In July 2010, a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee in Brazil placed Fremantle Prison on the World Heritage list - making it the first built environment in Western Australia to be bestowed this honour. 

Fremantle Prison joins ten other Australian convict sites listed as part of a serial nomination under the theme of Convictism - Forced Migration. No other sites of convict transportation have made the World Heritage list until now.

Some of the other Convict-related sites included in the serial nomination for World Heritage Listing included Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks and Cockatoo Island Convict Station, Port Arthur in Tasmania and the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area on Norfolk Island.

UNESCO's statement on World Heritage sites is that they are:

"Reflecting the natural and cultural wealth that belongs to all of humanity, World Heritage sites and monuments constitute crucial landmarks for our world. They symbolise the consciousness of States and peoples of the significance of these places and reflect their attachment to collective ownership and to the transmission of this heritage to future generations"


In 1988, the Government of Western Australia decided that Fremantle Prison would remain the property of the State and it would take responsibility for its ongoing care and management. The Prison site was then established as a reserve vested in the Minister for Works for the purpose of conservation and management of heritage buildings.  

The Australian Government together with the governments of New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and Norfolk Island entered into a partnership in 1995 for the nomination of a series of Australian convict sites for inscription on the World Heritage List under the theme of forced migration.  Fremantle Prison was identified as being an important part of the serial listing as it represented the last and most authentic and intact of the British convict establishments in Australia. State Cabinet endorsed the nomination in June 1998, however the proposal did not progress beyond the preparation of a draft nomination dossier in 1999.

At the formal inscription of Fremantle Prison on the new National Heritage List in August 2005, the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage announced plans to seek the re-engagement of the participating parties in the development of an up-to-date nomination.

With the endorsement of the Minister for Housing and Works, Fremantle Prison conferred with representatives of the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Tasmania and Norfolk Island on the preparation of a nomination dossier consistent with the requirements of the UNESCO Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention that will incorporate the following 11 convict sites:

  • New South Wales – Hyde Park Barracks, Cockatoo Island Convict Station, Old Government House and Domain (Parramatta) and Old Great North Road.
  • Norfolk Island – Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area.
  • Tasmania – Port Arthur Historic Site, Coal Mines Historic Site, Darlington Probation Station, Cascades Female Factory and Brickenden-Woolmers Estates.
  • Western Australia – Fremantle Prison.


The sites were selected after extensive consultation with state and territory officials and heritage experts both in Australia and overseas.  Each site contributes to the overall convict theme from administration of the convict system, convict penitentiaries and accommodations, public works, secondary punishment systems, juvenile and female convicts, and the convict assignment system.

The 11 sites together tell the unique story of the exile of convicts from one side of the world to another and their critical role in developing the economy and wider social and cultural life of a new nation.  

In part, this is a story about the dark side of human history – the isolation, punishment, pain and subjugation of one part of humanity by another.  But it is also a story about uplifting aspects of humanity – experiments in penal reform and unprecedented opportunities for male and female convicts to build new lives for themselves.

Fremantle Prison – part of the Australian Convict Story

A number of studies by national and international experts have been commissioned by the Australian Government to assist in the determination of the final list of places to be included in the nomination that best demonstrate the Australian convict story. This commenced with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, the cessation of the practice of transportation by Britain in 1868 and the gradual decline in the convict population over time to just 50 men  and finally the formal handover of Fremantle Prison to the colonial government in 1886.

The convict system in the colonies of Australia – the conditions and the treatment, punishment and reform of convicts – is a varied and complex story.  There are important commonalities across the three colonies (New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia), but the convict system is also striking for its multifaceted features and diversity of the penal settlements and punishment and reform regimes. The fate of convicts varied in different periods and places, and the treatment of male and female convicts were  different.  The convict experience in Australia and the outcomes of the transportation system stand out in the world history of forced migration.

