The Convict Era in WA – Perth and Fremantle

The rest of the world makes jokes about the convicts in Australia, but I was surprised at how much of an ongoing legacy the ‘convict era’ has left on WA. Due to a combination of poor judgment and misguided business ventures, the British crown founded the Swan River Colony (now modern day Perth and Fremantle) in 1829. This was a very bad idea, and for about two decades the colony hung on by a thread, hemorrhaging settlers to death and defection.

During this period, England also had a convict housing crisis on their hands, and was addressing the issue by holding inmates on defunct ships moored off the coast of England. By all accounts was not a great situation. Someone very clever put their head to the Empire’s problems and decided to send a bunch of these convicts to settle WA. The convicts would serve as free labor to build the infrastructure of the floundering Swan River colony, and the England would be free of typhoid-infested boats full of criminals within swimming distance of the homeland. Win-win.

(Please note that I got most of the convict history from a children’s book at the Fremantle Prison gift shop, so it might be worth fact checking.)

Anyway, this is the back-story for how a slew of convicts were shipped off to Perth and Fremantle and trained as craftsmen and builders. When they first arrived, the convicts’ task was to construct themselves a prison, which I have to say had a surprisingly impressive build quality. It had these amazing hardwood floors made of Jarrah wood, which I am now obsessed with and want in my home.

Jeff and I did two different tours of the Freo prison, and it was a major highlight. Both times our guides were dry-humored prison guard types who meticulously explained the right way to arrange a hangman’s noose (directly under the right ear) and how to make alcohol out of toilet water (you don’t want to know)…

Amazingly, the original convict built prison was in use until the early 1990s, when a prison riot involving a several day hostage situation prompted government officials to close the prison. Closing a prison takes time, however, and in Freo Prison’s waning days the resident psychologist decided that it would be good for moral to let the inmates decorate their cells. The result is simultaneously inspiring, sad, and creepy.

After the construction of the prison, the convicts next task was to build the infrastructure of Fremantle and Perth. They built roads, market buildings, retaining walls, and many of the original limestone buildings are intact. As with the prison, the convicts had quite a high level of craftsmanship and the older buildings in town are adorable. I love Freo.

The well trained slave labor that the convicts provided became an unexpected asset for WA. To this day the build quality of homes, commercial buildings, and municipal buildings in WA is surprisingly good. The convicts may be gone now, but their occupational (and perhaps genetic) descendants live on as skilled blue collar craftsmen called the ‘tradies’. Modern day tradies are well paid and highly employable, and are a fascinating cultural holdover from the convict era.

When we weren’t obsessing over the Freo Prison floors and cute old buildings, we spend some time in Perth exploring the downtown area and the King’s Park botanical garden. The flora in the park was amazing, and we saw funky plants that we’ve never seen before. My new favorites are the eucalyptus macrocarpa and the bottle trees. Super cool.

Perth and Fremantle are delightful cities, and we thoroughly enjoyed our week relaxing there. Our next WA adventures took us a little further afield. In reality we basically did the softest nature excursions imaginable, but by my standards we were roughing it in the outback. Yeah, we’re tough.

Next up, Jurian Bay, Rottnest Island, and Margaret River!

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