Probably the only time I’d heard the name ‘Fremantle’ was in the rolling end credits of Australian soap dramarama, Neighbours, as it’s an enormous TV company. I knew little of Fremantle, the place, founded in 1829 as a British colony (the ‘Swan River Colony’) and now a major port, the sibling to the more cosmopolitan Perth to the North. Wikipedia has all the details (click here).
This part of Western Australia was the first to actually request that convicts be sent there as their population was too low to sustain the colony and who would do all the work? The convicts sent were mostly Irish and British petty criminals… steal some bread? Excellent, 9 year sentence in Fremantle.
The prison has long since closed, but is fascinating not only because it was built by the convicts themselves, but because of the mix of prisoners, particularly the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the story of the Catalpa escape, one of the lesser known – and more remote – escape histories connected to Ireland and British colonialism.
I made the trip out from Perth via train and then bus, which left me completely on the wrong side of the old prison!
Still, this gave me a chance to see the stone outcrop on which the prison was built and the well-constructed walls.
I mean, it’s hardly inviting, is it?
There are a variety of tours on offer at the prison and, to be honest, the regular Convict Prison tour, which was going at 12 noon when I arrived there last Friday, was just perfect (you can find all the tours listed on their website here).
While I waited, the prison cafe offered up teas and coffees, with a range of scones, sandwiches and light bites. My scone was excellent!
The prison has a wide range of interpretative signs around the central courtyard (I guess where prisoners were received originally), and from where all the tours kick off.
There were to be 36 people on our tour – mostly English-speaking, although some used interpretative ‘phones’ to do a supplementary guided tour.
‘Turn off engine while waiting’ – well, I’d rather not be anywhere where I couldn’t escape!!
The prison has a number of wings, including a female prison added much later on. We were to look at the old prison, one wing of that old prison had been restored to how it would have been during the early days of Fremantle prison.
The main entrance below…
This was Karl, our tour guide. He seemed very smart but had a peculiar way of speaking… in that he would start something very interesting and then realise he didn’t have time to tell the whole story and sort of just peter out… it was most disconcerting!
This is inside the old prison.
Apparently those ‘fall nets’ (an anti-suicide device) are the originals and they looked well-worn!
You can get a sense of how dark it was in there – saying that, it was so bright and hot that day, it felt a little cooler inside.
The cells were tiny – around 7′ x 4′. Not everyone got a solo cell, but everyone had to be in solitary confinement (to ‘reflect on their sins’) for the first 9 months after arriving. Slightly harsh?
Oh, wouldn’t the Interview Room make you shudder?
This section (see below) is how the prison looked in the 1950s era.
You were known by the division in which you resided.
This was the Anglican chapel – everyone (yes, Catholics, Jews, anyone else) – had to worship in the Anglican chapel every Sunday.
All of the artwork, metal work and wood work was carried out by prisoners. This guard-rail within the chapel was particularly intricate.
In case you had any doubt, you were now ‘CofE’!
Some prisoners used the alone time to take up art, and some were extremely successful. Most of the original art has been maintained within the cells.
Eventually the Catholic prisoners (most of them Irish) won a concession to have a Catholic chapel consecrated within the prison grounds.
Next stop, the prison punishment yard! Woohoo!
This area also contained the solitary confinement cells. More art in here, though of a more naive foundation. Poor chaps.
This was the only light they got and – if someone misbehaved or the prison guards wanted to punish them for any reason – the guards had a wooden block that fit into the window shape from the outside, cutting off both light and air. Tests showed that these cells could reach 52 degrees Celsius in summer – surely that resulted in so many deaths from dehydration and heat exposure? Inhuman bastards.
Some poor chap had scrawled ‘Home’ above the doorway…
These rooms were really tiny. I am sure I’d have gone stir-crazy.
Ironic, isn’t it? No exit to inmates.
To be honest, this is a super tour, even if Karl was having a bit of a wobbly presentation day! It’s very interesting, there’s lots to see and I learned about a whole section of Irish history (how Irish freedom fighters were deported from Ireland to Australia and how they got back to Boston and Ireland via the Catalpa Escape). Go, if you have the chance! It’s worth the 20 dollars!
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