the new maximum-security Casuarina Prison.

Since 1991, the prison has been conserved as a recognised heritage site on state, national, and World Heritage lists. It underwent a program of restoration works in 2005. New uses have been found for various sections of the prisons, including a New Business Enterprise Centre in the New Division cell block, and wedding ceremonies in the prison chapels. It has also become a significant tourist attraction, with guided tours since 1991. Whilst based in authenticity and heritage values, some details are concealed from tourists or de-emphasised. The process of obtaining World Heritage listing as part of the Australian Convict Sites submission focused historical interpretation and conservation efforts on the prison's convict era, at the expense of its more recent history, including Aboriginal prisoners held there. Fremantle Prison has, however, won or received commendation at tourism or heritage awards each year from 2006 to 2014.



Fremantle Prison buildings, with tunnels shown in blue. North is at the left side of this diagram.

Fremantle Prison was built on a land grant of about 36 acres (15 ha) from limestone quarried on-site. A 15-foot (4.6 m) tall boundary wall encloses the prison grounds, with a gatehouse in the centre of the western wall, facing The Terrace. Cottages, which housed prison workers and officials, are located outside the wall either side of the gatehouse. Inside the walls, the parade ground is located east of the gatehouse, in between it and the Main Cell Block[1] at the centre of the site,[2] which contains two chapels.[3] North of the main block is the New Division cells, and west of that, in the north-western corner, is the Women's Prison,[2] formerly the cookhouse, bakehouse and laundry.[4] The hospital was located in the north-eastern corner, while workshops were located in the south-eastern corner, as well as to the north of the gatehouse.[2] A system of underground tunnels run under the eastern edge of the site.

Houses on The Terrace[edit]

North of the gatehouse, located at 2, 4, and 6 The Terrace are cottages built in Victorian style.[5] Number 10 is a double-story house, initially built in 1853 for the Chaplain, but was taken over by the Superintendent in 1878 and was later part of the prison administration. Number 12, and adjoining single-story finished in 1854, was the home of the Gatekeeper.[6] Number 16 The Terrace is a double-story house that accommodated first the Prison Superintendent, and later on the Resident Magistrate. It remained in-use as housing for prison officers until the 1970s.[7] Number 18 is the southernmost house on The Terrace, and a mirror image of number 8, the northernmost of the initial buildings. The design of these houses featured two sitting rooms, three bedrooms, two dressing rooms, as well as a kitchen, water closet and shed.[8]


The gatehouse and associated entry complex was constructed between 1854 and 1855 using convict labour. It was designed by Royal Engineer Edmund Henderson, and constructed out of limestone.[9] The gatehouse has two towers either side of a narrow gate, reminiscent of those found in 13th century English castles or walled cities.[10] The gate was made from iron which had be scavenged from shipwrecks, while the clock at the top of the structure was imported from England.[11]:26 The clock was made in London in 1854, installed two years later, and as of 2004, was still sounding every hour.[12]:22

The gatehouse also has a smaller, second, inner gate, engraved with the names of three significant figures: H. Wray RE, who designed the gate; J. Manning, clerk of works, who supervised it's fabrication; and Joseph Nelson, the Royal Sappers solider that wrought the iron.[12]:57 The gatehouse has remained a significant feature and landmark since the closure of the prison, as the main entrance, and housing a café and office areas.[9] Restoration was carried out in 2005, preserving the original stone facade and removing non-original rendering.[10]

Main Cell Block[edit]

A re-creation of typical 1855 cell accommodation.

The Main Cell Block was designed to hold up to 1000 prisoners. It was constructed by convicts in the 1850s, and there have been few changes since that time. The central, four-storey high cell block is flanked on either end by large dormitory wards, called the Association Rooms. Here, as many as 80 men slept in hammocks, either as a reward for good behaviour or because they would soon receive their Ticket of Leave. In contrast, the cells were a confining space measuring just seven by four feet (2.1 by 1.2 m). While each cell initially had a basin connected to running water, the installation was before the advent of S-bends; the smells coming up the pipes lead to their removal by the 1860s. Following a Royal Commission, the cells were made larger by removing a dividing wall from between two cells. Electric lighting was installed in the 1920s, but there were never any toilets – buckets were for the duration of the prison's operation. Since the prison's closure, six cells have been restored to represent the varying living conditions at different times in the prison's history.[13] The main block also houses the gallows, solitary confinement, and two chapels.

The gallows were installed in 1888.[14] They were in a refractory block, constructed behind the main block.[11]:46 The gallows operated via a rope tied around a beam, over a trap door, on the upper level. Opening the trap door would cause the condemned prisoner fall, and thus be hung.[11]:54–56 The nearby solitary confinement consisted of eighteen cells, six of which were darkened.[14]

6th Commandment in the Anglican chapel
The Altar of the Anglican Church

At the centre of the Main Cell Block is the Anglican Chapel, whose windows were the only ones without bars,[13] while the Catholic Chapel was put into the upper northern Association Ward in 1861.[3] Behind the Anglican chapel altar, there is a painted representation of the Ten Commandments. The words to the sixth commandment use the unusual translation of "thou shalt do no murder" rather than "thou shalt not kill," the more common interpretation in the Church of England. Given that the gallows were still in regular use, it was felt that "thou shalt not kill" would have been hypocritical.[11]:27

New Division[edit]

Fremantle Prison's New Division was constructed between 1904 and 1907, as a response to overcrowding. It also allowed prison administrators to implement the "separate system", whereby prisoners were completely isolated for the first three months of their sentence. The division's exercise yard initially used a panopticon to facilitate this concept during the prisoners' hour of exercise each day. The system wasn't successful, and considered a dated prisoner management strategy, leading its removal within five years. The New Division was the first to have electricity, with underground wiring. During World War Two, the Australian Army appropriated the New Division, to keep prisoners separate from the main population, and for those condemned to death. In 1994 the building was retrofitted to cater for offices, small business premises, and meeting rooms.[15]

