The Beginning …

Geelong Gaol 1861

According to the Government Gazette and dated the 23rd day of April, 1853, the Lieutenant Governor, Charles J. La Trobe“ do hereby proclaim, declare and notify the erections and buildings known as “The New Gaol” situate in the Town of Geelong, in the said colony to be a Gaol, Prison and House of Correction”.
Before the Geelong Gaol was opened, prisoners were housed at the South Geelong Gaol at the corner of Yarra and Balliang Streets or in police watch houses. The South Geelong Gaol housed up to 60 prisoners in 4 slab huts where conditions were said to be horrendous. However the South Geelong Gaol continued to be used for some female prisoners after the “New” Geelong Gaol was opened!

The first tender for foundation works had been called for in June 1849 by Clerk of Works, Henry Ginn. The gaol was designed by Ginn based on the UK Pentoville prison which required that prisoners were locked up in solitary confinement to contemplate their wrong doings and see the error of their ways! The 3 story central block is a cruciform with east and west wings serving as cells, the north wing as an administration block and the southern wing as a kitchen and hospital wing. The cruciform style was a standard which was used in the 19th century. The gaol was built in stages between 1849 and 1864 from brick, bluestone and volcanic rock, utilising in the early days, convicts housed on high security hulks moored in Corio Bay at a cost of £31,595. The west wing was the first area completed and was the first part of the gaol to be used as a prison from April 1853.

Myers Street Industrial School

In the late 1860’s with the Ryrie Street Industrial School overcrowded, plans were made to convert the North, South and East Wings of the Geelong Gaol to a second industrial school, the Myers Street Industrial School for Girls. In the “Empire”, dated 8th December 1868, the reason for this was that many of the gaols were standing empty and so the government of the day had decided it made sense to remove the prisoners to other gaols where there was plenty of room, and “to convert the old prisons for the punishment of crime into schools for its prevention”. The Geelong Gaol conversion was to be the first. It didn’t appear to be a popular decision, with a number of articles objecting to the conversion for various reasons including relatives being put out of work if the gaol closed and that it was built for punishment not for girls who were there by misfortune rather than crime! In January 1869, it was reported that the girls aged between 3 and 16 would be transferred to the Geelong Gaol, with the infants remaining at Princes Bridge as it was more suited to them, and the older girls as it would be easier to find them employment and also to look after the infants. At the time, they expected to clear about 200 girls to Geelong.

Moves for the school’s closure came quickly! In less than a year, a newspaper report urges the immediate removal of the children from this facility. The Argus in April 1872 reported on the Royal Commission into the sanitary conditions of the industrial schools. The report recommended that the two schools in Geelong be amalgamated as soon as practical to the Ryrie street School as the gaol was “totally unfitted for the training of industrial school children”. In 1873, the east wing of the gaol was reclaimed as a prison and the girls were transferred to Ryrie Street. The Industrial School in Geelong was abolished by order of the Governor on 19th February 1877.

Hospital Gaol and Detention Barracks

Military Detention Barracks – photo courtesy of Tim Fitzgerald

The Geelong Gaol was re-proclaimed as a gaol on 22nd October 1877. In 1924, part of the gaol was set aside as a Reformatory Prison. It remained as a gaol up until the outbreak of World War 2 when it was utilised to house the Army Detention Barracks. The Unit housed in the Geelong Gaol was 8 Detention Barracks, Geelong but was generally known as Geelong Detention Barracks. At one time it held up to 192 soldiers. Although it was now an army detention, there were still some escapes!

Training Prison

In 1947, it was reproclaimed as a gaol. In 1958 the Gaol was proclaimed as a Training Prison and in this role was used to educate prisoners in various trades including printing, sign writing, painting, tailoring, brick laying and toy making. Capacity of the gaol was 130 and in 1960 there were 119 inmates. The tailoring workshop was originally located upstairs on the second floor, which was previously the hospital and chapel.


In July 1991, the prison closed its doors for the last time as a prison. The decision to close was brought about by the building of the brand new Barwon Prison complex. The majority of prisoners were transferred to the new prison and the Old Geelong Gaol was closed for good. At the time of closing, the Geelong Gaol was the oldest inhabited prison left in Victoria.


As with many 19th century gaols, the maximum penalty for the most serious of crimes was execution or as it was put in newspapers of the day “the last and awful sentence of law was carried into effect”. Geelong saw only 6 executions in its long history, John Roberts and John Gunn in 1854, James Ross in 1856, Owen McQueeney in 1858, James Murphy in 1863 and Thomas Menard in 1865. The executions of Roberts and Gunn were not held at the gaol but at a place called Gallows Flat, which is believed to be on the northwest corner of Bellerine and Myers Streets. Ross, McQueeney, Murphy and Menard were all executed in the gaol itself, with only Menard being buried in the gaol.

