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May 11, 2019

Unlocking Australia’s Convict and Criminal Past



Words: Roderick Eime (originally commissioned for Tourism Australia)
Australia was built on the sweat of convict labour. Beginning with the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, transported lawbreakers were the backbone of the construction and work force for the new colony that would become this great country over a century later. Bridges, public buildings, roads and civil engineering were all heavily reliant on the use of prisoners on hard labour.

Many convicts were set free in Australia and went on to make lives for themselves and even fortunes. Some rose to high office while others served the country as architects, doctors and merchants. Once upon a time, Australians would seek to erase their convict heritage, but now it’s seen as a ‘badge of honour’ for those tracing family roots.

One of the lasting monuments to Australia’s convict past is the many gaols and penitentiaries still standing, most in use up until very recently. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention has even recognised sites such as Port Arthur (TAS) and Norfolk Island as being of ‘cultural significance’. Some are even touting for new clients, inviting visitors to stay over and experience a night in a cell.

Here are some of our more interesting, lesser-known examples and the special visitor experiences they offer.
VIC: Old Melbourne Gaol
Victoria’s oldest surviving gaol, Old Melbourne Gaol started its ghastly life in 1839 and was subject to constant remodelling and reworking until it finally closed in 1929. Located right in the heart of Melbourne, it’s easily reached on foot or public transport.
This grisly building was the scene of 135 hangings, including the infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly in 1880 at the tender age of 25. His death mask and revolver are on display.

Ned Kelly being led to the gallows

This old lock-up is full of history and, many believe, ghosts. In 1972 it was re-opened as a public museum after being placed on the National Trust of Australia’s heritage list in 1957. Today the gaol offers one of the most complete visitor offerings from simple self-guided tours to the ‘arresting’ watch house experience where guests are locked up in a simulated custodial event. At night, take part in a spine-chilling hangman’s tour or even a ghost-hunter tour with authentic paranormal investigators as your guides.
NSW: Maitland Gaol
When Maitland Gaol, in NSW’s Hunter Valley, closed in 1998, it was Australia’s longest continually operating prison with a history of 150 years. It too incarcerated some of this country’s most repugnant inmates including the convicted murderers Ivan Milat, John Travers, underworld hitman and thug, Neddy Smith, as well as the notorious bank robber and escape artist, Darcy Dugan.
Its unpleasant past included 16 hangings, many of them public, as well as floggings and riots.
Today the old heritage-listed gaol is a true multi-function centre offering venue space for private and corporate events, functions and even laser skirmish. It is regularly used in film and television shoots as well as exhibitions and is the current home to Australian Museum of Clothing and Textiles.
Tours include audio/self-guided and themed tours conducted by ex-warders and ex-inmates highlighting the colourful history and escapes. There are school tours, psychic tours, private tours and even sleepovers in C Wing under full lockdown. This is definitely not for everyone.
WA: Fremantle Prison
One of the UNESCO-listed convict-era sites, Fremantle Prison was opened in 1852 after having been built by convicts requested by the free settlers expressly for the purpose of labour. One woman and 43 men were hanged here, the last in 1964.
Penal transportation was relatively brief in WA, being only from 1850 to 1868, but the gaol quickly filled to its 800 inmate capacity and continued to house both male and female prisoners until 1970 and males only until it closed permanently in 1991.
One of the cool and spooky things about Fremantle Prison is the kilometre of tunnels that were dug beneath the building to reach the limestone-filtered water that was used to supply the growing colony as well as ships in port. These tunnels now have their own tour and won’t suit the claustro- or acrophobics. School and group tours are available too as well as a creepy torchlight tour that takes in the morgue, gallows and whipping post.
SA: Adelaide Gaol and The Old Mount Gambier Gaol


Along with Maitland, Adelaide also claims to have the longest continuously operating prison in Australia. Built in 1841, just five years after the establishment of the free settler colony, it housed over 300,000 prisoners until closure in 1988 and remains one of the two oldest buildings in South Australia. Between 1840 and 1964, 45 men and one woman were executed by hanging. No transported convicts were ever brought to South Australia.
Since closure, the gaol has been managed by the Adelaide Gaol Preservation Society Inc. and both guided and self-guided tours are run. No gaol tour would be complete without a ghost and paranormal tour – and Adelaide runs these three times a week.
Down south in the sleepy town of Mount Gambier, is the Old Gaol. Built in 1866 from local stone, it closed in 1995 and now offers one of the most accessible overnight cell experiences. For just a few dollars, it provides quirky backpacker-style accommodation and is a talking point for your travel blog. One execution was recorded there in November 1871.
QLD: Boggo Road Gaol
From 1883 until 1989, Annerley (Boggo) Road was the site for men’s and women’s prisons, the latter being built on 'modern' penological principles of the 19th century which ensured its heritage listing today. Currently the site is under repair and tours are not expected to recommence in the short term.
TAS: Penitentiary Chapel
Away from the better known Port Arthur and right in Hobart CBD, is the Penitentiary Chapel historic site. Originally built to provide the growing number of convicts with a place of worship and religious instruction, it soon took on a macabre second life with the installation of an execution yard and solitary confinement cells. Curiously the punishment cells were directly beneath the chapel and tortured prisoners often interrupted the services and 32 executions were performed in the ‘holy’ yard. Guided day and night (ghost) tours take place every day.


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