Fremantle Stuff > Buildings > Round House
The Round House, on Arthur Head, is neither a house nor round. It is dodecagonal, having twelve sides, and was built as a jail in 1830-1 (twenty years before convicts arrived), being therefore the oldest public building in the State. It was designed by civil engineer Henry Reveley, whose father was an architect who assisted Jeremy Bentham in the design of his Panopticon prison, and there is a discernible influence, in that a warder near the centre of the building would have been able to see into any open cell from that point. Reveley (who saved Percy Bysshe Shelley from drowning in the Arno in 1821) also supervised the construction of the Whalers Tunnel (1838) which runs underneath the prison. Photo: Wikipedia.
The Round House, the first prison in the colony, is the oldest surviving public building in Western Australia. [In 2011] we celebrate its 180th anniversary. It was designed by Henry Reveley, whose father was an influential English architect. He lived and practised for some time in Italy. It is possible that his design of the Round House was influenced by coastal fort buildings in a part of Italy. It is built of local limestone, possibly quarried from Arthur Head.
In Italy, Reveley befriended the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom he saved from drowning. However, after Reveley left Italy, Shelley was drowned. Perhaps the colony gained a prison at the expense of the life of a poet.
The cells were arranged radially around a central courtyard, in the centre of which was a well. One cell, to the right of the entrance, was used as a kitchen and the one to the left as a warders’ dining room. Two of the cells were fitted for use as privies and one, specially lined with wooden planking, was used for housing refractory prisoners. The teenage Pankhurst boy John Gavin, one of the ‘juvenile immigrants’ brought to the colony during the 1840s, was held there pending his hanging, on a gallows erected to the north of the steps, on Easter Saturday 1844. He was the first European and the only juvenile to be hanged in Western Australia.
The Round House’s primary function was taken over by the Prison built for the Imperial Convict Establishment in the 1850s; it was then used as a lock up. The curfew bell was rung at the Round House every night at 9.50pm as a warning to ‘ticket-of-leave’ convicts to return to their lodging. Any ‘bondsman’ found outside after the curfew was locked up.
The Round House was later used as a women’s prison and, from the late 1860s, as a transit prison for Aboriginal prisoners on their way to incarceration on Rottnest Island. Relatives of these prisoners gathered outside it during the night to talk, through the wall, to the prisoners. Colonial officials did not understand the psychological stress experienced by Aboriginals separated from their own lands and people.
In 1922 harbour works were planned and demolition of the Round House would have resulted. The Harbour Master argued for its retention as it sheltered his house - one of those on Arthur Head - from strong winds. When this house was demolished in 1928, the Round House was threatened again. Dr J S Battye, the Public Librarian, was chairman of the 1929 Centenary Committee and largely due to his efforts the building was saved again, but began to fall into disrepair.
During 1966 the standard gauge railway was extended past the end of High Street and the original steps were partly demolished and rebuilt in their present form. In 1973 the building was severely damaged by nearby quarrying.
In 1975 a grant from the recently established Australian Heritage Commission enabled conservation and restoration work. In 1983 the Round House and its surrounding reserve were transferred from the Fremantle Port Authority (now Fremantle Ports) to the City of Fremantle. David Hutchison, FHS Newsletter, Summer 2011, 1-2.
The Round House in 1926
Additional information: By 1900 the Round House had been converted into a home for a constable and his very large family (10 children). They lived there for some twelve years, using the cells as bedrooms and as homes for ducks as well as for smoking fish! And there was another attempt at demolition by the Fremantle Harbour Trust (now Fremantle Ports) in 1955 when it issued a report claiming the place was too damp for a museum and urging demolition. It was saved by then Mayor WF Samson who declared in the West Australian (19 July 1955) that ‘Fremantle would not be Fremantle without the Round House. The Round House is part of our heritage.’ There was a further attempt to at least remove it from its original location by the Fremantle Harbour Trust; in 1966 it proposed that it be moved to the grounds of the Fremantle Arts Museum which was then in its planning stages. Dianne Davidson, FHS Newsletter, Summer 2011: 2.
The photo of the Round House on Arthur Head used by Hitchcock in 1929, so presumably taken at that time, probably by Nixon, of Nixon & Merilees. Note that the stairs on the left are the ones in use; now it is the other way around.
This photo of the Round House was taken by George Davidson, an amateur photographer who worked for shipping company McIlwraith McEachern 1910-60. Here the RHS stairs are unblocked: before or after the previous photo? Thanks to FHS for photo #2390 with this caption:
The Harbour Master's house on the left was built 1870/1880s and demolished c1928. The Round House was constructed 1830/1831. The Pilot cottage on the right is No 9, built c1904 as part of the Light House compound. The original Round House steps were built 1836 and rebuilt to straddle the Whaler's Tunnel in 1838. They were truncated in 1966 because of the railway line.
In this photo from 1960, the stairs on both sides of the Whalers Tunnel are in use. W.F. Samson's house is gone (the vacant block is behind the fence on the left), and neither the Tramways building on the left nor the Samson warehouse on the right have been rebuilt as accommodation.
'Swan River' was established as a colony for free settlers in 1829. Convicts did not arrive until 1850. Nevertheless, the first permanent building was a gaol. Early in 1830 Henry Willey Reveley, the colony's civil engineer, was instructed to prepare drawings for it.
