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All Seeing Archaeology: The Panopticons of Pentridge Prison

La visibilité totale en archéologie : Etude des panoptiques de la prison de Pentridge
Adam Ford FSA


Des fouilles archéologiques effectuées sur le site de la prison de Pentridge ont permis de découvrir les ruines et les fondations de trois cours de prison selon le plan panoptique. Cet article détaille la portée et les observations du programme de fouilles et s'intéresse à l’influence du modèle panoptique de Jeremy Bentham sur la réforme pénale et la conception des prisons en Australie au milieu du XIXe siècle.

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1Ruinous remains of three circular exercise yards were discovered during archaeological excavations at the Former HM Prison Pentridge, Melbourne, Victoria. Constructed in the late 1850s the yards were integral architectural elements to a new model of prison that represented a radical change in the management of offenders in Victoria.

2This paper presents the historical context to the development of Pentridge and observations of the archaeological project with specific focus on the panopticon exercise yards.

3In 1997 Pentridge Prison closed and was sold by the state to private developers. The site is currently under mixed use development incorporating high density residential, commercial and retail accommodations. The extant historical former prison buildings will remain and will be sympathetically adapted for reuse.

4DIG International Pty Ltd (DIG), an archaeological consultancy based in Victoria, carried out excavations at the former prison in 2014, prior to the commencement of development. The archaeological program aimed to discover and ‘salvage’ as much archaeological data to ensure that significant cultural heritage was, at the least, conserved in the record if not in the ground.

5Pentridge is located in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg, approximately 8km north of the city centre.

Contextual History

6Time and resourcing constraints of this commercial project meant that historical research was targeted to understand the immediate context of the development of Pentridge. Research was limited to UK and US penal history as it related to the site and to predominantly secondary and online sources.

7A prison in one form or another has stood at the current site since the middle of the 19th Century but the antecedents of the historic bluestone (basalt) structures standing today date back much further, to developments of penal reform in Britain and United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

8For centuries, the emphasis of punitive reaction to perceived wrong doers was both physical and public; meting out non fatal and fatal injury to serious offenders, and ridicule and shame to lesser transgressors.

Figure 1

Example of punishment for serious crimes

Credits: Eye Witness to History

Figure 2

Example of punishment for lesser crimes

Credits: Hale School

  • 1 Peter Spierenburg, The Body and The State: Early Modern Europe”, in Norval Morris and David J. Rot (...)
  • 2 Jonny Wilkes, In a Nutshell: Debtor's Prisons”, History Extra. BBC, 2015-02-10.

9The withdrawal of liberty through imprisonment was not universally considered as a punishment in itself.1 The many privately owned and unregulated prisons that existed in Britain were mainly used for remand of persons awaiting trial and short-term imprisonment for petty crimes such as vagrancy or drunkenness. The most common reason for incarcerating someone, however, was default on debt. Offenders were placed in debtors’ prisons such as the infamous Marshalsea of London and had their assets secured while a civil action was resolved or debt repaid.2

Figure 3

London debtors’ prison


10In addition to domestic actions, punishment extended to transportation of convicted criminals firstly to the British colonies in America and then after the War of Independence (1775-1783) to Australia.

  • 3 Anne Glyn-Jones, Holding up a Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (revised 2nd ed.), (Exeter, Imprint (...)

11Over the centuries an extensive list of capital crimes accrued on the British statute and by the middle of the 18th Century a citizen could be executed if found guilty of one of 220 crimes; from murder and treason, to ‘being in the company of Gypsies for one month’ or ‘blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime,’ or the heinous crime of showing ‘strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age.’ This long list of both serious and petty sounding crimes was known as the Bloody Code.3

12Towards the end of the 18th Century and in a rapidly changing social and intellectual world the Bloody Code and other approaches to crime and punishment came under scrutiny. Both sides of political debate, members of various churches and penal reformers observed the archaic, unregulated and brutal spectacles of public execution and application of an outdated penal code as both unsuited to the ‘modern era’, and unsustainable and wholly inappropriate for the increasingly urbanised population.

