Prison History and Stories in Fremantle

Days 369-371 

It was time to check out of my Airbnb in Perth, Australia. I drove to a nearby car repair shop because it felt like something was off in my car. Occasionally, I’d hear something that sounded like a rubbing sound coming from the front. They quickly checked out my tires and said everything looked fine. 

I still had a lot to do before heading out, ensuring I had all of my camping supplies. I drove 30 minutes south to Fremantle. I parked in a parking lot and booked an Airbnb so that I had more time to get stuff ready and also to explore Fremantle. Days earlier, I took a ferry there from Perth on a tour, but I didn’t get to walk around or explore. 

I walked along Main Street and bought a used book about traveling in the Australian outback. It was raining outside, so hardly anybody was out. I ate at a Mexican restaurant and drove to my Airbnb. I was renting a room from a woman who rents out three rooms. After quickly putting down my bags, I left for a prison tour that I booked. 

It was dark outside because it gets dark early in the winter. The tour guide was a large man with a red beard. There were about 20 people on tour, and the guide handed a flashlight to each of us so we could see while walking around certain parts. 

The first convicts sailed to Fremantle in 1850. The first thing they had to build was their prison. They used local limestone and the ships they sailed on. Supplies were in short supply, so every piece of material mattered. Looking above in the middle of a cell block, we could see that the railings for the second and third floor looked like a railing from a ship – because it was. There was also a large netting because sometimes men would jump in an attempt to kill themselves. 

Nearly 10,000 convicts passed through the prison in the first 20 years. It was built to house up to 1,000 convicts at a time. Their toilet facilities were called “slop buckets.” Every morning, they had to get dressed and carry their slop bucket to dump it out in a specific place. 

In 1886, they housed new convicts who committed crimes in Australia. The life of a convict who was transported from England wasn’t so bad – they spent all day outside, building all roads and government buildings in Western Australia. But for people who committed crimes in Australia, they were forced to stay in their cell for almost the entire day, except for an hour of outdoor time. 

The first convicts to arrive in Fremantle were mostly low-level criminals who had good behavior. Once they served their sentence (usually 7-14 years), they were needed to procreate and colonize Western Australia. As years passed, however, the criminals that England sent were more violent offenders. 

The museum set several cells up to display what they would have looked like throughout the years. Some cells had incredible artwork that convicts painted on the walls. They were beautiful, so the museum kept them on the walls for display. 

We saw the hallows where hangings took place – 44 total. The tour guide told us about the problems of not hanging correctly. The person setting up the rope must be precise in determining the correct length of the line based on the person’s weight. Too much and the person’s neck wouldn’t break. Instead, they’d hang there, slowly suffocating. Too little and you could decapitate the person. In 1943, they stopped hangings. 

There was only one woman who was ever hanged in Western Australia – Martha Rendell. She came to Fremantle in the early 1900s. Martha moved in with Thomas Morris after he had an argument with his wife and kicked her out of the house. Five of his nine children lived with him and Martha, and they were forbidden to talk to their mother. 

In April 1907, four of the children came down with diphtheria but recovered. Soon after, in July, one of them died. The doctor was perplexed but said the cause of death was epilepsy and cardiac weakness. A few months later, another daughter died with a similar diagnosis on the death certificate. A year after that, a son died, promoting suspicion of poisoning. They started to do an autopsy but didn’t find anything conclusive. 

In 1909, one of the sons ran away to his mother and said he feared for his life due to poisoning suspicion. The police exhumed the three bodies and completed an investigation. Both Martha and Thomas had to stand trial, but it was Martha who was convicted. Thomas was released. There was no evidence, but there were testimonies about Martha swabbing the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid. 

Martha spent her time in prison talking with her spiritual advisor, who thought she might be innocent. She claimed her innocence to her execution in October 1909. Her last words were, “I will die brave.” She’s a controversial person in Western Australian, with some people believing she was guilty while others think she was innocent. 

The prison closed in 1991, and the government has worked to keep it restored for future generations.

I found the whole tour very interesting and spooky. The tour guide told us about many ghost stories of people who died within the prison walls. A tall, thin guy dressed in all black, around 28 years old, was often near me. He was Australian and told me how he had wanted to go on this tour for a while to see if he could feel any evil spirits. He claimed that he was possessed as a child, and it took an exorcism to get the demon out of him. 

The guy was creepy looking and told me that he felt spirits in the walls of the prison. It was dark throughout the tour because they intentionally didn’t turn on the lights – we only had our flashlights.

Once the tour finished, I drove back to my Airbnb. I had briefly met the homeowner, Trish, when I checked in, but hadn’t gotten a chance to chat with her. Trish was a 64-year-old petite woman but looked like she was in her mid-50s. Her medium-length red hair and t-shirt gave her a spunky vibe. 

