Escape to Pentridge

‘Escape to Pentridge’ says the Developers website – it continues ‘Pentridge is unique. Built on solid bluestone, its foundations are firmly rooted in Melbourne’s History. New and Historical architecture will sit side by side. The heart of Coburg is to be reborn, transformed into a vital hub of creativity and commerce interlinked with residential opportunities. Escape ordinary. Escape to Pentridge.’

Oh just not so funny – what a very sorrowful place, what a history! But indeed there has been a transformation and now its new residents do live with, well – with the ghosts of the past.

Pentridge Prison commenced as a stockade made of log huts on wheels surrounded by a 1.2 metre fence. The original stockade held 16 prisoners marched to the site from the Melbourne Gaol – at that time overcrowded with the huge population influx beginning to occur from the Gold Rush.


Prison Hulk

At the time Prisoners were held in hulks (decommissioned ships) anchored off Sandridge (Port Melbourne) and Williamstown and at the Melbourne Gaol located on Russell St in the city’s north.

Local residents of Coburg were totally outraged and so the prisoners, who were seconded to work on the new Sydney Rd, toiled in chains, eating, sleeping and working in chains – 24 hours per day. These were very harsh times, with floggings, solitary confinement and ever heavier chains being the order of the day. Bread and water – and for the very worst, shipped back to the floating prison hulks on the bay.

Pentridge prison, 25 May 1955.jpg

This original stockade was replaced with what has been described as a Pentonville style prison between 1857 and 1864. High external bluestone walls and guard towers provided the sought after higher levels of security.

a division

 A Division

A women’s prison, ‘A Division’ was designed and built then utilised until 1871 – when the women were again transferred back to the Melbourne Gaol – or as we know it now – the ‘Old Melbourne Gaol’. A new three storey building was constructed in 1894. It was to accommodate the then 195 female prisoners held at the Governor’s pleasure – on fixed prison terms. This 3 storey building was vacated in 1956 when Fairlea Women’s prison was opened at Fairfield and all women prisoners transferred. It then became known as ‘D Division’ and housed male prisoners.


D Division

But for a second let’s get real. Known as the ‘Bluestone College’, ‘Coburg College’ or the ‘College of Knowledge’ this place for inmates was a ‘hellhole’.

Our old friend Hugh Linaker had a hand in developing the grounds of Pentridge, landscaping them in his familiar grand English parkland style.

There were 10 Divisions in the prison. These were as follows:

  • A – Short and long term prisoners of good behaviour
  • B – Long term prisoners with behavioural problems – a very mean and dangerous place open up until the late 1980s
  • C – Vagabonds and short term prisoners – where Ned Kelly was imprisoned
  • D – Remand prisoners
  • E – Prison Hospital – later dormitory division for short term prisoners
  • F – Remand and short term
  • G – Psychiatric problems
  • H – High Security, discipline and protection
  • J – Young offenders group – later long term prisoners with a history of good behaviour
  • Jika Jika – Maximum security risk and for protection – later renamed K Division

Pentridge in architectural terms has many unique features, but the most outstanding of these were what were known as Panopticons. These followed the design of Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 Prison Design. There were three of those Panopticons. The feature was a wedge shaped structure that opened onto ‘airing yards’ where Prisoners were permitted access for one hour per day. Jeremy Bentham was a ‘social reformer’ of his time. These Panopticons fell out of use and were demolished due to prison overcrowding in the early 1900s.

A number of iconic heritage buildings or landmarks are located at the Pentridge site. These landmarks and heritage buildings have been retained and are incorporated in the Pentridge Village Masterplan which formed part of the Moreland Planning Scheme. The then Victorian Minister for Planning the honourable Mr Mathew Guy, approved the Masterplan in 2014.


Development plans may destroy the character of this heritage site

The National Trust has expressed ‘strong concerns’ about the nature of these masterplans with the complex interplay between maintaining historic divisions and the building of high density high rise buildings on the original prison site. The current developer Shayer Group has made significant commitments for example investing several million dollars to restore the roof of the old A Division building, restore the Seven Guard Towers and the rock breaking yards. These works are scheduled for 2018 completion. The Pentridge Masterplan calls for ‘up to 20 new buildings designed to compliment the existing heritage landmarks with numerous community spaces and public amenities such as an open piazza, forecourt areas and public open space including landscaped gardens’ (Hugh Linaker would be pleased or would he?)


To quote form the Pentridge Prison Heritage Report:

“The former HM Prison Pentridge is of historical and social significance as the largest prison complex constructed in Victoria in the nineteenth century, which operated as the central establishment in the wider prison system from the 1860s. The complex of buildings, which remains on site, demonstrates a number of phases in the development of the penal system, including the separate system, which dominated penology in Victoria in the nineteenth century. Pentridge is also significant in the history of child welfare in Victoria. It was the location of reformatories for both girls and boys established following the findings of the Stawell Royal Commission of 1870. The prison complex includes a purpose-built reformatory of 1875 (G Division), constructed as the Jika Reformatory for Protestant Girls, which operated between 1875 and 1893.”

“The principal elevation of the former Entrance Building at Pentridge Prison faces west and is of a medieval style with a crenellated parapet, a large pointed arched gateway and octagonal towers. The east elevation is of a simple classical style with a central pediment, quoining, and semi-circular and rectangular headed windows. The central pavilion and the corner turrets of the west elevation are of ashlar bluestone; the remainder is of rock-faced bluestone. A series of regularly spaced, narrow windows on the ground and first floors are located on either side of the central pavilion. Two octagonal towers with cross-shaped slit windows and corbelled crenellated parapets flank the entrance, one of which is surmounted by an octagonal bluestone clock tower.”

“The former HM Prison Pentridge is of aesthetic and architectural significance because of the monumental scale and austere Classical style of the remaining nineteenth century prison buildings. The complex of buildings and walls are important for their expression of the requirements of containment and order and are typical of other prison buildings constructed in Victoria in the 1850s and 60s. The grim and imposing bluestone walls and towers are important landmark features.”

Be you young or very old this was not a place to start or end your life. It was one of the cruelest, darkest places you might find yourself.


Ned Kelly

And as one very famous internee was said to say moments before he departed this mortal coil…

“Such is life”



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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.