Dubbo Jail

One of the main tourist attractions to see while at Dubbo is the jail. It opened in 1874 and closed in 1966. Then opened to visitors in 1974, and is now on the state heritage list. The town has grown around the jail making it seem like it is right in the middle of the town. The overall area is small but interesting, as it has interactive holograms characters and animatronics.

It seems Dubbo was a harsh and lawless place in the 1800s and considered to be the frontier of NSW. Being a gold mining area the town was full of bushrangers, itinerant workers and drifters as well as the miners. Death was common in the town and justice was almost non-existent. The jail was built to hold 36 prisoners, one night in 1896 the numbers peaked at 61 men and 6 women.

Off to one side was a wooden building. To start with I thought it may have been an isolation cell but after reading the information I found out it was a Portable Cell. The building was transported thought the state in the 1900s. Most of the small country towns didn’t have anywhere to keep a prisoner so the police would take the holding cell with them. Most of the times the cell would be pulled by horses. (A cell like this one was used to transport Ned Kelly to Melbourne.) The building seemed to be very sturdy and heavy. It really didn’t look like something anyone would really won’t to be dragging around the countryside.

dubbo 24There was a solitary confinement cell just as you entered the main prison block. As you walk into the cell a voice told you how hard it was to be confined in it. The walls were about a foot thick and there was a 6 inch layer of dirt on the top to cut any noise of any kind reaching the prisoner. There was an outer door, which was closed stopping any light from entering the area before the inner door hatch to the cell was opened so the guard could push the food plate in. You were fed only bread and water while in solitary confinement. Prisoners could spend up to 21 days in the cell. One day a week they were allowed out to have one good meal before being returned. That must have been very hard to go back into the darkness. Prisoners would say it was like being buried alive. To help pass the time prisoners would often tear a button from their shirt and throw it against the opposite wall. They would then spend hours searching for it in the dark. Once the button was found they would repeat the process again.

The cell was designed so the prisoner couldn’t see or hear anything in the time they were confined and the only way the prisoner knew time had passed was when they received their meals or was let out for that one good dinner.  The solitary confinement cell was converted back to a normal cell in 1900.

Adrian walked into the cell, we had the door open but it was still very dark. I stayed outside.

dubbo 25

The cells are on both sides of a long corridor. At one end of the corridor is a Padded Cell. It was kept for the prisoners who were classified as lunatics or insane. Prisoners who were violent or were drunk or …. well anyone really. The floor was covered with mattresses, the walls all padded and the prisoners were placed in a strait jacket. The information board tells of two occupancies, one thought he was a dog and the other held a piece of rag believing it was his child. Unfortunately way back then there were very few places where mentally ill people could go and if you didn’t have any money you would end up in the local lock up.

Most of the cells had some type of display in them. In some were manikins. As you approached the manikins would start to talk to you.   A mother was holding her crying daughter in one cell. She told me her daughter was ok until the manikin started to talk to the girl. It frightened her, poor thing.

We got to go up the Watchtower. When the tower was built you climbed to the top by a staircase inside the tower, now you ascend it from stairs on the outside.

The gallows were discovered under the Dubbo Court house where they had remained since the last hanging in 1904. Now they sit in the middle of the grounds. In one of the rooms there is a hangman’s kit, one of the few left in existence.

The kit includes among other items:

  • Ropes of various lengths to accommodate the varying sizes of prisoners
  • Block and tackle with weights use to reset the gallows trap door
  • Leather bindings to secure the ankles and wrists
  • Hangman’s mask and prisoner’s hood.

In another room you listen to how Nosey Bob go his name. He was the hangman for the area for a number of years and the kit was his. He was said to be a good-looking fellow. He took advantage of this by having a hackney cab business and flirted with all the ladies. One day a horse kicked him in the face leaving him without a nose. His business declined as no lady wanted to travel with him in his cab anymore. Finding himself without any work Nosey Bob turned his hand to hanging. He was the first Chief Public Executioner in New South Wales on a fixed annual salary of £150 a position he held until he retired.

The first person to be hanged in Australia was James Barrett in 1788. He was only 17. His crime: robbery. The first woman was Ann Davis in 1789. Her crime: stealing clothes and goods from another convict. The last woman to be executed in New South Wales was Louisa Collins in 1889. Her crime: murder of her two husbands. The last woman to be executed in Australia was Jean Lee in 1951. She was born in Dubbo in 1919 and executed at Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. Her crime: murder. The last person to be hanged in Dubbo jail was Tommy Ah Check (a Chinese subject.) His crime: murder.

Ah Check handed himself in at the Peak Hill police station.   The story goes the Sergeant was eating and told Ah Check to come back later. To which Ah Check replied “you better take me now; me go away, you not catch me anymore. I kill him alright.” Although he had confessed to the murder he pleaded self defence. The forensic evidence supported Ah Check’s story of self defence but he was still hung in 1904. At he mounted the scaffold he twice called out ‘Goodbye’ to the assembled witnesses.

Reading about the lives of those that were hung was some heavy reading.  It was quite eerie to look at the gallows and to know that it was the original one and not a replica. In 1955 the NSW government abolished the death penalty.

During school holidays the jail has live characters. They give an insight into the life and escapes of the inmates. There were many escapes or attempted escapes. In 1958 once such escape involved two brothers.   Their plan was to burn a hole in the ceiling of the cell. Then to crawl onto the roof and while one was to be a lookout the other one would jump down and attack the warden on night duty. The wardens had gathered and were ready for them. Possibly pre-warned by the smoke from the burning ceiling. For their efforts they were sent to solitary confinement. An earlier escape in 1865 was of John Dunn. John was a member of Ben Hall’s gang. John was just 19 when he escaped from Dubbo Jail through an open window. He was recaptured the next day. A short time after he was transferred to Darlinghurst Jail where he was hung for the murder of Constable Nerlson.

I was very impressed with the jail. Well worth the time.

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