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Fremantle Prison

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Fremantle Prison
Freo prison WMAU gnangarra-131.jpg
Main Cell Block
Location Fremantle, Western 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 Closed; heritage site
Security class Maximum
Opened 1855
Closed 30 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 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 that caused $1.8 million worth of damage. The prison closed in 1991, replaced by the new maximum-security Casuarina Prison.

The prison was administered by a comptroller general, sheriff, or director, responsible for the entire convict or prison system, and a superintendent in charge of the prison itself. Prison officers, known as warders in the 19th century, guarded against escapes, enforced discipline, oversaw prisoner work, and instructed inmates in trades. Officers worked under stringent conditions until they achieved representation through the Western Australian Prison Officers Union. Convicts were initially of good character, as potential future colonists, but eventually less desirable convicts were sent, until the end of transportation in 1868. As a locally run prison, Fremantle's population was generally short-sentenced white prisoners in the 1890s, with very few Aboriginal prisoners; however, by the late 20th century, most prisoners were serving longer sentences, a higher proportion of them were violent, and Aboriginal people were over-represented.

Prison life at Fremantle was highly regulated, with a strict routine, and few changes to mark the passing of time. Meals were an important part of the day, breaking up the monotony, eaten in the cells, throughout the operational life of the prison. Convict or prisoner labour was used outside the prison walls on public infrastructure works until around 1911, when only inside work was allowed, though there was never enough work to fully occupy the inmates. Punishments for misbehaviour at various points in the prison's history included flogging, solitary confinement, a restricted diet of bread and water, time in irons, lengthening of a sentence, and restriction from visitors or entertainment. More than 40 hangings were carried out at Fremantle, which was Western Australia's only legal place of execution between 1888 and 1984. Prominent escapees included Moondyne Joe, as well as John Boyle O'Reilly and six other Fenians in the 19th century, and Brenden Abbott in 1989. There have been various riots and other disturbances, with major riots causing damage in 1968 and 1988.

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 on 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, wall, and tunnels. 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 New Division, 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 runs 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, in contrast to the Georgian style of the other houses.[5] Adjacent to the gatehouse are numbers 10 and 12 to the north, and numbers 14 and 16 to the south. Number 10 is a double-storey house, initially built in 1853 for the chaplain, but taken over by the superintendent in 1878 and later part of the prison administration. An adjoining single-storey at number 12, finished in 1854, was the home of the gatekeeper.[6] Number 16 The Terrace is a double-storey house that accommodated first the superintendent, and later the resident magistrate. It remained in use as housing for prison officers until the 1970s.[7] Number 18, the southernmost house on The Terrace, and number 8, the northernmost of the initial buildings, both featured two sitting rooms, three bedrooms, and two dressing rooms, as well as a kitchen, water closet and shed, but with mirrored layouts. Number 18 was expanded with additions built in the 1890s.[8]


The gatehouse and associated entry complex was constructed between 1854 and 1855 using convict labour. It was designed by Royal Engineer and Comptroller General 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] Iron that had been scavenged from shipwrecks was used to make the gate, 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 its fabrication; and Joseph Nelson, the Royal Sappers soldier who wrought the iron.[12]:57 As the main entrance, the gatehouse has remained a significant feature and landmark; since the closure of the prison, it has housed 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 led 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 used 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 was installed in 1888.[14] It was 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 to fall, and thus be hanged.[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 chapel

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 was 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 building 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. A panopticon in the exercise yard was initially used to facilitate this concept during the prisoners' hour of exercise each day. The system was not successful, and considered a dated prisoner management strategy, leading to its removal within five years. New Division was the first building to have electricity, with underground wiring. During World War II, the Australian Army appropriated the division, to keep their 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 led to them being extended in the 1890s and 1910s. The construction of Bandyup Women's Prison saw Fremantle's Women's Prison close in 1970, with the space 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 the 1850s, shafts were sunk into the limestone bedrock to provide the prison with fresh water from an aquifer, and a tank was installed in 1874 to offer the town of Fremantle 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, and additional wells were built between 1888 to 1894, connected by a series of tunnels or horizontal drives[a] 20 metres (66 ft)[21] underground. In 1896, a town reservoir was constructed on Swanbourne Street, fed from the prison by a triple expansion steam-driven pump that 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 Though the tunnels were closed in 1910,[21] the groundwater continued to be used for the prison's gardens. In 1989, oil leaking from nearby tanks contaminated the water; however, the pollution was eventually cleared by 1996 through bioremediation.[20]:3 The tunnels were re-opened in mid-2005, and had been refurbished within a year to improve the experience for visitors.[22]


19th century[edit]

While the Swan River Colony was established as a "free settlement"[23] (unlike the penal colonies on the east coast), by the 1840s demand for cheap labour overcame an early reluctance, and the colony agreed to accept some convicts from Britain. 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 colony's Round House jail was full, so the convicts had to be left on the ship.[11]:18–20 Eventually Comptroller General of Convicts Edward 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, and 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