  • 4 Judgement of Death Act 1823, The Statutes Project,

13Between the 1780s and mid 19th Century there was a radical change in the approach to crime, criminals and their punishment. Political reformers and jurists shifted the emphasis to the reform and redemption of the individual (except in the most serious cases). In 1823 the death penalty was made discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder and by 1861 the list of capital crimes had reduced from 220 to five.4 Transportation to the Australian colonies became less common in the 1840s and officially ceased in 1868.

  • 5 David Hill, 1788 The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet (Melbourne, Random House Australia, 2010).

14In 1777 John Howard (one of Britain’s first prison reformers) published The State of Prisons in England and Wales which heavily criticised the appalling state of the unregulated and antiquated prisons.5 Howard’s study was popular and in part resulted in the passing of the Penitentiary Act 1779 which introduced state prisons for the first time and a prison regime based on solitary confinement, labour and religious instruction.

15Around the same time philosopher and jurist, Jeremy Bentham, waged a twenty-year campaign to have a design for a new model of prison, that he termed the panopticon (the see-all), constructed.

Figure 4

Jeremy Bentham

Credits: National Portrait Gallery, UK

  • 6 Janet Semple, Benthams Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 19 (...)

16The idea was a cell block, circular in plan made of iron and glass with a central core watchtower of stone from where just a few guards could constantly observe the prisoners within their clear walled cells. Bentham elaborated that constant watchfulness aided the reformation and the panopticon design was extremely labour efficient.6

Figure 5

The panopticon prison

Credits: Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, dir. John Bowring, 1843

  • 7 Neil Davie, “The Panopticon. The Glass lantern Shattered: Jeremy Bentham and the demise of the Pano (...)

17The parliamentary Holford Committee (1811), established to examine all aspects of penal reform rejected Bentham’s panopticons, primarily on cost.7 However, elements of Bentham's ideas were carried forward in future design of prisons and prison management, including at Pentridge.

18In addition to looking at the criminal code and the physical design of prisons, the reforms also investigated various regimes that could facilitate the rehabilitation of the individual. In England, the 1823 Gaol Act went someway towards improving uniformity in the state and management of prisons including the banning of alcohol and the installation of medical and religious resources. But these were not well enforced.

19In America, two experimental penal systems were gaining interest. In the United States, as in Britain an increase in crime was witnessed caused by a number of social and economic factors including increased urbanisation of populations, a rapidly widening social and economic gap as the industrial revolution strengthened and the increased application of a reformed penal code.

20This placed pressure on woefully inadequate prisons and also put prison and penal reform prominently on the political and public agenda.

21Two systems had been developed in America, both based on aspects of monastic aesthetic life. One was employed at Sing Sing Prison in New York State.

Figure 6

Silent system in the New York Sing Sing Prison

Credits: Wikipedia

22Called the ‘Silent’ system this regime revolved around hard labour in complete silence. The other, the ‘Separate’ system, used at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, required total segregation of prisoners through solitary confinement, also in silence.

Figure 7

Separate system in the Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary

Credits: Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

  • 8 Randall McGowen, “The Well Ordered Prison. England 1780-1865”, in The Oxford History of the Prison: (...)

23Both relied on the individual to inwardly reflect on their wrong doings through religious education and silent meditation either through separate confinement or repetitive labour. Conformity to both systems required specific architecture and the application of severe punishment for the slightest transgression. Both were expensive but seemed to work and fitted the long-held wish for ordered, clean, quiet, modern prisons.8

24The British authorities were particularly interested in the Separate System and in 1842 the physical expression of this intent was realised with the opening of Pentonville Prison in London.

Figure 8

Pentonville Prison in London

Credits: Old Police Cells Museum, UK

25Partly based on Bentham’s panopticon design Pentonville had cell wings radiating from a central observation core. 520 prisoners could be held in individual cells that incorporated a flush toilet and washbasin. These wings were not true Bentham style panopticons because the prisoner could not be seen from the central node, only the corridors and cell doors could be under continued observation. However, the exercise yards where the prisoners were aired briefly each day in individually partitioned spaces were true panopticons as guards in central towers could observe the occupants at all times.

