Old Melbourne Gaol Review: Victoria’s Most Iconic Prison

Old Melbourne Gaol Review: Victoria’s Most Iconic Prison

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Some of the earliest buildings constructed on Australian shores by the British empire were prisons and Australian colonial history is one of hardship. To help you plan your Melbourne sightseeing, this Old Melbourne Gaol review details the fascinating history behind the bluestone walls.

You start your visit of the Melbourne old gaol on the ground floor
Ground Floor

Old Melbourne Gaol Review

The city of Melbourne was founded almost forty years after Sydney, and has a history as a somewhat wild and dangerous city. With equally hard colonial times, Melbourne history shares in the dark and violent convict past of Australia.

As part of my Melbourne activities, I was curious to discover the Old Melbourne Gaol. Having done a number of prison tours in Fremantle and visited Australian penal colonies in Port Arthur and Maria Island in Tasmania, I wondered where Melbourne Gaol fits in.

The octagon is in the main block of the prison
Octagon

How to get to the Old Melbourne Gaol

The oldest prison in Melbourne is in the city, on Russell Street, between Victoria Street and LaTrobe Street. It’s a pleasant walk with a view of some skyscrapers from the CBD and it’s ten minutes walking distance from the Queen Victoria Markets. Other Melbourne CBD attractions in that area include some interesting street art.

Women were also incarcerated at Melbourne Gaol
Women in Gaol

The building is next to the Old City Watch House and City Courts Buildings. The bluestone building appears small and out of sync with the neighbouring modern architecture, but think of it as a commanding figure on the Melbourne skyline. On old photos of Melbourne, it had a very daunting presence. Today, some sections of the prison are part of RMIT University and are not open to the public.

Part of the Old Melbourne Gaol is in RMIT university
Old Melbourne Gaol

The main cell block is open to visits and an extraordinary step back in time. This is also the place where you can learn about the Ned Kelly story.

Where to Stay in Melbourne

It’s hard to pick the best place to stay in Melbourne, there are so many options. I like to stay in or near the CBD and on my last Melbourne itinerary, I chose a small apartment near Flagstaff Gardens

There are plenty of other places to stay in Melbourne on AirBnb.

History of the Old Melbourne Gaol

The history of Australia always tells stories of jail time and incarceration, so it makes sense to visit the Old Melbourne Gaol as part of your Melbourne experience. The jail operated from 1842 to 1924, with its construction starting in 1839, only four years after the foundation of Melbourne. During this period, the building housed dangerous criminals, petty thieves, the homeless and the mentally ill. 

The octagon is in the central axis of the Old Melbourne Gaol
Melbourne Gaol Octagon

The first prisoners arrived in 1845 and by 1850, the prison was already overcrowded. With the discovery of gold in Victoria, population grew and lawlessness increased in Melbourne, and the building was expanded in 1852. A block for female prisoners was completed in 1864 but it’s not currently open to the public.

The cells in the Old Melbourne Gaol are pretty bare
Old Melbourne Gaol Cell

At that time, the prison occupied an entire city block, with exercise yards, a hospital, a chapel, a bath house and staff accommodation. There was a house for the chief warders and their families and up to 17 houses for gaolers were built on Swanston Street in 1860. In the previous decade, gaolers and their families lived within the prison walls…

Australian Prisoners

Up to 20 children stayed in the prison, some as young as three. Babies were allowed to stay with their mothers and young children were usually imprisoned for theft or vagrancy.

Some cells in the gaol have descriptive panels about past prisoners
Old Melbourne Gaol prisoners

An important character in Australian crime history was incarcerated here, read on for more information on Ned Kelly.

Australian Criminals

There was a classification system within the Australian prison system. The more difficult criminals would stay in solitary confinement on the ground floor, 23 hours a day in their cell. Communication with other inmates was banned and they were made to wear a “silent mask” or calico hood.

You can read about past criminals and their lives at the Old Gaol in Melbourne
Old Melbourne Gaol criminal

If prisoners behaved, they would be “promoted” to the second floor. Men would be assigned to hard labour, women would cook, sew, clean and some would work as domestic servants to the prison governor. Finally, trusted criminals could stay in communal cells on the third floor.

Visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol

The simplest way to visit one of the most interesting prisons in Australia is to purchase an entry ticket and visit at your own pace. A number of plaques and display give a thorough explanation of the various aspects of the jail and it’s a great way to soak up the atmosphere.