The design for Fremantle Prison was based on the Pentonville Prison in Britain, but with two diagonal cell blocks that would have mimicked Pentonville replaced with a four-storey linear structure, which would be the longest, tallest prison cell block in the southern hemisphere.[24]:2 Construction began in 1851, supervised by Henderson, his clerk, James Manning, and Royal Engineer lieutenant Henry Wray, who had arrived with another convict ship.[11]:22 Works rapidly progressed following the arrival in 1851 of the Royal Engineers, known as the sappers. They trained convicts to work with limestone, which was quarried on-site.[24]:4 The first priority was the construction of accommodation for Henderson and the prison warders to relieve the expense of paying for private lodging.[24]:3

A blacksmith's shop was constructed in 1852, and a carpenter's shop was added in 1858. The prison was designed to have other services onsite, including a kitchen, bakehouse, and washhouse; 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, finished in 1859.[24]:6 The prison walls were constructed between 1853 and 1855, while the gatehouse and associated entry complex was built in 1854 and 1855.[24]:4–5 Construction of the southern half of the Main Cell Block began in 1853 and was finished in 1855, with prisoners transferred from the temporary prison on 1 June 1855.[24]:7 Construction of the northern wing followed, however, the Crimean War saw the Royal Engineers recalled. Prisoners were left to finish the building, under the direction of Wray. The prison was completed by the end of 1859.[24]:8

During Western Australia's convict era, the prison was known as the Convict Establishment, and was used for convicts transported from Britain. Longer term locally-sentenced prisoners were also held there from 1858, at a cost to the colonial government.[25]:20–21 In 1868, penal transportation ceased in Western Australia, and the number of convicts in the colony 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 complex – demolition was considered too expensive.[11]:45–46 Early negotiations had broken down, but were restarted in August 1883.[25]:24–25 After one and a half years, a compromise was reached, including that only buildings actually in use would be repaired before the transfer, which was finalised on 31 March 1886.[25]: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, in their own separate section.[11]:45–46 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] This 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.[11]:46–49 In September 1898 a Royal Commission 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, dealing with the most recognisable and prominent issues regarding classification, sentencing, punishments, diet, and "the special problems of remand, youthful and lunatic prisoners",[25]:159–160 as well as cases where "the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of mercy"[25]:160 might be appropriate, and other 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

Early 20th century[edit]

Three Division for "long sentenced and habitual prisoners"[27]:12

Within a year of the enquiry, 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.[27]:12–13 Following the urgings of the prison Superintendent George and various official enquiries, new workshops were built to provide increased useful employment for prisoners. Five spaces were designed for tailors, bookbinders, shoemakers, mat makers and painters.[19]

Further action was not taken until 1902, when new regulations for prison officers were published in the Government Gazette, and a new Prison Act was passed in 1903. While in theory the passing of the Act should have resulted in significant 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.[28]: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 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.[11]:50 It also differed in its use from the main cell block. Unlike the earlier building, prisoners remained continuously in their cells except when exercising in separate yards, watched panopticon-style[29] by a warder in a central tower.[19]

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 were not separated from older ones, that regulations were systemically broken, and that prisoners were not paid for the work they did.[28]:52–53

In 1911 another Royal Commission investigation into Fremantle Prison recommended closing the facility. Its report was ignored by the state government, which was more concerned with building infrastructure such as roads and schools than the plight of its prisoners.[30]: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 Labor 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.[19]

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[30]:4 from 1940 until 1946.[31] It was used for the detention of military personnel, as well as an internment centre[19] – one of more than 50 across Australia holding a combined total of more than 12,000 enemy aliens and prisoners of war.[32] Fremantle accommodated up to 400 military prisoners and up to 160 civilian prisoners by October 1945.[33] The takeover necessitated the commissioning of Barton's Mill Prison in 1942.[30]: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]

20th century reform[edit]

Prison outstations were established as part of the reforms in the 20th century,[34]:26 and to reduce the overcrowding at Fremantle.[30]:4 Pardelup Prison Farm opened in 1927, near Mount Barker,[30]:4 while Barton's Mill, though planned to be a temporary measure, remained open as a prison after World War II.[30]:4 Significant reform to Western Australia's prison system did not begin until the 1960s, lagging behind those which occurred elsewhere in Australia and the world after World War II.[28]:56 Seven new prisons were opened between 1960 and 1971,[28]:57 and in 1970, female prisoners and staff were moved from Fremantle to the new Bandyup Women's Prison.[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.[28]:57

The appointment of Colin Campbell as comptroller general in 1966 fostered substantial changes within Fremantle Prison itself. He viewed prison as "a place for rehabilitation and re-education … where people can retain their identity and, if necessary, create a new identity".[28]:58 One of his first changes was to clear the classification committee's backlog of prisoners awaiting assessment through more frequent committee meetings. Campbell also established an officer training school, as well as an assessment centre to evaluate new prisoners.[28]:58–59 Work release and community service programs were also introduced, along with training programs (for both prisoners and officers), social workers and welfare officers.[28]: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. Within the midst of Campbell's reforms, the Prisons Department was renamed the Department of Corrections in 1971,[35] restructured, and the position of comptroller general was replaced with director of the department.[28]:61 In 1972 a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate mistreatment of and discrimination against Aboriginal prisoners.[28]:18 Its 1973 report found that there was not "any appreciable discrimination against aboriginies or part aboriginies";[36]:161 however, racial stereotypes are present throughout the report, testimony of Aboriginal prisoners was considered unreliable, and the conclusion was predictable as a "validation of the actions or policies of … government officials".[37] The report made recommendations regarding various aspects of prison life, including additional, independent, trained welfare officers.[36]:174 William Kidston succeeded Campbell in 1977, and oversaw a shift in policy from "paternalistic rehabilitation"[28]:62 of prisoners to merely providing opportunities for rehabilitation.[28]:61–62