  • 9 Joshua Jebb, Modern Prisons: their Construction and Ventilation (J. Weale, London, 1844).

26The design was codified by Surveyor General of Prisons, Joshua Jebb in a pamphlet, Modern Prisons, their construction and ventilation (1844). Jebb’s design became the model for 54 prisons built in the latter half of the 19th Century in the UK and hundreds around the British Empire, including Pentridge.9

Australian Prisons

27Early prisons in the Australian colonies graduated from tents surrounded by timber stockades (enclosures secured with a simple timber fence) to military designed masonry structures that were more like barrack blocks than gaols.

Figure 9

Early colonial masonry prison structure in Australia

Credits: Wikimedia Commons

28The accommodation was uniform and did not enable separation of various categories of prisoners or the implementation of different regimes.

29Before the formal separation of Port Phillip (Victoria’s name before separation) from the Colony of New South Wales and the creation of the Colony of Victoria in 1850, all those convicted of serious offence in Melbourne and elsewhere in Victoria were transported to prisons in New South Wales such as Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. Those convicted of petty offences (under agreement with the colonial authorities in Sydney) were managed in police cells, and various forms of ‘lock up’.

Figure 10

Example of lock up in colonial Australia

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

30In 1841 construction began in Melbourne, on the blue stone buildings that became Melbourne Gaol on the corner of LaTrobe and Russell streets.

Figure 11

Melbourne Gaol

Credits: Wikimedia Commons

31While the prison opened in 1845 NSW still provided the penal management for those convicted of crimes requiring prison terms of three years or more. With the population of Melbourne and Victoria increasing throughout the 1840s and the impending separation from Sydney the nascent colony needed additional prison capacity.


  • 10 Bryce Raworth Pty Ltd, “Former Pentridge Prison, Conservation Management Plan” (Shayher Properties, (...)

32In the middle of 1850 it was announced that a stockade would be constructed approximately eight kilometres from the centre of Melbourne to the north in an area known at that time as Pentridge. Despite protestations from the local population, sixteen convicts were marched up Sydney Road to the new stockade in December of that year.10 The stockade was portable to allow for the convicts to be housed wherever they were working as their main occupation was maintaining and improving the main road north. The apparent flimsy nature of the stockade came in for heavy criticism. The Argus newspaper described the facility:

  • 11 The Argus, “Pentridge Stockade” (Melbourne, 25 June 1856). Source: National Library of Australia.

A man of ordinary strength could push out the weatherboard with a single thrust of the arm. If the floorboards were raised, the whole gang might walk out, for the building is on piles some feet from the ground, below the floor is not enclosed. The shingles may be poked off with a stick with ease from the inside.11

  • 12 Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851–1861 (Carlton: Melbourne (...)
  • 13 Peter Barrett, “Her Majesty's Collingwood Stockade: A snapshot of Gold Rush Victoria”, Journal of P (...)

33With the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 much greater pressure was placed on the prison system as the population of Victoria almost doubled in under two years.12 Melbourne Gaol rapidly reached capacity, additional stockades were constructed at Richmond, Collingwood and Williamstown and four prison hulks (decommissioned ships modified to house prisoners) were commissioned; the President, Deborah and Success at Gellibrand Point at Williamstown, and the Sacramento off Geelong, 50km to the south.13

Figure 12

Prison hulk

Credits: Port Melbourne Historical Protection Society

34None were seen as long-term solutions and many urged the government to build a permanent jail with the Pentridge site the most suitable.

  • 14 John V. Barry, “John Giles Price, (1808-1857)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu. (...)

35By 1855 John Price, the Inspector General of Penal Establishments in Victoria, concluded that the ad hoc nature of the Pentridge establishment, the lack of hospital facilities and the inability to segregate or classify prisoners justified a concerted push to develop a larger, purpose built prison at the site. He lobbied the government to release funds to build a prison with a capacity to house 1500 prisoners.14

  • 15 Barry, “John Giles Price”.