The Public Executions 1854

John Roberts was condemned to death on the 27th October 1854 by Justice Williams, for “a most deliberate attempt to poison a fellow servant named Kelly by means of arsenic”. Roberts and Kelly had both been employed by Dr Hope of Native Creek when they had a falling out over some money. Roberts took offence and emptied Kelly’s kettle of tea and refilled it with arsenic laced water. Kelly drank this on the 13th August and immediately fell ill with a burning in his throat. He was examined by Dr Hope the following day who noted the burning in his mouth and noticed a white powder on the kettle which he tested and found it was arsenic. A small box was discovered under Robert’s bed, which had been previously stolen from Kelly, and found to contain arsenic. Justice Williams in his summing up stated “Prisoner at the bar you have been found guilty of the most cowardly, the most detestable of crimes, open murder is as nothing to it. Who can save himself from the designs of a man like you, poisoning unseen his food and drink. It was a mercy that your victim Kelly, was not sent headlong into the presence of His Maker! It was not you he has to thank for this, you did what you could to take his life. You have forfeited your own life in doing so”.

John Gunn, described as a grey haired old man, was also condemned to death on the 27th October 1854 by Justice Williams, for the stabbing murder at Warrnambool of Samuel Harris. On the 11th August 1854, Gunn had gone to the home of Charlotte Newman to ask after some washing. He was drunk and in a “bad humour”. Gunn left and returned later with Thomas Nolan. He left again and returned around 4pm with both Nolan and the deceased, Samuel Harris. They were ordered out by Mrs Newman after they began arguing and she was struck by Gunn, at which time Gunn left and returned with a pistol and a sword stick. Gunn began breaking the windows, at which time, Harris went out to reason with him and was fatally stabbed. Gunn also attempted to stab Mrs Newman when she tried to intervene. Gunn was well known for his addiction to drink. The jury took half an hour to return a guilty verdict with a recommendation of mercy.

The death warrants for both men arrived in Geelong and the execution was scheduled for the following Thursday (9th November, 1854) at 8am. It was reported that both men had behaved with great fortitude and had been earnest in their attentions to religious instructions offered to them. They both had conversations with the Governor of the Gaol, Charles Brodie on their last night. At a few minutes past 8 o’clock, the men were led to the gallows by the Sherriff, the Mayor, Reverand Mr Lowe and the Chaplain of the Gaol. Roberts had confessed to his crime and the justice of his sentence while Gunn had wanted to address the crowd as to his innocence of the crime. After a few minutes of conversation, he was encouraged not to protest his innocence, and then “the bolt was withdrawn and both men passed into eternity.” This was the first (and last) public execution in Geelong with around 2000 people who had turned out to watch. Roberts was 25 years old and Gunn was in his 60th year.

James Ross 1856

James Ross (aka James Griffiths) was condemned to death by Justice Williams on the 11th April 1856 for the murder of Mrs Eliza Sayer at the Wimmera on the 13th March, 1856. Ross also murdered his 14 month old child and had attempted to murder his wife at the same time.

On the 7th March, Mrs Ross had decided she had had enough of her mistreatment at Ross’ hands and sought refuge with Mrs Sayer in her hut. Ross had come to the door and asked where his wife was and was told she was at the homestead with Mr Darlot. He left and then returned, seeing his wife he had asked her to return home with him, which she refused. Ross returned for the next few days with the same results. After a few days of this, Ross accused his wife of taking his pistol and pocketbook, and accused Mrs Sayer of influencing his wife to stay with them instead of returning home. Mrs Sayer had replied that Mrs Ross had been a complete stranger before these events.

On the morning of the 13th March, Thomas Sayer left around 6am leaving the women and children in their beds. Witnesses to the murders included a Chinese man Yan, who had gone to get Mr Darlot when Ross came to the hut around 11am with a pistol. He saw Ross shoot Mrs Sayer, then stab her in the neck and finally hit her with the spade. Ross then dragged the near dead Mrs Sayer to the river. Henrietta Page, the victim’s sister, witnessed Ross shoot her sister and then drag her to the river from Mr Darlot’s homestead, where she was employed. When she got to her sister, she was near death and “quite insensible”. Mr Darlot came when summoned by Yan and found Mrs Sayer quite dead in the river with a lot of blood around her. Upon entering the hut he found the child dead in bed, quite bloody and also Mrs Ross although she was just alive. Mr Darlot also found a shear blade and a spade outside which had been used on the victims.

Ross was apprehended a couple of days later when he gave himself up to one of the shepherds on a neighbouring property. He confessed that he had murdered four, Mrs Sayer, his wife and child and the unborn child of his wife. When asked why he had murdered his own child, he replied he did not want the child to be an orphan in this world to be abused by no one. In his summing up, Justice Williams concluded that the crimes were “one of the most atrocious and premeditated murders that during my experience has ever been brought to the attention of a jury”.

Ross was executed on 22nd April 1856 at 8am at the Geelong Gaol, leaving behind a letter that was published in the newspapers of the day describing some of the brutalities he had inflicted on his wife. An inquest was held in the gaol on the same day stating he had been “hung by the neck until he was dead within the precincts of the gaol”.