Fremantle Prison’s Role in Colonial Western Australia

Fremantle Prison played a pivotal role in the Western Australian colony. The colony survived from its European settlement in 1829 to 1850 as a free settlement without convicts, although not without struggle.  During the 1830s more people left the settlement than arrived and the colony stagnated.  By the late 1840s pastoralists began lobbying for convicts to be sent to the colony to solve a labour shortage in their sector of the economy, and argued that the colony would benefit from the injection of capital the establishment of a convict centre would entail.  It has been argued that the pastoralists had created the labour shortage by their own poor labour management practices, and that they saw transported labour as a way of breaking the bargaining power of free labour, and of re-establishing a social hierarchy that they perceived was being eroded.

While there appears never to have been general community support for the proposition, transportation to Western Australia was legislated in Britain in 1849 for an unlimited number of male convicts.  Nearly 10,000 male convicts were sent to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868, dramatically boosting the population numbers.  By 1885, the total population of Europeans was 35,186, of which it can be assumed that approximately 25% were former convicts.  Convicts made a lasting contribution to the economic and physical growth of the colony.

The Western Australian convict system differed in a number of ways from the systems operating in the eastern Australian colonies.  Pensioned military personnel (Pensioner Guards) and their families accompanied the convicts to Australia and served as convict guards in the colony.  The convicts were used to develop colonial infrastructure such as roads, buildings and other public works, and were hired to free settlers through regional Hiring Depots for work in agriculture and mining. Most Hiring Depots were closed down by 1857 because of the cost of maintaining the service. The Pensioner Guards were provided with land grants in the area to which they were sent, and were often among the earliest settlers in these districts.

The ticket-of-leave system allowed eligible convicts to work on their own  under closely supervised conditions, further enhancing the labour force of the growing colony.

Originally known as The Convict Establishment and renamed Fremantle Prison in 1867, the prison complex was built to the design of Comptroller General of Convicts in Western Australia, Capt. E.Y.W. Henderson, based on the designs of Joshua Jebb, the British Controller of Prisons, and in particular Jebb’s Portland Works Prison. Originally designed to have four wings, the final two-wing plan was approved in 1852, and completed in 1859. The final design was four tiers of cells measuring 7 feet by 4 feet.  This exceptionally small cell size was because the cells were intended to be used for overnight accommodation only as the convicts worked outdoors during the day.  In correspondence, Jebb indicated that the use of corrugated iron cell partitions (as at Portland Prison) would reduce cost and be easier to ventilate than stone cells.  However, Henderson proceeded to build with stone, and retained the reduced cell size, which made the Fremantle cells cramped and poorly ventilated.

The Prison was to hold 570 men in Henderson’s original proposal, 240 in association (dormitory) rooms and 330 in separate cells.  Jebb did not approve of association rooms, but Henderson persisted. The association rooms were later converted for other purposes. The Protestant Chapel, detached in Henderson’s original plan, was now to be attached to the main wings, as at Pentonville Prison.

In England, legislation was passed in 1853 that substituted penal servitude for transportation for those sentenced to less than 14 years, and many prisoners were released on license in England.  This effectively reduced the numbers receiving transportation sentences from an average of 2,649 between 1850 and 1852, to only 298 between 1854 and 1856. After 1861 the regulations changed again, and men who previously served half their sentences in Britain before transportation could now be transported immediately, doubling the number eligible for transportation.  As fewer were eligible for early tickets-of-leave, the colony had greater numbers available for public works. But by the 1860s it was felt that penal servitude within Britain was more cost effective than transportation.  The Prison in Chatham replaced the Thames hulks, and in 1862 the Bermuda hulks (where convicts worked on harbour and naval works) were broken up, and the convicts transferred to existing prisons, which do not appear to have suffered overcrowding as a result.

Transportation of convicts ceased in 1868, Fremantle Prison continued to be managed by the Imperial administration, housing both transported convicts serving out their sentences, and colonial prisoners until, with only 50 convicts remaining in the system, it finally passed from Imperial (British) to colonial (Western Australian) management in 1886.

