Law and order through blood and pain | Sunday Observer

Law and order through blood and pain

4 April, 2021

I once went to jail, the famous Melbourne jail to see a piece of important human history. It is the world-famous place where Australia’s legendary outlaw Ned Kelly, portrayed by Oscar winner Heath Ledger in the 2003 Hollywood movie and another most recent 2019 movie made on him with Russell Crowe, who was similar to England’s Robin Hood was kept prisoner and hanged.

The Australian Government has taken steps to preserve their history, with the old jail still standing at its original place without any part of it being demolished, at the corner of Russell Street and La Trobe in Melbourne. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was visited daily by a large number of local and international tourists. It is still opened to the public from Wednesday to Sunday.

Lock- up blocks

Known as the old Melbourne Gaol, the jails were originally built in 1841 when Australia was a relatively ‘new’ country.

As per the officials who showed us around the jail, at that time, prisoners were kept in inadequate lock- up blocks and escapes were frequent. Later on, a second cell block was completed by 1858. As Australia had a gold discovery, known as ‘gold-rush’ in the middle of that century which made Melbourne a happening city within a short time.

Along with the world-famous sporting event ‘The Melbourne cup’ being introduced in 1861, it was a busy and a lively place with a high crime rate. Soon the Gaol expanded and at one stage, it covered a city block with an exercise yard, a hospital, a chapel, a Governor’s house and staff accommodation.

When you enter the only surviving large cell block, everyone experiences a chill down their spine.

The thick stone walls and dark building scream out the lonely, isolated feelings that every prisoner who lived there experienced. Without electricity and heating, one can imagine what a cold and deadly place this has been over hundred years ago.

Most controversial character

Even today, with some lights on, the cold eerie feel lingers around at every corner of the building. The cell blocks are small and without adequate day light coming in, or any beds to sleep on, the prisoners were made to feel misery. Silence and separation were the two foundations of Gaol’s system and reform. Prisoners were first kept on the ground floor and were forbidden to talk to others. Even when they left the cells, they had to wear a silence mask.

The prisoners were kept in 23 hours every day with only one hour exercise separately.

Once a week they were allowed to bathe and change clothes and on Sunday to attend the mass at the Gaol chapel. One could only imagine at a time like this that these punishments were too harsh and had no aspect of human rights.

Anyone who broke these rules, even by talking to another prisoner, was severely punished. The well-behaved ones were later promoted to the second level which had the advantage of going to work in the yards each day. The third level held the less notorious prisoners and the ones who were close to release.

The Old Melbourne Gaol was the place where Ned Kelly, Australia’s most controversial character, was hanged in 1880.

He was the son of an Irish convict, Red Kelly, who was brought to Australia to settle in a prison colony, even after marriage, senior Kelly frequently brushed with the law.

His son Ned became more famous than his father, often stealing to feed his family and other poor people, running into trouble with the law since childhood, later becoming a fugitive in 1878 after killing a Police constable.

Ned Kelly demanded justice for rural needy people as Victoria Police often persecuted and harassed them. Soon Ned Kelly became a hero of the needy people. Relentless police pursuit that went on for years culminated in a shootout at Glenrowan, in which he was captured and the rest of his gang was killed. Ned’s revolver is on display at the Gaol today. Until he was hanged in 1880, wounded Ned Kelly spent his days in the Gaol while his mother was also serving a sentence in the women’s wing. The prison cell he spent his last days are now demolished but just before his hanging, he was kept in another cell for a few hours and that cell is in the second floor of the surviving block.

His death mask is on display at the Gaol. You can walk in to the cell in which he spent his last hours talking to a priest.

Despite rallies and petitions of people demanding Ned Kelly to be pardoned, the 25-year old local hero was hanged by the British Empire.


The unforgiving prison - the Melbourne Gaol was closed in 1924, but was briefly reopened during World War II to house military detainees. It became a museum in 1972. Including Ned Kelly, 135 people were hanged at the jail that included Colin Ross, a man who was hanged for a crime that is now believed he did not commit.

Such miscarriages of justice were possible among many that were punished for crimes, such as murder, baby farming and killing officers.

But when you enter the Gaol and spend time in cell 9, to find a place a man spent in misery for something that he didn’t do, you will realise that with limited resources how hard it must have been to catch criminals at that time and specially to prove their guilt or innocence with little forensic evidence.

If you visit Australia someday, walk to the Melbourne Gaol and touch the hundreds of years old stone walls that have seen and heard the painful cries of men and women.

Feel the suffocating coldness inside and take a step back in to the past and experience the pain, crimes and law and order in a nation in the most ruthless way while smaller countries, such as Sri Lanka had been far more forgiving to most of its criminals in their more comfortable and well provided prisons.