A new Prisons Act was passed in 1981, which updated the 1903 Act with modern philosophies and practices.[28]:63 This 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 department was at the same time renamed the Prisons Department once more, to emphasise imprisonment as its primary responsibility.[28]: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".[28]:67 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.[28]:68–9 Growing prisoner discontent eventually culminated in the 1988 prison riot,[28]:68 investigated by an official enquiry later that year.[28]:18

Closure and subsequent use[edit]

The state government made the decision to decommission Fremantle Prison in 1983,[38]:203 but it remained in operation until 30 November 1991.[19] Prisoners were moved to a new metropolitan maximum security prison at Casuarina. There were divergent views in the community over the site's future, whether it should be preserved or redeveloped. The ultimate decision was for conservation of the prison, but allowing for the buildings to be adapted for reuse by the community.[38]:203

The Fremantle Prison Trust was established in 1992 to advise the Minister for Works[39] on the management of the site.[19] Various new uses were 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,[19] the Fremantle Prison Guardians,[40]:111 organised the tourist operation for ten years under contract, until the end of 2001; subsequently, the state government took control.[19] A hostel providing short-stay accommodation in the women's prison is due to open in April 2015.[41]

Staff and prisoners[edit]


Comptroller General Edmund Henderson

Western Australia's first comptroller general of convicts, Edmund Henderson,[42]:56 administered the convict establishment for thirteen years; Battye writes that "its success was no doubt due to his wisdom and tact."[43] The primary responsibilities of the comptroller general were to "direct convict labour and be responsible for convict discipline".[12]:30 After Henderson's resignation in 1863, William Newland was appointed his successor, closely following the appointment of Governor John Hampton.[44]:195–196 Hampton assumed far more direct control of Western Australia's convict establishment than his predecessors,[45] and was in perpetual disagreement with Newland;[44]:196 as a direct consequence, Newland retired early in 1866.[44]:196 While awaiting a successor to the position, Governor Hampton appointed his son, George Hampton, to act in the position, an "unusually blatant act of nepotism".[46]:302 Under George Hampton, convict discipline became extremely strict, and escape attempts increased markedly,[12]:80 but the system returned to what it had been under Henderson following the 1867 appointment of Henry Wakeford.[44]:197

In 1872 Wakeford was transferred to the Colonial Office, leaving the responsibilities of the comptroller general's position to his office's chief clerk, W. B. Fauntleroy,[47] who was confirmed as acting comptroller general.[48] The office of comptroller general was abolished in December 1877,[49] with Fauntleroy superannuated;[50] his duties were passed on to the superintendent, John F. Stone, who was later appointed comptroller of convicts.[51] With the transfer of Fremantle Prison to the colonial government in 1886, the role of the comptroller was replaced by that of the sheriff,[44]:270 responsible for all of the prisons in the colony.[34]:15 By the 1890s, the sheriff also held the post of inspector of prisons.[28]:47 The position of comptroller general was recreated, with duties split off from the sheriff's office, in early 1911, following the retirement of Sheriff Octavius Burt.[34]:23 In 1971, the Prisons Department was renamed the Department of Corrections,[35] restructured, and the position of comptroller general was replaced with director of the department.[28]:61

Superintendent W. A. George

While the comptroller, sheriff, or director was responsible for the overall convict or prison system, largely centred around Fremantle Prison,[52] the responsibility of the prison itself lay with the superintendent.[25]:44[34]:29 Thomas Hill Dixon was the first superintendent of convicts, and was succeeded by Henry Maxwell Lefroy in 1859.[12]:7, 24 Both men operated a prisoner classification system, until at least 1865, based on the type of convict, as well as their conduct and quality of their work.[53]:40–41, 44 When Fremantle became a colonial prison, there was a restaffing,[34]:15 and as per other colonial prisons, there was no attempt at classification,[53]:41 until the end of the 19th century.[b] W. A. George was superintendent at this time, appointed in 1897[27]:7 amidst increasing population, prisoners, and escapes.[27]:4–5 While some writers[c] consider George a repressive figure, who instigated little or no reform except as a result of the Royal Commission, others[d] take the view that he was appointed at an inexpedient time for reform, with his endeavours opposed by his superiors.[27]:3–4

Hugh Hann was appointed superintendent following the retirement of George in 1911. Hann had prison experience outside Western Australia, and oversaw a period of reform at Fremantle Prison, working with a new Labor government and new comptroller general. Prisoner self-respect was an important concept for Hann, who noted in his 1912 report that "all our efforts are thrown away unless we can make them feel that they are not mere brutes, and get them to hold their heads up again like men."[28]:54–55 Following a series of escapes in 1918, Hann was investigated by an enquiry, suspended, and charged with neglect of his duties; though eventually vindicated, his poor health ensured his retirement.[28]:55 By the 1940s, the role of superintendent became a position filled through internal promotions.[34]:29


