Fremantle Stuff > Ron & Dianne Davidson, Fighting for Fremantle

Chapter 11

From House of Horror to Heritage Icon

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Fremantle Prison had been a major institution in Fremantle since the 1850s. It was a harsh maximum-security place of incarceration, with conditions for prisoners in the late twentieth century not much different from those in its nineteenth-century beginnings. It was also grossly overcrowded. The people of Fremantle were used to its grim presence and accustomed to periodic disturbances and inevitable escapes with the attendant dangers they represented. The prison was, however, a major employer in the Fremantle area.

By 1975 the Department of Corrective Services was already planning to construct a new maximum-security facility at Canning Vale, and to relocate all prisoners by 1983.163 However, this ambitious plan failed to materialise, and a

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formal decision to close Fremantle Prison was not made until the election of the Brian Burke Labor government in 1983. Before being elected Burke had publicly pledged to hand over control of the running of the prison to the City of Fremantle once it was decommissioned.164 However, once his government was elected it was resolved that the prison should remain in the hands of the state government.

Proposed development of Fremantle Prison after decommissioning. [State Planning Commission: Fremantle Prison Draft Conservation and Management Plan, 1988]

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Early in 1989 the Fremantle Society became aware of the existence of a draft conservation and management plan for the prison, which was dated May 1988 but had never been released for community comment. It seemed to imply that the prison would need to pay its own way, with possible commercial uses for the site to include boutiques, cafes, cinemas, flower-pots and coloured umbrellas. It contained no mention of the Burra Charter despite the prison’s listing on the Register of the National Estate. The illustrations included as part of the plan showed such massive changes as verandahs along the main cellblock and rebuilding of the interiors.

The Society was appalled at the apparently cavalier treatment of what it considered to be a potential world heritage site, and in March 1989 a Fremantle Prison Group was formed by the Fremantle Society to monitor developments. The convenor of the Group, Dianne Davidson, approached Dr Norman Etherington, an expert on historical preservation who had helped devise the heritage register for the City of Adelaide and who was then visiting Perth, for advice on further action. He strongly recommended that the Society contact Dr James Semple Kerr, a conservation architect and a leading expert in Australia on nineteenth-century prisons.

James Semple Kerr at Fremantle Prison, 1990s. [Fremantle Herald/Michael Wearne]

Dianne contacted Jim Kerr in Sydney, and explained the Society’s concerns. Jim told her that he had expressed an interest in working on a conservation plan for the prison in 1987 but had heard nothing since. He also expressed surprise that apparently no approach had been made to Rob Campbell, the Fremantle conservation architect who had written a report on the prison in 1975 for the Fremantle City Council and the Department of Urban and Regional Development. The report included a comprehensive analysis of its buildings and their heritage value. Jim was very interested in being involved, but he did feel it was ‘carting coals to Newcastle’ (as he put it) when Rob Campbell was already on site.165

The Fremantle Prison Group could get no adequate explanation for the omission of this resident expert from the planning team but it became quite clear that the omission was not going to be rectified. So ‘coals to Newcastle’ or not, the group decided to make a strong push to have Jim Kerr brought over to advise on a conservation plan.

The first step was a strongly worded submission in response to the draft

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conservation and management plan. This pointed out the lack of reference to the Burra Charter and urged that any further planning be in accordance with Charter principles; it condemned the anonymity of those doing the planning (in contravention of the Charter), and it demanded to know why Jim Kerr’s expression of interest had been ignored. It also condemned the proposed unwieldy management structure that appeared to consist of politicians, public servants and local government officials and provided for no input from community members or historians with special knowledge of prisons or of the convict era in Western Australia.

