Escape! Fremantle to Freedom

An exhibition on the greatest prison break in Australian history

Based on the story of the Irish Fenians transported to the Convict Establishment at Fremantle in 1868, the exhibition charted the successful escape of their leader, John Boyle O'Reilly a year later on an American whaler, and the remaining Fenians in 1876 on board the American whaler Catalpa.

The Fenians were amongst the last convicts to be sent to Western Australia and their arrival signalled the end of the convict era in Australia. The exhibition traced the story from Ireland, to Australia, to the USA, and examined convict life in Australia's last convict prison.

On 21 September 2006, Escape! From Fremantle to Freedom was launched at Fremantle Prison. Escape! then toured across the country with the support of Visions of Australia. Curated by Sandra Murray, Head Curator, Fremantle Prison.

Exhibition Highlights

Exhibition material included artefacts, artworks, film, books, letters, diaries, photographs and uniforms from Ireland, Australia and the USA. Highlights:

  • The Wild Goose newsletters written by the Fenians on board the Hougoumont during the voyage to Australia, and the 1871 conditional pardon of John Flood, one of the Fenians' with wax seal from the State Library of NSW
  • Fenian convict diaries from on board the Hougoumont, courtesy National Library of Ireland
  • A unique John Boyle O'Reilly book of poems from the Battye Library, State Library of WA never publicly shown before
  • Artworks, maps, photographs and historic newspaper articles from the time
  • Western Australian Convict and Enrolled Pensioner Guard uniforms
  • Rare convict artefacts from Fremantle Prison Collection
  • Rare Fenian material from Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin and the National Museum of Ireland including the death mask of John Boyle O'Reilly
  • Government documents from the enquiry, courtesy WA State Archives, State Library of WA

For more information see Sandra Murray’s essay featured in the Australian National Maritime Museum's quarterly journal Signals.
Click here to download the pdf form of the essay (934KB).
Click here to download the pdf form of the essay, text only (32KB).

Education Kits

Touring Details

The exhibition toured nationally from 2006 to 2008 with funding from Visions of Australia, an Australian Government program.

21 Sept - 3 Dec 2006 Fremantle Prison
12 Jan - 28 Mar 2007 WA Museum Geraldton
14 Apr - 20 May 2007 Bunbury Regional Art Galleries
1 Jun - 22 Jul 2007 WA Museum Albany
9 Aug - 25 Nov 2007 Australian National Maritime Museum
15 Dec 2007 - 24 Feb 2008 Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens
11 Mar - 1 Jun 2008 South Australian Maritime Museum


Gary Tonkin (b1949)
Escape of the Fenians 1998-99
hand-engraved scrimshaw on sperm whale tooth pigmented
with Indian ink
Private Collection
Photo - Andrew Cross

Voyages of the Fenians - Transportation, Rescue Missions and Escapes 2006
Fremantle Prison Collection

The Wild Goose: A Collection of Ocean Waifs,
Christmas Number 1867

cloth bound manuscript
Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
'The Rescued Six'
The Irish World
2 September 1876, p. 5