Visiting the big house – the inside of Aussie gaols

By Bev Malzard

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Hands up those who have spent some time ‘inside’ at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Locked up? In the clink? Nicked? Sentenced and sent down? Yes? No?

Most of us haven’t even seen the inside of a prison but as this topsy-turvy world changes – now there are prisons all over the world that have opened cell doors and invited the public in for a look-see.

There are the big city gaols and there are the smaller prisons opening the doors on country towns, maybe you could make your own list and seek out the history and drama of the times. Do the crime, do the time . . .

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Fremantle Gaol, Western Australia: this imposing, and indeed intimidating limestone edifice was built by convicts – ah, the irony. The building now boasts of being on the World Heritage list of properties.

As well as a place of incarceration it served several purposes; executions as well as an internment camp during WWI and WWII. A selection of tours is available here including exploring the tunnels that snake underneath the complex.


Boggo Road, Brisbane Queensland: named after a boggy, quagmire road, the infamous gaol dominated the Brisbane skyline for 109 years. Its history is cruel and over time its purpose changed from being a holding prison for short sentences to an overcrowded place and into infamy in 1903 as a place for executions.

In the 1920s, the men of St Helena prison in Moreton Bay were moved into the former women’s gaol and it was renamed Division Two. This Division came under media scrutiny in the 1980s with roof top protests, hunger strikes and dramatic escapes.


Pentridge Prison, Melbourne: As a result of a 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. And so began the cruel and inhumane history of Pentridge.

If you dare, take a Lantern Ghost Tour and walk in the footsteps of notorious Chopper Reed, discover the famous outlaw Ned Kelly’s remains and experience the final moments of Ronald Ryan, the last man to be executed in Australia. With 44 bodies buried on-site and a who’s who of Australia’s criminal underworld calling Pentridge home, it is no wonder the building is haunted by its past.

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Boggo Road Gaol held (or tried to) some of Australia’s most infamous criminals including: James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, the Whisky Au Go Go bombers; Slim Halliday, the ‘Houdini’ of Boggo Road, who escaped twice becoming the nation’s most famous infamous escapologist; Florence MacDonald, stepmother to the ‘Longreach Cinderella’. This wicked woman kept her stepdaughter chained under the house and treated her with severe cruelty. She was the first woman to be a lifer at Boggo Road but inexplicably – she was released after 12 years; Patrick Kenniff, Australia’s last bushranger.

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Old Melbourne Prison, Melbourne: Infamous for many things, but the hanging of Ned Kelly was a media coupe for the gaol back in the day. When the gaol was built in the mid-1800s it was the ultimate symbol of authority. Between 1842 and its closure in 1929 the gaol was the scene for 133 hangings.

Self-guided tours by day keep the lid on the creepy side of the establishment but at night, ghost and hangman tours bring out the chills as you feel the hairs on your arm lift as many of the spectres of past ‘celebrity’ criminals waft past you. Maybe? Anyway, the joint is haunted.


Female Factory, Parramatta, New South Wales; fully functioning as a prison, factory and – many other uses, the place was built by convicts and was fully functional in 1826, The first riots broke out in 1827, via complaints of overcrowding – those pesky females!

The Female Factory housed convict women waiting for assignment, their children, re-offenders, emancipated women or others requiring maternity, medical care, destitute emigrant women, staff and administrators. These women were considered ‘beyond redemption’ but the crimes don’t seem the fit the punishment.

Theft predominated among the hungry Scottish and English convicts; riot and sedition for the Irish. Most were transported for seven years. After two or three years of good behaviour they were given a ticket of leave.

Even more in the clink

Other gaols worth researching include Maitland Gaol, Trial Bay Gaol and Dubbo Gaol in New South Wales; Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin; and Port Arthur Penitentiary and historic site.

The Port Arthur site is the subject of books, movies and cruel, sadistic and sad legacies. A visit here and you’ll see incredible architecture – the remains of the cartwheel prison, the ruins and the restoration. To be there on a sunny day in that beautiful landscape – it’s hard to imagine what life was like in those hard colonial days.

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