Before the bluestone walls
Pentridge sits upon Champ St with such weight it can often feel like it has been there forever, especially given the substance and severity of its bluestone Gothic Revivalism. What many don’t realise however is that it was preceded by earlier penal establishment, known as the Pentridge Stockade.
First established 1851, the Pentridge Stockade was an ad-hoc group of structures built by prison labour using predominantly local materials and first established by Samuel Barrow in late 1850.
Barrow had been appointed as superintendent of penal establishments in Victoria following a stint as resident magistrate of Norfolk Island. The ‘temporary’ stockade he was responsible for covered forty-three acres and was located five miles north of Melbourne close to the village of Pentridge – known to us today as Coburg.
Authorities felt the location was ideal, being close to abundant quantities of basalt or bluestone and sufficiently distant – though not so distant as to be impractical – from Melbourne. Suffice to say, news of the Stockade’s founding caused no small dismay among the residents of Pentridge.
THE PRICE OF VIOLENCE
The Stockade did not prove to be a terribly secure or hardwearing structure, and conditions only became worse as Victoria entered its Gold Rush. In 1853, the population of the Stockade increased fourfold, rising from 50 to 200 inmates. Further buildings were hastily erected around Pentridge, new stockades established at Richmond and Collingwood, and even a number of prison hulks brought into service to try and keep up with the influx.
John Giles Price succeeded Barrow in January 1854. Price had also served on Norfolk Island as civil commandant and was notorious for his severe discipline, which often bordered on practices that today would be recognised as torturous. Under his reign, men were sometimes strapped to their beds for weeks at a time, or muzzled in such a way that their breathing was compromised.
By November 1854, Price had overseen the building of the ‘Crystal Palace’. This grim black structure served as a moveable inner stockade, the ironic name arising from it being the complete antithesis of the light, graceful construction of the same name that had delighted the world at the Great Exhibition of London in 1851.
Within a year however Price, like Barrow before him, was arguing the need for a larger, more permanent structure to house the increasing number of people falling foul of the law – a large-scale penitentiary, with two-hundred separate stone cells and the facilities to house twelve hundred prisoners.
By 1857, while a Select Committee investigation of his brutal administration was underway, Price was dead. Prisoners from the hulks had exacted their revenge and had beaten him to death. With his passing, a new era for Pentridge was set to begin.
Although Price had been responsible for the construction of a new hospital and had laid foundations for a new penitentiary, his hospital proved more suitable for use as prisoners’ barracks and the foundations were converted to pigsties. Following his murder, William Thomas Napier Champ was appointed as Inspector General.
FROM STOCKADE TO HM PENTRIDGE
A very accomplished penal administrator, it was under Champ’s administration that the stockade would undergo its transformation into a fully-fledged Pentonville-style central penitentiary and take the basic form we recognise today as Pentridge.
Nothing of the stockade as it was in 1850 survives today. Indeed, none of the buildings on site pre-date 1858, except perhaps some bluestone placements in the surrounding area. The wooden huts, stake fence and the grim ‘Crystal Palace’ have long since passed into the oblivion of time.
What remains is Champ’s legacy, which would come to cast its own shadow over Melbourne’s imagination for well over a century, and which we’ll examine in a subsequent post exploring the history of this iconic site, Pentridge.