Significance of Fremantle Prison as Evidence of the Australian Convict Story

Fremantle Prison remained in operation with little adaptation as Western Australia’s primary maximum-security prison until 1991, when prisoners were moved to new accommodation.  Officially, Fremantle Prison is Crown Land (Reserve 24042) vested in and held by the Minister for Works in the Government of the State of Western Australia for the purpose of “conservation and management of historic buildings and ancillary and beneficial uses thereto” (Vesting Order of the Governor of Western Australia, 21 December 1993).

Following extensive consultation with stakeholders and the wider community, various new uses for the Prison were found for different parts of the Prison, such uses deemed to be compatible with the conservation policy for the site.

The Prison demonstrates exceptional significance because it is substantially intact and authentic. The fabric of the Main Cell Block, the perimeter walls, the hospital and eastern workshop, the gatehouse and three of the cottages on The Terrace are little altered from the convict era.  Alterations made to allow the site to continue to operate as a prison up to 1991 have done little to alter the original evidence.  The site has high integrity of original fabric.

However, new elements were added to the Prison after transfer of the establishment from the Imperial to Colonial control in 1886, the most notable being New Division and the Women’s Prison. These additions are separate from the main prison building, and either incorporates earlier buildings (Women’s Prison), or were designed to complement the original Main Cell Block façade (New Division).  They do not detract from the integrity or authenticity of the original establishment.

The World Heritage Convention

Australia became a State Party to the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention) in 1974. Thus, the Australian Government carries responsibility to UNESCO for meeting the requirements of the Convention in relation to places inscribed on the World Heritage List. This includes the presentation, protection, rehabilitation, conservation of the place and its transmission to future generations.


Click here for more information on Australia's World Heritage.

Click here for more information on UNESCO and the World Heritage List.

Heritage Management Framework for Listed Places

The inscription of a place on the World Heritage List does not imply a transfer of responsibility to the Commonwealth.  The well-established processes and protocols for ensuring the conservation of a site’s heritage values under the Heritage of Western Australia Act (1990) remain the primary framework for protection.  However, any proposals that a site owner considers may affect the World Heritage values of the place must be submitted to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999).

This represents no change to current arrangements for Fremantle Prison as this requirement already applies in relation to its National Heritage values following the sites inscription on the National Heritage List in August 2005.  

Consistent with all 11 places included in the proposed convict nomination and to meet the requirements of UNESCO’s World Heritage Operational Guidelines, the Prison’s conservation policies and plans are being reviewed by expert consultants and will be updated to reflect and establish mechanisms for the protection of the site’s possible World Heritage values in a Conservation Management Plan (CMP).  The CMP brief was developed in consultation with the Fremantle Prison Advisory Committee, Heritage Council of Western Australia and the Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Water.


The CMP will guide the future use, conservation and management of the Prison over the next five to ten years.

Benefits of World Heritage Listing

World Heritage listing for Fremantle  Prison signals international recognition of the significance of the system of transportation and the contribution of convictism to the formation and development of modern Australia. The placement of Fremantle on the World Heritage List is anticipated to deliver increased interest in visiting the historic port city and a greater community awareness of its significance.

World Heritage listing brings the responsibility for ensuring that the site is cared for, managed and interpreted to standards that reflect its cultural and historical significance.  The State Government has committed to the ongoing conservation and interpretation of the Prison, and has commissioned the development of a new Conservation Management Plan to integrate its current suite of conservation policies and plans, and to establish policies to manage and protect its possible World Heritage values. It has also funded a range of significant conservation and interpretation programs. Through a regime of regular reports required of World Heritage listed places, the condition of the Prison will be closely monitored to ensure its long-term preservation and sustainable use.

At a national level, the establishment of closer ties with the sites included in the serial listing will deliver opportunities to cross promote and attract visitors from other States. The higher level of visitor recognition generated through the World Heritage listing will increase interest in the convict legacy and benefit regional areas from Port Gregory in the north to Albany in the south where convict hiring depots were located as well as other convict works such as the Fremantle Asylum (now Fremantle Arts Centre), Perth Town Hall and Government House. Other locations with an association to Fremantle Prison convicts will also draw attention, such as the escape points of the Irish Fenian convicts at Rockingham and near Australind.