Old Melbourne Gaol

Melbourne, Victoria

A former jail that once housed some of Australia's most notorious criminals, the Old Melbourne Gaol is infamous for having hung 133 people.

- Public Domain

The Origins Of Old Melbourne Gaol

The first parts of Old Melbourne Gaol were built in 1839. The complex opened in 1845 but to begin with wasn't really fit for purpose. Escapes were frequent and already by 1850 it had grown overcrowded.

These problems looked to only get worse when, in 1851, the discovery of gold brought people flocking to Melbourne. As a result, a new wing was added between 1852-4 and then extended between 1857-9, and an exterior wall was completed in 1864.

By this point the complex had swollen to the size of an entire city block. Along with three floors of cells, it contained a hospital, a chapel, a bath house and quarters for the jailers to live in with their families.

- © Bidgee

Life At Old Melbourne Gaol

The prison was used to house everything from short-term prisoners to lunatics to hardened criminals. It even had child prisoners, the youngest recorded having been only 3 years old. This was a boy by the name of Michael Crimmins. He was serving a 6 month sentence for the crime of being 'idle and disorderly'.

Those convicted of serous offences would start their sentences on the lowest floor, in solitary confinement. Here, they would spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells. They would be forced to where 'silence masks' during their 1 hour of daily exercise. This routine was enforced by a series of bells and punishment for misbehaviour.

Towards the end of their sentences, or sooner if they were well-behaved, they would be moved up to the second floor, which meant greater freedom but also meant hard labour. The men would be made to break rocks, and the women to sew, clean and cook.

The top floor was reserved mainly for petty criminals serving short sentences. It was made up of large dorms that slept up to 6 people, most of which would have only been months away from freedom.

Many never got to see this privilege.

Silence Mask - © Ciell

Death At Old Melbourne Gaol

Over its 79 years in operation, 133 people were executed at Old Melbourne Gaol. They were killed by hanging, from multiple gallows, sometimes three at a time.

Before this however a death mask was created to be used in the study of phrenonlogy. 'Scientists' would examine these masks to try to work out what skull shapes and sizes suggested criminality.

Once dead, the victims were buried in unmarked graves in the prison yard.

Ned Kelly's Death Mask - © Steve Nova

A Old Melbourne Gaol Celebrity

Most famous of those killed at the prison was the bushranger Ned Kelly. As a young man he had fallen into trouble with the police and fled, with his gang, into the bush. The police sent forces after him, resulting in the death of three police officers.

Kelly was eventually caught in a final confrontation, where he was captured wearing homemade plate mail and sentenced to death. He was executed in 1880.

- © Charlie Brewer

After The Gaol

In 1924 the complex ceased to be a jail and was instead used as part of a nearby girls' college. During WW2 however its cells were once again needed to house soldiers that had gone AWOL. The girls were kept separate from the prisoners by a new wall which had been built down the middle of the exercise yard.

The jail was listed in 1957 and marked as a site that needed to be preserved at all costs the following year. It finally became a museum in 1972, and remains one today.

It is open to visitors Wednesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Adult tickets cost $33 and tickets are also available at various concessionary rates.

Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Melbourne Scavenger Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Melbourne and beyond!

Read more about historic penal institutions in the colonies in our posts on Sydney's Cockatoo Island, Perth's Fremantle Prison and Melbourne's Abbotsford Convent, and read about prisons further afield in our Conciergerie, Strangeways Prison and Wormwood Scrubs posts.


What you need to know

Old Melbourne Gaol
337 Russell St, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Tips before you visit