The Gaol Wall Blew Over?

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Oceania » Australia » Western Australia » Fremantle
September 3rd 2021
Published: April 20th 2022
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Thanks to our beloved Qantas we've got another day here in Perth, so we head back up to Kings Park. It seems that we’re here during the annual Kings Park Festival which is apparently timed to coincide with the blossoming of wildflowers in the south west of the State. We walk up through the Park’s Western Australian Botanic Garden which we read displays more than 3,000 species of the State's unique flora. It’s still a bit chilly, if not quite as Antarctic-like as it was yesterday. We come across some boab trees. It seems that they’re a parochial lot over here in the west; a map shows the boab habitat as being solely in the WA Kimberley, and stopping abruptly at the Northern Territory border. I wonder if they have a team of highly trained botanists patrolling the fence line (I'm not sure there is actually a fence) making sure none of their treasured trees manage to take root over in the dastardly NT. I'm even more curious about how they manage to keep the boab’s here alive in a climate so different from the one they’re supposed to live in. We can’t see any large ovens or massive monsoon producing showers anywhere nearby, but maybe they only wheel them out at night when everyone’s gone home.

We head back down to Fremantle and check in for a tour of the Old Fremantle Gaol, which is apparently Western Australia’s only World Heritage Listed building. Our guide Matthew tells us that in the early days of the Swan River Colony it was difficult to attract settlers, as most of the action was perceived to be over on the east coast. The Colony was originally a convict free zone, but convicts were eventually introduced to provide the labour needed to build the roads, bridges and other infrastructure required to attract more settlers. The Gaol was opened in 1855 to house the convicts, and it operated until 1991; locally sentenced prisoners were housed here from 1886. It looks like something out of the dark ages, and it's a bit frightening that it was operational until so relatively recently. In the late 1980s some of the prisoners, perhaps unsurprisingly, became a bit unhappy when they started to find maggots in their food. The situation came to a head in 1988 when there was a prisoner riot. The prisoners took some of the guards hostage and then tried to burn down one of the cell blocks. Order was only restored after the army was called in and managed to negotiate a settlement. We’re taken into the execution chamber where more 40 prisoners were hung over the years, the last in 1964. This chamber was the only lawful place of execution in the State from 1888 until the death penalty was abolished here in 1984. We're told that Western Australia was the last of our states to abolish capital punishment, and even then the decision was met with a lot of resistance.

The Gaol's outer and cell block walls are all made of soft local sandstone which it seems has presented some challenges over the years. Not the least of these was that one of the outer walls at one stage blew over in a storm, which is perhaps just slightly less than ideal for a high security prison. The stone was also so soft that prisoners could gouge holes in it with their fingers, and they then used the cavities to hide contraband tossed over the walls by associates on the outside. Another notable design mistake was building one of the cell blocks just a tad too close to one of the outer walls. A few of the more agile inmates managed to scale the downpipes and jump to freedom. It was a bit too late by then to move the wall or the cell block, so the response was to cover the downpipes in grease and put large metal collars on them to make them a bit harder to climb. The prison was only sewered relatively late in its history, and well after the rest of Fremantle; the thinking was that it would be a waste of money to sewer somewhere that only held a bunch of criminals. I wonder what the warders thought about that particular decision. Because there was no sewerage all the prisoners had their own buckets which had to be emptied every morning. If a prisoner took a dislike to an officer the usual trick was to “accidentally” empty it onto his head from one of the upper floors. Notable former residents include AC/DC's late lead singer, Bon Scott, who spent a short time here as an eighteen year old for stealing petrol. A serial killer inmate was notorious for running over his random victims. As a result it’s now illegal to leave your car unlocked anywhere in Western Australia. I hopefully push the "lock" button on the hire car key, but I suspect there might be a few too many thick walls in the way for that to be particularly effective.

Matthew tells us that Fremantle was historically an industrial area, and this only started to change when the America’s Cup was held here in 1987. It’s become much more gentrified since and is now a bit of a bohemian zone and a hub for the arts and culinary pursuits, as well as a tourist mecca. It was originally planned to bulldoze the Gaol as soon as it closed until someone realised its tourist potential; it was opened for tourism very shortly after it ceased operation as a prison.

We wander through the streets of old Fremantle. There seems to a pub on almost every corner, and lots of very attractive old Victorian and Edwardian buildings including the still very active Fremantle Markets. ....and its reputation as a culinary centre seems to be well deserved; every second shop seems to be a restaurant.

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