Melbourne’s for­mer City Watch House is now open for rather grisly tours, re­ports Lee Mylne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

THE cell door clangs shut. Mo­ments later other doors slam, foot­steps re­cede and at the flick of a switch six strangers and I are en­gulfed by dark­ness.

Grad­u­ally our eyes ad­just to the gloom. Through the small air vents at the top of the cell’s rear wall and the bot­tom of the iron door, voices re­ver­ber­ate. Th­ese grills are the only sources of light.

Af­ter a cou­ple of min­utes, the lights come back on. In the cor­ner, a stained stain­less-steel toi­let bowl is the only re­lief from the cold con­crete walls, their cream paint­work etched with decades of gritty jail­house graf­fiti.

‘‘ It’s pretty gross,’’ says a girl sit­ting op­po­site me.

‘‘ What did you do?’’ a mother asks her pre­teen, check­ing out the girl’s charge sheet. ‘‘ Ah, break­ing and en­ter­ing.’’

This cell block is in Melbourne’s for­mer City Watch House and I’m part of a tour group dis­cov­er­ing what it might have been like to spend time here. The po­lice lock-up, which op­er­ated from 1908 to 1994, was re­cently opened to the pub­lic as part of the Old Melbourne Gaol Crime & Jus­tice Ex­pe­ri­ence, Melbourne’s new­est tourist at­trac­tion.

The watch house is next door to the Old Melbourne Gaol, just across the road from the scene of one of Melbourne’s most no­to­ri­ous crimes, the 1986 car bomb­ing that took the life of con­sta­ble An­gela Tay­lor and in­jured 22 oth­ers out­side Rus­sell Street po­lice sta­tion.

At the start of the tour we’re each as­signed a new iden­tity, out­lined on a lam­i­nated charge sheet. We’re lined up at the watch house counter, un­changed since the po­lice left the build­ing in 1994.

‘‘ Wel­come to the Rus­sell Street Hil­ton,’’ says Sergeant Blank (real name Tim Ratcliffe, one of four ac­tors who take on the role) as he tells us what to ex­pect as pris­on­ers.

I am Sally Bethon­son of Keilor, ar­rested at a tram stop on St Ge­orges Road for vi­o­lent and threat­en­ing be­hav­iour.

‘‘ Nor­mal for you?’’ asks Sergeant Blank as he reads aloud my charge sheet. It says ‘‘ dis­tracted, seems not to com­pre­hend the charges, abu­sive’’.

I promptly agree with him, of course. In fact, our group agrees to ev­ery­thing he says, cho­rus­ing ‘‘ yes, sergeant’’ and ‘‘ no, sergeant’’ when re­sponses are ex­pected. It’s some­times con­fronting, and a young­ster at the back of the group slips from the room and does not reap­pear; the sergeant’s tough style ob­vi­ously is too much for him. His younger sis­ter, aged seven, is made of sterner stuff and ad­mits she’s not sure what her charge of ar­son means.

We are lined up against the wall, fin­gers and mouths in­spected for con­tra­band, and marched into the cell block where we are di­vided into small groups and shep­herded into the cells.

Each cell has three sleep­ing benches (a foam pil­low, thin mat­tress and blan­ket were pro­vided to real pris­on­ers); oth­ers in the cell had to sleep on the floor and hourly checks were con­ducted through the night.

The sound of the key in the lock is wel­come. Af­ter the role-play is over, there’s time to wan­der through the watch house. Tales from pris­on­ers are re­told in recorded mul­ti­me­dia im­agery played against the cell walls. The tour brochure ad­vises parental guid­ance for chil­dren un­der 15 be­cause of the ‘‘ chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment, coarse lan­guage and adult themes’’.

The lan­guage in ques­tion is carved or scratched into the walls and doors of the watch house, much of it in the women’s sec­tion. If th­ese walls re­ally could talk, the sto­ries would surely be of anger and an­guish. The padded cell has a faint odour; per­haps it is the smell of de­spair.

Ev­ery per­son ar­rested in Melbourne was held in th­ese cells be­fore their mag­is­trates’ court ap­pear­ance. Up to 19,000 pris­on­ers, or about 50 a day, passed through the watch house each year, with the most com­mon charge be­ing drunk and dis­or­derly, par­tic­u­larly at week­ends. On some week­ends, more than 100 drunks were locked up in three wet cells (hosed out once a day).

Other com­mon of­fences in­cluded in­de­cent lan­guage, of­fen­sive be­hav­iour, as­sault and rob­bery. At the other end of the spec­trum were some of Aus­tralia’s most no­to­ri­ous crim­i­nals, such as 1920s gang­ster Squizzy Tay­lor, Hod­dle Street Mas­sacre gun­man Ju­lian Knight and the Rus­sell Street bombers, Stan­ley Tay­lor and Craig Minogue.

In 1960, Ron­ald Ryan, re­manded for shop­break­ing, staged a dar­ing es­cape from cell 8 with four oth­ers. Ryan used a hinge, bro­ken off a fit­ting in the prison bath­room, to make a hole in the 4m-high ceil­ing, which he reached by stand­ing on his co­horts’ shoul­ders. Reg­u­lar in­ter­rup­tions from cell checks meant this took hours, but around mid­night Ryan squeezed through the open­ing and prised back the sheet-iron roof­ing. The oth­ers climbed up us­ing blan­kets tied to­gether.

The es­capees crawled across the roof, on to the Mag­is­trates Court and down into a quad­ran­gle. They en­tered the court build­ing and left through the front door. All were later re­cap­tured and Ryan’s fate was sealed five years later when he was con­victed of shoot­ing dead warder Ge­orge Hod­son at Pen­tridge Prison dur­ing an­other es­cape. In 1967, he be­came the last per­son in Aus­tralia to be hanged.

One long-stayer was a pop­u­lar young Amer­i­can sol­dier, Ed­ward Joseph Leon­ski, who killed three Melbourne women and be­came known as ‘‘ the brown-out stran­gler’’ dur­ing World War II. He spent 24 weeks in cell 6 af­ter be­ing ar­rested in May 1942. He en­ter­tained his guards, mem­bers of the US Army’s Provost Corps, by play­ing draughts with them and per­form­ing his party trick of walk­ing on his hands. Leon­ski was court­mar­tialled and ex­e­cuted un­der US author­ity at Pen­tridge.

The watch house was a tough place and fights were fre­quent. Some pris­on­ers were hys­ter­i­cal, drug-ad­dled, sick or prone to fits. Oth­ers were men­tally ill. Ma­trons were re­spon­si­ble for fe­male pris­on­ers and some­times had to look af­ter chil­dren who were lost or ac­com­pa­ny­ing their ar­rested moth­ers.

Pris­on­ers spent most of their days in the in­ter­nal ex­er­cise yards, wait­ing for their court ap­pear­ance for com­mit­tal and bail hear­ings. To­day, harsh recorded voices jan­gle and echo in the yard’s con­fined space.

When the City Watch House closed in 1994, the last of­fi­cer in charge, se­nior sergeant Pas­sant, de­scribed it as ‘‘ a mon­u­ment to hu­man mis­ery’’. It’s easy to see why.


The Old Melbourne Gaol is open daily, 9.30am to 5pm (ex­cept Good Fri­day and Christ­mas Day). Ad­mis­sion: adults $18; chil­dren $9.50, or $44 for a fam­ily of two adults and up to four chil­dren. Tick­ets in­clude a tour of the Melbourne City Watch House and, at spe­cial times, ac­cess to the Old Mag­is­trates Court.


Echoes of the past:

A scary desk sergeant pre­sides over The Old Melbourne Gaol Ex­pe­ri­ence

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