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Video clip synopsis – Built by convicts in 1850, Fremantle Prison is the best-preserved convict-built prison in Australia and is part of the earliest phase of European settlement in Western Australia.
Year of production - 2009
Duration - 5min 6sec
Tags - Australia's Heritage, British Empire, colonisation, convicts, transportation, see all tags


Fremantle Prison

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About the Video Clip


Fremantle Prison is an episode from the series Australia’s Heritage – National Treasures with Chris Taylor, produced in 2009.

Series Synopsis
Take a voyage of discovery with Chris Taylor as he reveals the secrets behind a fascinating mix of treasures from Australia’s National Heritage List. In the third season of five-minute documentaries in the National Treasures series, Taylor travels around Australia delivering historical snapshots of objects and places from the National Heritage List. He talks with experts and enthusiasts, revealing fascinating insights into our famous and not-so-famous past.

Australia’s Heritage – National Treasures with Chris Taylor is a Screen Australia National Documentary Program produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and made with the assistance of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

Curriculum Focus


Teachers and students should consult their state or territory’s curriculum and learning programs.

For information on state and territory curricula
Go to: State and territory curriculum – Curriculum Corporation

Background Information


From its establishment in 1829 until 1850, the colony of Western Australia was a free settlement without convicts. However, towards 1850 pastoralists began lobbying for convicts to solve a labour shortage in the pastoral industry. They argued that the colony would benefit from the injection of capital that would come with the establishment of a convict centre.
Convicts were seen as the solution to the lack of resources and infrastructure that thwarted the settlers’ progress. They could supply the physical labour needed to construct roads, bridges, houses, lighthouses, jetties, footpaths and public buildings, like the Perth Town Hall.
While there does not appear to have been general community support for the proposition, transportation to WA was legislated in Britain in 1849, for an unlimited number of male convicts. Ultimately, nearly 10,000 male convicts were sent to WA between 1850-68.
When Fremantle Prison was built between 1851 and 1859, its design reflected the less physically violent approach to convict management. It was built along the same lines of Pentonville Prison in London, one of England’s first Model Prisons to focus on reform.
The Model Prison operated on the theory that complete isolation was an effective form of rehabilitation. Prisoners were not allowed contact with each other and were held in cells in complete isolation and absolute silence.
After 1868 convict transportation from England to Australia ceased entirely. The British Government considered that penal servitude within Britain was now more cost effective than transportation.
Over time, Fremantle Prison has had an evolving role. It has been:

  • a public works prison
  • a convict distribution depot
  • the state’s only place for executions
  • an internment camp for aliens and prisoners of war during two World Wars
  • a popular tourist and cultural venue, after being decommissioned in 1991.

Classroom Activities

  1. After viewing the program on Fremantle Prison, discuss in class then write responses to the following:
    1. Transportation of convicts from Britain to the eastern colonies of Australia was being phased out in the 1850s. Explain the reasons as to why transportation to Western Australia commenced at this time.
    2. Describe the living conditions in the convict-built prison throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
    3. Fremantle Prison was built on a limestone hill. Explain why the convicts were allowed to dig tunnels into the limestone.
    4. When and why was Fremantle Prison closed? What is it used for today?
  2. Carry out appropriate research on the history of convict transportation to Western Australia, then write 400–500 words on one day and night in the life of a convict serving time at Fremantle Prison in the 1850s. Your account should be historically accurate. Write the account from the convict’s viewpoint. (You may consider writing this account as a letter to be sent back home to family or friends in Britain.)
  3. Research the physical dimensions and layout of the convict-built Fremantle Prison. In pairs or small groups construct your own small-scale model of the prison. As though designed for a history or public museum exhibit, add a display card of textual background description and explanation.

Further Resources


Michal Bosworth, Convict Fremantle: A Place of Promise and Punishment, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, WA, 2004

Alexandra Hasluck, Unwilling Emigrants, Fremantle Art Centre Press, Fremantle, WA, 1991

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787–1868, Collins/Harvill, London, 1987

Go to: National Heritage: Fremantle Prison
Go to: Fremantle Prison information
Go to: Fremantle Prison education
Go to: Fremantle Prison – Wikipedia