From Behind Bars
-By Jen Hamilton
Every issue, Australian Construction Focus profiles a structure of unique historical, cultural, or environmental significance. This month, we take a closer look at Fremantle Prison in Fremantle, WA.
The first fleet of convicts set sail from Britain in 1787 to establish the earliest penal colony in Australia. From that moment, British convict transportation significantly impacted Australian colonial development, until the last shipment of prisoners landed at Fremantle in January, 1868. During this period, more than 160,000 prisoners were sent from Britain to Australia; of these, nearly 10,000 completed their sentences behind the bars of Fremantle prison.
The port city of Fremantle began as part of the Swan River Colony in 1829. It was originally established as a free settlement; no convicts landed with these first settlers. Through its early years, the colony struggled intensely. Inhospitable conditions, inarable land and a lack of food caused many settlers to leave for the more favourable eastern colonies. Increased emigration translated to worker shortages, lacking infrastructure, and continued agricultural strife. Development was slow and, by the 1840’s, depression and desperation caused members of the colony to demand the establishment of a large scale British penal colony at Swan River. At that time, the transportation of prisoners was not only a means of convict punishment and crime deterrence, but was also a source of labour to build the needed infrastructure and to aid with suffering agriculture in developing colonies.
On June 1, 1850, the first 75 Swan River colony convicts landed at Fremantle under the charge of Captain and Comptroller-General of Convicts, E.Y.W. Henderson. The settlement did not have a place to house the arriving prisoners, so they were lodged in a warehouse and outbuildings leased by the Harbour Master, Daniel Scott. Clearly, this was only acceptable as a temporary solution and, as more convicts set sail, a need arose for a proper prison.
Captain Henderson designed a prison himself, based on the works of Joshua Jebb, British Surveyor-General of Prisons. Once the design received final approval, a company of labourers, skilled workers, and Royal Engineers arrived in 1852 to begin construction on the (now) Fremantle Prison.
Set atop a limestone ridge overlooking Fremantle, the prison consisted of a 145 metre long, 4-storey cell block comprising two wings adjoining a Chapel, with two large dormitories at the end of each wing. Limestone quarried from that very ridge was used to construct the prison, the gatehouse, and other structures on the compound. By 1855 prisoners could be moved from the temporary residence into the prison but construction was not complete until 1859. In the time between 1852 and 1859 the main cell block, chapel, hospital, service buildings (cook house, bake house, laundry), gatehouse, perimeter walls, officers’ quarters and several other outbuildings were all constructed using convict labour.
Accommodation for inmates within the prison was cramped and miserable. The tiny cells measured only 1.2 metre by 2.1 metre and buckets were provided for latrines. In fact, toilets were never installed within the cells of the prison which remained operational as a state penitentiary until 1991. Initially, running water was provided to each cell, but leaking pipes and foul smells necessitated the removal of the basins in the 1860s.
Residences for wardens and officers of the prison were also built on the compound in a symmetrical arrangement. They remained simple but were certainly better lodgings than the accommodation within the prison. Some of the guards’ cottages were of simple Georgian design; others were of a more decorative Victorian styling. The two storey houses built for senior officers were more substantial, each with a kitchen, two dressing rooms, three bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a shed. Later, verandahs were added to combat hot summer days and limestone walls were erected to separate each of the gardens.
Additions and changes to the structure have been made throughout the years, including a tunnel system dug by hand beneath the compound to provide water for the prison and the town, a wall built around the service buildings to accommodate female prisoners when the Perth Gaol was closed in 1889, the erection of walls within the cell block to segregate prisoners by nature of crime, and the construction of workshops to provide occupation for prisoners. Despite the changes, life behind bars at Fremantle Prison remained bleak and often cruel.
A life of toil and discipline was thought to aid in rehabilitation of convicted criminals. Labour was hard and punishing, bad behaviour was penalised with leg irons and longer hours in the field. Corporal punishment was commonplace with floggings by cat o’ nine tails or a bundle of birch twigs. Solitary confinement and restricted diets were used as forms of forced discipline. Capital punishment also occurred when the gallows were built in 1888. Between then and 1964, 44 convicted murderers were hanged at Fremantle Prison.
Attitudes toward punishment began to change in the early 20th century. A new strategy of segregation was implemented at Fremantle. Prisoners were completely isolated from all other inmates for the first three months of their sentence. The objective of this form of prisoner management was solitary reflection and repentance. The new philosophy required that a new division be added to the prison including a panopticon style exercise yard with a central guard tower surrounded by separate exercise cells for individual prisoners.
Prisoner management ideals continued to progress and several inquiries were made into the conditions at Fremantle Prison. As a result, cell size was expanded by knocking down the walls between alternate cells. In spite of the inquiries, politics interfered and few other changes were made to improve the living conditions of the inmates. Complaints of overcrowding, poor administration, ill-treatment from officers, vermin infestation and poor ventilation continued. Then, on January 4, 1988, prisoner tensions mounted. A riot erupted in which guards were taken hostage and several fires were deliberately lit. After about 19 hours all guards were set free and the inmates surrendered to the riot squad.
Conditions in the prison were finally brought to the attention of the public but by this time plans were already in the works to decommission Fremantle Prison and begin conservation efforts to create a National Heritage site. In 1991 all remaining inmates were transferred to Casuarina Prison and future historic and tourism developments were researched for the newly closed Fremantle Prison.
Since this time a number of restoration and repair works have been completed at the site as part of the Fremantle Prison Conservation and Future Use Project. With the support of much research and investigation, the original stencils and finishes have been reinstated in the cottages, steelwork, joinery, and stonework has been repaired in the Main Cell Block, and a number of surfaces have been repainted to match historic findings. Cement render applied to the Chapel and Gatehouse during the 1960s has been removed and the original limestone facades restored.
Along with the restoration projects, many adaptations have been made to accommodate future use of the prison while maintaining its historic character. Many outbuildings have been converted for use as offices, short-term accommodation, and bed and breakfasts, and the women’s prison is now used as an art and jewellery studio. Efforts have also been made to make the site a more fascinating tourist experience. The gatehouse now includes a cafÃ©, visitors centre, gallery, and more. The underground tunnels have been reinforced with access and safety systems installed to make an exciting adventure tourism experience. Another popular attraction is the six adjoining cells refurbished to each reflect a different time period in the prison’s history and the harsh conditions in which inmates spent their daily lives.
As a result of its intact character and long standing historical significance, over 170,000 people visit Fremantle Prison each year and, in 2010, it was listed with 10 other Australian convict sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The prison will remain a physical reminder of the large-scale transportation of British convicts and their contribution to the development of Australia’s colonies. Whether you are interested in exploring the nation’s convict history, researching the social impact and ideological changes of prison systems throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, or merely interested in the many characters and stories developed behind the bars at Fremantle Prison, it is surely a place to be visited.