A lot can change in eight months.
In March, the terraced knoll in front of Fremantle Prison’s main cellblock was little more than a tangle of weeds. The bricks had faded, rubbish was buried in the ground, rogue plants ran wild: all the things that happen when a patch of dirt (more like sand, really) is left neglected for decades.
Today, this patch of dirt is thriving. Squash plants are everywhere, their fat leaves facing the heavens like nature’s own satellite dishes. Red-veined beetroot leaves jut out of the soil, now a healthy shade of crumbly brown and wood chip. White cabbage moths, bees and hover flies jostle for air supremacy. What was once something of an eyesore has been transformed into a living kingdom of plants and insects.
“It’s like a community garden on steroids,” says Courtney Wilmot, a tour guide at the prison who is showing me around its newest attraction. Not only is Wilmot full bottle on the prison’s history, she was also one of the volunteers who helped restore the garden when the world heritage-listed prison shut during the first Covid-19 lockdown. The two of us take turns pointing at things, me asking questions and her answering them. We stop by the footpath and Wilmot grabs a good fistful of lacy carrot top. Her prize is a swollen root veg that’s almost as long as her forearm – a “franken-carrot”, as she calls it. “I’ve never successfully grown anything like this.”
The prison’s gardens have a history of turning non-gardeners into green thumbs. Since the terraced gardens were established in 1910 by reformist superintendent Hugh Hahn, prisoners have found purpose in digging in the dirt. “Killer grows prize blooms”, an article printed in The Mirror in 1955, tells the story of a convicted murderer who grows prize-winning carnations as an act of atonement. In addition to lifting inmates’ spirits, the gardens also served a practical purpose: at their peak, they supplied the prison kitchen with more than 10,000 kilograms of fruit and vegetables annually. With no prisoners to feed – the Fremantle Prison was decommissioned in 1991 before reopening the following year as a tourist attraction – the produce being grown is being donated fortnightly to St Patrick’s, a longstanding Fremantle community group that houses and feeds the homeless and rough sleepers. It’s a move that feels very “Freo”, partially because of the boho port city’s strong community spirit, and partially because gardens – backyard, market, interwar victory and otherwise – have long featured in the Fremantle story.
Like any good garden, the prison’s latest addition does more than just feed people. For Wilmot and the other volunteers involved with the garden’s restoration, this Covid project was an opportunity to keep active during lockdown and get to know colleagues deployed elsewhere in the prison. Wilmot says: “There were people that I wouldn’t have worked with prior to this. Now I feel much more connected to the people I work around.” For guests visiting the prison, the garden helps create a more vivid sense of what life was like for both prisoners and guards.
“Having the gardens reinstated is one of those things that makes it easier for a visitor to visualise what the place would have been like when it was operating,” says Luke Donegan, the prison’s heritage conservation manager. “Rather than being an empty historical monument, it gets us a little closer to it being an active space.”
Wilmot and everyone involved with the gardens have an interesting six months ahead of them. First and foremost is keeping the garden alive and watered through the dry West Australian summer (the amount of concrete in and surrounding the garden has created a “furnace”-like environment).
Finding the time to work in the garden as things return to normal is another concern: visitor numbers aren’t quite back at pre-Covid levels, but they’re slowly rising. Being a state-owned and a historical site also creates its own challenges, from making it difficult for volunteers to work the garden to ensuring that, as the garden grows, it doesn’t affect the prison’s mise en scene: scarecrows, sprinklers and shade cloth don’t exactly chime with the criminal penitentiary aesthetic. Still, the team at the prison is committed to ensuring the gardens – and the prison – remain a pivotal part of Freo.
“The community engagement is really important,” says Donegan. “It’s not just about getting tourists to come and see the prison, but the prison having a life in the community. Without that community engagement, there’s no point.”