On convict ships, the convicts were guarded by pensioner guards, who were soldiers awarded pensions for their service in areas such as China, Crimea, and Afghanistan. Some remained in the military, but many opted to stay in the colony as settlers, having brought their wives and children with them.[54] The pensioner guards were expected to help deal with any incidents of unrest at the prison.[34]:12

Fremantle Prison's officers were known as warders until the early 20th century.[28]:169 The first warders at the prison, in the 1850s and 1860s, were a mixture of experienced men, who had guarded British prisons, and colonial men. There were varying levels of literacy and numeracy – no minimum standard was initially required. Warders lived in specially built terrace houses, within walking distance of the prison as their lives were just as regimented as the prisoners. They had to arrive on schedule, assemble for the superintendent, keep records of the convicts' behaviour and work, discipline prisoners, and face danger when prisoners refused to obey instructions. Warders were not paid well, and faced fines or dismissal for drinking alcohol, sleeping on the job, or other breaches of regulations.[12]:17–24

In the 1890s warders still had "little more freedom than the prisoners in their charge",[25]:65 due to the stringent living and working conditions, including ten to twelve hour working days.[25]:65–67 The warder's role became clearly defined in 1902, having previously been unwritten, and poorly known due to a high turnover rate in those immediately in charge of prisoners.[28]:173, 182 Warders guarded against escapes, enforced discipline, oversaw prisoner work, and instructed inmates in trades. The warders were also supposed to be moral role models for prisoners, while maintaining a formal, distant, relationship.[28]:182

The prison officer's role in the 20th century did not change much, with the job still entailing a boredom-inducing daily routine focused on security.[28]:189 Officer training became a priority under Campbell's administration, from the late 1960s. Training courses were set up for staff inductions and promotions, and seminars were started for senior officers.[28]:58, 61 The most significant change in this period, however, was that prison officers achieved representation through the Western Australian Prison Officers Union.[28]:189 The strength of the union was based on the ability to almost cripple the prison system through strike action, first taken in 1975. Improvements to pay and conditions were achieved, but the union agenda went further, and pushed objectives and policies that contradicted official policy.[28]:190–191


Prisoners in front of Main Cell Block, c. 1971

Convicts were introduced into Western Australia for three main purposes: inexpensive labour, additional labour, and an injection of British government spending into the local economy. During the initial years of transportation, convicts were generally young, from a rural background, and of good character, having only committed minor offences[55]:60–61 – potential future colonists, after their sentence had been served.[12]:74 By the 1860s the majority were older, more serious offenders from urban areas,[55]:61 and the final group of convicts, arriving in January 1868 on Hougoumont,[12]:75 included sixty-two Fenians, political prisoners[56] considered to be "difficult and dangerous".[12]:76

Following the transfer of Fremantle Prison to local control in 1886, it became Western Australia's primary prison.[28]:71 Though some long term locally-sentenced prisoners had been imprisoned there since 1858,[25]:20–21 in the late 1880s and 1890s the number of prisoners swelled dramatically. This increase predominately comprised prisoners serving shorter sentences of under three months.[28]:71 At the turn of the century, the majority of prisoners were "white Australian or European men, mostly working class, below the age of forty years and serving short sentences for minor offences".[28]:85 However, there was much diversity in the prisoner population: there were Chinese and other Asian prisoners,[e][28]:81 a small number of Aboriginal men,[f][28]:80 eighty juveniles,[g] as well as a range of people with low social status – "paupers, deaf mutes, the retarded"[h] and "vagrants, lunatics and persons of weak intellect".[i][28]:74 Poverty, drunkenness, behavioural issues, and recidivism were major contributing factors in imprisonment for minor offences.[28]:85

The number of prisoners in 1897 was 379, and Inspector of Prisons James Roe viewed the prison as "inconveniently full".[28]:86 Despite a large expansion of the prison system, the problem of overcrowding remained throughout the 20th century, as did Western Australia's high incarceration rate relative to the rest of Australia.[28]:86, 99 The nature of prisoners changed, with three times the proportion of 16 to 19 year olds in 1984 compared to 1898, and a growing over-representation of Aboriginal prisoners to nearly half the prison population.[j][28]:88–89 Sentences also increased in length, such that in 1984 more than 80% of inmates were serving more than a year.[28]:94 In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an increasing number of prisoners committed for violent crimes, but still a minority of the population. Both staff and prisoners, however, perceived a notable increase in violence during these years, coinciding with the rise of illegal drugs in prison, and of sentences for drug-related offences.[28]:95–97

Prison operation[edit]

Daily routine in 1991


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.[57] The transfer of the Convict Establishment to the colonially-run Fremantle Prison saw little change, and no new regulations.[25]:29

A similar routine, but with fewer working hours, 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[58]

Not much had changed by the 1960s. The day began with a waking bell at 6:45 am. After a prisoner count, they moved into the yard, until 7:30, when they collected their breakfasts and headed back to their cells. The 8:00 bell signaled 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 which lasted to 4:15. Another meal was collected, and prisoners were locked away in their cells overnight. The lights stayed on until 9:30 pm. On the weekends the routine featured no work, and included a film played for the prisoners.[30]:14–15


