Fremantle Prison Review: Convict Western Australia

Fremantle Prison Review: Convict Western Australia

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One of the top attractions in Fremantle, Australia is the prison. It may sound strange to visit a place where people suffered so much but places of incarceration are actually a fairly common tourist attraction in Australia. As the Empire colonised the country in order to incarcerate British convicts, the first buildings are directly related to that history. I find penal colonies of Australia and their history fascinating and I find Fremantle Prison a mine of information about this period. This Fremantle Prison review will help you learn more about this fascinating historical landmark and will help you choose the best tours.

Fremantle Prison is a museum showing convict history in Western Australia
Fremantle Prison

If you are looking for what to do in Fremantle, don’t miss this great visit. The prison is one of eleven Australian Convict Sites part of the UNESCO World Heritage, along with Port Arthur in Tasmania. Also in Tasmania, Maria Island is an interesting site. In Victoria, the Old Melbourne Gaol also has some convict history.

A Fremantle Prison Review

Fremantle is the port city of Perth, the state capital of Western Australia. It has a more relaxed and multicultural feel than conservative Perth, with plenty of cool street art and a vibrant pub and café culture. As an Australian penal colony, the prison cuts an imposing figure, almost towering over the city. There are several types of tours to explore the prison and you can choose depending on what interests you the most.

This ticket will give you a prison entry ticket and a Fremantle tram tour.

There are plenty of things to do in Fremantle but I strongly encourage you to do at least one tour of the prison. Life as a convict in Australia wasn’t easy…

Fremantle Accommodation

There is plenty of options available on AirBnb Fremantle. It’s a good idea to choose something close to Fremantle cappuccino strip as it’s convenient and lively.

For cheap accommodation in Fremantle, you can even stay at the Fremantle Prison YHA.

How to get to Fremantle Prison

Fremantle is only 15 km from Perth. It’s a very pleasant drive along West Coast Hwy and Stirling Hwy or you can get there on the train. The Perth to Fremantle train runs every 15 to 30 mins. Fremantle Prison is a 20-min walk from the train station and you can’t miss its imposing figure when you arrive. When you look at the Fremantle map, you will see that it’s pretty central.

You have to go through the Gatehouse before entering Fremantle Prison
Fremantle Prison Gatehouse

Fremantle Prison Opening Hours

9am to 5pm, 7 days a week, except Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Open until 9pm on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The famous gate at Fremantle Prison must have been quite daunting for new prisoners
Fremantle Prison Gate

Fremantle Prison History

Western Australia was initially called the Swan River Colony, with a foundation date in 1829. The colony struggled to begin with, due to the harsh living conditions and lack of labour. In order to salvage the colony and assist with development of infrastructure, transportation of convicts from Britain started in 1850, after the practice ceased in the Eastern states of Australia. 

The main cell block in Fremantle Prison was built by convict labour
Main Cell Block

The “Convict Establishment” was built by convict labour between 1852 and 1859, using limestone quarried from the site. At the time, convicts stayed at the site of the Esplanade Hotel, on Fremantle’s foreshore. The first prisoners moved into the main cell block in 1855 and the Convict Establishment became Fremantle Prison. The following year, convict transportation to Western Australia ended.

A visit of Fremantle Prison will teach you the history of convict Australia
Fremantle Prison

Initially, the prison only housed imperial convicts and by 1886, there were only 60 of those in the prison. A women’s block was built the following year. In 1890, the population boomed due to the Gold Rush and the prison was busy again, this time with men, women and juveniles… As with many penal institutions, Fremantle Prison was a harsh place, where corporal punishment and psychological torture were used as ways of “reforming” Australian convicts.

