As part of Melbourne's Open House, free tours are available through the historic former site of HM Pentridge Prison. While archaeological excavations may not be on your bucket list (they certainly weren't on mine), this is a really, really interesting and informative look at why the prison was sited where it was and the thinking behind the methods of "rehabilitation" that were utilised.
The tour is conducted by the Project Director and chief architect, Adam Ford and is very professional delivered. The prime objective is to catalogue the rich history of the site and to inform the public, however, the excavation is a requirement of the Victorian Heritage Register, prior to any construction.
I had visited this infamous establishment while it was still operating as a prison (no, not as an inmate!) but I still found this recent tour an eye-opener. By lifting concrete floors and excavating the area, discoveries of unique methods of "airing" prisoners and of housing inmates has been able to be studied. Even the prison wardens who walked those floors daily had no concept of what lay beneath or what information they would yield.
Pentridge Prison, established as a temporary holding area in 1850 but later converted to a permanent bluestone stronghold, was deliberately erected to resemble a fortress. Standing high on a hill and overlooking the surrounding buildings, it was to remind the populace that they were under the protection of HM Government, thus providing safety and as a secondary purpose, it was to remind all that should they stray, it could become their home for an indefinite period.
The thinking in the 1800s was that Monks were good people who didn't offend, so prison life was styled on silence and solitude. Talking was forbidden and all identity was removed, inmates being addressed only as numbers.
All prisoners who arrived at the prison went through B Division. The amount of time spent here was proportionate to their sentence i.e. 6 yr sentence meant 6 weeks in B Divison. Here prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in small dark cells for 23 hrs per day and were allowed one hour only of exercise daily. It is the exercise yards that have given up the bulk of the secrets as to how prisoners were treated during the 1860s and onwards.
The bluestone exercise yards were constructed as a circle containing individual wedged shaped airing yards (panoptican), each with walls much higher than the height of the prisoner and were open-roofed. This way, one gaoler could oversee approximately sixteen prisoners at the same time. The tall dividing walls ensured no contact with fellow inmates.
When time in B Division was over, prisoners generally moved to C Block- the most outdated division of the prison. Six two-story blocks housed single cells that were so small that they could only hold a single horse-hair mattress and a bucket to use as a toilet. No windows existed and there was no electricity until much later in its history. Three open air spaces between the blocks served as exercise yards and washing and dining areas. While conditions were considered inhumane, it continued to operate until 1977.
The tour passes E Division and the Chief Warden's residence and enters A Division where conditions appeared to be similar to B Division- small single cells with a bed and a toilet in the corner. Here there is much more excavation happening and another airing yard has been uncovered. It is just to the right of A Division that the exercise yards of the infamous H Division exist.
It was interesting to note that the prison was self-sufficient, producing items such as prison boots and clothing as well as growing its own food. Most of the buildings are of bluestone and the entrance and administration building still house the clock tower.
This fascinating tour was attended by all age groups including some children who seemed to be following the proceedings quite easily. The next and final tour is on Sunday, June 22nd and as there is no cost and spaces are limited , it is wise to reserve your spot as soon as possible. Tours are scheduled for 10am, 11:30am and 1pm and all are organised by volunteers
Really enjoyed your article, and loved your photos. I went through Pentridge years ago when they first closed it down and was really fascinated by what I saw and a little shocked when I saw the conditions that we as a society put people in as late as 1977!