Women's Prison[edit]

The north-western complex was originally a service area with a cookhouse, bakehouse and laundry, built in the 1850s. A place for women prisoners was needed following the closure of Perth Gaol and the transfer of prisoners to Fremantle. The buildings were converted to a prison, and a wall built around them, creating Western Australia's first separate prison for women. Population and crime growth sed toaw th beingem extended in the 1890s and 1910s. The construction of Bandyup Women's Prison saw Fremantle's Women’s Prison close in 1970. The space was used for education and assessment until the main prison's closure in 1991.[4]


The hospital, built between 1857 and 1859, was a crucial component of Fremantle Prison. Public works during the convict era relied on convict labour, which could only be provided if the convicts were healthy. From 1886 to 1903, medical services were relocated to the main cell block, with the former building used to keep invalids and female prisoners. The hospital was refurbished, and reopened in 1904. It subsequently remained in continuous operation until the prison's closure in 1991.[16]


The prison's workshops provided activities and training for the prisoners. They also reduced the cost of maintenance, repairs, and construction by providing an in-house service. The original workshop was a blacksmith's shop, one of the first buildings to be constructed on the prison site. Later known as the East Workshops, other workshops included carpenter's, plumber's and painter's, a printing office, and from the 1850s, a metal shop.[17] The West Workshops were built at the start of the twentieth century, providing more work for prisoners through a paint shop, mat maker, shoe maker, book binder and tailor shop.[18] In 1993 the four northern workshops were adapted for use as TAFE art workshops.[19]


View inside the tunnels

In 1852, during construction of the buildings, shafts were sunk into the limestone bedrock to provide the prison with fresh water from an aquifer. In 1874, the Fremantle's "Water House Well", used to supply ships, suffered storm damage. This prompted a tank to be installed at the prison, behind the main cell block, to offer the town an alternative water supply. Prisoners worked a pump to fill the tank, which was connected to the jetties through gravity-fed pipes.[20]:2–3

Increasing demand led to the construction of a reservoir in 1876, from which water was drawn, still pumped by prisoners. From 1888 to 1894, additional wells were built, connected by a series of tunnels or horizontal drives[a] 20 metres (66 ft)[21] under the north-east of the prison. A steam pump was implemented, which drew fifteen thousand imperial gallons (68,000 L) per hour of water into the new East Reservoir. In 1896, a town reservoir was constructed on Swanbourne Street, fed from the prison by a triple expansion steam-driven pump which could take more than one million imperial gallons (4.5 ML) per day from the prison tunnels. Prisoners, relieved of manual pumping, were employed to supply wood and stoke boilers.[20]:2–3

The Metropolitan Sewerage & Water Supply authority took over control of the pumping station from 1901 until 1910, when both the prison and town were connected to Perth's metropolitan water supply.[20]:3 The tunnels were closed in 1910,[21] but the groundwater continued to be used for the prison's gardens. In 1989, an oil leaking from nearby tanks contaminated the water. The pollution was eventually cleared by 1996 through bioremediation.[20]:3

Since the prison's closure the water supply system including the tunnels, were the subject of heritage studies, including a 2004 inspection by the Western Australia Maritime Museum.[20]:3 The tunnels were re-opened in mid-2005, and within one year the main shaft had been refurbished, including "installation of audio-visual equipment, railings and lighting as well as the removal of debris from the access shaft and tunnels, the creation of new steel platforms and ladders and the addition of extra limestone rocks in the tunnels to help lift users out of the water."[22]



Within a few months of the founding of the Swan River Colony in June 1829 by free-settlers, there was a need for a prison to lock up criminals. There was little infrastructure for the settlers, let alone criminals, so the shipwrecked Marquis of Angelsea, just off the coast from South Beach, was used as a makeshift prison. This arrangement was quite arduous for the sheriff, who spent much of his time rowing a small boat, either to transfer prisoners or bring over their meals. It wasn't until September 1830 that work started on a new prison at the west end of High Street: the twelve-sided Round House on Arthur Head.[11]:13–14

While the Swan River Colony was established as a "free settlement",[23] by the 1840s the early reluctance to accept Britain's convicts was overcome. Cheap convict labour could overcome the significant shortage of manpower in the colony. However, the arrival of the first convict ship Scindian on 2 June 1850 was unexpected. While a sailing ship had been sent ahead to inform of the pending arrival of seventy-five convicts, it had been blown off course. The Round House was full to capacity, almost overflowing, so the convicts had to be left on the ship. There was also no prepared accommodation for the warders, pensioner guards, Captain Edward Walcott Henderson, Comptroller-General of Convicts, or his clerk, James Manning. Rents for accommodation in Fremantle quickly rose due to the sudden increase in demand, leaving Henderson paying more for his basic lodgings in Fremantle than for his house in London.[11]:18–20 Eventually Henderson leased two properties in Essex Street for £250 per year, at the site of the modern-day Esplanade Hotel. He used his convicts to convert the buildings into a temporary prison. Meanwhile, Henderson was looking for a site to build a permanent convict establishment. Whilst he favoured Mount Eliza due to its height, which gave it pleasing vistas and supposedly healthier air, Governor Charles Fitzgerald rejected that proposal. Henderson ultimately settled on the current site on a hill overlooking Fremantle.[11]:21–22


Main Cell Block internal arrangement
1859 watercolour of the Main Cell Block, by Henry Wray (1824-1900)

Henderson's initial design for Fremantle Prison was based on the Pentonville Prison in Britain. Pentoville, designed by Joshua Jebb, used the "separate system" that kept prisoners in nearly complete isolation, to encourage reflection on their crimes.[11]:23–24 Jebb reviewed Henderson's plans in 1851, and to reduce the cost, he changed the two diagonal cell blocks that mimicked Pentonville into a four-storey linear structure, which would be the longest, tallest prison cell block in the southern hemisphere.[24]:2 Construction began soon afterwards, supervised by Henderson, Manning, and Royal Engineer lieutenant Henry Wray, who had arrived with another convict ship. Within eighteen months of the Scindian 's arrival, the convict population had grown to almost 1000. In 1855 convicts began to be moved into The Establishment, as the prison was then known as, but the project would not be completed until 1859.[11]:22

