The Round House

Built as a gaol, the Round House is the oldest building in Western Australia.  Directly below the Round House is the oldest tunnel in Western Australia.  Both were engineering milestones for the colony.  However, one has to wonder why our first tunnel, had to be excavated directly beneath our first gaol.

Despite this strange co-location, no prisoner managed to make the necessary connection with the tunnel.  It appears our early town planners never made that connection either.  Could there have been any good reason to excavate a tunnel under the gaol?  History does provide an answer, even if it did compromise the security upstairs.

The first settlers landed in 1829, at  Arthur's Head, Fremantle. Governor Stirling then promptly commissioned the construction of a gaol.

The Round House and the Whaler's Tunnel.

The Round House.

Arthur's Head.

Arthur's Head was selected as the perfect location, as it offered many classic gaol like qualities.


-Arthur's Head is a prominent coastal limestone cliff, formed from an ancient fossil coral reef.  Just the right mix of sinister geography, to instil fear in the population below.

-Being located in the bustling maritime precinct, it was never far away from potential criminals.

-Wind Swept.  There is nothing like a powerful ocean gale to provide the scary "howl" factor.


Arthur's Head.


The building was designed by the Swan River Colony's first Civil Engineer, Mr Henry Reveley.  With an abundance of local limestone, he designed a 12 sided building, containing eight cells and a gaolers residence, which all opened up into a central courtyard.  This allowed all areas of the prison to be observed from a central position.  Using private labour (no convicts available yet), construction took six months, and was completed in January 1831, for an impressive 1603.

The inner courtyard and gaolers residence.

The inner courtyard and gaolers residence. 

The Dodecagonal House.

How can a Round House have
12 sides?

Most people like to keep a fair distance from gaols, and it was from this far perspective that the building appeared to be round.  Fortunately the name "Round House" was quickly adopted, instead of the technically correct, but linguistically challenging "Dodecagonal House".

Looking deceptively round from any side.


In 1837 the Fremantle Whaling Company, constructed a jetty and established operations on Bathers Beach.  Whales were soon being dragged ashore for processing.  Bathers Beach is located right in front of Arthur's Head, with the Round House sitting on top.  Unfortunately this blocked the transport route for moving the whale products into Fremantle.  A commercial decision was made to excavate a tunnel through Arthur's Head, directly under the Round House.  The services of Henry Reveley were once again pressed into action.

Bathers Beach.
Bathers Beach.  In 1829 the first settlers encountered a hostile landscape.  Today after walking up from the beach, you will encounter a tasty serve of Fish and Chips.



Looking out of the Whaler's Tunnel at Bathers Beach and the Indian Ocean.

The Whaler's Tunnel

The Whaler's Tunnel was the first underground engineering project in Western Australia.  After five months of excavation, the tunnel was completed in January 1838.  Originally the tunnel was 3.6 metres high, and 64 metres long.  Limestone quarrying on the ocean side of Arthur's Head has since reduced this length to 46 metres.

Looking out of the Whaler's Tunnel at
Bathers Beach and the Indian Ocean.


The whaling industry hit hard times, and the use of the station declined into the 1860's.  The Whaler's Tunnel remained open to allow easy access to the beach.  Just like the tunnel, the use of the Round House also changed over the years.  After the first convicts arrived in 1850, the eight cell Round House was just not up to the job.  The much larger Fremantle Prison was constructed in the mid 1850's, and the Round House was relegated to the lighter duties of a police lock-up.  A time ball was erected at the turn of the century, and a blast from a sea cannon at 1pm each day, enabled mariners to adjust their chronometers.

The Time Ball drops when the cannon is fired at 1pm each day.
The Time Ball dropping.

The Round House Cannon.

The Round House Cannon.  Fired at 1pm each day, enabling mariners and tourists to calibrate their digital watches. 

Home Sweet Home

When can a Round House
 be called a Home?

It was not until 1900, that the Round House could finally be called a home.  A chief constable, his wife and their ten children, turned the gaol into a lovely eight room (cell) residence.  It was indeed a shame they had no ocean facing windows, as the view is quite spectacular.

Home Sweet Home


The Great Escape.

So did anyone ever get around to building an escape passage into the Whaler's Tunnel?  They sure did, though many years after the last prisoner had left the grounds.  A "secret tunnel" was connected in 1938, so the Whaler's Tunnel could be used as an air raid shelter during World War II.  No hostile planes were ever sighted, though we do experience the odd low flying sea gull.


LOCATION:  The rather old looking 12 sided limestone building at the Indian Ocean end of High Street in Fremantle.

Copyright 2010