This week I wanted to look at the old Ballarat Gaol. I am sure many people have driven past this intriguing building that is part of the School of Mines campus of Federation University. Have you ever wondered about its history?
The gaol was used as a maximum-security prison for men and women. It was built to replace temporary structures like the prison hulks that were anchored in Port Phillip Bay and the holding yards that were in Ballarat.
In 1857 the Select Committee on Prison Discipline released a report recommending that the prison hulks be replaced with prisons on land. As a result, prisons were constructed in Ararat, Castlemaine, Ballarat and Beechworth. All the prisons built at this time adopted the Pentonville Prison design used in London. This design was based on a central hall with radiating wings of cells from which a single guard could monitor all the cells.
The Ballarat gaol was completed in 1862 with 58 cells. In 1862 a tunnel was added for the safe transfer of prisoners to the adjacent courthouse.
The gaol was closed in 1965 to allow the School of Mines (SMB) to expand its facilities. Some of the gaol buildings were demolished but the gates and walls were retained. These were restored between 1972 and 1974. In 1981 the SMB amenities building was opened and incorporates some features of the gaol wall. Entrance to this building is via the old gaol gates.
Thirteen prisoners were executed within the prison walls; the first in 1864 and the last in 1908. The Register for the Ballarat Gaol’s men and women prisoners between 1855 – 1947 is held by the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV).
One of the men executed was Charles Bushby (alias Charles Baker). You can read here about his case, including how he slept the night before his execution, what he requested for breakfast (a pipe and a cup of tea), and his last words. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/6093986
The Public Record Office of Victoria has digitised the Ballarat Prison Registers. Search for Charles Bushby or find another interesting case by clicking the link - https://prov.vic.gov.au/explore-collection/explore-topic/justice-crime-and-law/register-male-and-female-prisoners-1855-1947
The Ballarat Prison Register Records were conserved in 2015-2016 by the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation .
Australiana Research Collection
Ballarat Research Hub at Eureka (BRHAE)