Mevrouw T and I once spent a pleasant week in prison as guests of the WA government. We hadn’t done anything wicked, nor were we victims of any miscarriage of justice.
The Fremantle Prison was decommissioned in 1991, after nearly 150 years of operation. It is Western Australia’s only World Heritage-listed building and plans are afoot to convert one wing into a backpacker hostel.
The former women’s hospital is now an excellent Centre for Children’s Literature with gallery, meeting rooms and a comfortable apartment for the use of visiting authors and their families. I was delighted to accept the invitation to stay there.
Some have found it disturbing to be the only residents in a corner of the large sandstone complex, at night being free to wander onto the balcony, glass of wine in hand, to look out over the cells and exercise yards once occupied by hundreds of convicts. It certainly felt strange, but we rather enjoyed it.
Behind those heavy doors with enormous locks it felt secure, a place where nothing would happen until tomorrow. If we couldn’t get out without turning a massive key, we could also be confident nobody could get in, and we saw and heard nothing of the pesky ghosts that others had warned us to expect.
Nonetheless, it is an unavoidable fact that many bad things happened within the walls, with Aboriginal people overrepresented in the victim lists.
I feel a bit uncomfortable about the way merry tours are now conducted through former prisons for the enjoyment of tourists. Now you can hold your wedding or corporate function in Fremantle Prison’s chapel or function rooms. You can take a spooky Torchlight Tour and hear gruesome stories of murders and executions.
World Heritage buildings need to earn their upkeep somehow, and maybe the tours are sensitively done, but I’ve never been able to relax enough to find such things entertaining.
The rest of Fremantle has long been one of the most pleasant parts of Perth. I call it a ‘part of Perth’ although officially it’s a city in its own right, but only twenty minutes or so from the centre of the metropolis, connected by an excellent train service. It was great to spend a few days there, browsing the art galleries and relaxing on the trattorias that now grace the streetscapes.When we lived in Perth in the late 1970s we used to make the trip down to Freo most weekends to browse through the Fremantle Markets, then have a coffee at Capri Restaurant, the only Italian establishment we knew in the area. We thought we were being very trendy at the time. The markets are still there, still selling the same sort of junk. Capri Restaurant is still there too, with what looks like the same sign out the front and the same unfashionable decor. I bet the coffee still good.
The area around it has changed beyond all recognition. In 1983 the colourful and notorious Perth businessman Alan Bond (non-Aussies may not know that he later spent some time as a non-voluntary guest in a state penitentiary) financed a successful bid for the America’s Cup yacht race. When the team won, the title defence took place in Fremantle in 1987. No matter that Dennis Connor’s Americans easily won their auld mug back again – Fremantle saw an unprecedented tourist boom and changed forever.
We always liked it. We like it even better now.