Fremantle Prison - The Convict Establishment

Clive Nelthorpe

chairman of the Fremantle Prison Advisory Committee

Fremantle Prison - The Convict Establishment

1 The Terrace Fremantle West Australia 6160 Australia

Major Tourist Attraction - W A Tourism Awards 2006

Anthropologists, archaeologists and historians calculate that Aboriginals have inhabited Australia for over 40,000 years.  The survival and strength of Aboriginal Society lay in group dynamics rather than the dynamics of individualism as found in most western cultures.  There were no kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers or chieftains in Aboriginal society.
Australia was settled by Europeans in 1788 when the first settlers arrived at Botany Bay (Sydney) on eastern Australia.   The Swan River colony (Western Australia) was settled by Europeans in June 1829.
Fremantle Prison played a pivotal role in the Western Australian colony, which had survived from its European settlement in 1829 to 1850 as a free settlement without convicts, although not without a struggle.  During the 1830's more people left the settlement than arrived and the colony stagnated.  However, by the late 1840's pastoralists began lobbying for convicts to be sent to the colony to solve a labour shortage, and argued that the colony would benefit from the injection of capital the establishment of a convict centre would entail.
While there appears never to have been general community support for the proposition, transportation to Western Australia was legislated in Britain in 1849 for an unlimited number of male convicts.  Ultimately, nearly 10,000 male convicts were sent to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868.

The entry to the prison complex

Originally known as The Convict Establishment and renamed Fremantle Prison in 1867, the prison complex was built to the design of Comptroller General of Convicts in Western Australia, Capt. E.Y.W. Henderson, based on the designs of Joshua Jebb, the British Controller of Prisons, and in particular Jebb's Portland Works Prison.  Originally designed to have four wings, the final two-wing plan was approved in 1852, and completed in 1859.  The final design was for four tiers of cells of the exceptionally small size of 7 feet (2.1 metres) by 4 feet (1.2 metres).  This small cell size was because the cells were intended to be used for overnight accommodation only, the convicts working outdoors during the day.  In correspondence, Jebb indicated that the use of corrugated iron cell partitions would reduce cost and be easier to ventilate than stone cells.  However, Henderson proceeded to build with stone, and retained the reduced cell size, which made the Fremantle cells cramped and poorly ventilated.
The Prison was to hold 570 men in Henderson's original proposal, 240 in association (dormitory) rooms and 330 in separate cells. Jebb did not approve of association rooms, but Henderson persisted.  The association rooms were later converted for other purposes. The Protestant Chapel, detached in Henderson's original plan, was now to be attached to the main wings.
Whilst transportation of convicts ceased in 1868, Fremantle Prison continued to be managed by the Imperial administration, housing both transported convicts serving out their sentences, and colonial prisoners until, with just 50 convicts remaining in the system, it finally passed from Imperial (British) to colonial (Western Australian) management in 1886.


Fremantle Prison is of exceptional significance to the history of Western Australia because:

  • It contains major surviving evidence of the physical apparatus of an imperial convict establishment and its adaptation for subsequent state use.
  • The establishment is the most intact such complex in Australia.
  • The Prison is the outstanding symbol of the period in which Western Australia was developed using convict labour.
  • It is a memorial to the design and supervision of the royal engineers and to the work of the sappers and miners, artisan pensioners and the prisoners.
  • Of the association of the persons who left their mark in its fabric and/or made an impact on its discipline and reputation; in particular Governors Fitzgerald and Hampton, and superintendents Lefroy, Stone, George and Hann.
  • The Prison in its present form demonstrates with some precision the facilities, conditions and attitudes prevailing in a major Western Australian prison.
  • The austere and monumental quality of the longest and tallest cell range in Australia set in a precinct characterised by a homogeneity of form, materials, texture and colour make it a landmark feature of Fremantle.(Ref. 1)
The interior of part of the main cell block

Tourism Award

Tourism plays an important role at Fremantle Prison because the income received from visitor activities is used to fund maintenance of the historic buildings, which goes a long way in preserving the site.  Since opening as a tourist venue in 1992 Fremantle Prison has become a major tourist attraction for local residents and visitors to Western Australia.  In 2006/ 2007 around 175,000 people visited the prison to experience the conditions and gain an appreciation of the cultural significance of this major heritage site.
In 2006 Tourism Western Australian recognised the significance of Fremantle Prison and awarded the Prison - The Major Tourist Attraction - at its annual awards presentation.  It was also awarded a Gold medal in the Adventure Tourism category for the Tunnels Tour and a Silver medal in the Culture and Heritage category.  Applications for these awards are submitted by all significant tourist attractions and venues from within the State of Western Australia.
Fremantle Prison is a unique attraction offering incomparable experiences as it not only gives visitors a rare view into a well preserved convict establishment and Western Australia's former maximum security prison but offers amazing experiences, such as underground adventures and spooky night thrills.  It was not built as a tourist attraction but has been adapted, without compromising its heritage significance, into one of the most original and fascinating attractions in Australia.
Tourists can enjoy a number of activities and see many features while at Fremantle Prison, including

  • Main Cell Block with examples of cells showing their adaptation over the years and experience the austere conditions.
  • Anglican Chapel.
  • Interpretation of features by tour guides
  • Refractory Cells (Solitary confinement).
  • Gallows.
  • Soft adventure tunnels tours of the original Prison water supply 20 metres below ground level.
  • Gift shop.

Heritage Recognition

Fremantle Prison is listed on the following heritage registers:
•   Classified List - The National Trust (WA) (03/10/1960)
•   Register of the National Estate - Australian Heritage Commission (23/03/1978)
•   State Register of Heritage Places - Heritage Council of Western Australia (10/01/1992)
•   Municipal Inventory of Heritage Places - City of Fremantle (22/02/2000)
•   National Heritage List - Australian Government (01/08/2005)

Reference 1 = James Semple Kerr - Fremantle Prison - A Policy for its Conservation


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