Housed in a gothic building built in the 1860s, the site now known as Fremantle Arts Centre has a long and fascinating history.
Building the Foundations
Built by convicts on a grant of six acres, this splendid example of Australian Gothic architecture first opened its doors in 1864, as the Convict Establishment Fremantle Lunatic Asylum and Invalid Depot.
All inmates were under the punitive control of prison rules and regulations and, over time, the asylum became the depository for any social problem such as alcoholism, prostitution and the elderly.
The Gold Rush
During the gold rush of the 1890s, miners and Chinese labourers were admitted suffering the effects of sunstroke and Opium smoking. The death of a Mrs Clifford in 1900, at the hands of a violent patient, finally sparked a public scandal.
At the time of Mrs Clifford’s death, 219 patients were residents in the asylum, with 17-20 occupying one room. An official inquiry finally resulted in the appointment of a medical superintendent and a trained mental health nurse.
In 1909, in order to solve the problem of a decaying Government Home for Women, Fremantle’s Asylum was declared a Poor House – to be known as the Women’s Home.
A year later, in a bid to solve an epidemic social problem, the building was also chosen as the site for WA’s first maternity training school. The business of maternity moved to the newly built King Edward Hospital for Women in 1916.
Until 1941, the buildings remained home to poor and elderly women. Problems with young girls escaping, men quarrying holes in the limestone and one of the women continually riding her three-wheeler bike into town are just some of the colourful stories of this era in the building’s history.
Darker stories tell of several adolescents, suffering from venereal disease, who were kept under lock and key on the upper floor in 1930s. Protests in 1941 by several women’s groups concerning the condition of the home finally resulted in its closure.
In March 1942 a group of 12 American naval servicemen fleeing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines arrived in Fremantle and were given billets in the old Women’s Home. Within the old asylum site, 22 additional buildings were erected during the course of the war and a total of 21 officers, 139 enlisted men and 102 civilians were employed in the activities of the depot.
Fremantle Technical School
After the war, Fremantle Technical School was opened on the site. Then, in 1953, students from the overcrowded Princess May Girls School and Fremantle Boys School attended classes in pre-fabricated buildings in the grounds, awaiting the completion of John Curtin High School in 1955.
Refurbishment and Restoration
In 1958, the old Fremantle Lunatic Asylum was finally threatened with demolition and was saved largely through the efforts of Sir Frederick Samson, then Mayor of Fremantle. His vision for the site was to establish both a Mariners’ Museum and an Arts Centre. The building was restored and the museum stage was finally completed in 1970.
Fremantle Arts Centre
Fremantle Arts Centre opened in 1973, with Ian Templeman as Founding Director. Templeman relied on minimal resources and skeleton staff for support and, over his 17 years at the helm, developed Fremantle Arts Centre’s first programs and services, including Fremantle Arts Centre Press. In 1978, Fremantle Arts Centre received its first annual operating funding from the State Government. That funding continues today.