Facts and Figures
The gaol construction started in 1857 and the first prisoners were housed in the cells in 1860. Before that time there was a timber lock up on the site which was dismantled after the new cells were completed. When the new cells were opened they housed 36 inmates. To make sure prisoners didn’t try and escape before the walls were finished, they would have armed guards standing just 10 feet apart forming a human wall to keep the prisoners in.
In the 1800’s the gaol was used to house indeterminate sentence prisoners. That is prisoners kept in the gaol for as long as the governor saw fit. They either came to Beechworth, or were sent to French Island in Westernport Bay. Beechworth Gaol was said to have the harshest conditions of any gaol in the country in the 1800’s.
There were 8 prisoners hanged in the gaol between 1865 and 1881. That included a double execution in 1873. Two prisoners hanged at the same time, for the same offence.
The first prisoner hanged in 1865 was Patrick Sheehan who stabbed a barman in a fight in Yackandandah. He was so drunk, that when he came to in the police lock up he had no idea of what he had done until he was told.
Ned Kelly was in the gaol 3 times. The first time was 1870 for six months on an assault charge, then again in 1871 he did 18 months, which was one half of a 3 year stretch for receiving a stolen horse and resisting arrest. The third time was 1880 and the beginning of his last trial. He was held for two weeks in Cell 30, then after being committed to stand trial was taken back to Melbourne where he was tried, convicted and hanged on the 11th of November 1880.
Toilets in the cells were only installed in 1994. Up until then the prisoners used buckets for toilets, which they had to take out of their cell each morning, and empty into a trough that once existed in the exercise yard. Thank goodness it’s gone.
Ellen Kelly, Ned’s Mum was housed in Cell 10 with a baby just 3 days old in April of 1878 when she was convicted of the attempted murder of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick. It was the well documented event where she smacked him over the head with a frypan or skillet. She never denied it and on one occasion was quoted as saying, I should have done a better job!!
The first governor of the gaol was John Buckley Castieau, who took the role as Governor when he was just 26 years old. He later moved to Melbourne and became the Governor of the Melbourne Gaol. In 1880 he was the Governor, and the official witness when they hanged Ned Kelly.
Up until 1895 the gaol held both male and female inmates. The women’s cell block was never built so they simply kept the women in the same cell block as the men, and let them out into different yards, at different times of the day. One such female prisoner held here was Elizabeth Scott, who would become the first woman hanged in Victoria.
Floggings were carried out in the gaol from 1862. A common punishment would be 50 lashes, and it was carried out with a Cat’O’ Nine Tails. So 50 lashes became 450 rope marks across your back. Your ribs could be exposed and you could die from a flogging. To prevent infections setting in they would pour raw vinegar over the bleeding wounds and then pack them with salt so the bleeding stopped and the wounds scabbed over.
In 1958 the gaol was extended and housed around 120 prisoners. Conditions in the new cells were as harsh, or worse than the early cells, and prisoners also had to share their cell with another prisoner. The bigger issue was that you did not get to choose your cellmate, so at night time when the doors were locked, if the prisoner you were sharing with didn’t like you, you were in big trouble…..
If you were a prisoner in the gaol, for bedding you would get a mattress, filled with horsehair in the early days, two blankets and a pillow. If you were put in solitary confinement, you would get a concrete block for a bed, and just one blanket, which was sewn inside a canvas