BANGED UP Old Melbourne Gaol.?Pic: Flickr.com/AdamLogan
Danny does a stint in jail
WE crowded in, about 12 to a cell. There was one toilet, which could only be flushed from the corridor outside. We sat down when instructed to, and then it was time for lights out.
Mercifully, we spent only a few minutes in darkness. We weren’t real prisoners, you see; just tourists who had paid $AU22 (about €16.50) to tour Old Melbourne Gaol … and then be locked up in the adjoining Police Watch House.
Our tour guide was in character from the start, a no-nonsense type who checked our tongues, palms and shoes for contraband, which he defined as ‘anything I don’t want you to have’. The men lined up along one wall, the women along the other, and then we were locked in our respective cells.
“So, what are you in here for?” one man asked the youngest in our group, a boy of about 12. “It’s not like the last time I was locked up!” mused an older individual as he scanned the confined space. Then we were plunged into blackness.
Before we were locked up, we had the chance to tour the old cellblocks. We heard the story of Ned Kelly, one of many prisoners executed within the jail’s walls. Children were invited to try on the armour worn by Australia’s most famous outlaw. (Kelly’s didn’t save him, as the armour didn’t cover all of his body. Two shots to the leg brought him down.)
There was a scaffold, a cat o’ nine tails, death masks and fascinating details. ‘Throwing bread down in a defiant manner’ could land a prisoner in solitary confinement. ‘A Handbook On Hanging’, produced in 1928, gave advice on how to do the job properly. Truly, it was a different age.
There were biographies of the hangmen, many of whom were prisoners themselves. Ned Kelly’s executioner, Elijah Upjohn, was a petty crook, in and out of jail for drunkenness, indecent exposure and – bizarrely – carting night soil without a licence.
Nineteenth-century debates about the death penalty centred on whether executions should take place in public. When Kelly was hanged in 1880, many people gathered outside the jail loudly criticised the ‘degeneracy of modern times’ in hanging people out of sight.
One eye-catching story concerned executed robber George Miller, whose widow decorated his body with flowers and put it on display in her Melbourne oyster shop. “Jesus tonight!” an Irish woman beside me exclaimed. “That wouldn’t have done the oysters any good!”
Released from our cells, we toured the rest of the facility, including the exercise yards, where crude graffiti can still be read. There was just enough time to have our mug-shots taken. “Don’t smile,” the guard warned. So I didn’t.
Daniel Carey, a Mayo News reporter, has taken a year out to travel the world. His addiction to the keyboard remains, however, and this column will carry his reports from life on the outside.