Works rapidly progressed following the arrival of Wray in 1851 with the Royal Engineers, known as the sappers. They trained convicts to work with limestone, which was quarried on-site.[24]:4 Soft stone was used to fill in swamps around Fremantle, and when the better quality stone ran out, quarries were opened at nearby sites such as Arthur Head.[24]:7 The first part to be constructed was a ramp connecting the town to the prison site. The graded and limestone-capped slope would later become Fairbairn Street.[24]:2 Once completed, the priority was the construction of accommodation for Henderson and the prison warders to relieve the expense of paying for private lodging. Cottages were built along Henderson Street in 1851, and Henderson's residence, a sizable building known as The Knowle, was completed in 1851 some distance away from the other buildings, in the modern-day grounds of Fremantle Hospital. Houses for the senior staff were also constructed in the 1850s. They were situated at the front of the prison site, along the road then known as The Esplande (modern day The Terrace).[24]:3

Workshops, later to be known as the East Workshops, were built to rehabiliate prisoners, and aid in site construction. A blacksmiths shop was constructed in 1852, and a carpenters’ shop was added in 1858. The prison was designed to have other services onsite, including a kitchen, with four boilers, scullery, pantry, cool room and stores; a bakehouse and ovens, with separate stores for flour and bread; as well as a washhouse, laundry and drying room. The building holding these services was completed in 1855. A separate building, a hospital providing medical services, was also planned, but was one of the last to be constructed. The foundations were laid in 1857, but the plans were changed the next year to provide additional space to isolate contagious or dangerous patients. The hospital was finished in 1859.[24]:6

The prison walls were constructed beginning in 1853, and the site for the Main Cell Block was excavated and levelled. Once the walls were completed in 1855, the only opening was in the western side. This gap was where the gatehouse and associated entry complex was built in 1854 and 1855. The main gate was in place in 1855, while the London-made clock for the top of the structure was installed a year later. In 1856, a mini tornado toppled most of the northern boundary wall, and extensive work was undertaken to rebuild and widen the walls.[24]:4–5

The Main Cell Block was built in two stages. Construction of the southern half of the block began in 1853 and most of the masonry works were finished within a year. The section was finished in 1855, including the association wards, a circular jarrah stairwell, and 18 solitary confinement cells in the Refractory Block. However, iron fittings for the guardrails, which had been ordered from England three years previously, still had not arrived. Anxious for the new cell block to start being used, Henderson ordered that doors and rails be locally, with iron salvaged from convict transport ships. The obvious transition between the local and imported railing now marks the transition between the southern and northern wings. Prisoners were transferred from the temporary South Beach prison on 1 June 1855.[24]:7

Construction of the northern wing followed, and by the start of 1857 the foundations were laid, and 40% of the masonry works were done. However, the Crimean War saw Royal Engineers recalled. Prisoners were left to finish the building, under the direction of Wray as Henderson was on leave in England. Much of the work was completed that year, including the remaining masonry, basement, slating the roof, and paving the corridor. While Henderson had wanted single cells, Wray conceded to the Governor's lobying for additional capacity. He adjusted the design to include some double-width cells housing three prisoners, and triple-width cells holding five prisoners, allowing an additional 40 prisoners to be accommodated. Another measure that increased capacity was the lengthening of the northern wing by 6 feet (1.8 m). The justification was to mirror the southern wing, which had also been constructed 6 feet (1.8 m) longer than planned, due to inaccurate surveying. However, this also caused the project to run over budget. Stairs, guard railings, and doors were installed in 1858, and the prison was completed by the end of 1859, with Henderson back from leave and back in charge.[24]:8

Transition to local control[edit]

During Western Australia's convict era, the prison was known as the Convict Establishment, and was used for convicts transported from Britain. Longer term local prisoners were also held there from 1858, at a cost to the colonial government, as the then-newly constructed Perth Gaol had been handed over British imperial government for use as a convict station for short term prisoners.[25]:20 Local prisoners were also been kept in the Round House, or on Rottnest Island. In 1876 Perth Gaol was transferred back to local control.[25]:21

In 1868, penal transportation ceased in Western Australia, and numbers of transported convicts gradually declined, down to 83 in the mid-1880s.[11]:45–46 Due to the great expense of sending these convicts back to Britain, the authorities there negotiated with the colonial government to transfer control of the convicts, as well as the prison prison complex – demolition was considered too expensive.[11]:45–46 Early negotiations had broken down, but were restarted in August 1883. Governor Broome set four conditions in February 1884:[25]:24–25

  • (a) Payment at the rate of £45 per annum for each individual maintained by the Colony on account of the Imperial authorities. Lunatics at £42, as agreed.
  • (b) Transfer to the Colony, free of charge, of all Imperial property, including stores.
  • (c) All building to be placed in good condition before being handed over; e.g. the prison roof now requires extensive repairs.
  • (d) All Imperial Officers to be at once pensioned, and their pensions paid to them irrespective of their re-employment by the Local Government

The last two conditions were the most controversial, though after one and a half years, a compromise was reached: Only buildings actually in use would be repaired, and pensions would be paid, but only when the officers actually retired.[b][25]:25–26 The British authorities authorised minimal repairs, to be made as cheaply as possible.[11]:45–46 The transfer was intended to be completed by the end of 1885, but was not finalised until 31 March 1886.[25]:26

Once the prison came under the control of the colonial government, it was renamed Fremantle Prison.[11] All prisoners in Perth Gaol were transferred to Fremantle, and from 1887 female prisoners were also imprisoned there. The women were initially held in the hospital building, and then in their own walled-off section of the prison, with cells in the kitchen and wash house buildings. The women were tasked with washing and mending prisoners' clothing, which was considered hard work.[11]:45–46