36While there was agreement in principle, the recommendation did not proceed and the conditions within the Victorian stockades and particularly the prison hulks deteriorated. Price was a severe master and oversaw an increasingly cruel and brutal prison system with prison hulks singled out by critics as his most tortuous establishments. Before a government investigation into Price was completed he was beaten to death by a mob of prisoners from one of the hulks moored at Williamstown.15

37An investigation followed which concluded that the prison system was untenable and a renewed call was made for a central prison at Pentridge.

  • 16 John V. Barry, “Thomas Napier Champ (1808-1892)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, (...)

38Price was succeeded in the role of Inspector of Prisons by William Champ who had held varying roles in government and administration including the commandant of the Port Arthur penal establishment and as Premier of Tasmania.16

William Champ

Credits: Wikipedia

The New Model Prison

39In 1857, Champ embarked on the largest prison building program conducted in Australia and commenced construction of what he described as a new model prison based on Pentonville architectural design and incorporating the systems of Separation and Silence.

40The administration and entrance building, B Division cell block and the perimeter wall was constructed in the first phase, starting in 1858 and completed in 1859.

Figure 14

Administration and entrance building of the central prison at Pentridge

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

  • 17 Alison McDougall, “Joachimi, Gustav Carl (1826-1899)”, Architects of South Australia database, www. (...)

41To most Melbournians, the imposing gate house and administration block is the well-known public ‘face’ of the prison. It was designed by Gustav Joachimi (architect of Victoria’s Public Works Department17) in a medieval fortification style. Chamfered towers flank a squat Tudor entrance arch with the whole topped with crenellated battlements. Cruciform ‘loopholes’ (arrow slots) complete the castle like façade. This is a unique style not repeated in other public buildings of the period.

Figure 15

Plan of the Pentridge penitentiary

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

Figure 16

Photograph of the exterior of the Pentridge jail

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

42B Division however was designed in a mix of neo classical and 19th Century functional style. This cell block, and later A Division to the north (constructed as the women’s prison in 1860-65), were modelled on Jebb’s design of Pentonville. The facades had the heavy triangular pediments and symmetrical pilasters of classical temples.

Figure 17

B Division’s mix of neo classical and 19th Century functional style

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

43While A and B Divisions were described at the time as ‘panopticons’ they do not conform to Bentham’s idea of a panopticon because, as with Pentonville’s cell blocks (also erroneously described as panopticons), the interior of the cells and thus the inmates were not in constant view of their overseers. However, the exercise yards attached to these blocks, two at B Division and one at A Division, do conform to Bentham’s principle design and are true panopticon structures as prisoners could be observed at all times by warders in central towers. Moreover, due to narrow windows in the central observation tower the observers could not be seen easily by the inmates, enforcing acquiescence without visible menace.

Figure 18

Aerial photograph of the Pentridge prison

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

44These buildings are identical to those depicted in the Pentonville plan and Jebb’s publication.

45The prison remained in use with few substantive changes until its closure in 1997.

Pentridge Regimes

46The prison regimes were developed from the Pentonville systems that itself had antecedents in the USA.

47On entering Pentridge every prisoner, irrespective of their crime or sentence, were placed in solitary confinement in the Separate System in B Division. There they remained for a month of every year of their sentence i.e. four months for a four-year sentence to a maximum of ten months.

48For twenty three hours a day prisoners slept, lived and worked in their cells, in silence. The cells were furnished with flushing toilets and washbasins so that the inmates did not need to leave to ablute.

Figure 19

Washing facilities at Pentridge prison

Credits: State Library Victoria

  • 18 Allom Lovell and Associates, “Pentridge Conservation Management Plan. Prepared for Department of Tr (...)

49The internal architecture was designed to ensure sensory separation of the prisoners. Walls were thick enough to muffle sounds from neighbouring cells. Thick coir mats carpeted the corridors and gantries to dampen the foot falls of guards. Even the soles of the guard boots were made of felt to reduce any external sounds entering the cells. It also enabled the guards to stealthily approach the doors and observe the inmates through small spy holes. A remnant perhaps of Bentham’s idea of achieving order through unknown but anticipated observation.18

50For one hour a day at an allotted time and in shifts of twenty eight, prisoners donned a felt hat which had a face mask attached, called a ‘peak’ and marched in silence to the two panopticon airing yards. The blank face mask ensured the emotional isolation of the prisoners even when in close physical proximity to one another. Once secured in the yards they walked without stopping for the hour and then returned to their cells.

