I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published July 14th 2013
Fremantle's First Prison
I love looking at old things when I'm travelling. In Europe I'm in my element clambering over castle ruins or medieval buildings. Back home I'm never happier than when I'm in places like Fort Queenscliff, Port Arthur or Sydney's Rocks precinct.
In Fremantle they don't come any older than the Round House, the first permanent building constructed in the Swan River Colony and the oldest building still standing in Western Australia.
Built on Arthur's Head and overlooking Bathers Beach and Cockburn Sound the Round House was the colony's first prison and when it was completed in January 1831 it comprised 8 cells and a jailer's living quarters, all opening onto a central courtyard. For the Trivial Pursuit devotees among you it is a Panopticon – a prison laid out so that all parts of its interior are visible from a single, central point.
The time-ball and flag array sit atop the Round House central courtyard
Construction took just 5 months using locally quarried limestone and, for the next 55 years it was used to incarcerate colonial and indigenous prisoners. Nearby, less than 50 metres away in fact, was a court house and gallows.
With the opening of Fremantle Prison in 1867 the Round House served as a police lock-up until 1900 when it became home to the colony's chief constable and his family.
A cannon is fired daily at 1 o'clock to coincide with the dropping of the time-ball
Whalers Beach, or Bathers Beach as it's known today, is immediately below the Round House and holds a very important place in the development of Western Australia. It was here that Captain Charles Howe Fremantle first set foot on mainland Australia and claimed British sovereignty over the whole of the west coast of New Holland. The first camp site in the new colony was on the beach, sheltered beneath Arthur Head.
View from the Round House across Bathers Beach
In 1837 the Fremantle Whaling Company was set-up based on Bathers Bay and the Whalers Tunnel was dug beneath the Round House to provide a direct path between High Street and the beach. The venture was short lived, with the company ceasing operation in 1840 due to falling prices for whale-bone and oil. Three years later with prices for whale products increasing again, the company reopened and continued its operation here until the mid 1860's.
Whalers Tunnel was dug beneath the Round House providing direct access from the High Street to the beach
In 1900 the Round House was chosen as the site for a signal station comprising a time-ball and time-gun. Each day at 12.57PM the ball was hoisted to the top of a tower and, at precisely 1 PM, was dropped and a shot fired from the cannon. The visual and audible signals were used by ships captains to set their chronometers. The time-ball remained in service until 1937 but the cannon was replaced by a far less exciting audible alarm.
The signal station was re-activated in 1998 as a tourist attraction. Manned by volunteers and using a cannon on loan from the Fremantle Dockers Football Club there is a daily re-enactment of the dropping of the ball and firing of the cannon.
Fremantle's Round House - imagine the stories these steps could tell
The Round House is a great place to take in the view of Fremantle's foreshore, to Cockburn Sound and beyond.