Freedom in Fremantle

Contributed by Joanne McEntee

In 1829 a new settlement was devised by the British in Western Australia. Under the governorship of Captain James Stirling, the Swan River Colony was established as a ‘free’ colony – unlike the penal settlements of New South Wales, Norfolk Island, and Port Arthur. Two main sites of settlement developed within the colony: the state’s capital Perth and the port city of Fremantle. Due to adverse climatic conditions and inhospitable lands the population of the area remained low. In order to rectify this and to assist with the development of the region a petition was sent to the British Government requesting that convicts be sent in order to provide much needed cheap labour. The first ship carrying convicts arrived at Fremantle on 1 June 1850. Over an eighteen year period over 9,700 convicts were transported to Western Australia. The last ship – the Hougoumont – arrived 9 January 1868 carrying 280 convicts. In 1991 after 136 years of incarceration and punishment Fremantle Prison was officially closed. A year later the prison began its development as one of the State’s major historic heritage sites. In July 2010 Australian Convict Sites were included in a list of seven cultural sites newly inscribed on the World Heritage List.

For tourists, Fremantle Prison offers a wide ranging and varying experience. Four tours attempt to provide insight into a life of confinement: a ‘Doing time tour’, ‘Great escapes tour’, ‘Torchlight tour’, and ‘Tunnels tour’. The ‘Doing time tour’ commenced with a gong of the yard bell. This summoned a band of approximately nine incarceration enthusiasts (with an over whelming Irish majority) under the blistering sun in the main court yard. Duration wise (the tour lasted 1 hour 15 minutes), the ‘Doing time tour’ did not prove as gruelling as the title suggests. But as the tour progressed it became somewhat apparent that this appellation may have actually referred to the tour guide himself. Rather tired one-liners peppered the repertoire of the ‘comedic’ guide as the condemned made their way throughout the prison.

The current history of the prison also appears to omit the aboriginal presence from its pages. In the ‘Doing time tour’ a single indirect reference was made to Australia’s native peoples, a group apparently ‘not very friendly’ to the British administrators when they arrived in Western Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that at the end of the twentieth century the Indigenous rate of imprisonment was 15 times the non-Indigenous rate.  Although aborigines make up on 2.5% of the Australian population they are simultaneously over represented in the prison population (24%). Several of the cells in the prison contain aboriginal artwork – however these were never alluded to.

One of the more interesting stories from the prison for Irish visitors involved the escape of six Fenian prisoners aboard the Catalpa in 1876. Assisted by the Fenian Brotherhood in America, John Boyle O’Reilly and John Devoy devised a plan to assist their comrades’ escape. Two undercover Fenians, Breslin and Desmond, masquerading as wealthy American businessmen provided free tickets to the prison guards to attend the Perth Regatta thereby reducing the number of prison guards by half on the day of the escape. While security was at a minimum the six Fenian prisoners slipped away from their work parties and boarded the Catalpa. In Boston the escapees were greeted as heroes. The authorities in Western Australia were berated by the British government for the negligence. ‘The Ballad of the Catalpa’ was song as a perpetual warning to the humiliated authorities. It proved so controversial an episode in the history of Fremantle that the ballad was officially banned in Western Australia. As the law has not been rescinded, in theory one could be arrested for singing it in public even to this day.

A noble whale ship and commander was called the Catalpa, they say
Came out to Western Australia and took six poor Fenians away
So come all you screw warders and jailers, remember Perth Regatta Day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians, or the Yankees will steal them away

Therefore a word of warning: When Down Under resist from bellowing out a chorus of ‘The Ballad of the Catalpa’ or doing time in Fremantle may last a little longer than 1 hour 15 minutes.

The Fremantle Prison website provides a useful convict database which is a searchable through ship name or convict surname of the 9, 720 men who were transported to Western Australia from 1850 to 1868. For those of you not lucky enough to head down under a virtual tour of the prison is also available.

Joanne Mc Entee is completing doctoral research on the nineteenth century Irish landed estate, as part of the Texts, Contexts, Cultures programme in the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. This project is funded by PRTLI 4.

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3 Responses to “Freedom in Fremantle”

  1. Patrick Maume Says:

    A couple of little points;
    (1) Convict transportation actually began when it was winding down in the other colonies. The growing populations and political development of the older colonies led to increasing local opposition to being seen as a convict dumping-ground, and the Australian Gold Rush increased a feelign in Britain that sending convicts to an expanding country was not much of a punishment (or a deterrent).
    On the other hand, the British still wanted to put their convicts somewhere, and some of the wealthier settlers in Western Australia wanted cheap labour. (It helped that WA has a relatively small settler population and was run by a British-appointed governor and a nominated council, rather than by a government responsible to an elected assembly; elections were not held until 1870 and full repsponsible government was only achieved in the 1890s).
    WA’s request for convicts annoyed the other colonies, which proptly passed legislation excluding convicts who had received their ticket-of-leave less than two years previously. The deportation of convicts to WA was eventually discontinued in 1867 because of the protests of the other colonies. The British government took advantage of the departure of the last convict ship to send out 62 Fenians, violating an earlier agreement that WA would not be asked to receive political prisoners. Complaints by newspapers in WA were met by remarks in the other colonies that having asked to receive robbers, rapists, murderers etc the Westralians were in no position to compain about a few Fenians.

    (2) The six Fenians rescued by the Catalpa had thus been part of a larger group of Fenian deportees. Most of the Fenians sent out in 1867-8 were pardoned in 1869, and a smaller group were pardoned in 1871. The CATALPA Fenians were “military fenians” – serving members of the british Army who had joined the IRB and were punished more severely than their civilian counterparts.
    My mother and myself have just edited A MINGLING OF SWANS by John Sarsfield Casey [a Fenian from Co Cork who was one of those pardoned in 1869], a collection of articles, letters etc by Casey and other Fenian deportees describing their Australian experiences 1868-70. Fremantle Prison does not feature much (most of the fenians, including Casey, were sent into the interior of the colony to work on road-building) but it may be of interest for anyone interested in the Fenain experience in Western Australia apart from the CATALPA rescue. We had a pleasant launch for it at Cork City Gaol Heritage Centre in November, at which Ambassador Bruce Davis did the honours and gave a very fine speech.
    The book is available from the UCD press website:

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