The submission was sent in May 1989 to the State Planning Commission, from which the draft document appeared to emanate, and to David Parker as Member for Fremantle. Copies were sent to relevant ministers, the chair of the Australian Heritage Commission, the WA Museum and other organisations interested in the state’s heritage.166 There was a rapid response. The Prison Group was invited to meet with the representative of the State Planning Commission, Gerard MacGill, and architect Ralph Hoare, who had been appointed project manager by the Building Management Authority, which at that time ‘owned’ the prison. Ironically, both Gerard and Ralph had strong links to the Fremantle Society, each having been vice-president, and Ralph had played a major role in conducting a massive photographic survey of Fremantle buildings. Ralph had also won particular kudos when in the previous year he led the project to replace the

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140-year-old jarrah roof on Three and Four Division roofing after the prison riot and fire. The government had been seriously considering replacing it with a flat iron roof, or even demolishing the prison altogether.167

The meeting was followed by another with the State Member for Fremantle, David Parker, who was also a member of the ministerial committee set up to provide an overall direction for the project. The Prison Group got reassurances that the heritage value of the prison was not in question, and that any future use would be strictly subordinate to this. However, it failed to get any commitment that sufficient funds would be made available for restoration of the complex, or that the Fremantle Society and other community groups would be appointed to the policy-making bodies involved.168

The Group did receive advice from the State Planning Commission that the project team would be seeking input from Jim Kerr, that the final conservation and management plan would be based on Burra Charter principles and that the project manager would shortly be convening a meeting of Fremantle community groups to brief them on the project and discuss ways that the community could continue to be involved.169

As a result advisory groups were set up to advise the planning team, and the first advisory group meeting was held in June 1989. There was an impressive lineup, with representatives from the WA Museum, the National Trust, Fremantle Chamber of Commerce, Fremantle Prison Museum, Fremantle Prison, ICOMOS-UWA, Royal WA Historical Society, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, the Institution of Engineers, the Australian Society for Historical Archaeology - and, of course, the Fremantle Society.170

This was the first of six such meetings, but despite the undoubted expertise represented in the advisory groups the feeling was increasingly that they were not really achieving much; rather, they were only being told what had already been decided and done. By the end of the year attendance had shrunk to less than half.171

Nevertheless, the principle of community participation had been established, and in July Fremantle Society Prison Group members Dianne Davidson and David Hutchison were invited to take part in a tour of the then still functioning prison, together with, among others, local political representatives John Dawkins MHR and David Parker. Dianne and David found the experience harrowing; the overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, the overcrowded, primitive cells and the sense of misery and anger that permeated the prison were hard to forget.

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The real triumph for the Fremantle Society came when Jim Kerr was at last invited by the project team to visit and advise on the prison. He acknowledged the Society’s role in his participation by contacting the Prison Group directly on arrival in December 1989 and spending the afternoon and evening in discussions and a soiree hosted by Les Lauder, as well as attending a dinner on the second last day of his five-day visit with the Prison Group at newly elected Society President Jenny Archibald’s home at Dalkeith House.172

It was Jim Kerr’s introduction to a long-term association with Fremantle Prison. The prison was decommissioned at the end of 1991, and in 1992 he was asked by the Building Management Authority (BMA) to prepare ‘Fremantle Prison - a policy for its conservation’. This was revised in 1998, and has remained the principal guiding policy document for any conservation work done at the prison.173

The Society's push for community involvement in decision-making was ultimately less successful than anticipated. Initially there were hopeful signs when Jim McGinty replaced David Parker in 1990 as State Member for Fremantle and the following year was appointed Minister for both Heritage and Construction, the two prison-related portfolios. McGinty came as an advocate of democratic and community processes and as a heavy hitter in trade union politics. During the by-election campaign in 1990 Premier Carmen Lawrence had made a commitment to keep the prison for public purposes, dismissing suggestions that the site might be sold for development as suggested in the 1970s by Liberal Police and Prisons Minister Bill Hassell and others. McGinty saw the prison as a major heritage asset, and dismissed the commercial options as ‘absolute rubbish’.174

