Once home to such notorious criminals as Mark “Chopper” Read and Ned Kelly, the abandoned Pentridge Prison now stands in ruins in a northern suburb of Melbourne, Australia. During my time Down Under, I made a day trip up to Coburg to go and see the site for myself… and attempted to break into a building once listed amongst the most secure of Victoria’s penal facilities.
HM Prison Pentridge
I first came across mentions of Pentridge Prison during a visit to Old Melbourne Gaol. Pentridge had opened just six years later, located to the north, in Coburg; a district now absorbed within the city’s outer suburbs. It was built in 1850 and held inmates right through from 1851 until its closure in 1997. The prison had been nicknamed the “College of Knowledge,” or “The Bluestone College”.
The various divisions of the gaol dealt with a range of different inmate types; including psychiatric cases, young offenders, short term prisoners and those of good behaviour. In 1980, a high security unit known as ‘Jika Jika’ was added; at a total cost of $7m AUD. Fitted with electronic doors and CCTV, the so-called ‘escape-proof’ yard was nevertheless beaten in 1983, when four prisoners managed to get lose. Later, in 1987, five prisoners died in a fire; and following a lengthy investigation, the Jika Jika unit was retired from service.
In over a century of use, only 11 inmates were ever executed at Pentridge Prison… a paltry number, when compared to the bloody history of Old Melbourne Gaol. These 11 ran from David Bennett in September 1932, through to Ronald Ryan in February 1967 (the last man ever sentenced to execution in Australia); and included the American GI – and serial killer – Eddie Leonski.
Other notable inmates at Pentridge included the serial killer Peter Dupas, the hit-man Christopher Dale Flannery (aka ‘Mr Rent-a-Kill’), two of the 1986 Russell Street bombers, the gangster Squizzy Taylor, and Keith Faure: convicted of murder during the 1980s Melbourne gangland killings, a violent period of criminal upheaval which formed the premise for the outstanding television series Underbelly. The infamous Mark “Chopper” Read did time at Pentridge too, though perhaps the prison’s most notorious resident of all was the bushranger and outlaw, Ned Kelly.
The Quest for Ned’s Head
Ned Kelly was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880, though later, in 1929, his remains would be disturbed by the construction of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology building. On 12 April that year, the accidental opening of these mass graves would lead to chaos; workmen, schoolboys and even passing pedestrians swooped in to grab themselves grisly souvenirs, and many of the bones have been missing ever since.
Gaol bosses issued threats of imprisonment through the newspapers, and some of the artefacts were returned… to be buried instead at Pentridge, in a yard within the prison walls.
After the closure of HM Prison Pentridge on 1 May 1997, Heritage Victoria became interested in unearthing the history of these corpses. They began a search for the bodies in 2007, and the next year archaeologists began documenting mass graves situated at the eastern end of Pentridge’s F Division.
By 2009, most of the corpses had once again been lain to rest, or in some cases, returned to their surviving families. Ned Kelly was exhumed once again in 2011, to be handed over to his descendants… however, DNA testing soon showed that Kelly’s skeleton had been robbed of its skull; buried instead with the severed head of a fellow inmate.
To this day, the outlaw, bushranger and Australian underdog hero Ned Kelly remains separated from his skull… although every now and again, a new theory (such as this one) will crop up to explain its likely whereabouts.
During its time in service, Pentridge Prison witnessed a total of 31 successful escapes. I was intrigued then, by the notion of attempting a break-in at the Pentridge site; although as it turned out, there wasn’t exactly much of the prison left worth breaking into… and what did still remain of those high security wards, was not only well secured but also crawling with new residents.
Following the closure of the Coburg prison in 1997, the site was divided into two; the northern half being developed by the Valad Property Group, the rest falling under a development plan known as ‘Pentridge Village’.
A number of buildings have already popped up between the old bluestone walls, including residential sites and shops, as well as a car park now surrounded by the imposing Pentridge battlements. A proposed 16-floor high rise, meanwhile, has been met with stern disproval from the National Trust.
Some of the more secure units of the prison remained (apparently) untouched at the time of my visit, surrounded by security cameras and chain link fences.
We had a little look at climbing in – the fence was slack and in places it swayed at a touch, though that wouldn’t necessarily make it any easier to get over. I was still eyeing it up when a pedestrian came around the corner, nodding at us, although not without a certain note of suspicion.
That was the problem with infiltrating Pentridge – even before the advertised CCTV cameras, before the eight-foot climb over the wobbly fence, before the rumoured PIRs and motion tracking devices inside; this area in the process of evolving into Pentridge Village was already alive with passers-by, dog walkers and nosy neighbours. If it was going to be done, it’d need to be a night mission… and my time in Australia was already drawing to a close.
I did, however, manage to climb a watchtower.
Perched at the end of a crumbling outer wall, the solemn edifice rose up alongside a new road; while looking out, from its inner side, across the black tarmac of the car park. I made it up the bricks easily enough, which had eroded to a form a natural sort of stair. Then, pulling myself up and over an old drainpipe, I clambered into the watchtower itself.
The bare chamber at the top of the tower looked out over the suburbs, clean brick houses rising from a sea of green leaves. I was able to open a wooden trapdoor set into the floor, beneath which a stone staircase spiralled down and out of sight. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was hoping it might open onto a long-forgotten basement level… though as I followed it down, the passage culminated abruptly at a heavy wooden door leading back out to the road.
Hardly urban exploration then, this trip was more a pleasant mooch through history… although, that’s not to say there aren’t those who’ve successfully infiltrated the site. You’ll find some great images detailing the interior of this abandoned prison over on Forbidden Places, in a post dating from 2004.
More recently, an events group have started running tours of Pentridge’s ‘D Division’ – once a home to some of the prison’s most notorious inmates.
Australia, with its booming property market, is one of those places where abandonments rarely stay abandoned for long. Much of the old Pentridge Prison has already been demolished, to make way for new, designer neighbourhoods… I just hope enough of the old Bluestone College remains then, to justify a closer look the next time I’m in town.
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