I am so excited to share with you one of the tours I went on today at the Fremantle Prison. I did two tours of the Prison and while one was great from a history-discovering perspective, the other was a stand-out. More on that later. Like with most heritage blog posts I’ve done over the years, I’m going to begin with an overview of the Prison’s history and then go into why it is heritage listed. Included in the latter will be what kinds of heritage listing it has – there are a few. Then, I will move into discussing the tours. Old prisons have always fascinated me. There are a number of reasons why. My interest in heritage, true crime and abandoned places all intertwine in this context. Prisons are also spaces that represent difficult histories and although grappling with that can be challenging, it is also important. How we look to display and interpret history always has room for improvement so I find these tours are fascinating from the perspective of storytelling. The two tours I went on today were quite different in tone and subject matter which I hope will make for an interesting read!
History of the Prison
I am going to keep this as brief as possible, only including some major events and historical information. Full disclosure, I used to work on Cockatoo Island in Sydney which is filled with convict history. For this reason, I do find myself particularly interested in the convict era and that has definitely influenced my perception of the Prison. Anyway, back to the history. First and foremost, it is on the land of the Noongar Indigenous people who have been living in Perth for at least 40 000-45 000 years (most likely a lot longer than that).
Fremantle Prison was originally built as a convict barracks between 1852 and 1859. It operated as a prison until 1991 which is unbelievably recent. Over the years, the Prison housed convicts, colonial prisoners, prisoners of war, and maximum-security inmates. The convict history of Perth is so different to what I’ve been exposed to in Brisbane and Sydney. For example, Perth wanted convicts to help with building up the city and making it a more attractive place for people to settle. In 1850, they finally got their wish with the first convict transport arriving in Fremantle Harbour. Basically, it was used as a convict prison until 1867.
Between 1867 and 1886 the Prison was used for imperial convicts and things were really quiet. Then came the gold rush in the 1890s and once again, the Prison became full. For the next almost 100 years the Prison served as the main, and sometimes only, prison in Western Australia. Conditions were grim. There was no plumbing, cells were tiny and it didn’t even have a dining/mess hall. In 1983 a Royal Commission into prison conditions recommended the Prison’s closure. This was also raised by prisoners themselves who protested against the conditions. In 1991 the prisoners were transferred to a new facility at Casuarina. It took just one year for the Prison to turn into a heritage tourism site and the first tour guides were some of the guards.
The Prison is state, national, and world heritage listed. Here is a bit of information on each listing.
The Prison is state-listed on the State Register of Heritage Places for its exceptional cultural heritage significance. This includes the fact it is the largest and most intact convict prison left in Australia. The listing also mentions things such as, it is an important symbol of convict labour in Western Australia and serves as an example of imperial convict public works.
After being state-listed, the Prison became listed on the National Heritage List on August 1, 2005. In order to be listed, the Prison had to meet some criteria. Under the National Heritage criteria for listing, Fremantle prison ticks five boxes: a, b, c, d, and g. A – it has value due to its importance in the course of Australia’s history, B – it possesses uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of Australia’s history, C – it has the potential to yield information to contribute to an understanding of history, D – it demonstrates the principal characteristics of a class of Australia’s cultural places and G – it has a special association with a particular community or cultural group.
Last, but certainly not least, we have its world heritage listing. In July 2010 the Prison was added to the list along with ten other Australian convict sites (see photograph below). There is a fantastic overview of its listing and history on the Fremantle Prison’s website. Here is the link for those interested: https://fremantleprison.com.au/history-heritage/heritage/heritage-significance/world-heritage-list/.
Massive sidenote before moving on to the tours. There is a small museum and gallery space in the entrance courtyard that is worth looking through if you have time. Inside the museum is a visible storage area where you can see conservators working on some of the objects. There are also shelves of objects waiting to be catalogued or restored. Creating that transparency between front-of-house and back-of-house roles in a museum is something I do love seeing. Rather than someone’s office, it is a workshop-like set-up. So one person isn’t working all day with visitors watching them. That would be intense.
Behind Bars Tour
I’m going to save the best tour until last. So to start, Behind Bars was the second tour I did during my visit. There is a convict history tour and true crime tour available. However, I was given the advice to go on this tour because you get to see more of the Prison and hear about a longer timespan of history. Ultimately, this was good advice because the tour covers a lot – basically the history from 1887 to 1991. Although just 1 hour and 15 minutes long, you do get to hear many stories and see how life was for prisoners. In one of the buildings, you can see recreations of cells from the convict era up to 1991. This helped me to visualise exactly how shocking the conditions had been. As a warning, they do guide you through the gallows on this tour so if you’re not ok with seeing that kind of content there is a warning and you can sit outside.
Overall I found the tour informative and a great way to see the Prison. Like any short tour, there were times I wanted to hear more information, but we just didn’t have the time. I would love to see an Indigenous-led tour of the facility and that perspective highlighted for visitors.
If you are looking for a more adventurous tour of the Prison then look no further. I would highly recommend pairing this with one of the Prison tours because this one does not actually go inside the Prison. Instead, you make your way about 20m underground to explore the tunnels built by convicts. When I read about this tour I knew I had to book a spot. I love exploring different spaces and going on unique tours. Warning – this is not for everyone. If you don’t like heights, boats or small spaces do not book this tour. I wasn’t sure how I’d go with heights, but it all ended up being ok.
You start the tour with a brief introduction to the tunnels. They were built by convicts to provide the Prison, and later Fremantle, with a freshwater supply. Then, you get to pop on a hardhat and some epic gumboots and descend down into the tunnels. The sheer amount of paperwork that would have been required to start this tour is just amazing. Well done to them for making this a reality. Once you are 20m underground you are guided through the tunnels at first, by foot. The water almost came up to our knees it was so deep! But you get to see things like shells, tree roots, and pickaxe marks (yes the tunnels were all handmade with tiny pickaxes). Then, after a bit of a walk and talk, you are guided onto a replica convict punt boat to further enter the tunnels. Think gondola ride in a cave. Along the way there a few things pointed out like a plaque acknowledging the convicts who built the tunnels. It would have been incredibly hard work with some expected to work over 6 hours each day in knee-deep water.
At the end of our boat ride, we climbed back up to ground level and heard a little bit more about the tunnels. After a while, the water’s salt content became too high so they closed down the supply. In total, it took about 5 years to build the entire network of tunnels.
If this sounds like you would be interested, then 100% pre-book it through their website. All tours had sold out before the Prison had even opened on the day I visited. I highly recommend this as an interesting experience. Not one that really goes in-depth about the Prison’s history, but one that can run parallel to another tour and make your day truly memorable.
It is a 2.5 hour tour and unlike the other prison tours, it is definitely not accessible. Make sure you read up about this tour before you book to make sure you are ok with the terms and conditions.
Fremantle Prison is open 7 days a week between 9am and 5pm (open until 9pm on Wednesday and Friday nights). The tours do come with a fee so make sure you look into buying a tour package if you want to do multiple tours. There is a cafe onsite and heaps of parking but it is equally easy to get there from Perth via train. Below are the accessibility percentages for each tour (meaning how much of the tour is accessible):
- Behind Bars Tour – 90%
- True Crime Tour – 80%
- Torchlight Tour – 70%
- Convict Prison Tour – N/A
- Tunnels Tour – N/A