A big part of our goals for this year involves getting out and about with the kids and making the most of the region in which we live: the South West of Western Australia is rich with history, natural beauty and cultural heritage, and pretty much all of it is within a three hour drive, which means we can be there by lunch and home in time for tea.
Thanks to the power of an extra-long weekend , Luscious decided to kick start Subject One of Master 9’s upcoming home-schooling year by taking us all out to Fremantle Prison for their daily Doing Time tour, a ninety minute guided tour through the 140-odd year history of the facility.
It’s stunning, not least because the set-up of the building, from the entrance gate through to the museum wing, art gallery and the gaol itself, is utterly unsentimental. Fremantle Prison, as is made clear to visitors, was a punishment prison, not a centre for rehabilitation, and no attempt is made to veer away or whitewash this rather uncomfortable fact. There is no attempt to romanticise the surroundings, or justify the range of sentences carried out within its walls: the yards remain unvarnished and rotting, the cells are presented exactly as they were used throughout the years, and visitors are exposed to the flogging post and execution room in the conditions they were in when sentence was carried out.
The history of the prison is, largely, the history of the colony and, eventually, the wider City and State, no less because of the way punishment was carried out: the last person to be flogged in the gaol, for example, received 25 lashes in 1943 as part of his 4th conviction for paedophilia, whereas one of the first recorded floggings was 100 lashes for swearing at the prison chaplain. The highlight of the tour, for me at least, was the prison chapel, where it was easy to see why so many prisoners ended up turning to religion. It was the only stop on the tour that had no bars on the windows, that had any sort of colour on the walls, that had carpet underfoot and didn’t exist purely to crush the spirit and isolate the mind. It was the only part of the entire goal building– the tour, it should be noted, was restricted to those parts occupied by prisoners, and did not include offices or residential sections– where you could see the sky.
The kids were wide-eyed throughout: this is a side of history they’ve not been exposed to in any great detail, and between them took well over 100 photos as we went around (hooray for digital technology!). Master 9 was one of the few tourists to ask a question of the guide: What did the arrows on prison uniforms come from. For the record, the arrows on prison uniforms were not specific to the prison system. They are used to indicate ‘property of the British Government’, and were used on a wide number of objects. They are still used in the British military and civil materiel industries– news to many of us, judging by the number of other visitors who approached us to congratulate him on his question and chat about how they had not known the answer.
In the end we came away with an appreciation of how massive the recent history of our State is when streamed through the lens of a single cultural filter, and how it is an ongoing beast that can still reach out and touch entire elements of our culture: the museum had large sections devoted to the Fenian imprisonments of the 1860s and 70s, which stood in stark counterpoint to an exhibition of works by current women prisoners in the Art Gallery, the majority of which were clearly created by Aboriginal women. The stories were fascinating, complex and almost constantly compromised by the prevailing sentiments of the time from which they originated. The images– paintings on cell walls, shelters corroded and rusting, garden beds destroyed and partially filled– were stark and almost beautifully ruined.
It is a big place, Fremantle Prison, uncomfortably so, and filled with the ghosts of culture past. We left it with wider eyes and deeper questions to explore over the coming months: the children with a pack full of reference points for learning, and Luscious and I, as authors, with countless vectors for our future work. A successful field trip, certainly, but an enriching experience for us all.
If you’d like a second view of the experience, Luscious has blogged about the trip on her blog as well, and she gives some different insights into what made the day so memorable.