The ground floor of the Old Melbourne Gaol was for the most dangerous criminals
Ground Floor

The place is dark and very still. Visitors are encouraged to keep quiet in order to respect the place. There is a strong echo, and anyone talking loudly or shouting would make too much noise.

The middle floor of the Old Melbourne Gaol housed trusted prisoners who behaved well
Middle Floor

There is a beauty in this darkness, with the dim light reflecting on the polished bluestone, the cell doors have a sheen after decades of use. The gaol is a place of reflection and feels a little creepy at times, especially when you read about convict punishments. Indeed, visitors cannot help but reflect on the sheer misery and suffering experienced by the poor souls locked up in the gaol. Still, it’s one of the Melbourne highlights.

Old Melbourne Gaol Tours

There are a few options for your Melbourne gaol tour.

Old Melbourne Gaol Tickets

You can purchase tickets for the Old Melbourne Gaol and do the visit at your own pace. There is plenty of information on display to learn at your own pace.

You can try on irons and shackles from the touch trolley
Touch Trolley

Watch house tours

The Watch house tour will give you a taste of what it’s like entering an Australian gaol in the old days.

Melbourne Gaol Ghost tours

If you are looking for things to do in Melbourne at night, why not get the thrill of a ghost tour? This one is actually in Pentridge Prison, which has some scary history!

Old Melbourne Gaol Executions

In the course of its history, the Old Melbourne Gaol saw 135 hangings, quite a significant number. Some of the stories told within the walls are truly sad, including the one of Colin Campbell Ross, wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of a 12-year old girl in 1921.

Over time, the gallows were set up in various areas of the prison, and eventually, a fixed gallows was installed below the octagon across the main axis of the prison block. It’s a damning presence, with a well used noose hanging off the main beam… And to think that this is where Ned Kelly hanged…

This is the beam where Ned Kelly was hanged
The Gallows

Corporal punishment was in use as a way to break difficult inmates and the flogging post is still in place. Other punishments involved time spent in irons, which you can experience on the touch trolley, and food deprivation.

If you are looking for your ancestry, you can research Australian convict records.

Death Masks

There are a number of death masks on display in the gaol. Those were taken shortly after execution as of the phrenological study of hanged felons. Phrenology was the study of the shape of the skull to identify personality traits, including criminal tendencies. It’s now considered a pseudoscience but it was very popular during the 19th century. 

Death masks were done after a prisoner's execution
Death Masks

This “research” also included convicts in Australia. Left are some eerie face masks, most of them with a peaceful and sleepy expression.

Old Melbourne Gaol Closure

In 1870, a review recommended the closure of the gaol. Prison operation gradually slowed down until final closure in 1924. The prison was heritage-listed in 1957 and it is now an incredibly well preserved time machine.

Visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol is a great way to learn about Melbourne's history
Old Melbourne Gaol

Ned Kelly, Bushranger

You can’t miss Australia’s most famous and most fascinating criminal when you visit the Old Melbourne Gaol. Ned Kelly, the famous bushranger hanged here in 1880, at the age of 25. Famous in his day, Ned Kelly is a complex and divisive character and an Australian cultural icon. His cell and some memorabilia are on display within the prison and as a visitor, you can’t help but feel a chill when seeing the gallows that saw him hang…

Ned Kelly's cell is preserved in the jail
Ned Kelly’s Cell

Ned Kelly was born in Australia to an Irish convict. After several brushes with the law and some time in prison for stealing horses, Ned Kelly was accused of trying to murder a policeman. When the police arrested his mother, Kelly and his gang fled into the bush.

Bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880
Ned Kelly’s Death Mask

At that point, the Ned Kelly gang started committing bank robberies in the Victorian countryside and essentially became media personalities… The newspapers of the time helped create a “Robin Hood” persona, which is still the subject of much debate today. 

Ned Kelly's presence is all over the jail
Ned Kelly

In 1878, a confrontation with the police at Stringybark Creek resulted in the death of three officers and Ned Kelly was declared an outlaw. His supporters denounced the harassment of his Irish family by the authorities. Kelly penned what became known as the “Jerilderie Letter”, a lengthy document in which he justified his increasingly criminal and violent activities. He denounced the pressure from the police and the Victorian government and even the British Empire. This manifesto has been the subject of much interpretation. 