1890s Royal Commission[edit]

The Western Australian gold rushes of the 1890s resulted in strong economic growth, and a massive increase in population: doubling from almost 50,000 in 1891 to more than 100,000 by 1895, and expanding to 184,000 by 1901.[26] The influx included desperate, dishonest people, from elsewhere in Australia and overseas, and Fremantle Prison was soon overcrowded.[11]:46

The 1890s also saw a growing public unease with the treatment of prisoners. Newspaper articles on mistreatment on prisoners persisted through the late 1890s, and reform campaigners – most notably former Queensland prisoner Frederick Vosper – called for a Royal Commission.[11]:46-49 In September 1898 such an inquiry was established by the Governor of Western Australia to investigate the colony's penal system.[25]:150 The commission heard evidence from almost 240 witnesses,[25]:159 including a range of prisoners.[11]:46-49 Three reports were made between December 1898 and June 1899. The first of these dealt with the most recognisable and prominent issues regarding classification, sentencing, prison punishments and offences, diet, and "the special problems of remand, youthful and lunatic prisoners".[25]:159–160 The second report examined cases where "the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of mercy"[25]:160 might be appropriate, while the final, detailed report covered the remaining evidence presented to the commission. In particular, they considered the philosophy of the prison system – the causes of crime, as well as the types of punishments and their justifications – and in light of this, the practicality of various reform proposals.[25]:160

The royal commission's third report also dealt with prison administration.[25]:160 It found that the prison was operating under outdated legislation, with little regulation or written guidance, and that there was incertitude in administration – the positions of Sheriff and Inspector of Prisons were held by one man, James Roe, who lived in Perth, with prison Superintendent William George taking on much of the management responsibility.[27]:47

Three Division for "long sentenced and habitual prisoners"[28]:12

Within a year of the inquiry, almost 100 cells had been enlarged by knocking down the inner wall between two cells, and a classification system was introduced. Internal walls were constructed in the main block, creating four separate divisions:[28]:12–13

  • One Division, for "debtors, trials and remands, and juveniles"[28]:12 (as young as 13 years old,[citation needed] and up to 25 years old[29])
  • Two Division, for "short sentenced first offenders, petty thieves, drunkards, and vagrants"[28]:12
  • Three Division, for "long sentenced and habitual prisoners"[28]:12
  • Four Division, for reformatory prisoners[29] – "cooks, bakers, cleaners, and orderlies"[28]:12

Following the urgings of the prison Superintendent George and various official enquiries, new workshops were built to provide increased useful employment for prisoners. The western workshops, located between the entry complex and the Female Division, were built from 1900-1901 of squared limestone rubble with openings dressed in brick. An open saw-tooth roof with southern skylights covered the five spaces designed for the five traditional workshops: tailors, bookbinders, shoemakers, mat makers and painters. The two northern shops were later amalgamated by removing the dividing wall.[19]

Further action wasn't taken until 1902, when new regulations for prison officers were published in the Government Gazette. A new Prison Act was passed in 1903, replacing sixteen previous acts. It provided for classification of prisoners, provision of adequate work for prisoners, and the creation of the position of Comptroller General of Prisons, to assume the functions the Sherrif had been undertaken as Inspector of Prisons. While in theory the passing of the Act should have been a landmark moment in prison reform, this did not eventuate. The legislation left much of the changes to executive regulation, at the discretion of the Governor, and was described by the media as a feeble document. Other problems included Fremantle Prison's inscrutability for classification, due to it's design, and that the Sherrif was allowed to hold the office of Comptroller General of Prisons, effectively making it no more than a change in name.[27]:48–51

New Division, completed in 1907 and occupied in 1908, resulted from the 1899 Commissioners' report recommending a modified version of the separate system.[19] The new division, built by contractors with stone from quarries at Rottnest Island,[11]:50 was similar in design to Henderson's 1850s structure,[19] but was constructed in an L-shape, was only three stories tall, and had electric lighting, with cables laid underground for safety as well as aesthetics.[11]:50 It also differed in its use from the main cell block. Unlike the earlier building, prisoners remained continuously in their somewhat enlarged cells except when exercised in separate yards watched by a warder in a central tower. The 30 unit radial, panopticon-style[30] exercise yard became known as the "cage". The concept of the separate system was already over sixty years old when introduced to Fremantle.[19]

1911 Royal Commission[edit]

By 1908 there were calls for another Royal Commission into Western Australia's penal system. Truth newspaper repeatedly criticised Fremantle Prison between 1903 and 1910, with much of the blame placed on the Comptroller General and Superintendent. Allegations included that new offenders still weren't separated from older ones, that regulations were systemically broken, and that prisoners weren't paid for the work they did.[27]:52–53

In 1911 another Royal Commission investigation into Fremantle Prison recommended closing the facility. It's report was ignored by the state government, which was more concerned with building infrastructure such as roads and schools, rather than the plight of its prisoners.[31]:4 However, there was a rapid change in prison policy, with the appointment of a superintendent, Hugh Hann, who had recent English and colonial experience, and the election of a labour government with members interested in penal reform. One immediate result was the dismantling of the separate system at Fremantle Prison and the demolition of the separate exercise yards in 1912. It shares with Katingal Special Security Unit in New South Wales the record for brevity of use of a permanent Australian penal structure.[19]

Military gaol[edit]

Fremantle Prison was partially used as a military gaol during both world wars.[19] During World War II, the Australian Army took over the prison and used it as a military prison[31]:4 from 1940 until 1946.[32] It became an internment centre, and was also used for the detention of military personnel.[19] The takeover necessitated the commissioning of Barton's Mill Prison in 1942.[31]:4 After the war Fremantle Prison returned to civilian use and a variety of ad hoc structures were erected on and below the knoll terraces.[19]