Meals were an important part of a prisoner's day, breaking up the monotony of prison life.[25]:83 Prisoners ate meals in their cells, from the early years of the prison[12]:49 through to its closure in 1991.[11]:7

Bread from the prison bakehouse was a prominent part of the diet in the convict era, included in every meal. It was served with black tea for breakfast, and with either tea or cocoa in the evening. The main meal, called dinner, was in the middle of the day, and also featured soup, meat, and vegetables.[12]:59–60 By the 1890s food was still very limited in diversity, with few vegetables. Porridge was given for breakfast, usually too fluid or overly solid, and the general standard of the prison's food was quite low,[25]:84 particularly in 1897 and 1898. However, the quality soon improved, as noted by the 1898 Royal Commission,[25]:92 which actually recommended decreasing rations to reduce costs.[30]:4

In the 1960s, food preparation was overseen by a qualified chef, who also trained prisoners. The diet consisted of quality food, but "without trimmings".[30]:7 Breakfast was porridge, with a third of a pint of milk, a hot drink (tea, unless the prisoner bought[k] coffee or cocoa), and either Vegemite, honey, or margarine, depending on the week. Lunch and dinner had more variation. Both meals consisted of a meat dish – corned beef, sausages, or mince pie – as well as mashed potato and cabbage, although there was occasionally a roast dinner.[30]:7–8 Meat, vegetables and bread were still a prominent part of the diet in 1991.[11]:7


As well as being used to build the prison itself, convict labour, with convicts in chain gangs, was used for other public works in the Fremantle and surrounding Perth area, including The Causeway, Perth Town Hall and Stirling Highway.[11]:33–34 The work undertaken by a convict depended on their behaviour and demeanour. Upon arrival to Western Australia, convicts were kept within the prison for a period of observation. If found to have a reasonable disposition, the convict would be sent to work, in a gang under the control of a warder. Typical activities included "quarrying, filling swamps, burning lime, constructing public buildings, roads and jetties"[55]:61 around Fremantle and Perth.[55]:61

After some time, they might be sent to work on road or other projects away from these main settlements.[55]:61 Continued good behaviour could see the convict granted a ticket-of-leave, allowing private employment in a specified district of the colony, and eventually a Conditional Pardon, allowing most freedoms, except for returning to England. A Certificate of Freedom would only be granted at the end of a sentence. Misbehaviour would result in demotion through these levels of work, including returning to convict status within the prison. Re-offenders and captured escapees, after corporal punishment and time in solitary confinement, would be placed on a chain gang undertaking hard labour, typically on roads near Fremantle.[55]:61

Outside work, mostly on public infrastructure, continued beyond the convict era, but gradually declined due to discipline concerns, the rise of trade unions that saw such labour as a threat to the free market, and an increasing emphasis on work as rehabilitation rather than punishment.[28]:151–152 By 1911 outside work had all but ceased,[28]:156 but could not adequately be replaced by employment within the prison walls; a lack of suitable work plagued the prison throughout its lifetime.[28]:149 Work in the 19th century consisted of cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the prison, tailoring, bootmaking, and printing.[12]:49 However, demand exceeded the availability of such work – increasingly so in the later years of the 19th century – so prisoners were also given activities with no practical value other than keeping them occupied. These included breaking stones, operating a water pump, and oakum picking.[27]:8 Even with these extra activities, by 1899, 60 to 70 men[28]:156 were employed at the pump, each doing only a few minutes work per hour, and occupied the rest of the time with recreation such as draughts.[34]:17

New workshops built in 1901 allowed prisoners to work in bootmaking and tailoring, and from 1904, printing.[28]:145–146 Only a small fraction of prisoners were allocated to the workshops – 35 out of an average of 279 prisoners in 1902.[28]:151 In 1908, there were still few men employed in the workshops, 20 in tailoring, 15 in bootmaking, and 12 in mat making, with only half of these working at a time, and little improvement by the 1911 Royal Commission.[28]:155–156 The 20th century saw little change in the work prisoners did. There were similar workshops, with the addition of metal work, and similar jobs around the prison complex, including in the laundry, in the kitchen, and cleaning the prison.[28]:160–161 In 1984, 90% of prisoners were reported to be employed, either full-time or part-time. The meaningfulness of the work was nominal, as work was viewed as "a management option rather than [for] production",[l][28]:161 but security concerns and discipline restricted the rehabilitative value of the work,[28]:164 and limited much of the work to jobs non-existent outside of prison.[m][28]:161


Post prisoners were tied to when flogged

In the convict era, particularly during Hampton's term as Governor, misbehaving prisoners were punished with flogging, solitary confinement, and working in chain gangs at gunpoint.[34]:12 Particularly difficult prisoners were put to work hand pumping groundwater into the prison's reservoir. Known as cranking, it was especially despised by the prisoners.[11]:31 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