His design for a twelve sided building may have been influenced by Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher interested in prison reform. Bentham devised a plan for a model prison, the 'Panopticon' in which all prisoners could be observed from a central point.
Tenders were called for construction and a contract was awarded to Richard Lewis in August 1830. The Round House, as it came to be known, was completed in January 1831. There were eight cells, toilets and a two storey section accommodating the entrance and warder's quarters. A bakehouse and laundry were built under the landing at the front and a well dug inside.
The walls were made of white capstone (hard surface stone) quarried from the headland and the roof was weatherboard. Soon after, the stone was whitewashed. Ten weeks after completion, the Harbour Master complained that the roof leaked. It was replaced with a flat roof consisting of a crushed limestone and lime mortar slab on boards. Although this also leaked, the problems were solved by 1837 when Reveley reported it to be in good condition. Part of the building was probably used for storage in its early years as one complaint about the roof referred to wheat stored in a cell getting wet.
Conditions in the small cells were cramped. One author claims that in 1837 forty-three men were being held in the Round House. An official return of 1839 noted that in that year the "greatest number of prisoners at one time" was twenty-five.
The role of the headland for law enforcement was strengthened in 1835 when a courthouse was built beside the Round House. Stocks were installed in the 1840s and in 1844 John Gavin, a 15-year-old convicted murderer, was hanged nearby. In the 1850s a second courthouse was built on the other side of the Round House and police barracks were constructed at the bottom end of High Street.
Aborigines were imprisoned in the Round House throughout its life as a gaol. They were also held there for short terms before being sent to the Rottnest Native Penal Establishment, founded in 1840. When Governor Robinson visited the gaol in 1882, he "found seventeen Natives chained by the neck the one to the other, and consequently obliged to sit in cramped and irksome positions". An inquiry was held and the practice of chaining prisoners by the neck in gaols was discontinued. At one stage the Round House was divided into two sections by a wall. It is not known whether this was to separate whites from blacks, men from women or for other reasons.
The first convicts arrived in 1850 to boost the colony's labour force. The Round House was inadequate to house them so one of the convicts' first tasks was to build another prison. This new prison was completed in the mid 1850s and was still in use as Fremantle prison in 1990.
The Round House continued to be used as a gaol for short term prisoners and as a lock up for ticket of leave men who broke curfew. A bell was rung, outside the Round House, at 9.50pm and ticket of leave men caught away from their dwellings after 10pm were locked up.
In 1886 the Round House became the responsibility of the police who used it as a lock up until 1900. It then became living quarters for a chief constable, his wife and ten children.
The headland was always in demand by port authorities, and for defences, due to its prominent position and its proximity to the port. Since the Round House ceased functioning as a gaol, there have been numerous proposals to demolish it. The most recent was in the mid 1960s when the Fremantle Harbour Trust suggested rebuilding it on another site. It was during this period that the steps from High Street to the Round House were modified. The construction of the whaler's tunnel in 1837 led to the demolition of steps running up to the headland. A new stairway was built soon after. It had two flights which ran down from landings either side of the tunnel. The flights were removed in the 1960s to provide space for a new railway line.
The building was repaired throughout the twentieth century; on at least one occasion after partial demolition. Work on the Round House and environs in 1937-38 was paid for by the State Government, Fremantle Harbour Trust, Railways Department and Fremantle Council, following pressure from the Royal Western Australian Historical Society. In 1975-76 the Fremantle Council, funded by a National Estate grant, undertook extensive conservation. Robin McK Campbell, who directed the later work, stated that it "included underpinning and buttressing sections of the external walls which were in danger of collapse, grouting and pointing of the limestone generally: reroofing; joinery repairs; new drainage; wiring and lighting; painting". Recent research by Jack Kent, architect for the Arthur Head Bicentennial project, and consultants, has revealed that a major cause of deterioration is salt accumulation in the stone. When the salt has been removed by washing, further conservation work will commence.
The Fremantle City Council became responsible for the Round House in 1982 when the headland was vested in the City. The building was opened to the public soon afterwards and can now be viewed seven days a week between 10am and 5pm.
City of Fremantle
This information sheet was compiled by David Wood from reports by Debby Cramer and Jack Kent. The reports are available for inspection at the Fremantle Library.
The Round House is now looked after on a daily basis by volunteer Round House Guides, who open the building to tourists every day 1030-1530. The cannon is fired every day at 1300, when at the same moment the time-ball is dropped. This is a reenactment of a time when ships needed to set the chronometers by which they navigated.
Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.
David Hutchison, 'The Round House', FHS Newsletter, Summer 2011, 1-2.
Oldham, Ray 1967, bio of Henry Reveley in the ADB.
Reece, Bob , 'Henry Willey Reveley : Swan River Colony's first architect', unpublished paper.
Reece, Bob 2014, 'Too much for round here', Fremantle Herald, 21 Feb 2014.
Webb, David & David Warren 2005, 'Why the Round House has a poetic touch', Fremantle: Beyond the Round House, Longley, Fremantle; 54-55.
Notes in Fremantle, the newsletter of the Fremantle Society: Vol 1 No 3 1973, Vol 2 No 1 1974, July 2012, Vol 9 No 2 1981.
Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2015 | Now: 4 January, 2018