Prison outstations were established as part of the reforms in the 20th century,[33]:26 and to reduce the overcrowding at Fremantle.[31]:4 Pardelup Prison Farm opened in 1927, near Mount Barker,[31]:4 while Barton's Mill, though planned to be a temporary measure, remained open as a prison after World War II.[31]:4 Pardelup operated as a working farm, with large-scale dairy, cattle and pig raising, and crops, and Barton' Mill prisoners cut timber to supply hospitals, houses, and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme's pumping station at Mundaring.[33]:35 In both cases, the only aspects resembling a prison were the presence of guards, and the compulsion to remain there – enforced by the remoteness of the facilities and the integrity of prisoners chosen to be transferred there. Escapees were generally punished with extended sentences at the harsher Fremantle Prison.[33]:26

Significant reform to Western Australia's prison system – new prisons, legislation, and administration – did not begin until the 1960s, lagging behind those which occurred in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in Australia after World War II.[27]:56 Seven new prisons were opened between 1960 to 1971, including a maximum-security facility at Albany, following an abrupt increase in the prisoner population in the mid- to late-1950s.[27]:57 In 1970, female prisoners and staff were moved from Fremantle to the new Bandyup Women's Prison, built at Bandyup on the outskirts of Perth. The female division, which had been the only women's prison in Western Australia, was subsequently used for male prisoners.[19] New legislation regarding probation, parole, and convicted drunkards was also introduced, which provided alternatives to imprisonment. With these new arrangements, and more variety in prisons and prison types, a classification board was set up in 1963 to assess prisoners.[27]:57

The appointment of Colin Campbell as Comptroller General in 1966 fostered substantial changes within Fremantle Prison itself. A university graduate with a major in psychology, he was the first senior appointment from outside the Western Australian prison system in almost half a century. He viewed prison as "a place for rehabilitation and re-education ... where people can retain their identity and, if necessary, create a new identity".[27]:58 One of his first changes was to make himself chairman of the classification committee, and clear it's backlog of prisoners awaiting assessment through more frequent committee meetings. Campbell also established an officer training school, as well as an assessment centre, where new prisoners worked, supervised by specially trained officers who gave reports to the classification committee.[27]:58–59 Following international trends, Campbell introduced work release and community service programs, training programs for both prisoners and officers, and social workers and welfare officers to assist prisoners and their families during and after their imprisonment.[27]:59–61

The 1970s and 1980s saw numerous changes at a departmental level, and adjustments in the roles and responsibilities of the state's prison system. In 1971, within the midst of Campbell's reforms, the Prisons Department was renamed the Department of Corrections,[34] and restructured into three divisions: Treatment and Training Branch, Correctional Psychiatric Branch, and Establishments Branch. The position of Comptroller General was replaced with Director of the Department.[27]:61 William Kidston succeeded Campbell following his death in 1977. Amidst growing prisoner numbers, Kidston oversaw a shift in policy from "paternalistic rehabilitation"[27]:62 of prisoners to merely providing opportunities for rehabilitation. The department was reorganised, with the Treatment and Training Branch becoming the Support Services Branch, with other branches for administration, institutions, and prison industries.[27]:61–62

A new Prisons Act was passed in 1981, which updated the 1903 Act and it's eleven amendments with modern philosophies and practices – codifying Departmental orders, instructions, and policy documents.[27]:63 The Act was, however, slanted towards prisoner management and safety, as the government and opposition were mindful of public opinion, and the perception of lax security at Fremantle. The result was legislation criticised by the Criminal Lawyers Association, academics, and newspapers, including for minimal welfare provisions that did little to ensure prisoner welfare. The department was at the same time renamed the Prisons Department once more, to emphasise imprisonment as its primary responsibility.[27]:65–67

Ian Hill became Director of the Prisons Department in 1983, and reorganised the department several times, striving for greater "economy, efficiency, and effectiveness".[27]:67 This included a merge with the Office of Probation and Parole in 1986, resulting in the Department of Corrective Services. By 1987, the department's welfare division was disbanded, with prison officers made responsible for prisoner welfare. Whilst the changes of the 1980s were effective throughout most of Western Australia's prison system, the culture of Fremantle Prison was resistant to change.[27]:68–9 Growing prisoner discontent eventually culminated in the 1988 prison riot.[27]:68

Latter Royal Commissions[edit]

In 1972 a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate mistreatment of and discrimination against Aboriginal Prisoners.[27]:18

In 1988, a Royal Commission investigated the riot that occurred at the start of the year.[27]:18


The state government made the decision to decommission Fremantle Prison in 1983,[35]:5 but it remained in operation until 30 November 1991.[19] Prisoners were moved to a new metropolitan maximum security prison at Casuarina and the prison was transferred to the Building Management Authority.[c] There were divergent views in the community over the site's future: Some wanted it demolished and redeveloped, or turned into gardens with a small monument; others wanted the historic site to be preserved, but were opposed to turning the misery of prisoners into entertainment for tourists. The ultimate decision was for conservation of the prison, but allowing for the buildings to be adapted for reuse by the community.[35]:5–6

The Fremantle Prison Trust was established in 1992 to advise the Minister on the management of the site.[19] Various new uses were been found for different parts of the prison, including wedding services in the chapels,[3] a Coastal Business Centre in New Division,[15] and the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre in the hospital;[12]:89 the prison also became a tourist attraction. A private company organised the tourist operation for ten years under contract, until the end of 2001; subsequently, the state government took control.[19]


Fremantle Prison was listed in the Western Australian Register of Historic Places as an interim entry on 10 January 1992 and entered as a permanent entry on 30 June 1995.[19] Described as the best preserved convict-built prison in the country, it became the first building in Western Australia to be listed on the Australian National Heritage List, in 2005. The Australian Federal Heritage Minister, Senator Ian Campbell, stated that it would be included in a nomination of eleven convict areas to become World Heritage Sites.[37] Five years later, the prison was one of eleven former convict sites in Australia inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010 as the Australian Convict Sites.[38]