By the 1880s, punishments also included a restricted diet of bread and water (for a short time span), time in irons, and a lengthening of a prisoner's sentence by a visiting magistrate.[34]:16,18 The cat o' nine tails, which had been used since the early days of the prison,[11]:31 was abolished during the post-1911 Royal Commission reforms.[34]:23 Other reforms in this period saw the number of punishments inflicted decrease from 184 in 1913 to 57 in 1914, and 35 in 1915.[34]:25

Flogging was discontinued in the 1940s, with the last incident occurring in 1943.[12]:52 From that decade, punishments were decided by the superintendent after hearing the case against a prisoner, or by a magistrate for grievous violations. Lesser transgressions could result in solitary confinement, or restriction from visitors, education, and concerts; serious offences were punishable by the cancellation of any remission earned and a bread-and-water diet, normally over a two-week period.[34]:30


Western Australia's first legal execution occurred in 1844, outside the Round House. 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, his and subsequent executions were held with portable gibbets, including near the Perth side of The Causeway. A gallows was installed in the new Perth Gaol 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 murderer, Jimmy Long, a Malayan.[11]:46[60] The gallows room was the only legal place of execution in Western Australia between 1888 and 1984.[n][14] At least 43 men[o] and one woman were hanged in this period. Martha Rendell was the only woman to be hanged at the prison, in 1909. 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, at 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 the execution chamber, which could hold as many as eleven witnesses, stood over the trap door, had a noose put around their neck, and were hanged 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 from Fremantle Prison. 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 March 1865, while employed on a farm in Kelmscott, Johns was arrested for killing a steer in January, found guilty on 5 July, and sentenced to ten years penal servitude.[62][63]:41–43 Johns was to protest his innocence of this crime for the rest of his life. In early November he and another prisoner absconded from a work party. They were on the run for nearly a month, during which time they committed a number of small robberies. It was during this time that Johns first adopted the nickname Moondyne Joe.[63]:44–45, 47 For absconding and for being in possession of a firearm, Moondyne Joe was sentenced to twelve months in irons, and transferred to Fremantle Prison.[63]:49–50

In April 1866, Moondyne Joe sent a petition to the Chief Justice, and received four years off his sentence. However, in July he received a further six months in irons for trying to cut the lock out of his door, and in August he succeeded in escaping again.[63]:54–56 He met up with three other escapees, and together they roamed the bush around Perth, committing a number of robberies and narrowly escaping capture on a number of occasions. Near the end of the month, one of the gang was captured by police. Moondyne Joe formulated a plan to escape the colony by travelling overland to South Australia, but was captured on 29 September near the present-day site of the town of Westonia, about 300 kilometres (190 mi) north-east of Perth.[63]:59, 66–67, 81

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 he 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. In early 1867 Moondyne Joe was set to work breaking stone, but rather than permit him to leave the prison,[63] the acting comptroller-general[11]:37 ordered that the stone be brought in and dumped in a corner of the prison yard, where Moondyne Joe worked under the constant supervision of a warder.[63]

Governor John Hampton was so confident of the arrangements, he was heard to say to Moondyne Joe: "If you get out again, I'll forgive you". However, the rock broken by Moondyne Joe was not removed regularly, and eventually a pile grew up until it obscured the guard's view of him 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.[63]:86–89

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. Though Moondyne Joe made at least one more attempt to escape, he 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 May 1871.[63]:111–113, 165–166

The Fenians[edit]

Main article: Catalpa rescue
Fenians escape by whaleboat to 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.[56] In 1869, John Boyle O'Reilly escaped on the American whaling ship Gazelle[64] with assistance from the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe, and settled in Boston.[56]

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 the boat was waiting. A local man saw them and quickly alerted the authorities.[56]

The whaleboat faced difficulties on its return to Catalpa due to a storm that lasted till dawn on 18 April. At 7am, with the storm over, they again made for Catalpa but an hour later spotted the steamship SS Georgette, which had been commandeered by the colonial governor, making for the whaler. Georgette was forced to return to Fremantle to refuel after following Catalpa for several hours. In the afternoon, Georgette, refuelled and now heavily armed, resumed searching. The whaleboat was spotted and pursued, but it managed to rendezvous with Catalpa. Its occupants were pulled on board, and Catalpa headed out to sea, chased by Georgette.[56]

Early on 19 April Georgette 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. Catalpa‍‍ '​‍s master claimed they were in international waters, and since they were flying the United States flag, informed Georgette that an attack on Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the USA. Not wanting to cause an international diplomatic incident, Georgette allowed Catalpa to flee.[56]

Brenden Abbott[edit]

Main article: Brenden Abbott

Brenden Abbott, "the Postcard Bandit", escaped from Fremantle Prison in 1989. He had been sentenced to twelve years in prison for "Australia's first 'drop in'-style bank robbery"[65] at the Belmont branch of the Commonwealth Bank. While working in the prison's tailor shop, he was able to stitch together overalls resembling those worn by the guards. Abbott and two accomplices took the opportunity to escape, wearing the overalls, when left unsupervised in the workshop. They cut through a bar and got onto the roof. One accomplice fell and broke his leg, but Abbott and the other managed to jump over to the wall, and thus escape.[65]