At Fremantle Prison, the isolation cells are small and dark, and with very heavy doors
Isolation Cells

Prison Routine

Routine is paramount in order to manage incarceration but not much changed throughout the ages. The day started with an early wake up call (as early as 4.30am during the convict days), a prisoner count, breakfast in the cells. Prisoners went to work in the morning, had some time in the exercise yard and then went to their cells with their dinner… Diet improved in the 1960s but convict life in Australia was hard…

Fremantle Prison imposed a strict routine on the prisoners and convicts
Exercise Yard

Labour

In the early days, convict labour consisted of chain gangs for public works. As convicts arrived in Australia to build infrastructure, this made complete sense. Things became a little more complicated after the convict period ended. During the second half of the 19th century, prison labour consisted of cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the prison, tailoring, boot making and printing. The prison built new workshops in 1901 to accommodate these activities but in reality, there was little valuable work done, it was more about keeping the inmates busy.

The limestone used to build Fremantle Prison was actually quarried on site
Fremantle Prison Workshops

In 1911, outside labour stopped, due to public pressure over discipline concerns. Criminals in Australia had little opportunity to perform valuable labour. The workshops are gone but the buildings still stand today. Some of them now house events like weddings and functions.

Punishment & Gallows

Visit any penal colony in Australia and you will see that corporal punishment was in use, although staff in Freo prison often refused to inflict it… Punishments used at Fremantle Prison included flogging, solitary confinement, a bread and water diet and time in irons. Convict crimes would appear today as fairly minor, often involving stealing property.

Over 40 criminals were hanged in the gallows at Fremantle Prison
Fremantle Prison Gallows

The flogging post is still in place in one of the yards and the cat-o-nine-tails is on display. However, its use stopped after 1911.

This is my Fremantle Prison review to help you plan your visit
Flogging Post

Built in 1888, the gallows room is as creepy as any other. Throughout its history, Fremantle Prison executed 43 men and only one woman, in 1909. The last execution of Western Australia took place in 1964.

Prison Escapes

Even with all its surveillance towers and barbed wire, Fremantle Prison was never escape-proof… Australian convict life was very much about trying to escape and there has been plenty of attempts in its long history. A number of inmates succeeded but by far, the most famous escapist of Fremantle Prison was Moondyne Joe, a bushranger born in England…Convicted of stealing food and transported to Australia in 1853, he received a ticket of leave upon arrival. Moondyne Joe was arrested again for horse stealing and sent to Fremantle Prison. As he kept trying to escape, he kept getting more prison time on his sentence. 

Convicts housed in Fremantle Prison had very little space and privacy
Convict Hammocks

After a successful escape and some time on the run, he was caught again and his jailers took extraordinary measures to prevent a new escape.An escape-proof cell was made especially for him , lined with jarrah sleepers and a thousand nails. The cell has been preserved to this day…

Moondyne Joe is a famous convict who kept trying to escape and succeeded many times
Moondyne Joe Cell

For labour, he broke rocks inside the prison and under supervision. The prison governor of the time believed the plan to be perfect and was heard saying to Moondyne Joe, “if you get out again, I’ll forgive you”.

Some convicts decorated their cells by painting murals
Painted Cell

Moondyne Joe worked behind a growing pile of rocks, obstructed from view. Undetected, he fractured a hole in the prison wall and managed to escape again… After two years on the run, he was caught again. Moodyne Joe received another four years in prison, however, the new prison governor decided to honour his predecessor’s promise and granted him a ticket of leave in 1871. I don’t think the modern-day prison system would give up on a serial escapist but there you have it!

Prison Riots

Riots and discipline incidents are part of prison life and incidents occurred at Fremantle jail as early as 1854. From race riots in 1909 to strikes caused by poor food quality in 1968, keeping the peace inside the prison remained a challenge. The last and most spectacular riot happened in 1988. Hostages were taken and prison guards were injured.

The new division of Fremantle Prison had some very serious riots
New Division

More spectacularly, a fire broke out and caused $1.8M worth of damage. This event created huge media interest and criticism of conditions of incarceration. Several reviews recommended the closure of Fremantle Prison, but that was the final straw and the jail finally closed in 1991.

There was an elaborate mailbox system in Fremantle Prison so that prisoners could make requests
Mailbox System

Australian Convict Site – UNESCO World Heritage

The prison was first heritage listed in 1992 and restorations began, mostly focused on the Convict Prison. For a long time, the more recent buildings remained closed to the public. I first visited Fremantle Prison in 1999 and there was only one tour.