The process of obtaining World Heritage listing focused historical interpretation and conservation efforts on the prison's convict era, at the expense of its more recent history. These included its use as an internment centre during World War II, and the imprisonment of Aboriginal prisoners. The prioritisation of convict heritage was evident from the first conservation plans from before the the prison closed. This aspect became more and more important through later plans by James Kerr, authored in 1992 and reviewed in 1998, and subsequently in the state government's masterplan,[39] released in December 2000.[40] The convict-era focus is reflected in the branding of the tourist experience as "Fremantle Prison – the Convict Establishment", and through restorations which, while necessary to prevent damage and deterioration, strip away the site's recent history.[39]


The newly restored prison gatehouse in 2005

Various parts of Fremantle Prison have had restoration works undertaken since the 1990s, to halt the deterioration of the buildings and preserve them for the future. A total of $800,000 was spent between 1996/97 and 1998/99[41] on works which included restoring the facade of the Anglican chapel.[42] In 2005, work was undertaken on the restoration of the prison gatehouse area. Non-original rendering was removed and the original stonework was revealed.[10] Work was also completed on the tunnels during 2005/06,[22] and the main cell block was restored with an eighteen month, $1.9 million[43] project in 2006 and 2007.[44] The gallows room was restored in 2013 to conditions at the time last execution in 1964.[45]

Prison operation[edit]


Western Australia's first Comptroller General of Convicts, Edmund Henderson, arrived in the colony with the first convicts on board the Scindian in June 1850. He was described as "a kindly and just man, moderate and understanding, opposed to the harsher forms of discipline."[46]:56 Respected by both colonists and convicts, Henderson administered Western Australia's convict establishment for thirteen years; Battye writes that "its success was no doubt due to his wisdom and tact."[47]

Thomas Hill Dixon held the position of Superintendent of Convicts for nine years, running Fremantle Prison and the convict system. Together with the Comptroller General Edmund Henderson, he created a reforming, humane convict system for Western Australia. He instituted a system of training convicts in a trade, and he adapted Western Australia's legal situation to the marks system used by Alexander Maconochie in the Norfolk Island penal system. He was opposed to flogging and favoured the introduction of female convicts into Western Australia.

After Henderson's resignation in 1863, William Newland was appointed his successor. Newland's arrival closely followed the arrival of Governor John Hampton. Hampton had previously been Comptroller General of Convicts in Van Diemen's Land, and assumed far more direct control of Western Australia's convict establishment than had his predecessors. Newland and Hampton constantly disagreed with each other, and Hampton complained to the Secretary of State for the Colonies that Newland was incompetent. Newland was eventually removed in 1866.

While awaiting a successor to the position, Governor Hampton appointed his son, George Hampton, to act in the position. George Hampton had no particular qualifications for the position, and already held a number of salaried posts. This "unusually blatant act of nepotism"[48]:302 was extremely unpopular within the colony, both Hamptons thereafter being figures of public hostility and ridicule. Governor Hampton lobbied for his son to be confirmed in the position, but was unsuccessful.

Under George Hampton, convict discipline became extremely strict. Solitary confinement was re-introduced, and convicts were flogged for serious offences. Escape attempts increased markedly, and there were even attempts by convicts to kill George Hampton.

Henry Wakeford was appointed Comptroller General of Convicts in 1867, and the following year Governor Hampton's term ended. Wakeford reduced the size of the chain gangs and the number of floggings, and the system returned to what it had been under Henderson.

Transportation to Western Australia ceased in 1868. In the following years, the number of convicts slowly diminished, and the convict establishment was gradually wound up. In 1872 the office of Comptroller General of Convicts was abolished, and Wakeford was transferred to the Colonial Office. A temporary position of Acting Comptroller General was then created.


Prison life at Fremantle was highly regulated with a strict routine. Each day was very similar, without any changes to mark the passing of time. In the Convict Establishment of 1855, the day began with the wakeup bell at 4:30 am, and the officers and prisoners assembled in the parade ground at 5:25 am. Prisoners were sent to work, before and after breakfast (in their cells), prior to assembling for muster at midday, to check if anyone was missing. This was followed by dinner in the exercise yard or the work site, and more work throughout the afternoon, until supper at 6:00 pm in the cells. Night officers took over at 7:15 pm.[49] The transfer of the Convict Establishment to the colonially-run Fremantle Prison saw little change, and no new regulations.[25]:29

A similar routine is described in the 1930s:

The following routine is observed by those who go to Fremantle jail:— 6.15 am., warning bell; prisoners rise and fold beds. 6.30. officers muster and unlock cells- 7.0. [sic] breakfast, which lasts 15 minutes, after which men assemble in their respective exercise yards. 7.55, parade- for work. 11.45, parade for dinner, after which. men are in yard until 1 p.m., parade for work; 4.45 parade for tea. 5.30. muster; all cells, etc. locked for the night. 7.55. warning bell;, prisoners to bed. 8.0. [sic] lights out except as provided for in reformatory regulations.

—Eddie Dunstan, The Daily News reporter[29]

Not much had changed by the 1960s: The day began with a waking bell at 6:45 am. After a prisoner count, they move into the yard, until 7:30, when they collect their breakfasts and head back to their cells. The 8:00 bell signals a parade, and then the start of work, which lasted until 11:15. They ate a meal, locked in their cells until 12:20 pm, followed by some time in the yards. At 1:00 there was another parade, and another session of work lasting to 4:15. Another meal was collected, and prisoners were locked away in their cells overnight. The lights stay on until 9:30 pm. The weekend routine featured no work, and included a film played for the prisoners.[25]:14–15

Convict labour[edit]

Once construction of the prison's wings, perimeter walls and associated buildings was complete, convicts were often used in chain gangs for other public works in the Fremantle and surrounding Perth area, for example, Perth Town Hall and Fremantle Asylum.


