22 October, 2012

A model prison

Following on from my last post on the South Geelong Gaol, I thought it appropriate to continue the theme by looking at its successor the Geelong Gaol or - as it is now known - the "Old" Geelong Gaol. To be honest, it was originally this jail which got me thinking of crooks in connection with the Barwon in the first place. In addition to being an interesting old local building, it is located on the corner of Myers and Swanston Streets, only a short distance from where I live so I pass it almost daily. As a result, I have often wondered if I could find a connection between the gaol and the river and sneak it into a blog post. This is that post.

The front enterance to the Geelong Gaol
Not surprisingly, the Geelong Gaol comes with the expected array of hangings, murders, ghost stories  and daring escapes, many of which were recorded in the newspapers of the day and make fascinating reading. What I was also hoping to find were tales of desperate chases on horseback along the riverbank, whispers of caves where villains hid from the law or stashed their ill-gotten gains and dramatic escapes across the rushing waters of the Barwon.
Of course the aftermath of all these grievous deeds would see the malefactors summarily brought to justice by the local constabulary and cast into the dank, forbidding surrounds of the gaol, whose imposing bluestone walls had been hewn from the very rocks of the Barwon itself.
Well, the latter is quite likely the truth as I found several websites which indicated that the gaol was built from locally quarried bluestone, but none of them wanted to tell me which quarry.
Other presumably locally acquired building materials were brick and volcanic rock. The gaol was designed by the Colonial Clerk of Works Henry Ginn and built in stages using convict labour between 1849 and 1864. It received its first crop of villains in 1853. And yes they were indeed villains - a term which derives from "Pentonvillians" the name given to inmates of Pentonville Gaol in England after which model the Geelong Gaol was built. This type of prison was based on the principle of isolation meaning that prisoners could not see each other and were not allowed to communicate, instead being expected to spend their time in contemplation.
Overhead view of the Geelong Gaol in 2008 showing the radiating arms
typical of the Pentonville model. The east and west wings were used to house
prisoners with administration in the north wing and various amenities in the south wing.
 Throughout its almost 160 year history, the gaol has served a variety of roles. Initially used to house convicts and other prisoners from 1853, between 1865 and 1872 the east wing was used as an industrial school for vagrant girls. From 1877 until the Second World War it was used as a hospital gaol for older and infirm prisoners (and was, it has been suggested, staffed with men of a similar ilk). From 1940 to 1947 it served as an army detention barracks after which it was again used as a hospital gaol until 1958 when it became a training prison where the inmates were taught various trades. It continued in this role until its final closure in 1991 when most prisoners were transferred to the newly built maximum security Barwon Prison.
There have been several paranormal investigations conducted at the gaol over the years but not surprisingly, no concrete evidence of haunting has emerged. There have been anecdotal reports of past inmates hearing female voices - particularly in the east wing where the girls lived - as well as a number of reports of strange activities and odd sensations.

Rear view of the Geelong Gaol showing the south (left) and east (centre) wings
and a guard tower in the external wall
For all its reputation as a hell hole (even the notorious Chopper Reid claimed to have no desire to return to the gaol where conditions remained primitive until its closure), there were only two hangings ever conducted within its walls: James Murphy was hanged in 1863 for the murder of a police officer at the Warrnambool Court House and Thomas Menard who was also hanged for murder in October, 1865. Four earlier hangings took place outside the gaol at nearby Gallows Flat on the north west corner of Bellerine and Myers Streets. Of course, there were also numerous suicides and murders which resulted from violence amongst the inmates over the years.
There were also a number of escape attempts and one of the more sensational will be the subject of my next post.

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