Fremantle Gaol is just one of those places that I really want to visit. I think the “Great Escapes” tour sounds really interesting, and am looking forward to walking around the gaol hearing about the escapes, both thwarted and actual.
That is, until my sooky side took over. It’s close to 40 celsius (104 fahrenheit), and the tour goes around the outskirts of the gaol. Interesting or not, I most definitely do not want to do a tour that would involve 90 minutes in direct sunlight in that sort of heat!
We get a drink in the cafe, then go into the gallery to have a look at the art display by prisoners. Many are surprisingly good, and the gallery is refreshingly air conditioned.
We settle for the tour around the inside of the prison. Ten year old Peter and nine year old Susan listen intently to our tour guide. Six year old Lucy seems to spend the tour fidgeting, but luckily three-year-old Edmund is too tired from the heat to want to walk. He just cuddles in to me, so despite an aching back lugging a toddler around, I am grateful that he doesn’t interrupt.
As we pause in the court yard, the heat reflects unpleasently back up off the pavers. “Fremantle Gaol was literally dug out. It was a limestone quarry, and the convicts had to spend their days digging out the limestone. It didn’t matter what the temperature, they still had to work.” I struggle to imagine the hellish existence it would have been in Perth’s early days to have been at His Majesty’s Leisure in Fremantle Gaol. Doing hard manual labour on a day like today would have been unbearable, and although it is on the hotter side of normal, it is not unusual. The solid limestone walls surrounding the gaol seem to merge with the ground they have been quarried from.
The cells are small, but I can’t help but think they seem much larger than the cells at the Old Melbourne Gaol. Until the guide tells us that a 19th century court decreed that the rooms were inhumanely small, so every second wall was knocked down, meaning that each room is more than double its original size. The rooms contain a bed and a bucket for use as a toilet. Cells recreate the condition of the different eras, and although they seem to be progressively more comfortable, it still couldn’t be called comfortable by any stretch of the imagination.
The reason for the wire mesh hanging level with the first floor puzzles me until the tour guide explains that it is there because convicts tried to suicide by jumping from the third floor. The wire mesh was installed to prevent them landing on the ground below and succeeding in killing themselves. Unfortunately, the wire mesh didn’t stop the convicts from being able to empty buckets full of toilet waste onto the heads of people below, so people had to be very careful to walk underneath the walkway rather than in the exposed section where the waste could land on them.
We see the site of the hangings that had taken place. I grip Edmund tighter, and pull Lucy close to me. Susan had been a toddler when we’d visited the Old Melbourne Gaol and she had run onto the trap door designed to release and drop the condemned man to his death below. Luckily, that time the old trap door had held fast. I most definitely do not want to test my luck with a second such incident.
As we leave, I struggle with the concept that this prison didn’t cease to operate as a gaol until 1991. I can easily imagine it as a 19th century gaol, but the conditions see, to harsh for a late 20th century gaol. I am also surprised to learn that the death sentence was still legal in Western Australia until 1984. I had not realised that this had been the case during my life time in Australia!