Prisoner punishments included solitary confinement and lashings in the exercise yard. Staff disliked giving the lashings – in 1851, out of a total of 400 lashings ordered, 150 were remitted as the superintendent could not find anyone to undertake the task. The role was so disliked that inducements were offered, including extra pay or improved lodgings.[12]:24 The last flogging occurred in 1943.[12]:52


Further information: Capital punishment in Australia

Western Australia's first legal execution occurred in 1844, outside the Roundhouse. Fifteen year old John Gavin had been found guilty of murder, despite the circumstantial evidence and an absence of motive.[11]:14 Without any permanent gallows, later executions were held with portable gibbets, including near the Perth side of The Causeway. Gallows were installed in the new Perth Jail in 1856, in full view from the centre of Perth, unless temporary panels were erected.[11]:17–18 All further executions were performed there until its closure.[11]:46

The gallows, last used in 1964

As soon as Fremantle Prison came under local control in 1886, a refractory block with gallows was planned.[11]:46 It was completed in 1888,[14] and first used in 1889 to execute a convicted murder, Jimmy Long, a Maylayan.[11]:46 The gallows room was then the only legal place of execution in Western Australia between 1888 and 1984,[e][14] with at least 43 men[f] and one woman hanged in this period. Martha Rendell was the only woman to be hanged at the prison, in 1909, while the last person to be hanged was serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, executed in 1964.[11]:63

From the day of sentencing to death, prisoners were kept in a concrete-floored cell in New Division. They were vigilantly observed to prevent them escaping their sentence through suicide. With hangings taking place on Monday mornings, 8:00 am, condemned prisoners were woken three hours earlier, and provided with a last meal, shower, and clean clothes. Afterwards, handcuffed, they were moved to a holding or "condemned cell" nearby the gallows, and allowed a couple of sips of brandy to calm their nerves. Shortly before 8:00 am, they were hooded, led up to execution chamber, which could hold as many as eleven witnesses, stood over the trap door, had a noose put around their neck, and hung by falling through the opening trap door. After medical examination, the deceased was removed for burial.[11]:54–56


There were a multitude of attempted escapes. Prominent escapees included Moondyne Joe in 1867, Irish Fenian John Boyle O'Reilly in 1869 and six more Fenians in 1876, and Brenden Abbott in 1989.[14]

Moondyne Joe[edit]

Main article: Moondyne Joe
Cell with walls and floor covered in Jarrah, held with an abundance of nails
Moondyne Joe's "escape-proof" cell

Joseph Bolitho Johns, better known as Moondyne Joe, was Western Australia's best known bushranger. Born into poor and relatively difficult circumstances, in Cornwall, England, c. 1826, he became something of a petty criminal and robber with a strong sense of self-determination. In January 1865, while employed on a farm in Kelmscott, Johns was accused of killing a steer, found guilty, and sentenced to ten years' penal servitude.[51] Johns was to protest his innocence of this crime for the rest of his life. After two successful escapes, Moondyne Joe formulated a plan to escape the colony by travelling overland to South Australia, but was captured on 29 September 1865 near the present-day site of the town of Westonia, about 300 kilometres north east of Perth.[52]

As punishment for escaping and for the robberies committed while on the run, Moondyne Joe received five years hard labour on top of his remaining sentence. Extraordinary measures were taken to ensure that Johns did not escape again. He was transferred to Fremantle Prison where a special "escape-proof" cell was made for him built from stone, lined with jarrah sleepers and over 1000 nails. He was set to work breaking stone, but rather than permit him to leave the prison, the stone was brought in and dumped in a corner of the prison yard, where Johns worked under the constant supervision of a warder.[52]

Governor John Hampton was so confident of the arrangements, he was heard to say to Johns: "If you get out again, I'll forgive you". However, the rock broken by Joe was not removed regularly, and eventually a pile grew up until it obscured the guard's view of Joe below the waist. Partially hidden behind the pile of rocks, he occasionally swung his sledgehammer at the limestone wall of the prison. On 7 March 1867, Moondyne Joe escaped through a hole he had made in the prison wall. Despite an extensive manhunt, no sign of him was found, and he would not be recaptured for nearly two years.[52]

A few days before the second anniversary of his escape, Moondyne Joe was captured trying to steal some wine from the cellars at Houghton Winery. He was returned to prison, and on 22 March 1869 was sentenced to an additional four years in irons. He made at least one more attempt to escape, but was unsuccessful. Eventually, Governor Frederick Weld heard of his predecessor Hampton's promise, and decided that further punishment would be unfair. Moondyne Joe was given a ticket of leave in April 1871.[52]

The Fenians[edit]

Main article: Catalpa rescue
Fenians escape by rowboat to the Catalpa

From 1865 to 1867, British authorities rounded up supporters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, an Irish independence movement, and transported sixty-two of them to Western Australia. They were sent on the convict ship Hougoumont in October 1867, and landed at Fremantle in January 1868.[53] In 1869, John Boyle O'Reilly escaped on the American whaling ship Gazelle[54] with assistance of the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe, and settled in Boston.[53]

In 1869, pardons had been issued to many of the imprisoned Fenians, after which only eight militant Fenians remained in Western Australia's penal system. The Fenians in America bought the whaling ship Catalpa, which on 29 April 1875, sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts on a secret rescue mission. They dropped anchor off Bunbury on 27 March 1876, and began coordinating with local Fenian agents. The escape was arranged for 17 April, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison was watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta. Catalpa dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to the shore. At 8.30 am, six Fenians who were working in work parties outside the prison walls absconded, and were met by carriages. The men raced 50 kilometres (31 mi) south to Rockingham where a rowboat was waiting. A local man saw them and quickly alerted the authorities.[53]

The rowboat faced difficulties on its return to the Catalpa due to a storm that lasted till dawn on 18 April. At 7am, with the storm over, they again made for the Catalpa but an hour later spotted the steamship SS Georgette, which had been commandeered by the colonial governor, making for the whaler. The Georgette was forced to return to Fremantle to refuel after following the Catalpa for several hours. Early on 19 April the refueled and now heavily armed Georgette returned and came alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters. They fired a warning shot with the 12 pounder (5 kg) cannon that had been installed the night before. The Catalpa '​s master claimed they were in international waters, and since they were flying the U.S. flag, informed the Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the USA. Not wanting to cause an international diplomatic incident, the Georgette allowed the Catalpa to flee.[53]

Brenden Abbott[edit]

Brenden Abbott, "the Postcard Bandit", escaped the prison on 24 November 1989 by fabricating a prison guard uniform.