Trish showed me around the house. It was very old, built in the early 1900s. When I walked inside, there was a long hallway with some bookcases against the wall. There were three bedrooms off the hall to the right, and my room was the first one. The middle bedroom didn’t have a guest. The third bedroom was hosting a man around 45-years-old. He worked FIFO (Fly In Fly Out), which was common around there. People who work in the mines fly to a remote area for a month to work. Then they fly back to Perth to live and have a month off. The man was gone most of the time. 

The living room was next, and then through a doorway, the kitchen appeared. Because the house was built so long ago, it had a strange design. There were lots of vintage collectibles around. The small kitchen had most things that you’d see in a kitchen, but the sink and some cupboards were in a small room that resembled a closet without a door. The bathroom was just past the kitchen, but it was just the bathtub and a sink. The toilet was outside. 

Yup, you read that right. The toilet was outside. To access it, you walk out onto a covered patio. At the end of the courtyard, there is a small concrete outhouse-type square building. The toilet is inside the tiny space, and a wooden door gave you privacy. Trish had installed hanging lights on the roof of the patio, so it lite the path. The backyard had beautiful landscaping, and Trish’s bedroom was located in a small suite in the garden. 

I didn’t mind the toilet being outside because I knew about it when I booked the room. It was sometimes a little scary going out in the dark, but that was just my mind playing tricks on me. 

Trish offered me some delicious baked goods that she made, and we sat at the kitchen table talking. She was super fun to talk with and had some incredible stories! Here are a few that stood out to me. 

When Trish was 24 years old, she traveled the world solo for three years. Hearing her stories of travel back then as a solo female (without internet) was mind-blowing. I don’t think I would have had the courage to travel alone around the world without a phone or internet. She is a true free-spirit. 

Trish spent ten months in the U.S., mostly in New Orleans. It was around 1980-1981, and while she loved it there, she ran into some trouble. One day, two guys tried to attack and rob her. Trish wasn’t having it and verbally told them off. She was so stern, and she ended up talking them into not stealing from her and instead, taking her to a phone booth (where she called for help). 

When she was in Los Angeles, a local girl warned her about the crime. The girl explained that Trish should keep a pen on her in case someone attacks her. If they did, she could use the pen to push it between their eyes. Trish laughed, “I don’t know why I remember that. I guess it was the image of pushing that pen into them.” Trish kept a pen on her based on that girl’s advice, but she never had to “use” it. 

Trish worked a bit during her world travels but still didn’t have much money. To get back to Australia, she hitched a ride on barges and fishing ships in the Pacific ocean. Because Trish was just hitching a ride, she had to sleep in odd places, like the ship’s deck near a wall. She had a small matt with her, but one day, the captain of a barge told her that she could have his room. Trish ended up having that room to herself. She spent some time on islands like Fiji while waiting to transfer to different ships. 

When Trish got back to Australia, she spent a year traveling the country before returning home. Her family is from Fremantle, and she explained that at the nearby museum, you could look for your family name to see what year and which boat they arrived on. Her ancestors were some of the first arrivals to the area when England started to colonize. 

Trish had so many amazing stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with her. Before I knew it, it was 3:30 am! We decided that we better get to bed before the sun came up. 

The next morning, I woke up and noticed a note under my door. It was a handwritten note from Trish saying that I was welcome to stay another night for free. I was grateful and was enjoying her company, so I decided to stay. 

While I ate breakfast, Trish and I talked some more. She told me about a younger guy that she had met recently. He was traveling around Australia. Trish ended up driving across the Nullarbor with him, and she had developed feelings for him. We talked about relationships and the complicated part of trying to figure out if they like you (romantically) in return. 

I spent the afternoon writing and testing the blow-up twin mattress that I bought off of a backpacker. I drove to Bunnings (like Home Depot), KMart, and the chemist to get supplies before heading north along the coast. 

That evening, Trish had two friends over for dinner and invited me to join them. Greg and Rochelle were classy. Rochelle wore a dress and a hairstyle that made her look like she was in a swing dance movie. She was beautiful and appeared to be around 40 years old. Greg was close to two decades older than Rochelle. They seemed very much in love, and like they were a good match together. I had a wonderful dinner, drinking wine and telling stories with my new acquaintances. 

The next morning, I ended up talking with Trish again while eating breakfast, and it turned into hours. This tends to happen when I’m really enjoying someone’s company. By the time I packed up and left, it was 2:30 pm. Trish gave me tasty homemade baked goods and walked me to my car. Then we hugged goodbye. This is one of the reasons why I love booking a room in Airbnbs. I get the opportunity to meet such interesting, kind humans. 

Before leaving town, I stopped at the Shipwreck Museum in Fremantle. There was an old ship that had been partly restored. The signs told a gruesome story about a shipwreck where many people were stranded on deserted islands. There was a mutiny, and the captain ended up resigning in terror. He eventually ordered the killing of the sick, women, and children. In the end, 125 men, women, and children were murdered. 

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

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