Figure 20

Face masks in the separate system

Credits: State Library Victoria

51After they had served their allotted time in the Separate System prisoners at Pentridge moved to C Division and entered the Silent System.

Figure 21

Pentridge C Division

Credits: State Library Victoria

  • 19 Lovell, “Pentridge Conservation Management Plan”.

52There they worked with their fellow inmates but were not permitted to speak. They worked for 13 hours a day in one of the many industries and were confined for the remaining hours in tiny, dark and stifling cells that lacked light, heating, windows or sanitary services. Called sleeping cells they were deemed unfit for human occupation in 1880 but continued in use, without alteration until the 1970s.19

Panopticons at Pentridge

  • 20 Miles Lewis, “Building and Construction” (Melbourne, The University of Melbourne, 2008) www.emelbou (...)

53Three panopticon exercise yards (described at the time as airing yards) were constructed at Pentridge; two at B Division and one at A Division. The B Division yards were completed in 1859 by contractors Thomas Glaister and Co.20

Figure 22

Plan of Division B yards

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

54The same contractor built A Division and its panopticon exercise yard between 1860 and 1865.

55The panopticon yards were important components in the Separate System as they ensured continued isolation of prisoners during their one hour of exercise (or airing) per day.

  • 21 Public Records Office Victoria, Historic Plan Collection (microfiche) P14, 1847, VPRS.

56The yards are also described in detail by Jebb and it is clear that Champ applied this design to the letter. A detailed architectural plan and elevation of one of the yards destined for B Division survives in the Public Records of Victoria.21 It matches Jebbs drawings and descriptions and describes a complex structure including a two-storey central tower from which radiated high stone/ brick walls separating small triangular exercise yards. While the two yards at B Division had 14 yards the panopticon at A Division had 16 yards.

Figure 23

Plan of the Pentridge airing yards

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

  • 22 Lovell, “Pentridge Conservation Management Plan”.

57They continued in use for the remainder of the 19th Century. However, by the end of the century changes to the prison regimes and the economic imperative to place two inmates in each cell meant that the Separate System was largely abandoned and the exercise yards became obsolete.22

58All three yards were demolished in the first half of the 20th Century. The western yard at B Division was gone by the 1920s, as evidenced by the historical aerial photo taken around 1922.

Figure 24

Aerial photograph of the Pentridge prison in 1922

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

59The eastern yard in B, had gone by the second world war and the airing yard to the north of A Division was still standing into the early 1950s but gone by 1955.

Figure 25

Aerial photograph of the Pentridge prison in 1955

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

60Once demolished the foundations of the yards were covered over. At A Division they were concealed with clay and soil. At B Division they were covered with a thin levelling layer of soil and then sealed with in situ poured concrete slabs.

Archaeological Investigation

61In much the same way as a shipwreck represents an archaeological deposit of a single function entity (a ship) formed in a single event (wrecking) these archaeological sites were created for a known and single purpose, used for that purpose, demolished and the locations left relatively untouched.

62Unusually, the archaeological deposits at Pentridge were remarkably devoid of artefacts. Other than the stone and brick that made up the foundations of the buildings, no objects that could be attributed to the inmates, warders or even to the structures themselves were encountered. Considering that these buildings were large structures, it was startling that there was very little (almost no) demolition material overlaying or in amongst the foundations. Essentially the sites comprised introduced, modern, derived soils overlaying historical foundations.

63So not only was the archaeological site unusual because the normal goals of discovering form, function and occupation phasing had been achieved through the historical research, but also because, while large, it presented a very simple site.


64Historical research focused on establishing the location and nature of historical fabric of the former prison. Investigation of the people associated with the prison was carried out by a separate consultant and is ongoing.

65An extensive collection of maps and plans created by the Victorian Board of Works, constituted the primary documentation used to establish the nature and location of historical structures at Pentridge.