Abbott avoided capture until 1995, committing various robberies as he moved across Australia.[66] He also escaped from a Queensland prison after two years[65] and returned to Western Australia, allegedly robbing the Commonwealth Bank's Mirrabooka branch.[67] Abbott was recaptured in Darwin, six months after his escape,[65] and was sent to a Queensland maximum-security prison[66] with a twenty year sentence to serve.[67]


There have been various prisoner riots and other disturbances at Fremantle Prison over the years that it was operational.[68] One of the earliest was in 1854,[69] while major riots which occurred in 1968 and 1988[70]:28 resulted in damage to the prison.[30][71]


There was a riot in 1854, after the Roman Catholic chaplain was suspended for accusing his Protestant counterpart of being in league with the devil, and other inappropriate comments. Prisoners were upset that mass was not being performed, and were adamant that their chaplain should return. Warders attempting to return the ringleaders to their cells were overrun by other prisoners, and so the prison authorities had to resort to calling in the military to regain control. Punishment of 100 lashes was subsequently administered to each of five of the rioting prisoners.[69]


In late 1898, there was a riot described as a "gaol mutiny" by The Sunday Times.[72] A prisoner, Charles Street, refused to undertake work breaking stones, as he had not been sentenced to hard labour. He protested, and used foul language, for which he was arrested and charged. While he was incarcerated, 75 prisoners mutinied, refusing to follow any instructions until Street's release. Superintendent George accepted an apology by Street to resolve the incident. The Sunday Times derided George for conceding to the demands of the mutineers, rather than using "armed force and … the loss of human life if necessary".[72]


On the morning of 21 August 1902, a riot occurred when a group of thirty prisoners bolted away from their guards.[73] Dissatisfied with the quality of their food, particularly that morning's gruel,[74] they rushed into the kitchen and proceeded to fling dishes and food over the walls, as well as the warders.[73] A large group of warders managed to subdue the prisoners.[75] Thirteen of the instigators were each sentenced to a month in irons in close confinement, and nineteen other prisoners received one month in close confinement.[76]


A race riot in Fremantle Prison was reported in May 1909. The incident began with an Afghan prisoner, after accusing a Caucasian prisoner of pushing him, was hit in the eye. Later that day, one prisoner got into an argument with another prisoner, a Filipino, who was bashed with a stool. He was also attacked by a third prisoner as warders led him away. There were reportedly recurring incidents involving Asian prisoners at the time.[77]


A prisoner strike occurred on 27 March 1930, but was resolved without any violence. The prisoners were unhappy with the quantity of the food given to them, and that short-sentenced prisoners were not allocated a tobacco ration, although the Mirror newspaper suspected that the ringleaders just wanted a win over the authorities. At 7:30 pm, around eighty prisoners refused to move from the exercise yard until their grievances were addressed. The prisoners made a commotion that lasted throughout the night, with "singing, cursing, shouting, … determined that the world should know [of their strike]".[78]

The stand-off continued until the next morning, however the prisoners did not attempt to break out or enact their threats of burning down the prison. Prison authorities did not engage with any violence, instead using the tactic of "starving them into submission".[78] At the first lunchtime call, twenty prisoners gave up the protest, and the rest soon followed. No weapons were found amidst the prisoners.[78]


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 that 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, they assembled themselves in the exercise yards. The prison superintendent Mr Thorpe negotiated with two deputations of prisoners. As well as better food, they demanded single cells and the dismissal of specific wardens.[30]

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 wardens 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 of the 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 Mill. However, other improvements could not be undertaken without funding from the state government, which did not consider prison reform a priority.[30]


In October 1971, there was an incident with prisoners refusing to return to their cells. They were protesting over low gratuity payments. A riot was avoided, with the situation resolved after half an hour. However, both Director Colin Campbell and the Jail Officers' Union were, in January 1972, worried that overcrowding could result in another riot within six months.[79]


Main article: Fremantle Prison riot

On 4 January 1988, despite the 42 °C (108 °F) heat,[80] officers decided prisoners should remain outside in the exercise yards in the afternoon. As division 3 prisoners were let inside at around 4 pm, a voice exclaimed "Let's take 'em",[11]:59 and simultaneously, guards were splashed with boiling water, usually used for making tea.[80]:5 A horde of prisoners stormed the cellblock, attacking the guards with whatever makeshift weapons they could find.[11]:59 This resulted in pandemonium; prisoners rushed along landings, overpowering officers and taking them hostage, while at the same time, other prisoners darted between cells, starting fires. The prisoners withdrew to the exercise yard, taking 15 hostages, as flames quickly overran the building, spread into the rafters, and caused the roof to collapse.[11]:59–60

Police negotiators communicated with the ring leaders,[28]:20 and by nightfall all but five hostages had been released.[11]:60 Meanwhile, the fire brigade had trouble bringing the inferno in the main cell block under control, as the prison's gate was too narrow for their trucks, and prisoners impeded their endeavours by throwing debris at them.[28]:20 The prisoners' leaders made three demands: a meeting with Attorney General Joseph Berinson, access to the media, and a guarantee of no retribution afterwards. The next morning, after 19 hours, the hostages were released, even though only the third demand had been met.[28]:20 Prisoners did, however, have an opportunity to communicate with the press during the siege, as the riot was a live media event with television helicopters filming from overhead.[28]:20

