The empty cell block, once full of prisoners, now stands eerily deserted.
For almost 150 years, Fremantle Prison was a place of suffering, and a place where those who had caused suffering, were incarcerated. Murderers, rapists, thieves and other criminals have walked its hallways – and for some of them it would be the last place they would ever live.
Violence is a fundamental part of the prison’s history because of the riots, floggings and executions that occurred over the years – not to mention the violent crimes that were the reason many were locked up here in the first place. No wonder ghosts are rumored to wander the empty cell blocks.
A prisoner’s cell
These days the only people (living, at least) to be found moving about in Fremantle Prison – or Fremantle Gaol as it’s often called – are its caretakers, other workers, and tour groups. Some visitors are drawn to the prison out of interest in its long and fascinating history, others by its reputation of being haunted. The ex-prison even offers nighttime tours for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the supernatural or just soak up the spooky atmosphere.
The prison exterior
Interestingly, this was not only a facility inhabited by inmates – it was built by prisoners, too. In the 1850s, convicts sent over from the United Kingdom used limestone blocks sourced from the site itself to erect its walls and buildings. Even at this early stage, this was a place of misery and hardship, as men, far from their homes and families, toiled at the backbreaking work of quarrying and construction.
Ground floor of the empty cell block
Not all of the construction work happened above ground. Twenty meters (65.6 ft) beneath Fremantle Prison lies a labyrinth of tunnels excavated by convicts. Originally shafts had been bored into the bedrock to supply the prison with fresh water, but soon the prison reservoirs were providing water to the entire township that the inmates pumped up by hand. When the tunnel network was built in 1896, even more water could be extracted. These days, like the prison above, the tunnels are the site of tours, and they have long been the subject of myths.
A prisoner’s small stool and pail
Work on the jail itself began in 1851, and by 1855 the first inmates were incarcerated within its cells. In 1868, after more than 9,700 convicts had been transported there, Western Australia stopped importing prisoners from overseas and Fremantle Prison began to fill up with domestic felons. The penitentiary was handed over to the colonial government around this time and was soon the biggest prison in the state. It was also, until 1970, the only institution of its kind in Western Australia to hold women.
The barbed wire topping this wall is a reminder that this wasn’t just an ordinary building.
Life became little easier for the inmates once the prison had been built – although at least for the first few years prison policy centered on reform and training men to be able to work. Then, in 1862, John Hampton, the cruel and oppressive Governor of Western Australia, was appointed. Hampton oversaw proceedings at the institution from 1865 to 1867 with what has been described as the “methods of the ‘white overseer’ of the slave plantation.”
Now that the prison is a museum, much of the old furniture and equipment has been preserved.
Hampton favored increased flogging and the use of solitary confinement as punishments for unruly prisoners. The whipping of those caught trying to escape was performed using the infamous cat o’ nine tails, a fearsome instrument consisting of nine knotted cords designed to slash open the skin. As many as a hundred lashes were ordered; a method of punishment that was not only agonizing in the extreme but which left permanent scars on the body.
There are reminders everywhere that people once lived here.
Solitary confinement may not have been as physically painful as a form of punishment, but when stretched out for up to nine months it was just as torturous in its own way. Prisoners were kept alone, sometimes in the dark of a windowless cell, and were limited to rations of bread and water. Understandably, those who were confined this way suffered the psychological effects of their isolation, and in the dark cells were without awareness of day or night.
A small barred window seen from the outside.
Compounding the task of hard labor was the punishment of applying leg irons to prisoners, and for ten hours a day. This penalty naturally caused the prisoners to suffer extreme pain and injury. No wonder so many tried to escape around this time – notwithstanding the threat of serious punishment if caught.
The recreation yard, where prisoners were once flogged.
Of course, the most serious punishment meted out in Fremantle Prison was death. Not long after the colonial government took charge of the penitentiary, they built an execution chamber within its walls. Death was by hanging, and Fremantle Prison became the only place in Western Australia where people could be legally executed from 1888 to 1984.
There were once men who lived out the entire remainder of their lives behind these doors.
The first hanging took place in 1889, when Jimmy Long, a Malay sailor, was sentenced to death for murder. A newspaper from the time gives a poignant account of an elderly looking man who wrote a farewell letter to his parents before going stoically to his death.
Nets were strung between floors, no doubt for the prisoners’ safety.
The last execution – in 1964 – was of serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, who was convicted of murder after a string of violent crimes and killings carried out over a four-year period in Perth. In all, 43 men and one woman were executed at Fremantle Prison.
One of the fittings of everyday life in the prison
One of the prison’s most infamous criminals, and the only woman to be hanged there, was Martha Rendell, who met her end in 1909. Rendell is said to have killed three of her lover’s children in a prolonged and excruciating way – by swabbing their throats with hydrochloric acid – and was convicted of murder. In a creepy aside, a ghostly image that people claim to be of Rendell’s face can be seen on one of the prison chapel windows – but only from the outside!
A modern form of entertainment from the prison’s later days
Hangings at Fremantle Prison were generally carried out at 8am on Monday mornings, after the executioner had checked that all the necessary equipment was in working order. Condemned men were given a shower and breakfast, and offered the comfort of both a priest and a glass of whiskey. Just before the execution, the prisoner’s hands were tied and his head covered with a hood. The whole procedure seems to have been carried out with alarming efficiency.
More fittings, obviously much used in their time
During the two World Wars, the Australian Army commandeered part of the prison to use for military detention. Throughout this time, both soldiers convicted of crimes and civilians of ‘suspect’ ethnicities – Germans, Italians and Japanese – were interred here.
With all the tiny windows and bars, there’s no mistaking the former purpose of this facility.
The civilian detainees incarcerated during WWII were released as the war drew to a close – when the government realized that the nation’s need for manpower was greater than the threat posed by the presence of people of other nationalities on its shores.
Bunk beds in a cell
Ghosts and stories are not the only things the inmates of Fremantle left behind when the prison was decommissioned in 1991. While languishing in their cells, many also took to drawing or painting on the walls. The works of one of the more famous incarcerated artists, 19th-century forger James Walsh, were rediscovered under layers of whitewash in 1964.
The disused basketball court
Walsh, who died in the prison, had etched his drawings onto the wall of his cell with a metal button in poor or with non-existent lighting, careful to hide them under layers of gruel each day – for he would have been punished if found out. Proof that a creative spirit will find a way to express itself in even the most difficult circumstances.
A view that would have been unseen by many prisoners once locked up, the exterior
One of the final notable incidents to happen at the prison was the riot of 1988. Seventy inmates took 15 prison officers hostage, injuring some of them, as well as setting fire to part of the prison and causing well over a million dollars’ worth of damage. The bad prison conditions that were at least partly to blame for the riot eventually led to Fremantle’s closure just two years later.
A prison office: Not everyone in here was an inmate
These days, the prison is a museum and is on the Australian National Heritage List. People visit the place both during daylight hours and at night, on eerie candlelight tours.
So-called psychic mediums have also investigated the site for traces of the paranormal, with apparently positive results. Positively creepy! Some have even reported capturing strange shadows and “orbs” of light in their photographs of the disused prison. Although we haven’t seen any in these in the shots by photographer Mauro Marzo, we can see why the eerie look of a place with the history it has got might make anyone believe it’s haunted.