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