Although there were no deaths,[80]:6 the fire caused A$1.8 million of damage,[71] and officers were injured.[80]:6 In the aftermath of the riot, there was extensive media attention on Fremantle Prison, and investigative journalists uncovered prior warnings to the prison authorities of the risk of such an event. The government hastily initiated an enquiry into the incident, and a report was completed within six weeks.[28]:20–22 A trial involving thirty-three prisoners charged over the riot was also held, the largest in the state's history, which resulted in extended sentences for the prisoners.[11]:61


Heritage listing[edit]

Fremantle Prison was listed in the Western Australian Register of Historic Places as an interim entry on 10 January 1992 and included 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.[81] 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.[82]

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 prison closed. This aspect became more and more important through later plans by James Semple Kerr, authored in 1992 and reviewed in 1998, and subsequently in the state government's masterplan,[83] released in December 2000.[84] The convict-era focus is reflected in the branding of the tourist experience as "Fremantle Prison – the Convict Establishment", and through restorations that, while necessary to prevent damage and deterioration, strip away the site's recent history.[83]


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[85] on works which included restoring the facade of the Anglican chapel.[86] 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[87] project in 2006 and 2007.[88] The gallows room was restored in 2013 to conditions at the time of the last execution, in 1964.[89]


Fremantle Prison is a substantial tourism precinct, enticing international and domestic visitors, as well as ex-prisoners, former prison officers, and their descendants.[38]:205 Tourist numbers increased each year from 2001/02 to 2009/10, up from almost 105,000 to nearly 180,000 over that period.[38]:210–211 As of 2014, the prison has won, been a finalist in, or received other commendation at tourism or heritage awards each year since 2006.[p] 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.[38]:211

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

Attractions include guided tours, a visitors' centre with searchable convict database, art gallery, 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.[38]:206–208 Tours of the prison show aspects of prison life and recount successful and attempted escapes. Sections of the tunnels are accessible, and night tours focus on the prison's reputation for being haunted.[q][38]:206–207

Drawing found in James Walsh's cell

Fremantle Prison also functions as a museum 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.[99] 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.[100] 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.[101] 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 though graffiti, which could be viewed as art or vandalism, occurred throughout the prison's operational years.[40]:106–107 This rule was relaxed in special cases[102] – including, from 1976, long-term prisoners within their own cells – but only for work considered art and not graffiti.[40]:107 Art, or art therapy, was not officially permitted until the 1980s;[12]:50 graffiti was never formally permitted, but in the prison's last six months, with closure imminent, the rule was not enforced.[40]:107

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.[103] 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.[104]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This provided a greater surface area allowing more water to be drawn
  2. ^ As recommended by the 1899 Royal Commission report
  3. ^ Such as Stewart and Thomas in Imprisonment in Western Australia[27]:3–4
  4. ^ Such as Lynne Steveson in Fremantle Prison in the 1890's[27]:4
  5. ^ This arose from the importation of cheap Chinese labour from Singapore during the 1870s to 1890s. Once out of work, due to old age, poor health, expiration of their contract, or a refusal to work, they ended up as the colony's responsibility, some as prisoners, others as paupers or patients.[28]:81–82
  6. ^ Less than 1% of the total prisoner population, as Aboriginal prisoners were considered an inconvenience at Fremantle, and generally segregated to the Rottnest Island prison.[28]:80
  7. ^ Those up to the age of 21, including some less than 17 years old[28]:84
  8. ^ As described by Robert Virtue in "Lunacy and Reform in Western Australia 1886–1903" (1977) cited in Megahey 2000[28]:74
  9. ^ So-called persons of "weak mind"[28]:74 were sent to Fremantle Prison for observation, though the prison was not equipped to handle them.[28]:74–75
  10. ^ Of the total prison population, the proportion of Aboriginal prisoners was 5.4% in 1910, 16% in 1968, more than 30% in 1977, and at least 45% in 1982.[28]:89
  11. ^ Prisoners were paid for the work they did, and allowed to spend a small amount each year. The pay rate ranged from 50 cents to $1.60 per week in 1968,[30]:15 while the average weekly earnings in Western Australia for 1967–68 was $62.50[59]
  12. ^ According to the superintendent in 1983[28]:161
  13. ^ Examples included "making paper bags, tailoring and heaping wood"[28]:161
  14. ^ Capital punishment was abolished in Western Australia in 1984[14]
  15. ^ Cyril Ayris claims 46 men were executed,[11]:63 while other sources claim 43 were executed[12]:91–92[14][61]
  16. ^ Fremantle prison won, was a finalist, or received commendation at awards in 2006,[90] 2007,[91] 2008,[90] 2009,[90] 2010,[92] 2011,[93] 2012,[94] 2013,[95] and 2014[96]
  17. ^ There were no reports of ghosts while Fremantle Prison was operational,[11]:62 but it has since developed a reputation as one of Perth's haunted locations.[97][98]


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 This article incorporates text from the source Australian Heritage Database – Fremantle Prison (former), 1 The Terrace, Fremantle, WA, Australia, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia licence (CC-BY 3.0 AU). Required attribution: © Commonwealth of Australia 2013.

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