(Warning: in case you couldn’t tell from the death mask right at the start, this post has a lot in it about hanging, and pictures of other death masks, so if you’re of a sensitive disposition, you might not want to read on. Of course, if you’re a regular reader, you’re probably used to me and my macabre ways by now.)
There’s just something about museums that spell jail “gaol.” They’re always a good time (though presumably not for the prisoners who were originally incarcerated in them), maybe because the “gaol” bit means they’re going to be old-timey. Old Melbourne Gaol was of course no exception to this rule, despite it giving off the initial impression of being a huge tourist trap. Fortunately, aside from the price, the Ned Kelly merch, and the slightly gimmicky Watch House “experience,” the gaol was a legitimate museum, with some decently informative displays.
At $25, Melbourne Gaol is not cheap, not that you’d really expect something that bills itself as “Australia’s premiere award winning heritage attraction” to be (this phrase (and the price) is what made me initially think tourist trap). And the admission fee does include the Police Watch House experience. As one of these was set to begin about ten minutes after we got to the museum, we headed there first.
We took a short walk down the street (there were signs) and queued up in front of the Watch House, feeling somewhat apprehensive as the brochure promised we would “experience a real life encounter of what it would feel like to be arrested and locked up,” and I was worried we were a) going to get yelled at and b) have to participate, both things I dread. We were greeted by a police sergeant who ordered us to put away our phones and cameras and line up single file, with men along one wall, and women along another. However, judging by the fact that small children were on the tour, I needn’t have been too worried; she did yell at us a bit, and made us show her our hands and bottoms of our shoes to make sure we weren’t concealing anything (museum visitors are spared a strip search), but it was obviously all done in a humorous way. Only a few people were handed fake police reports and asked to give their “name” and offense; fortunately I wasn’t one of them, though Marcus was (poor guy, but I did laugh at his misfortune a bit), and then we were all herded into cells for a couple minutes before the “experience” part of the tour was over and we were free to wander around the jail, which only fell out of use in 1994.
It’s probably worth going on the “experience” simply for the photo opportunities; they have a camera set up behind some bars to make it look like you’re in prison, and though you have to pay for those photos (I forgot to find out how much it was), you can take your own mug shots in front of the height chart for free. I’m not sure why this is a good thing, but we were certainly all excited about it! It was the 30th anniversary of the Russell Street Bombing this year, so there was a special exhibit about that in here; the story behind it is that some random criminals decided they wanted to kill as many police officers as possible (I guess in revenge?), so they planted a car bomb outside the Watch House which ripped through HQ and killed one policewoman and injured 22 others. Three men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment.
After all this, we headed back to the main museum. Melbourne Gaol looked grim (I mean, all prisons look grim, but this especially so), because it was built in the 1840s, which is right about when prison “reformers” were keen on the “separate system” famously used by Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Prisoners spent their days in solitary confinement, and had to wear horrible constricting masks when leaving their cells so as not to have any contact with their fellow prisoners. Prisoners who had committed minor offences, such as debtors, were allowed to stay in communal cells with other prisoners and go outside to work in the yards, but the solitary gang on the ground floor would have been driven to the brink of madness.
As if life here wasn’t bad enough, the gaol also saw its fair share of hangings (133 to be exact), and all the cells in the ground floor were devoted to the stories of executed prisoners, each one containing an informative poster and a death mask. The first people to be executed in Melbourne were two Aborigine men who were found guilty of murdering a couple of whalers; they were followed by a whole host of people, particularly during the Gold Rush, including several men from China and the Philippines who didn’t speak enough English to properly defend themselves. There were also some people with obvious mental problems who never should have been executed (I mean, I’m opposed to capital punishment regardless, but there were clear miscarriages of justice here), as well as at least one man who was later proved to be innocent with the help of modern forensic techniques (Colin Ross, hanged in 1922, and posthumously pardoned in 2008, though a fat lot of good that’s done him).
The middle floor carried on with the whole hanging theme, so we got to see the scaffold and read about some of the executioners who served at Melbourne Gaol throughout the years (they were often prisoners themselves, or shady looking characters at the very least). The condemned cell was up here too, and also a few cells with dirty mattresses shoved in the corner so you could try out the whole prisoner experience for yourself.
Though it is, of course, morbid, I found myself studying the snippets from A Handbook on Hanging (written after the long drop had been introduced; before that, you basically just strangled) to see how much of a drop it would have taken to kill me – I think it was something like 7.5 feet. Of course, hangmen often miscalculated, so the victim was left either strangling like in the old days if the rope was too short, or they could be effectively decapitated if the rope was too long.
The top floor contained the old whipping triangle, where they whipped male prisoners who misbehaved (again, the whipping was often done by fellow prisoners, or the executioner), and signage about women and children who were imprisoned here (some of the women were executed as well; many of them were “baby farmers” who killed the children left in their care). This floor also had information about Melbourne Gaol during the war years….the gaol closed in 1924, but was reopened during WWII to house military prisoners, typically soldiers who had gone AWOL. Their experiences were particularly unpleasant because most of them weren’t criminals, just soldiers who didn’t feel they’d been given enough leave for one reason or another (many of them were just desperate to visit their wives or mothers, and if their families lived on the other side of Australia, three days or even a week wasn’t enough time to get there and back in those days), yet here they were treated as prisoners; demoralised, kept in horrible conditions, etc, and many of them tried their best to block the experience from their minds, even years later.
However, the most notorious prisoner to be housed and executed here was undoubtedly Ned Kelly, whose death mask is shown at the start of the post. Ned Kelly is THE iconic Australian outlaw, and still apparently a folk hero to many, so there was a whole section of the ground floor devoted solely to him (we saw this last because there was a school group there when we first arrived). It not only gave biographical information about his childhood and life up until the famous shootout at Glenrowan, but also contained artefacts from that final stand, even the gun he used during the shootout, with a chip in it where a shot from a policeman hit the butt and shattered Kelly’s little finger. There is also a replica of his armour that you can try on, which I duly did (I don’t think it fit me properly, as it didn’t cover my chest, leaving my heart dangerously exposed. I’ve no doubt it fit Ned Kelly better), and a clip of a silent film from 1906 where the actor playing Kelly wore his actual armour (grainy footage, but very cool).
Say what you will about the glorification of a criminal (though in fairness to Kelly, he did save another boy’s life when he was a kid. It seems to be the death of his father in prison that set him on a bad course), but Ned Kelly also happened to be rather photogenic (with his quiff and big bushy beard, he kind of looks like the original hipster. Seriously, if you dropped him into Hackney or something, he would not look out of place), so much of the gift shop is devoted to Kelly memorabilia, and I confess I bought a t-shirt for my brother, and an apron for myself (it has a picture of Kelly and his last meal, which was apparently lamb, peas, and claret. Not at all what I would choose). So in that regard, I suppose it is quite touristy, but even with the hefty price tag, I still think the gaol was well worth the visit, as we managed to kill a couple of hours here, and I really enjoyed myself. I love crime museums anyway, so getting to learn specific details about so many of the prisoners here was very interesting, and I suppose all the Ned Kelly stuff was just a bonus, since he is so famous in this part of the world. I’ll give it 3.5/5.