  • 23 Historic Plan Collection (microfiche) P14.

66While hundreds of drawings and plans show architectural details (door hinges, light brackets, services), there were only eight plans that show the progressive layout of the prison and the various buildings over time. These were vital to establish the location of archaeological remains.23

67There was only one architectural drawing that shows the floor plan, cross sections and elevation of one of the panopticons (see figure 23).

68The other significant source was Jebb’s publication on modern prisons; the pattern book for Pentridge.

69In addition, aerial photos dating back to the 1920s and held at Lands Victoria, Trove and other online resources were used to identify when various structures were demolished.


70While the research provided a framework for the investigation, the means of achieving the stated aims and addressing research questions was through specific excavation method. This was devised by the archaeological director based on observations and a number of assumptions relating to the known and potential archaeological deposits and excavation challenges relating to the investigation of them and, in summary, involved the following:

71Overlying soil was excavated by machine in shallow layers (spits) of approximately 50 to 100mm monitored by an experienced archaeologist. Remaining deposits were removed by hand to expose and delineate the stone and brick foundations of the historical structures.

72The archaeological deposits were recorded in handwritten pro-forma sheets and site journals and by orthorectified photogrammetrical survey. A relatively new technology, it enables the permanent recording (and therefore conservation) of archaeological data with much greater accuracy than traditional hand drawn plans. Utilising orthorectified photogrammetry, the sites were recorded in three dimensions, with sub-centimetre accuracy, as distortion free high definition photographic images.

Archaeological deposits recorded in handwritten pro-forma sheet

Credits: DIG International

Figure 27

Archaeological deposits were recorded by orthorectified photogrammetrical survey

Credits : DIG International


73The locations of the excavations were defined by the historical plans located in the Victorian Public Records collections.

Figure 28

Historical plans in the Victorian Public Records collections

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

A Division Panopticon

74Prior to excavation the location of the historic panopticon exercise yards was disused land, partially vegetated with grass and weed species. There was no evidence of the structure visible at ground level.

75Soil, varying in depth from 250mm to 750mm was removed by machine from above ruins of the building that consisted of substantial basalt bluestone walls and wall foundations.

Figure 29

Photograph of the soil removal works

Credits: DIG International

76Remaining soil was excavated by hand to uncover the form and extent of the structure. Why the walls and foundations were not completely removed when the building was demolished is unknown but it is possible that their removal would have reduced the surface level too much and would have required significantly more fill to make good. It appears that demolition of the airing yards did not follow the natural gradient but arbitrarily levelled the land. This resulted in uneven but none the less exceptional survival of the lower elements of the structure including walls surviving to four or five courses (up 800mm) at the northern end and to the top of foundation courses at the southern end.

77A striking and unusual structure the archaeological deposits consisted of the circular foundations of the central watchtower, radiating dividing walls and an enclosing perimeter wall that defined sixteen secure, triangular shaped yards that in the past enabled prisoners to be exercised (or ‘aired’) while maintaining isolation. The structure was 25.25m in diameter and resembled a spoked cartwheel in plan.

Figure 30

Archaeological deposits of the circular foundations of the central watchtower, radiating dividing walls and an enclosing perimeter wall

Credits: DIG International

Figure 31

Aerial photograph of the archeological deposits

Credits: DIG International

78The panopticon was built at the same time as the main A Division cell block in 1860. Building plans and 1922 aerial photo shows that this airing yard differed from those at B Division by having 16 yards as opposed to 14 and that the external, perimeter wall was a sixteen-sided polygon rather than circular external walls of the panopticons at B Division. These details were borne out by the archaeological evidence.

79The circular stone foundation of the central watch tower measured approximately 3.9m in internal diameter (approximate because not exactly circular) and the foundation wall was 0.45m wide.

Figure 32

Aerial photograph of the central watchtower

Credits: DIG International

Figure 33

Photograph of the inside wall of the watchtower

Credits: DIG International

80The aerial photograph image from c1922 showed the possibly disused A Division panopticon in the left foreground.

