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Demise of a tyrant, rise of a Champ

26th July 2018Heritage

Pentridge went from huts to bluestone fortress in a few short years. Here’s how.

The prison complex we know today as HM Pentridge first emerged from the soil of Pentridge village as a stockade assemblage of various structures, in response to a growing need for incarceration facilities in and around Melbourne in the mid 19th century.

Following the death of Victoria’s then Inspector-General of penal establishments, John Giles Price – killed by a convict assault at Gellibrand Point, Williamstown – it became evident that Government needed to address the inadequacies of the failing prison hulks and poor conditions of the stockade, which were makeshift, insecure and cramped.

Price’s violent death caused a public outcry and spurred the government into action. Although a detested and brutal administrator, in death Price became instrumental to the development of a penal system with more humane aspirations.

In particular, the findings of an 1857 Select Committee Inquiry into his administration recommended the furnishing of a large sum of money to resolve the growing prisoner accommodation crises, leading to the Government providing £70,000 for the construction of a new model prison.

When William Thomas Napier Champ was appointed in Prices’ stead, the transformation of the stockade into a fully-fledged penitentiary began in earnest.

Visions of Reform

Champ, a highly experienced penal administrator, would use the new developments – and in particular, the inspiration of the Panopticon proposed by English social reformer and philospher Jeremy Bentham – to introduce then-radical prison reforms that drew inspiration from Quaker principles of silence and separation.

With construction underway, the former ‘Crystal Palace’ was relocated to a nearby quarry site and the model prison development proceeded in accordance with plans and specifications prepared by the Government’s Public Works Department.

The building now known as B Division (formerly A Division) was the first to be completed. It housed two Panopticons and was constructed by Glaister & Co. under contract. Work on the site was mostly completed within a few short years, as 20-foot high walls arose to house the complex.

Behind these walls were the buildings that will be familiar to many today. Beside the imposing façade of the Administration Building, there were the staff quarters, a hospital, A Division (known today as B Division), and B Division – also featuring a panopticon. Later to become C Division, it was in this section that Ned Kelly was imprisoned, and which was torn down in the early 1970s.

Many of the drawings from the Public Record Office Victoria archives bear the signature of Gustav Joachimi, a Swiss draftsman in the employ of the Public Works Department. Although believed to have had some input into the symbolism of the prison’s architectural expression, he is likely to have been largely following Champ’s directives.

Indeed, so central did Champ become in the history of Pentridge that its iconic clock tower continues to look over the street named in his honour.

In upcoming posts, we’ll delve a little further into Champ’s story, and how his drive to rehabilitate those who would be held behind the bluestone walls shaped the future of the site for decades to come.

Former Pentridge Prison Conservation Management Plan, Bryce Raworth
History of Pentridge Prison, Moreland City Council website