Looks can be deceiving because the Old Melbourne Gaol is one of Melbourne's best historical places and truly worth a visit.
Learn more about Old Melbourne Gaol
Old Melbourne Gaol dominated the Melbourne skyline as a symbol of authority when it was built in the mid 1800s. Between 1842 and its closure in 1929 the gaol (jail) was the scene of 133 hangings including Australia's most infamous citizen, the bushranger Ned Kelly.
It was used as a US military prison during World War II. Museum displays include death masks and histories of famous bushrangers and convicts.
Brief History of the Melbourne Gaol
The Old Melbourne Gaol was the first extensive gaol complex in Victoria. It is located on Russell Street, between La Trobe and Victoria Streets behind the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and opposite the old Russell Street Police Station.
The first Melbourne Gaol was built in Collins Street West in 1839-40, but was far too small. A second gaol was built in 1841-4, adjoining the then Supreme Court at the corner of Russell and La Trobe Streets, but this was entirely demolished early in the twentieth century when the Magistrate's Court complex was built.
What was officially a new wing, but really stage one of the third gaol, was built in 1852-4. It was of bluestone rather than sandstone, and had its own perimeter wall. This new design was based upon the designs of the British prison engineer Joshua Jebb, and more particularly upon the Pentonville Model Prison in London.
The building was a model prison and based on the current prison reform theories of the day. In spite of the amount of building and extension work performed on the Gaol, the complex was consistently overcrowded. It was extended in two stages in 1857-9, and the boundary wall was also extended in 1858-9.
The present north wing, comprising the entrance buildings, central hall and chapel was begun in 1860. In 1862-4 a western cell block, virtually a replica of the present east block, was built to house female prisoners, and the perimeter wall was finally completed in 1864. The west wing extended into what is now the RMIT site, and has since been demolished.
Other building work consisted of support buildings constructed around the gaol complex. For example, seventeen jailer's houses on Swanston St (1860), a hospital in one of the yards (1864) and a chief warders house on the corner of Franklin and Russell Sts.
In a review of the penal system in 1870 it was recommended that the gaol be closed and the prisoners be moved to a more 'suitable' location. Read a description of daily life in Gaol here. Between 1880 and 1924 the gaol was slowly rundown and portions of the original site demolished. The gaol was finally closed in 1929. It reopened briefly during the Second World War as a military prison for Australian soldiers who were Absent Without Leave. Later it was a storage depot for the Victorian Police force.
The Old Melbourne Gaol is operated by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria). The National Trust is Australia's largest community conservation organisation: its aim to conserve Australia's heritage for future generations.
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