Executions, floggings, escapes ... Fremantle Prison is full of stories, finds Pamela Wade.
Though Fremantle Prison closed in 1991, life sentences are still begun there: the chapel is a popular venue for weddings. Colin, our guide, enjoys the irony - you have to get your fun wherever you can find it, when you spend your working life inside a place like this.
From the outside, it's an attractive creamy limestone building that looks over the town, with a green lawn inside the walls and a castle-like gatehouse with a clock. Inside, though, it's dark and bare, the light split by the bars on the windows, the doors heavy and studded with iron, the floors cold under our feet. Beneath them are tunnels, dug by the convicts to supply water to the town: just one of the many essential tasks they were shipped out from England to perform in Western Australia's early history. Another was to build the prison they were to be incarcerated in when not labouring for the good of the colony, and it opened in 1850.
That's a lot of unhappy men, and women - 10,000 in fact - and though the last of them left nearly a quarter of a century ago, the empty cells are still full of misery. And colour, unexpectedly: in the last year of its life, the prisoners were allowed to decorate the walls of their cells and out in the exercise yard, and produced intensely coloured local scenes as well as daintier idealisations of the English countryside.
Before that final relaxation, though, this was a harsh place. Colin shows us the A frame in the exercise yard that men were tied to for flogging with a cat o' nine tails. That was probably more desirable than banishment to solitary: a small bare cell with a bucket, the door locked for 23 hours a day. One man spent two-and-a-half years in here. That wasn't the worst. After a solemn warning, Colin takes us to see the death chamber. A noose, well-worn, hangs above a chair that stands by a trapdoor. The last execution here took place in 1964, ending a run of 44 that included one woman and a boy of 15.
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We hear about the escape attempts, some of them successful, like the six Irish prisoners who made it to Massachusetts, and some less so. Moondyne Joe escaped so many times, but never for long, that a special escape-proof cell was built for him with extra-long nails.
There were riots at the prison, the worst in the summer of 1988 when temperatures in the cells reached 52C. Prison officers were taken hostage and a fire started that caused extensive damage and was the beginning of the end for the prison. The last prisoner left in 1991 and the following year it opened for tourism, gaining World Heritage status in 2010. Now, besides the tours and weddings, it's a venue for cocktail parties and team-building down in the tunnels. Moondyne Joe would never have believed it.
Getting there: Qantas flies from Auckland to Perth several times daily. Fremantle is 22km from Perth.
Details: In addition to Fremantle Prison, the town also has markets, a maritime museum, a brewery, galleries and lots of places to eat and stay.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism WA.