As a result of a greatly increased crime rate in Victoria due to the gold rush, the government decided to establish a number of penal stockades and also make use of abandoned ships.
One of these stockades was set up at Pentridge (the old name for Coburg) to receive, in December 1850, sixteen prisoners from the overcrowded Melbourne Gaol. Pentridge was thought to be a good place for a prison, being near Melbourne, yet isolated from it. Moreover the village reserve was the only Crown Land left unsold. The purpose of the stockade was to provide labour for the construction of the newly proclaimed Sydney Road. There was a lot of bluestone in the area so the prisoners could do ‘hard labour’ breaking up the stone and working on the unmade road.
Residents were frightened and angry because the stockade consisted only of log huts on wheels behind a low 1.2 metre wooden fence with prisoners guarded by an inadequate number of overseers. Because it was so insecure, mounted aboriginal troopers (police) were employed to patrol its perimeter. The first superintendent of the stockade was Mr Samuel Barrow.
Prisoners worked, slept and were fed in chains. People passing sometimes talked to chain gangs working on the road and gave them tobacco. Prisoners slept on wooden benches and ate standing outside in all weather. Those who broke rules or refused to work were punished by wearing heavier irons or given solitary confinement on bread and water. Some were flogged. Prisoners could only have one letter or visit every three months. The worst punishment was to be sent to the hulks, the floating prison boats moored at Williamstown.
In the period 185764 the stockade was transformed into a typical Pentonville-type prison. Single cells replaced the dormitory accommodation of the earlier stockade, and high external bluestone walls with towers for sentries were built providing a much higher level of security.
‘A’ division was designed as a women’s prison and remained as such until 1871 when female prisoners were transferred to the Melbourne Gaol. By 1870 there were 650 male and female prisoners and 100 staff. A new three-storey building was erected in 1894 to accommodate the then 195 female prisoners. It was supervised by a female governor and staff and continued until 1956 when Fairlea Female Prison was opened. The three-storey building then became a remand prison known as ‘D’ Division.
Prisoners worked in various industries such as the woollen mill, bakery, printery, tailor’s shop, garden, library or in the labour yard rock-breaking. A car number-plate manufactory was established in 1962. By 1945, prisoners were allowed one visit per month and to receive and send one letter a fortnight.
In the 1950s and 1960s the prison became a bit more humane. Prisoners could study, join a debating team and some acted and put on plays. By 1970 there were over 1000 prisoners.
With the closure of the Melbourne Gaol in 1926 all executions in Victoria had been carried out in Pentridge. The last man hanged there was Ronald Ryan in 1967. He had been found guilty of killing a prison officer, George Hodson, during a prison escape attempt.
For a long time, Coburg Council tried to have the prison moved or closed. From 1984, drugs and general unrest in the prisons gave rise to rioting and strikes. In 1994, the State Government announced its program to privatise prisons. In May 1997 the northern half of the prison was officially closed and the prisoners sent elsewhere. June 1997 saw the beginning of public tours of the prison. The southern part of the prison closed on 28 November that year and in 1999 the site was sold and is now being developed as housing estates, parklands and business precinct.
Compiled by Gillian Sansom
Revised by George Armstrong 2001
Kevin Patterson joined with thousands of others making visits to Pentridge in 1997. He wrote ..”Many visitors took photos of a large colourful mural showing a clear stream running through an exotic rainforest. It was painted by prisoners under an artist’s guidance.
Source: Jail Birds in Victoria and Tasmania Travellers’ tales probably from Diamond Creek News 1997