Fremantle Prison is now a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the Australian Convict Sites
Fremantle Prison

Fremantle Prison is now on the list of eleven Australian Convict Sites on the World Heritage List.

The atmosphere in Fremantle Prison is still one of harshness and pain
Main Cell Block – Fremantle Prison

Fremantle Prison Tours

Fremantle Prison tour times work so that you can do several tours in a day. As they are quite different and address different times in the history of the prison, it’s worth doing at least two.

There are several cells with artwork on the walls inside Fremantle Prison
Painted Cell

The Convict Prison

If you only do one Fremantle Prison Tour, do this one. It focusses on the convict period, from 1850 to 1886. The story of the building of the prison, including carving from limestone onsite is really interesting. The chapel is an elegant building. 

Fremantle Prison was initially called the Convict Establishment
Convict Establishment in Fremantle

You get a good introduction to the life of a convict in Australia, including the ticket-of-leave system. This tour does include visiting the gallows and a mock demonstration of corporal punishment. You hear about famous convicts in Australia like Moondyne Joe.

The convict chapel is quite an elegant building in the centre of Fremantle Prison
Convict Chapel

People who research their ancestry through Australian convict records may find trace of their forebears…

The prison cells in Fremantle were pretty basic
Prison Cell

Behind Bars

I combined this second tour with the Convict Prison and got to see the more recent part of the prison. You go through the process of entering the prison, the body search, the showers… The guide takes you into the new division, the more recently used exercise yards where Aboriginal inmates painted murals. Going through the kitchen, the workshops, the guide explains the general atmosphere of the modern prison and the state of tension between Australian prisoners and their guards…

Working in the kitchen was a trusted job and considered a privilege in Fremantle Prison
Prison Kitchen

The guide also tells the story of the 1988 riots in quite a lot of detail. Maybe because this tour is about the more recent period of the prison, the story feels even more cruel… It’s not too hard to imagine the intense heat of the exercise yard, with overcrowding and no shelter from the sun…

The exercise yard is where the riots started in Fremantle Prison
Exercise Yard

The Women’s Prison was built after the end of convict period. The walls are nicely painted white but the cells are small and the majority of women who spent time there told stories of poverty, petty crime and prostitution.

The Women's block was built in 1887 after the end of the convict period
Women’s Block

On this tour, it’s not uncommon for a former inmate or former guard to join in and tell their side of the story…

Fremantle Prison has miles of corridors and many jail cells
Fremantle Prison

True Crime

This tour tells stories of specific criminals, more or less famous. From imperial convicts to Irish nationalist prisoners in the old days, there are stories of more recent offenders, including the last person to be executed in Western Australia, serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke.

Some Aboriginal artists started their artistic career inside Fremantle Prison
Yard Mural

This tour is not for children under 10. 

Tunnels Tour

The Fremantle Prison tunnel tour explores underground. Prisoners excavated the tunnels through hard labour. This is definitely for the more adventurous and you need to be fit, be able to climb ladders and not be afraid of enclosed spaces.

Torchlight Tour

On Wednesday and Friday evenings, this Fremantle Prison night tour takes you through tales of pain, suffering and loneliness. Without being a Fremantle ghost tour per se, this is the hardest of tours to take.

Fremantle Attractions

My first tour of Fremantle Prison was in 1999 and there is a lot more to see today. The initial renovation favoured the convict period but depending on the tour, you can actually see quite a lot of the modern prison now. I recommend choosing at least two tours, depending on your interests. I really want to do the tunnels tour next time. 

Fremantle Prison has several exercise yards, some without any shade
Exercise Yard

Have you visited Fremantle Prison, how did you find it? Please tell me about it in the comments below!

Save these Fremantle Prison tips on Pinterest!