Owen McQueeney 1858

Owen McQueeney was sentenced to death on 9th October 1858 by Justice Williams for the murder of Elizabeth Lowe near Meredith on 10th July 1858.

The body of Elizabeth Lowe was discovered on the floor of her tent near the fireplace in a pool of blood, with her 6 week old infant under her. There was also a 2 year child in the tent who was unharmed. A gunshot wound was observed to her right eye. She was discovered by the Crown Lands Ranger who had come to her tent to issue her with a summons.

McQueeney was charged with her murder and put on trial for his life as he had some of her property on him, along with pistols, caps and balls that matched the murder weapon. McQueeney was quite arrogant throughout the trial with his cross examination of the witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of guilty in ten minutes. Justice Williams stated that “the prisoner could not have hoped for any other result.” He stated that “he had watched the prisoner during the trial and thought his conduct agreed with the barbarity of the crime of which the jury had found him guilty. He had murdered instantaneously a woman, an unprotected woman, who had acted as a wife towards him.”

McQueeney was executed at 8am on the 20th October 1858 at the Geelong Gaol. He was led out of his cell, the irons struck off and his arm pinioned. McQueeney still had a lot to say even on the gallows, complaining about the executioner “laying a hand on me more than necessary”, that the noose was too tight, “don’t choke me before my time” and that the hood should not be over his eyes “Let me see the last of it”. After a few words from the Governor of the Gaol and his priests, he calmed down. McQueeney mounted the scaffold, knelt with his spiritual advisors, rose of his accord and “a moment more and the bolt was drawn and the murderer was a dead man.” In the inquest, Governor Peter Dwyer notes that McQueeney was a 43 year old Irishman of Roman Catholic faith.

An unusual request was received by the Sherriff an hour or so after the execution, when a crippled woman sought permission to have her hands “streaked over” by the hands of the dead murderer!

James Murphy 1863

James Murphy was sentenced to death by Justice Williams at the Circuit Court at Geelong on 21st October 1863. He had pleaded not guilty to the murder of Constable Daniel O’Boyle. Murphy was found guilty by the jury and this was endorsed by Justice Williams commenting on the “enormity and cowardly atrocity of his crime”.

On the 4th August 1863, O’Boyle had taken Murphy with him to help clean out some rooms of the Court House at Warrnambool. When O’Boyle was leaning down to light a fire in the fireplace, Murphy picked up a hammer and struck 2 blows to the Constable, rendering him unconscious. Murphy then calmly walked out the door, closing it behind him and left the scene. Medical attention was sought for O’Boyle but he never regained consciousness and died the following morning, 22 hours after the attack. Murphy was apprehended at a dairy station on the Hopkins River and was committed for trial.

Murphy went to the gallows on the 6th November 1863 behind the walls of the Geelong Gaol. He was attended by the Roman Catholic priest for the most of the previous night and again from early that morning. Murphy appeared to be very nervous and in a “feeble state” according to the papers of the day. He needed to be assisted to access the scaffold. After 15 minutes of prayer, the bolt was drawn and Murphy was hanged. According to the inquest, he took 4 ½ minutes to die! Although this seems to have been within acceptable parameters! The execution had been witnessed by about 30 members of the public and also the usual noted people, the Sherriff, the Mayor, and medical practitioners.

One of the interesting facts of this execution is that the executioner, who had been brought from Melbourne, was known to Murphy and they had been close friends, a fact not discovered until Murphy was led from his cell. However, this did not change the fact that the man still had to perform his duties as executioner, although it was reported that he had tears in his eyes the entire time.

Thomas Menard 1865

Thomas Menard was sentenced to death by Justice Williams at the Geelong Circuit Court on the 10th of October 1865 for murdering James Sweeney. Menard, alias “Yankee Tom” and Sweeney were both working as quarrymen for Mr Evans of Warrnambool.

On the 10th June 1865, they two men had an argument in which Sweeney made a comment about the American war to which Menard took offence. Later that evening after Sweeney had gone to his bunk, Menard came into the hut and fired three shots at Sweeney where he lay in bed. Sweeney and another man John Howe, took off after Menard but returned to their huts. One of the shots had hit Sweeney in the abdomen, which had lacerated his liver which was to cause his death 2 days later. Menard was apprehended in Beechworth and was brought to trial.

Menard was executed at 10am on the 29th October 1865. He would be the final execution at the Geelong Gaol. Menard was said to be dejected but repentant. Menard had asked Governor Brodie to say a prayer for him. He stepped onto the scaffold and the burial service was read and the bolt was drawn. Newspapers report that his body convulsed for ten minutes, which was put down to the fact that Menard was only 25 years old and in very good physical condition.

Menard was to have read out a statement but at the last minute, he was unable to do so. He went to his death holding the statement in his hand, along with a single rose which he had asked to be placed in his coffin. Menards statement was to the effect that he did not regret killing Sweeney, that Sweeney had got what he deserved. According to his death certificate, Menard was the only man to have been buried within the precincts of the gaol according to records.