Melbourne's first gaols

Port Phillip's first gaol was a hut on Batman's Hill, surrounded by a 2.4 metre fence. It opened in 1837 but was burnt to the ground by escaping Aborigines in 1838. This event highlighted the town's need for a substantial building to house its criminals.

Captain William Lonsdale – who was appointed to manage the Port Phillip settlement – rented a stone building to serve as a prison. But despite best intentions, its standard of accommodation was terrible:

I was yesterday doomed to this miserable hole, closely confined during the whole night with two others in a room scarcely 10 feet square with disgusting atmosphere and the heat about 120 (Fahrenheit) ... I have been seriously ill lately and now under Doctor's hands, who will certify that he believes a few days confinement in this place might cause my death.

– anonymous prisoner, circa 1838

Lynne P & Armstrong G 1996, From Pentonville to Pentridge, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Vic.

Documents from colonial times were generally written from the perspective of the powerful and wealthy, and few record the experiences of criminals, women, workers, children and the poor.

Lonsdale gave instructions for the creation of a temporary gaol, and it was completed in 1840. It enabled better supervision of prisoners and provided better accommodation for the gaoler. It grew to include solitary cells, a high surrounding fence, more gaolers' quarters and a treadmill to be used for prison punishment.

There were two of these watch-houses built and for a while, there were no issues holding prisoners. But the population of the colony increased from 224 to 23,799 between 1836 and 1842.

This and the expanding court system placed huge pressures on the watch-houses and made it clear that Melbourne needed its own, fully-fledged gaol.

The government in Sydney drew up plans for a new Melbourne Gaol on the top of the Russell Street hill, and it opened on 1 January 1845. Residents criticised government officials for building it there, but the building was designed with English prison reforms in mind, and included:

  • large-scale use of cells
  • better ventilation and natural light
  • an exercise yard.

The Melbourne Gaol finally closed in 1929, but the building remains on Russell Street and has become a museum and popular tourist destination.

Painting showing an escape from gaol by two Indigenous men.
Painting of Melbourne gaol as viewed from the Public Library.
Aerial photograph of Old Melbourne Gaol looking west.
Sketch of buildings in Melbourne, as viewed from the Surveyor-General's yard.
Additional resources