Band Rich'n'Famous playing at the decommissioning of Fremantle Prison, 1991. [Fremantle Herald]

The omens seemed good for an independent Prison Trust to administer the prison, particularly as Jim McGinty had been on an unstoppable run as heritage minister; he even ordered the reinstatement of the facade of the illegally demolished heritage-listed Railway Hotel in Perth. However, when the prison reopened as a heritage site in January 1992, there was no sign of a Trust: Jim McGinty had failed to get funding in the state budget for such a body. The prison

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was to be administered by the BMA.175

An advisory body was established to advise the minister on ‘conservation, management and future uses’, but it was advisory only. It was headed by Jenny Archibald who had by then been elected to Council and was chair of the planning committee, and it included a variety of community members. Its task was ‘to provide advice to the minister in relation to conservation and interpretation, attracting visitors and compatible uses, promotion of the precinct as an educational resource and integration into Fremantle.’ 176 Patrick Howard, a clinical psychologist, was the first representative of the Fremantle Society, and Ron Davidson the next.

For the following ten years the heritage professionals worked towards a serial world heritage listing of the prison and other convict sites. This effort

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was to finally bear fruit in August of 2010 when the UNESCO committee met in Brazil and announced that Fremantle Prison had been placed on the World Heritage List.

During those ten years, a cash-strapped state government put forward a number of schemes which would have destroyed world heritage prospects, even if they funded much needed maintenance. A good example of this came in 2000 when the former ‘David Parker attitude’ of not wanting the prison to be a burden on the state surfaced again. It was a large-scale accommodation project that involved new constructions on the site. This secret proposal was defeated by carefully controlled leaks from the community representative on the Prison Trust Committee. After three headline treatments about new hotels the proposal sank. It was a narrow escape.

When Labor returned to power in 2001 it quickly set in train a masterplan process for the prison. It was the resolve of the Fremantle Society and the Fremantle History Society (which had been formed in 1994 and was becoming a major player in the prison game) that saw the emphasis shift from development to conservation and world heritage listing. Writing as the Fremantle Society representative, Ron Davidson drew attention to three questionable aspects of the masterplan — the change of the name, the stripping of the razor wire and the concentration on the convict period — in a letter to Jim McGinty. Now Attorney-General, McGinty supported the Society’s claims. He said there was no golden age of the prison and refused support of the Cabinet memorandum while it contained the three objectionable aspects.177

It was a pyrrhic victory. The community representative was apparently too politically adept in securing the Attorney-General’s support. Such community input was evidently unwelcome, and in 2004 the government moved to replace the Prison Trust Committee with the Prison Advisory Committee from which all real community representatives had been dropped, to be replaced by the mayor of Fremantle or his elected representative.


163 R. McK Campbell, The Fremantle Prison: a report on its past, presens and future for the Department of Urban & Regional Development and the Fremantle City Council, September 1975, p. 42.
164 Fremantle, vol 10, no. 1, March 19S2
165 Personal recollection: Dianne Davidson.
166 Fremantle Prison Draft Conservation and Management Plan: submission from the Fremantle Society Inc., 8 May 1969.
167 Ralph Hoare, interview with Ron Davidson, 8 July 2006.
168 Dianne Davidson to David Parker, 12 June 1989.
169 John Forbes, SPC to Dianne Davidson, 31 May 1989.
170 Minutes of inaugural meeting, 15 June 1989.
171 Minutes of Advisory Groups meeting 21 December 1989.
172 Personal recollection: Dianne Davidson.
173 Fremantle Prison Heritage Precinct Master Plan, July 2003, 1.3 Planning history.
174 Fremantle Herald, 11 October 1990.
175 Fremantle Herald, 1 June 1992.
176 Fremantle Prison Heritage Pretinct Master Plan, July 2003,1.1 Introduction.
177 Ron Davidson to Jim McGinty, 23 July 2004.

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Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2020 | Now: 21 June, 2021