A secret tunnel designed to safely convey prisoners from the old Ballarat Gaol to the nearby courthouse has been revealed in documents released by the Public Records Office (PROV).
Dr David Waldron, senior lecturer in History at the School of Arts, Federation University, made the exciting discovery while preparing for this year’s open day at the former prison as part of Ballarat’s upcoming Heritage Weekend in May.
The PROV released previously sealed documents about the gaol’s design plans and layout to Dr Waldron. The plans had until recently been kept as confidential in order to prevent the general public knowing the layout of any prison, as many were similarly configured.
The design of prisons has obviously changed greatly, says Dr Waldron, and the PROV felt there was no longer public benefit in keeping the plans secret.
“We knew they were, but the locations had been lost because the plans were kept secret,” says Dr Waldron.
“After I was given access to the blueprints for the gaol, which was actually very handy for the maintenance staff here, because it showed wiring, waterworks and sewerage, which they previously didn’t have, the PROV said to me there was no point in hiding them because prisons no longer use this design.”
The cells and bath houses of the old gaol are still accessible beneath Federation University’s library building, but the revelation there’s an underground passage to the old courthouse still in existence is a brilliant piece of historical luck, says Dr Waldron.
Maintenance staff knew of the tunnel - but not its purpose.
The passage was constructed by 1862 when the prison was completed, and allowed for the safe transport of accused prisoners to and from the Ballarat Supreme Courthouse (later the School of Mines).
It was constructed at a time when the possibility of a prisoner being attacked by a mob, or freed by accomplices, was a much more existent threat than today, says Dr Waldron.
The prison had 58 cells and could hold 74 prisoners at completion.
This year’s tour of the Ballarat Gaol as part of the Heritage Weekend will acknowledge the existence of the newly-rediscovered tunnel, although it’s unlikely it will ever be open to the public due to safety concerns.
Dr Waldron hopes the level of interest will be a strong as last year, where over 1250 people attended the tour. He says many people told him they had items from the former prison, including uniforms and letters, and even flag and capstones taken when the gaol was demolished in 1965 by the Bolte Government.
“We’re hoping to hold an exhibition of artefacts from the gaol this year,” he says.
“As part of the tour, we’ll talk about some of the things that happened here, some of the more dramatic characters. What will be new this year is we’ve found a lot more material on the women who were here in the gaol, like Louisa Crook who poisoned one of her close friends through jealousy over her husband and was sentenced to be executed; it was commuted to life imprisonment.
“The stories of the 13 men who were executed here; eight of the bodies that were discovered when they demolished here were buried standing up and decapitated, so their souls couldn’t rest, over in the corner near the library. They were in the former men’s exercise yard.”
The last execution in the Ballarat Gaol took place in June 1908. The Ararat asylum attendant Charles Deutschmann shot his wife at Dobie, near Ararat in April of that year, also shooting and wounding his father-in-law.
Dr Waldron welcomes anyone to contact him with potential exhibition material or leads on 5327 9710, 0437 104 366 or at his work email email@example.com