Read my Fremantle Prison review to decide which tour is the best for you
A visit to Fremantle Prison is a step back into convict history
Fremantle Prison is one of eleven Australian Convict Sites

18 Comments

  1. Joanne

    July 27, 2020 at 7:57 am

    I’m pretty sure that one of the first things I ever learned about Australia was its past as a British penal colony (we’re from Canada). Visiting the prisons would be so interesting. I love that they still exist for history sake. The history of Moondyne Joe is fascinating. Crazy that he was sent to Australia because he stole food!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 27, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      The story of Moondyne Joe is fascinating, I agree with you. The offences for which people were transported to Australia seem incredibly minor today. That’s why there are so many heartbreaking stories. At least Moondyne Joe ended his life a free man!

  2. Lauren Kahn

    July 27, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    I took 3 of the tours of the Fremantle Prison when I home exchanged there a few years back. I had a lot of difficulty climbing out of the tunnels after the tunnel tour. They have a way of assisting you out afterward if you have trouble. I guess I overestimated my climbing abilities in my 70s. Highly recommend the convict era & torchlight tours! I was in Fremantle for a month & had a lot of time to see everything.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 28, 2020 at 7:24 am

      I heard the Tunnels Tour is a bit tricky but visiting the underground of the prison must be fascinating. I’d like to complete all tours when I go back to Fremantle.

  3. Emma Riggs

    July 28, 2020 at 9:24 pm

    The Fremantle Prison sounds like a great one to check out. I’ve seen a couple of early convict prisons over the years, but none as comprehensive as this one. I like that you can ‘experience’ some of what it was like to be a prisoner back in those days.. it would have been so tough. My hat goes off to the guy who managed to escape multiple times!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 29, 2020 at 9:25 am

      The guy who escaped so many times, Moondyne Joe, was quite a character. But he’s not the only one who escaped from Fremantle Prison, several prisoners also had success much more recently…

  4. Linda (LD Holland)

    July 29, 2020 at 4:35 am

    I must admit I normally would not think of visiting a prison. But then we have visited both Alcatraz and Devils’ Island. You are right. They offer a fascinating look back at history. It is also interesting to see the change in attitudes towards corporal punishment over time. And I love to read about a good prison escape story. Or about other infamous “guests”.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 29, 2020 at 9:23 am

      The great thing about Fremantle Prison is that you have a fair number of famous “guests” to learn about but you also have anonymous people who come back to visit their place of incarceration. The guides say they often get people who spent a few weeks in the place because of unpaid parking fines in the 1980s… And descendants of convicts also visit. That’s why it’s still such an important place to visit in Fremantle.

  5. Candy

    July 31, 2020 at 4:19 am

    The prison escape stories are so fascinating! I didn’t know what jarrah sleepers were and had to look that up. I have read about several places around the world that give prison tours and think they are interesting yet eerie. So crazy you can even stay at this one.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      July 31, 2020 at 8:22 am

      The story of Moondyne Joe is actually quite endearing, and quite unusual for those times when repeat escapees were more likely to be punished over and over again. I would love to stay at the Youth Hostel in the prison, it looks quite comfortable.

  6. Carrie Ann

    July 31, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    Australia’s been on my list forever – one day I’ll get over those long flights and I’ll make it there. I’d love to learn more about Moondnye Joe!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 1, 2020 at 11:15 am

      The story of Moondyne Joe is great, it feels like something good and kind came out of years of suffering. We need more stories like this these days…

  7. Krista

    August 9, 2020 at 10:46 pm

    Oh wow, that’s a lot of interesting history you’ve laid out, thanks for sharing!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 10, 2020 at 7:42 am

      There are plenty stories to tell at Fremantle Prison, that’s why there are so many different tours!

  8. Barbara - Porty's Diary

    August 9, 2020 at 11:13 pm

    This is really cool! I normally don’t visit prisons, I mean, I even missed Alcatraz… 😀 But it sounds so interesting all the stories that can be told about these places!
    I wish to visit Australia one day…

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 10, 2020 at 7:41 am

      It does feel a bit weird to visit prisons but they always hold quite a few stories so it’s worth it in the end!

  9. Jessica

    August 10, 2020 at 1:59 am

    I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco and it was such an eye-opening experience! Sounds like this would have the same effect. Thanks for such a detailed post!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 10, 2020 at 7:41 am

      I would love to see Alcatraz, it’s quite a mythical prison!

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