Ned Kelly is remembered by some as an Australian folk hero
Ned Kelly’s Cell

During his time on the run, Ned Kelly gave interviews to journalists and admired by women, becoming a figure of legend even before his death. Eventually, Ned Kelly’s last stand came when the police cornered Kelly and his gang near Glenrowan. After releasing some of their hostages, Kelly donned a homemade metal armour that would become his symbol and a firefight with the police ensued. Kelly survived the siege despite some severe injuries and was able to stand trial.

The bluestone of the Old Jail in Melbourne is quite unique
Bluestone

His execution took place on 11 November 1880. His death mask shows a resolute yet peaceful expression, as if he had accepted his fate. To this day, Kelly remains a divisive figure, some will see him as an Australian folk hero, a political revolutionary and a figure of Irish Catholic and working class resistance to British colonial rule. Others will simply brand him a horse thief and psychopathic cop killer…

The gallows in the prison are a chilling sight
The Gallows

Regardless of whether you regard Ned Kelly as a hero, he is an historical figure you can’t miss when visiting Victoria. After all, Northeast Victoria is now “Kelly Country”… The Ned Kelly armor is now on display at the Melbourne Museum.

Australia’s Criminal Past

For many Australians fascinated by their criminal past or looking for facts about Ned Kelly, a visit to the Old Melbourne Gaol is a great learning experience. Few places in Melbourne tell stories of the past so vibrantly as the old gaol. If you want to learn more about Australia’s convict past, you may want to visit one of the eleven Australian Convict Sites.

Have you experienced the Old Melbourne Gaol, what did you like about it? Tell me about is in the comments below.

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The Old Melbourne Gaol is a most interesting museum when you travel to Victoria
Explore the Old Melbourne Gaol and learn about Australia's convict and criminal history
This Old Melbourne Gaol review will help you decide when and how to visit this place of history

12 Comments

  1. samantha karen

    August 10, 2020 at 5:33 am

    Wow, what a stark contrast between the new buildings and the old prison! Can really see its age through that perspective. This looks like such an interesting place to vsit to see a unique side of Melbourne.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 10, 2020 at 7:40 am

      I quite like the contrast of the old building and the new, but the prison looks very small, a very different impact than what it must have had at the time of building!

  2. Rhonda Albom

    August 10, 2020 at 9:07 pm

    I have been to this gaol and I remember seeing Ned Kelly’s death mask down at the end of a long hall. It was a very eerie experience. The life in the prison seemed to be very harsh.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 11, 2020 at 1:30 pm

      Ned Kelly’s death mask is very interesting. It shows a peaceful expression and yet the determined and serious look you see on the photos of Ned Kelly is still there. Fancy ending your life like this at just 25!

  3. Linda (LD Holland)

    August 11, 2020 at 9:56 am

    I am sure a visit to the Old Melbourne Gaol would provide some interesting history of the city. Wandering around the place would give me a real sense of this dark place. It might be a bit spooky to visit for the ghost tours. Some of those death mask faces might surely haunt me! A fascinating part of Australia’s past.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 11, 2020 at 1:27 pm

      The death masks are indeed quite striking, they look so peaceful and yet, these men had a hard life… Australia’s criminal history is quite fascinating and the Old Melbourne Gaol is a very interesting place to visit!

  4. Punita

    August 13, 2020 at 6:13 pm

    I could actually visualize myself in the darkness, outside the cell doors. You’re right about the overtones of misery and creepiness. Makes one think of the extremes of adversity.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 14, 2020 at 7:21 am

      Yes, the prison is pretty creepy, especially when you see how small the cells are, and of course the gallows… I hope they eventually open more of the prison, because at the moment it’s only the main cell block.

  5. Indrani

    August 13, 2020 at 10:30 pm

    Such an eerie feeling! Prison tourism is slowly getting popular with tourists who seek different experiences during travel. Do they allow a stay over at night? Couple of prisons in India offer that.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 14, 2020 at 7:18 am

      It is certainly an unusual experience but prisons are part of history and culture so it makes sense to visit if you get a chance.

  6. Ophelie

    August 17, 2020 at 3:30 am

    So interesting to read your article about how worked prisons at the time in Australia. I learnt a lot! Merci 🙂

    1. Delphine Mignon

      August 17, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Bonjour Ophelie, Australia must seem quite strange to French people with all its prisons-museums… But it’s a big part of history here so they are very interesting places to visit…

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