Doing Time in Fremantle Prison
Fremantle Prison is Western Australia’s only UNESCO World Heritage listed building. Built using convict labour in the 1850s, the prison was in use up until 1991. That means you may be lucky enough to be given a tour by a former guard or even to be joined by a former prisoner. I was given an extremely informative and entertaining tour through the maze of courtyards and cells by guide Matthew, giving an insight into prisoners’ lives within Fremantle Prison.
Huge limestone blocks create the striking gatehouse entrance to the prison, sat on a rise above Fremantle it would have been a formidable sight to convicts arriving by ship from Britain. They would have been taken to the imposing cell block, housing 1000 prisoners. Whilst the empty building is now hauntingly quiet, Matthew described a noisy, smelly scene that was easy to imagine. I noticed that there was no plumbing within the cells, nor were there any toilets within the cell block. Each prisoner had an ablutions bucket that would be emptied every morning. I expected this during the convict era but was shocked to learn that this was still the case for prisoners up until 1991!
There is an opportunity to visit the gallows (although you can skip this part of the tour if you wish). This eerie room was the place the infamous serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was hanged, the last execution to take place in Western Australia. He is buried in the nearby Fremantle Cemetery, in a grave shared with Martha Rendell, also hanged here and the only woman to ever be hanged in WA.
January 1988 was part of a very hot summer, temperatures remained over 40°C for a number of days creating a recorded indoor temperature of 52.2°C. On this day prisoners rioted, pouring boiling hot water over the heads of guards in order to steal their keys. Furniture was piled high and set alight. The flames soon reached the roof and the 140 year old jarrah timber also ignited, before collapsing. Unfortunately for the prisoners this meant they were trapped in the prison courtyard and were unable to escape as a group of 12 had planned. It took 19 hours for the fire to be brought under control, partly because the fire engines could not fit through the 1850s gatehouse. Organised Aussies there for you… Whilst plans had already been made to close Fremantle prison, this highlighted the poor conditions and unsuitability in modernity and three years later it was permanently closed.
For tour times and prices check out the Fremantle Prison website.