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Fremantle Prison Collection context

Fremantle Prison stands as a monument to the development of Western Australia, which relied heavily on the convict labour housed within the prison’s walls. The Convict Establishment, as the prison was first known, was built using convict labour, and was erected between 1852 and 1859. It was constructed from limestone quarried on the site. The first prisoners moved into the southern wing of the main cell block in 1855.

In 1867 the Convict Establishment was renamed Fremantle Prison. The following year transportation ceased, with the Hougoumont carrying the last convicts to Fremantle (and Australia). Nearly 10,000 convicts passed through the ‘Establishment’ between 1850 and 1868.

At first only imperial convicts were confined at Fremantle Prison, but in 1886, when there were less than 60 convicts inside a prison built to hold 1000 men, control of the Prison was transferred from the British Government to local colonial administration. Perth Gaol closed, making Fremantle Prison the colony’s primary place of confinement for men, women and juveniles.

In order to accommodate the women a wall was built around what had been the service buildings (kitchen, laundry and bakery), and they were converted for use as the first separate women’s prison in Western Australia.

The 1890s gold rush saw a population boom both in Western Australia and in Fremantle Prison. More space had to be found for the burgeoning prison population. After the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prison closed in 1902, European prisoners from Fremantle Prison were sent to the island to carry out public works, and 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 nationals, identified as ‘enemy aliens’, were incarcerated at Fremantle during the war. The Collection includes a letter written by former internee G. DeToni, on Prison stationery, in 1953 (2012.77).

Following a series of prisoner riots and growing concerns with prison conditions, a royal commission in 1983 recommended the Prison’s closure, a recommendation that had first been made almost a hundred years earlier in the 1890s. Female prisoners had already been transferred to a new facility, the Bandyup Women's Prison, in 1970.

The 1970s also saw a program of educational reform instigated in Fremantle Prison. As an example, the Prison Library was made part of the broader City of Fremantle Library Service, introducing a changing rotation of books and broadening the range of literature prisoners had access to. At the same time art and education classes began to be well attended. Much of the artwork remaining onsite originates from this period, when students were encouraged to exhibit and sell their work.

Despite positive movements in prison reform in terms of prisoner activities, the basic level of the prison’s living standards remained incontrovertible. Cells had been fitted with electricity, but not running water or toilet facilities. A riot in January 1988 led to stricter security measures, and some new works (including a new roof at considerable expense). The Prison’s days were clearly numbered.

June 1991 saw the opening of the newly-built Casuarina Prison facility, designed to replace Fremantle Prison as the state's main maximum-security prison. Prisoners from Fremantle were transferred to Casuarina in stages throughout the remainder of the year.  Fremantle Prison was finally decommissioned on 8 November 1991.

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-era prisons in the world today. It is the largest convict-built structure in Western Australia, and the most intact convict establishment in the nation.

In 2010, Fremantle Prison became the first building in Western Australia to be included on the World Heritage list. Its inscription on the World Heritage list was part of a joint nomination alongside ten other sites, now known as the Australian Convict Sites.