Australia: Behind the prison bars

By Bruce Holmes

Away from the beaches, Australia's old jails evoke a dark past. Bruce Holmes visits seven of the most notorious

Ned Kelly was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. File Photo / Supplied
Ned Kelly was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. File Photo / Supplied

They are the strong walls that once held convicts, bushrangers and 20th-century mass murderers, where inmates dreaded the sound of the heavy door banging shut behind them. But, now decommissioned, these Australian gaols have become a tourist drawcard, and curious souls are clamouring to see within.

Old Melbourne Gaol, Victoria
Ned Kelly's mother was reputed to have given her son a final piece of advice: "Mind you die like a Kelly." And so on November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol for the murders of three police officers. His was one of 133 hangings during the gaol's operation, from 1842 to 1929. It has been a public museum since 1972. Self-guided tours allow visitors to see what prison life was like, enter cells and examine a collection of death masks. After dark, there are ghost tours and Hangman's Night Tours - as they ask in the prelude, "What stories would a hangman tell you?"

Freemantle Prison, Western Australia
In 1849, the Western Australian Governor requested that convicts be sent to the colony, hoping for tradesmen.

A year later they arrived and Freemantle prison was built with convict labour during the 1850s. Closed in 1991, it became one of 11 "Australian Convict Sites" on the World Heritage list in 2010. Our tour guide leads us into the 1960s shower block - when the door bangs shut I feel rather nervous, having watched too many movies. The guide explains that tennis in the outdoor area had to be stopped because too many balls full of drugs came over the fence from outside.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
Probably Australia's most famous prison, Port Arthur Historic Site is another of the World Heritage-listed convict sites. The settlement began as a penal colony in 1830, and within 10 years had grown to have a convict population of 1100 and timber, shipbuilding, brick-making and smithing enterprises. But with the last convict shipped there in 1877 the economics of the enterprise were never going to be maintained. Today, visitors can take a guided walking tour, a self-guided audio tour, a harbour cruise and, if staying overnight in the area, a tour of the Isle of the Dead and the nearby Coalmines historic site.

Adelaide Gaol, South Australia
One of the two oldest public buildings in Adelaide, the gaol housed 300,000 prisoners between 1841 and its closure in 1988. From 1867 to 1869, male and female inmates were visited and tended to by Sister Mary MacKillop (canonised in 2010 as Australia's only saint) and members of her order. There are self-guided tours each day, and also guided history tours in which visitors learn about the gaol's construction and how the builders went bankrupt, and about the archaeological find - the original white settlers' camp beneath the prison. They can also hear on one of the chilling ghost tours about the inmates "who never left".

Fannie Bay Gaol, Northern Territory
Fannie Bay Gaol opened in 1883 on Darwin's outskirts, so prisoners didn't have to be transported through the town to work. The original inmates were predominantly Chinese and Aboriginal. It had 16 stone cells and corrugated iron walls. Prisoners must have been pleased to be allowed a daily swim in Fannie Bay. The gaol survived the Japanese bombing raids in 1942 and Cyclone Tracy in 1974, although the storm caused some damage. Decommissioned in 1979, the prison is now a museum where visitors can see not only the cells but various displays, including one with video footage and pictures of Cyclone Tracy.

Trial Bay Gaol, New South Wales
On a beautiful part of the New South Wales coast near South West Rocks lies Trial Bay Gaol, a site with spectacular views. Opened in 1886 as a works prison, the intention was to have convicts construct a breakwater in the harbour. But after long delays and only partial completion of the breakwater, the gaol closed in 1903. It re-opened during World War I when it was used as an internment camp for German subjects in Australia deemed "enemy aliens". But in 1922, all movable buildings and materials were removed, leaving today's heritage-listed ruin.

Maitland Gaol, New South Wales
From its first prisoners in 1848 till its closure in 1998, the gaol at East Maitland is reputed to have been "the longest continuously operating correctional institution in Australia". Between 1843 and 1897, 16 men were hanged here for rape or murder. In its time it housed some of Australia's worst criminals, including bank robber Darcy Dugan, backpacker serial killer Ivan Milat and John Travers and his gang, who murdered Anita Cobby. This once-dreaded site is now a tourist attraction at which visitors can take self-guided audio-tours, themed guided tours or a tour led by an ex-inmate or an ex-warder.


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- NZ Herald

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