Believe it or not, there is more to Fremantle than its charming maritime atmosphere. Behind its demure façade, there are several grim stories of true crime and lawlessness which date back to the seaside town’s early days as a convict settlement. For those wanting to delve into some of the historical scandals, ghost stories and darker aspects of Fremantle’s history, there are several historic sites for you to explore across the city.
Fremantle Prison is the largest convict-built structure in Western Australia and in 2010 was the first Western Australian building to be included on the World Heritage List. The prison was built as barracks for convicts in the 19th century and functioned as a maximum-security jail until 1991. Part of the prison was sequestered by the Australian Defence Force in World War II as a military detention centre with many Italian Australians, identified as ‘enemy aliens’, incarcerated at the prison during the war. A royal commission into the prison was conducted in 1983 following a series of prisoner riots and concerns over poor conditions. The prison was decommissioned in November of 1991 with prisoners transferred to Casuarina Prison.
Today visitors to Fremantle Prison are offered several opportunities to explore the bleak history of the jail. For those particularly interested in the prison’s convict history, the Convict Prison Tour gives insight into the period from construction in the 1850s to the end of the convict era in 1886 following the lives of the almost 10,000 convicts who were transported from Great Britain and Ireland to Fremantle. A second tour, Behind Bars, allows you to travel back to 1887 to explore the prison’s history as a maximum-security jail. Discover the main cell block and exercise yards and gain an understanding of a day in the life of a prisoner. Those looking for gripping stories of crimes past should consider the True Crime Tour which tells stories of the prison’s most notorious inmates and the impact of their crimes on the local community. You may even spot the vision of Martha Rendell, the only woman to be hanged at the prison. A stain on the glass of a window overlooking the prison yard is said to bear striking resemblance to Martha’s profile but can only be seen at certain times of day. Finally, if you are in the mood for a night-time adventure the Torchlight Tour will take you through the depths of the prison’s dark halls to hear the cries of loneliness, pain and suffering which echo in the corridors at night as you enjoy the sordid stories which constitute the prison’s dark history. Fremantle Prison is open every day from 9am to 5pm. Times for specific tours can be located on the prison’s website.
The oldest surviving building in WA, the Roundhouse, was constructed in 1830. Up until 1886, the building functioned as a jail securing any individuals convicted of a crime in the Fremantle Colonies. A tunnel dug below the structure was used as a whaler’s tunnel used to drag whales from Bather’s Beach ashore for processing. WA’s first legal execution occurred at the Roundhouse in 1844 when 15-year-old John Gavin was convicted of killing the son of a farmer who owned the farm where John worked near Pinjarra. After his execution, John’s body was buried in an unmarked grave in the sandhills adjacent to the Roundhouse. It is rumoured that the eerie noises heard around the Roundhouse are from the ghost of John protesting his innocence.
Visitors to the Roundhouse can wander around this historic building and marvel at its profound history. The building sits atop a hill on Captains Lane and offers panoramic views of Cockburn Sound from the headland overlooking the river mouth. A team of volunteers is present between 10:30am – 3:30pm each day and perform a demonstration of the signal station, gunfire and dropping of the time ball at 1:00pm.
Fremantle Arts Centre
Built by convicts, the building now known as Fremantle Arts Centre, first opened its doors in 1864 as a lunatic asylum. All inmates were placed under punitive control with the asylum soon becoming a depository for anyone displaying a social problem be that alcoholism, prostitution and even old age. In 1909 the asylum was declared a Poor House and used to house women who could no longer live in the government’s decaying Home for Women. A number of stories colour the building’s history during this time. Darker tales tell of adolescents suffering from veneral disease getting locked on the building’s upper floor kept away from public eye. There’s also many a story of girls escaping and men attempting to quarry holes into the home’s limestone walls. The building threatened demolition in 1958 however was saved by then-Mayor, Sir Frederick Samson who sought to turn the historic site into a museum. It wasn’t until 1973 that the Fremantle Arts Centre was officially opened.
Today visitors to the centre are treated to a range of world-class art exhibitions, live concerts in the centre’s grounds and art classes. Explore the ancient gothic architecture and rich history of the building whilst revelling in a diverse selection of contemporary art. Fremantle Arts Centre is open daily from 8am – 5pm with all galleries open from 10am – 5pm. Further information on current exhibitions and upcoming events can be found here.
Fremantle Cemetery – Heritage Walk Trail
Fremantle Cemetery is home to some of WA’s oldest gravestones and is the resting place of several notable and notorious individuals who all contributed in various ways to the shaping of this historical port city. Some of Fremantle’s most infamous crooks were laid to rest in the cemetery including serial murderer Eric Edgar Cooke who shot and killed numerous people in the mid-60s and child murderer Martha Rendell, convicted for killing her de facto husband’s children by painting their throats with hydrochloric acid. Visitors to the cemetery will also find an equal number of distinguished individuals, perhaps most noteworthy is Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott, lead singer of rock group AC/DC from 1974 to 1980.
The cemetery has a set walking trail suitable for all ages with informational signs at particular points of interest. For a trail map make, sure to stop by the administration building, located in the original caretaker’s lodge which was constructed in 1901 from traditional limestone.