The town of Fremantle … looks pretty and cheerful. Conspicuous above all rises the prison, or, as it is called here, the ‘establishment’.
James Roe, Convict # 6709
Convict Prison. Henry Wray.
Courtesy of National Library of Australia.
Fremantle Prison was built as a convict barracks in the 19th century and remained in continual use until 1991. The Prison was a place of hangings, floggings, dramatic convict escapes and prisoner riots. Inmates included imperial convicts, colonial prisoners, enemy aliens, prisoners of war and maximum-security detainees.
The first convict transport sailed into Fremantle Harbour in 1850. The Convict Establishment, as the prison was first known, was built by convict labour between 1852 and 1859 using limestone quarried on the site. The first prisoners moved into the main cell block in 1855.
The Establishment was renamed Fremantle Prison in 1867. Transportation ceased the following year when the Hougoumont carried the last convicts to Fremantle. Nearly 10 000 convicts passed through the ‘establishment’ between 1850 and 1868.
At first only imperial convicts were confined at Fremantle Prison. By 1886 less than 60 convicts remained inside a prison built to hold 1000 men. Perth Gaol closed and Fremantle Prison became the colony’s primary place of confinement for men, women and juveniles. With the population boom of the 1890s gold rush, Fremantle Prison became busy once again.
More space had to be found for a burgeoning prison population. After the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prison closed in 1903, prisoners from Fremantle Prison were sent to the island to carry out public works. New Division was built and opened in 1907. During the Second World War, the Australian Defence Department sequestered part of the prison as a military detention centre. A large number of Italian Australians, identified as ‘enemy aliens’ were incarcerated at Fremantle during the war.
Following a series of prisoner riots and growing concerns with prison conditions, a royal commission in 1983 recommended the Prison’s closure. Female prisoners had already been transferred to a new facility at Bandyup Women's Prison in 1970. Fremantle was decommissioned on 8 November 1991 and its prisoners transferred to Casuarina Prison, replacing Fremantle Prison as the state's main maximum-security prison.
After its closure the WA state government embarked on a long-term conservation plan to ensure the Prison’s preservation for future generations. Fremantle Prison is one of the largest surviving convict prisons in the world today.