Fremantle – ‘The Swan River Colony’

Fremantle is just a short train ride away from Cottesloe, hugging the coast then crossing over the narrow Swan River mouth. It’s quite the contrast to modern Perth and the laid-back beach life of Cottesloe. Fremantle looks and feels old, but of course not old in real terms.

The Swan River Colony, as Fremantle was once known, was founded in 1829 and established as a ‘free settlement’ for around 400 intrepid British colonists (civilian and military) to ensure the French didn’t make a claim on the area. It was Captain James Stirling (the founding father of Western Australia) who named the settlement ‘Fremantle’ after Captain Fremantle, a British naval officer. But for most locals these days, it’s just plain old ‘Freo’. 

There’s a striking clash of architecture here in bustling Freo, from the 3000 or so heritage listed buildings with their colonial facades, wide shady verandas and ornate cornices to the ultra-modern WA Maritime Museum, with its gleaming white hull-shaped roof jutting commandingly out into Fremantle Harbour, as the ferries to Rottnest Island come and go, to other contemporary splashes of colour and form – all sitting alongside each other in a wonderful clash of new and old.

There’s a colourful indoor artisanal market in the centre of town that was heaving on the day that we were there – which kinda made the City of Perth (visited the next day) look positively depopulated! Perhaps it was the school holidays or maybe it’s always like this. The colonial streets lined with pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants were also pretty packed, giving a decidedly prosperous air to this pocket-sized city on the river. 

One of the oldest buildings in Freo (and indeed WA) is The Round House, the first permanent building in the Swan River Colony, built in 1831 as a prison. Today it’s a museum run by some friendly locals that love nothing more than retelling the many yarns made in this place. It’s a small building with just 8 cells and a jailer’s residence – with some stocks and the odd ball-and-chain lying around. There’s a deep 14 metre well in the middle of the compound that connects to a stone-cut tunnel running some 57 metres to the High Street and built in just 5 months, thanks to the hard labour efforts of the resident prisoners, essentially pick-axing their way through solid rock. 

Over at Fremantle Harbour and alongside the gleaming white hull of the Maritime Museum, is an authentic Cold War relic, an Oberon Class submarine, HMAS Ovens. It sits in Fremantle’s historic World War II submarine slipway and is being painstakingly restored, removing tons of iron corrosion and rust to expose its former menacing glory. 

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