Her Majesty’s Regional Prison on the outskirts of Roebourne as it stands today was built in 1896, upgraded from an older four cell gaol first built in 1884.
The original four cells were wooden and in 1887 they were replaced by four stone cells with an iron ring in the centre of the floor. The ruins of these cells can be found at the back of the prison.
The upgraded prison is an octagon shaped central building and courtyard, designed so a single gaoler can supervise all of the wings. It had four wings running off the central courtyard, each intended to hold up to 14 prisoners but it often had up to 40 prisoners in each wing. The prison cells were assigned separately to Aboriginals, Asians, Europeans, and women.
The Old Gaol is from the colonial era of the Northwest of Australia and was the centre for law and custody for the whole region, although some were transported to be imprisoned at Rottnest Island.
Ellemara was a prisoner who was arrested for killing stock. From the Fitzroy River area in the Kimberley region, the Bunuba Aboriginal man escaped from the gaol and walked home, over 950km away. Ellemara was an uncle of Jandamarra, an Aborigine who once was a tracker for police and later led his own people on many armed attacks against the colonials.
Ellemara forced Jandamarra to decided on his loyalty with his friend, policeman Richardson, or be an outcast from his tribe. Jandamarra killed his friend and became an armed fugitive.
With the dwindling population in the Roebourne area after the abandonment of the Cossack port, the Old Gaol closed in 1924. It was again opened in 1975 for another nine years until prisoners were transferred to the new Roebourne Regional Prison in 1984.
Two wings of the Old Gaol and the courtyard now tell the story of the prison’s history. One wing tells of the colonial history, the other wing has the history of the Aboriginal people in the Pilbara region since European settlement, and the courtyard displays farming and mining equipment used in the early days as well as a display of Pilbara rocks and gemstones.
One of the wings is the Roebourne Visitors Centre where staff can assist with information on what can be seen in the region. The other wing has a video of the Pilbara region, as well as tea and coffee facilities, tourist pamphlets, and seating.
The Old Gaol is the start of the Emma Withnell Heritage Trail .
To get there:
From the centre of Roebourne, head south on Roe St (NW Coastal Hwy). Turn right into Queen St, then turn left into the entrance to the parking area for the Old Gaol.