George J. Armstrong, Governor of Pentridge from 1974-76, lecturer in Prison History, and co-author of "Pentonville to Pentridge" described the treatment of female prisoners in the 19th century.
For the male administrators of the time, female prisoners were a problem. With little education and poor job prospects, once a woman was convicted, it was almost impossible for her to be accepted into society again and many were forced into prostitution.
So many women were convicted under the New South Wales' Masters and Servants Act and their convictions were so harsh that William Lonsdale wrote to the Colonial Secretary suggesting that no female servants be sent to Melbourne for a time. For refusing to wash an iron pot and speaking in an insolent manner, one female servant received 14 days imprisonment, whilst for another, just being insolent drew a term of 7 days on bread and water.
During the 1850s, the number of women prisoners increased considerably. Many women, left destitute when their husbands rushed to the goldfields, were imprisoned for vagrancy - often for as long as 3 months. The Russell Street gaol became full and women were put on one of a total of 5 hulks, where they worked as washerwomen. These hulks were painted yellow, and bedecked with washing, were a shocking sight. Naturally there was a public outcry and eventually a Royal Commission was set up in 1871. Numbers of female prisoners again increased when upper class women became victims in the financial crash of the 1890s. With their presence in gaol more moves were made to improve conditions.
There were several early gaols. The first, possibly built in Collins Street West, was a wattle and daub construction about 30ft by 18ft, surrounded by a tea-tree stockade and divided into male and female sections. The men were allowed out of their cells between 7am and 12 noon and later between 2pm and 5pm. Women prisoners were locked up all day and night except the 2 hours when the men had lunch.
On the eastern side of the city, the next gaol was built adjoining the Supreme Court, which was on the corner of Russell and Latrobe Streets. There was a watch house near the site of the Eastern Market (cnr. Bourke and Exhibition Streets) and the Old Melbourne Gaol as we know it today, had a cell block for women which extended almost to Swanston Street. There was a row of cottages in Swanston Street which housed prison staff. Once convicted, prisoners were temporarily held in stockades such as those at Richmond and Pentridge. The latter of course became a gaol. Only small numbers of women were held in country gaols such as the one at Castlemaine. However Geelong gaol held quite a few, as one tier there was used as a hospital for women with venereal diseases.
In the late 1880's, Jack Evans became Inspector General of Prisons. He convinced the government to establish a separate gaol within Pentridge for women. It had its own female governor and staff (D division). Women's committees helped to provide education, to create work opportunities, and to break the cycle of repeated convictions.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No 1057)
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