Geelong Gaol sits prominently on Myers St, a daily reminder of the stark reality of what it once was and of a time when life was a daily struggle for many. Opening in April 1853, it was purpose built for prisoners who were being housed locally in small forced labor huts and in the extreme conditions of hulks that sat in Corio Bay.
Utilizing convict labor and bluestone materials, it initially became home to 78 prisoners of which its occupants gradually increased towards its completion in 1880. Geelong Gaol was based on the English Pentonville System, which represented a psychologically and physically harsh system of punishment. Those that were unfortunate enough to be incarcerated, literally lost their identity the minute they entered the gates as they wore no number or name and were housed for up to 22 hours in their cells. When they were bought out of their cells, they were fitted with a silence mask ensuring no words were spoken or shared.
These horrendous processes were in place to provide prisoners with the opportunity to reflect on their actions and to rehabilitate with the view that they would never want to return to the appalling conditions Geelong Gaol administered. For some these were indeed very fitting for their crimes, for many however, the crimes did not match the conditions, as many women, and children, the youngest being 11 years of age, entered their walls as a result of literally just trying to survive in the outside world.
As the gold fields lured thousands desperate to make their fortunes, many were left behind including women with babies and young children, unsure of where the next meal was coming from. Parents also fled to the gold fields, unbelievingly leaving children behind who became street kids, belonging nowhere and to nobody, again just trying desperately to survive. Unlike today’s gaol system, men, women and children were housed together in the appalling conditions, but for some, these were a better offering than the darkness of the streets.
In the 1800’s industrial schools were established in Australia to house troubled and neglected children. In 1864, the government of the day decided that Geelong Gaol would also house these children and promptly became ‘Myer St Industrial School’ for girls aged 3-16 years and boys aged 0-6yrs. The school filled the north, south and east wings of the gaol, however continued to house prisoners in the west wing. A frightening decision considering the history of some of the prisoners, who were among the most violent of those times. Not surprisingly this unusual accommodation style ceased four years later where the children were relocated to other accommodation. The sounds of children were replaced by the sounds of the ill and the dying, as it then became a major hospital gaol, where Victorian prisoners were sent when their health was greatly compromised. Unfortunately, however, 1 in 20 admitted, never made it out as the death rate was high and continued climbing.
During WW11, it yet again changed its role and became a prison for armed services personnel, where it became notorious for its incredibly tough conditions. This possibly instigated the largest prison break out in Victoria at the time. In 1945, 22 men escaped the walls desperately seeking out much wanted freedom. It was a cleverly devised plan where prior to their escape, they cut the internal telephone lines, with prison wardens being unable to communicate the breakout. Their escape into the streets was short lived and three days later they re-entered the imposing walls and an extension to their prison time, with the promise of harrowing punishments to follow.
When the Pentonville system was reassessed and replaced with a system based on reforming the actions of prisoners, Geelong Gaol became a major prisoner training facility where prisoners were provided with both academic and hands on skills. This assisting with reforming their prior actions as well as providing an easier transition into society on their release. Geelong Gaol was the second major prison built in Victoria following Old Melbourne Gaol which was built in 1844.
Many of the crimes committed and tried in the outer regions of Victoria, would be sent to Geelong Gaol. All Victorian gaols at the time, were built on similar architectural plans and based on the Pentonville system. This included gaols in Ballarat, Beechworth, Castlemaine, Bendigo, Maryborough, Kilmore and Ararat. In Geelong Gaols darkest days, there were six executions officially listed. The first execution which was of two prisoners who had both committed murder and was a public execution of which 2000 local people attended many with families in tow and an eager eye to the planned day’s event. John Gunn and John Roberts lost their lives that day in the gallows outside the prison, as did public executions which became an archaic thing of the past and were abolished in 1855.
Geelong Gaol is now being operated by Twisted History who open it on weekends, public holidays and school holidays between 1-4pm. They also operate ghost tours seven nights a week. Explore the gaol by torchlight or join paranormal investigators and discover the haunted hot spots and then decide for yourself whether some prisoners came to the gaol and in fact never left.
Twisted History also operate various ghost tours in Melbourne, Maldon, Denniliquin and Seymour. There is also something about to be unveiled in Steiglitz, so watch this space…..
Twisted History are only one of two ghost tour companies in Australia that are accredited and they also won in 2018, a bronze RACV tourism award for cultural tourism. So, if you enjoy a fascinating history lesson intermingled with a little nervous anticipation and perhaps a little of the unexpected, then their nightly ghost tours are a must do step back in time. But don’t be surprised if perhaps a door closes, or a shadow passes as this happens frequently at Geelong Gaol and can happen at any time…