Fremantle Prison

On our first trip to Fremantle we did the obvious thing and visited the imposing Fremantle prison.

Main Entrance to Fremantle Prison

Early History

While the Swan River colony was established originally as a “free” colony, there were always plans to expand it. And what better way than by using prisoners as free labour. By the 1840s demand for cheap labour became too much and the colony agreed to accept convicts from Britain. Just like the eastern states, Western Australia was built (initially at least) off the sweat of convicts.

Oddly, Fremantle prison is not automatically called a ‘gaol’ as most of the others we have visited in Australia. It was built by the convicts who would serve their time there. They would then be expected to stay and farm locally on their release. Over time the colony would expand and thrive.

The first convicts arrived from Britain in 1850 to support the colony’s dwindling population, and it soon became apparent that the temporary prison (the Round House) was inadequate. So the convicts built the new gaol, which was opened in 1855 and continued to be used as Fremantle’s prison until as recently as 1991. It housed British convicts, local prisoners, military prisoners, enemy aliens and prisoners of war. In August 2010, Fremantle Prison was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This gaol was used for convicts up to 1868, long after convict transportation had ceased in the eastern states.

Inside the Prison Block

Typical single occupancy cell
Four sharing one cell

Church of England Chapel
Prison Catholic Church. Paintings done by prisoners.
Artists were encouraged to practice their skills in their cell


The problem with constructing a prison in such a remote location meant that the cost of shipping in building materials was prohibitive. Local materials were needed and so it was constructed from local limestone. However, this rock is soft and it was easy to carve out. The prisoners knew this of course and hence there were many escape attempts.

That proved to be largely unimportant however as there really was nowhere for escapees to go. The unforgiving environment coupled with its remoteness meant that most escaped prisoners were soon knocking on the door to be let back into the prison. Then they would serve their time and become new citizens. There were some successful escapes but only by those who had some serious outside help which had to include a ship to get as far away as possible.

Exercise yard

Basic gym equipment. The prison only closed in 1991

Moondyne Joe

Joseph Bolitho Johns, better known as Moondyne Joe, was Western Australia’s best known bushranger. His story proves that real life is indeed stranger than fiction.

Joseph Johns – aka Moondyne Joe

Born in Cornwall and already a prisoner in the British system, Johns first arrived at Fremantle in 1853 as just another convict. After two years (of good behaviour) he received a conditional pardon in 1855. He then settled in the Avon Valley but was arrested for horse stealing in 1861. During his sentence he made several escapes.

In July 1865, Johns was sentenced to ten years for killing a steer. He soon absconded from a work party and was on the run for nearly a month, during which time Johns adopted the nickname Moondyne Joe.  When caught, Moondyne Joe was sentenced to twelve months in irons. In July 1866 he received a further six months in irons for trying to cut the lock out of his door, but later succeeded in escaping again.

As punishment for escaping ‘Joe’ received five years hard labour on top of his remaining sentence. Incredible measures were taken to ensure that he didn’t escape again. A special “escape-proof” cell was prepared for him. The soft stone cell was lined with the hard jarrah wood and over 1000 nails. In early 1867 Moondyne Joe was set to work breaking stone, but rather than let him to leave the prison, the acting governor ordered that the stone be brought in and dumped in a corner of the prison yard, where ‘Joe’ worked (supposedly) under  constant supervision. The Governor was so confident of the arrangements, he was heard to tell ‘Joe’: “If you get out again, I’ll forgive you”.

Moondyne Joe’s “escape proof” cell, clad in very hard Jarrah wood.

It turned out that the rock broken by Moondyne Joe was not removed regularly, and eventually a pile grew up until it obscured the guard’s view of him below the waist. Partially hidden behind the pile of rocks, he was able to take an occasional swing at the prison’s outer wall with his sledgehammer. Sure enough in March 1867 Moondyne Joe escaped through the hole he had made in the wall. A few days before the second anniversary of his escape, Moondyne Joe was recaptured, returned to prison, and sentenced to an additional four years in irons. Eventually, the new Governor heard of his predecessor’s promise, and decided that further punishment would be unfair. Moondyne Joe was released in May 1871.

In the early days prisoners were tied to this device for a whipping

Some prisoners clearly maintained a sense of humour
Office left as was when prison closed
Photo taken shortly before the prison closed. What a difference! Who says prisons have gone soft?
Admin. Office
Obligatory pose for Daniel when we visit these places…

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