A riot occurred on 4 June 1968, precipitated by the serving of allegedly contaminated food to prisoners the previous evening. Other factors that contributed were the rudimentary and deplorable state of sanitation and personal cleanliness facilities, tougher sentencing introduced with the Parole Act of 1964 which did not take rehabilitation potential into account, and the overcrowded and purposeless life of many prisoners. When the work bell was rung at 1 pm, prisoners rebelled. Refusing to go back to work, the prisoners assembled themselves in the exercise yards. The prison superintendent Mr Thorpe negotiated with two depuatations of prisoners. As well as better food, they demanded singles cells and the dismissal of specific wardens.[31]

After approximately three hours, the negotiations broke down, and that night's evening meal was withheld. That caused the prisoners to riot, breaking fittings, injuring three prison officers, three prisoners, and a detective. Additional police and warders arrived at 5 pm, but took seven hours to subdue the prisoners, with the last of them locked in their cells just after midnight. The extent damage was in the order of £200 to £300. To relieve the overcrowding and reduce prisoner agitation, around 60 men who had not taken part in the riot were transferred to prisons at Albany, Geraldton, Karnet, and Barton's Hill. However, other improvements could not be undertaken without funding from the state government, which did not consider prison reform a priority.[31]


The aftermath of the 1988 riots.

On 4 January 1988, with recorded inside temperatures of 52.2 °C (126 °F), a prison riot took place.[55] Seventy prisoners took over four and three divisions,[citation needed] taking 15 officers hostage.[11]:60 The riots led to a large fire causing A$1.8 million of damage.[56]


Fremantle Prison is a substantial tourism precinct, enticing international and domestic visitors, as well as ex-prisoners, former prison officers, and their descendants.[35]:8 Tourist numbers increased each year from 2001/02 to 2009/10, up from almost 105,000 to nearly 180,000 over that period.[35]:13–14 As of 2014, the prison has won, been a finalist in, or received other commendation at tourism or heritage awards each year since 2006.[g] While the tourist experience is based on authenticity and heritage values, some details are concealed or de-emphasised, such as prison tattooing, riots, and graffiti portraying revenge, sexuality, or brutality.[35]:14–15

External audio
Fremantle Prison Tour from ABC Radio National's Law Report (transcript)

Attractions include with guided tours, a visitors' centre with searchable convict database, art gallery, Convict Café, and gift shop. Educational activities are regularly held for school children, as are exhibitions and re-enactments of historical events. Functions such as theme parties and dinners are held in the prison, with re-enactments serving as entertainment.[35]:8–11 Four different types of tours are conducted in Fremantle Prison: Day Tours, showing prison life from arrival through to life in the cells and yards, and deaths in the execution chamber; Tunnel Tours, through a kilometre of the tunnels under the prison, have run since June 2005; Torchlight Tours at night, with "spooky stories of the supernatural"; and Great Escape Tours, recounting successful and attempted escapes.[35]:8–9

Fremantle Prison also functions as a musuem and art gallery. The Fremantle Prison Collection contains around 15,000 items associated with the prison's site, history, or the experiences of its workers and prisoners.[64] It is also involved in preserving oral histories, with interview transcripts stored at Fremantle Prison and recordings archived in the Battye Library Oral History Collection. Recollections have been recorded since 1989, and include the experiences of authorities, staff, volunteer visitors, and prisoners.[65] The Fremantle Prison records and collections, including archaeological, provide a substantial resource for researchers.[19]

The Prison Gallery showcases and offers for sale the artworks of current and ex-prisoners of Western Australia. It also hosts other exhibits related to the history of the prison, including historical artefacts.[66] Many cells and areas of the prison depict prisoners' artwork,[11]:29 including that of the 19th-century forger James Walsh, whose artwork was hidden beneath layers of white-wash for decades.[12]:50 Painting or drawing on walls was originally forbidden,[12]:50 however, this rule was relaxed in special cases where art was found to calm violent prisoners.[citation needed] Art, or art therapy, was not officially permitted until the 1980s.[12]:50

A more contemporary prison artist was Dennis (NOZ) Nozworthy, who stated that he found art on death row. Some of his work currently is held in the collections of Curtin University, Perth Central TAFE, and the WA Government, Department of Justice.[67] Other cells contain Aboriginal artwork many by unknown artists. The Walmajarri artist Jimmy Pike started painting in Fremantle prison, having received tuition from Steve Culley and David Wroth.[68]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This provided a greater surface area allowing more water to be drawn
  2. ^ Though in the 1890s when these men actually retired, payment was not made willingly, but only after substantial negotiations and delays[25]:26
  3. ^ Later the Department of Contract and Management Services,[19] now the Department of Finance - Building Management and Works[36]
  4. ^ a b c Execution only listed by Ayris[11]:63[50]
  5. ^ Capital punishment was abolished in Western Australia in 1984[14]
  6. ^ Cyril Ayris claims 46 men were executed,[11]:63 while other sources claim 43 were executed[14][12]:91–92[50]
  7. ^ Fremantle prison won, was a finalist, or received commendation at awards in 2006,[57] 2007,[58] 2008,[57] 2009,[57] 2010,[59] 2011,[60] 2012,[61] 2013,[62] and 2014[63]


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 This article incorporates text from this source, which is licensed under CC-BY 3.0 AU. Required attribution: © Commonwealth of Australia 2013.

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