Figure 34

Aerial photograph of the A Division panopticon in 1922

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

81The tower appears to have a second storey and roof that barely continues above the tops of the yard dividing walls, differing in design from the high lantern style upper storey of the towers at B Division shown in the drawing and also seen in the top of the 1922 aerial image.

82An historic photograph (possibly dating to 1898) taken from the doorway at A Division into the exercise courtyard clearly shows the structure as it was in the mid to late 19th Century.

Figure 35

Historic photograph of the exercise courtyard in 1898

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

83The tower has narrow slotted windows, one for each of the sixteen yards that sit just under the eves of the conical roof. These would have afforded observation of the occupants of each yard but would have made it difficult for the inmates to see the guards. In the centre of the image a faint outline of an access gate can be seen in the perimeter fence with the path in the foreground leading towards it. It is through here, from the door at the apex of the north and east wing of the cell block, that prisoners filed into the base of the tower. Above, the guards would unlock the doors to the other yards and the prisoners would file out. It must be assumed that they knew which yard they where assigned to, so it is likely that the yards (and their entry doorways) were numbered although there is no evidence of this.

84The cross section drawing of the tower shows a steep staircase that provides access to the upper level. The drawing also shows a cross webbed balustrade that suggests that the centre of the tower was open and the upper storey was a circular balcony. This would allow the guards to observe the prisoners as they passed below. While it isn’t shown in the drawing it is likely that the yard access doors were actuated by drop bolts worked by the guards from above. The cross section also shows the floor at the base of the tower as being of suspended timber boards.

85Radiating from this tower base were the foundations of 16 partition walls that formed a physical and solid barrier between the exercise yards and the prisoners within. The triangular yards measure approximately 9.4m (line from the tower along the middle of the yard) by 4.5m at the perimeter.

Figure 36

Photography of the triangular yards

Credits: DIG International

86The internal foundation walls were constructed of rough shaped basalt bluestone blocks with shaped facing stones and partial rubble fill bonded with white lime mix mortar. The walls were solid and well-made however there were slight variations in alignments so that spacing between walls at the tower varied by a few centimetres. It is unlikely that this would have affected the uniformity of the above ground structure. The narrowness of the space between the walls at the tower base would have only allowed for a narrow door, probably no wider than 500mm – 550mm.

Figure 37

Photograph of the internal foundation walls

Credits: DIG International

87Historic photographic images show the radiating walls as well as the wrought iron fence that formed the external perimeter of the structure. Here the construction of the A Division yards again is different from the architectural drawing of the fourteen-yard structures built at B Division. The drawing shows walls that are above head high and have tops that run level from the perimeter edge, where the dividing walls terminate in short protruding buttresses, inward to join the tower. At A Division, the walls run inward level to the ground until the last few meters when the upper surface rises up at an angle to join the tower between the guards observation windows. Alternate walls had small-pitched timber roofs that protruded into the yards presumably to afford meagre shelter from inclement weather. The terminal ends of the walls as mentioned ended in a buttress like feature that protruded beyond the line of the perimeter. This buttress stood taller than the upper surface of the wall and had a shaped capstone. One of the historic photographic images, apparently taken from the guards position in the tower shows prisoners in a line leaving the yards and returning to A Division.

Figure 38

Historic photograph of prisoners leaving the yard

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

88This image seems to show that the dividing walls were rendered and had chamfered moldings at the top. While the image is slightly indistinct it appears that broken glass, probably embedded in mortar covered the top of the walls. This was a common and highly effective climbing deterrent and would have stopped prisoners from getting into adjoining yards. The historic images also show a smooth and featureless yard surface. None of the yard surfaces survived either here at A Division or at the two yards excavated at B Division so it is conjecture as to what they were made of. The cross section shown in the architectural drawing of the panopticon shows the surface sloping away from the tower, which would make sense for drainage. It is possible that the surface was gravel but considering the amount of foot traffic experienced in each yard (the prisoners were generally not allowed to stop walking for the hour they were in the yards, the yards were used all day every day) it is more likely that the surface was of a more enduring material such as asphalt. This conjecture is made more likely as the external path that ran around the perimeter of the yards was made of fine grade asphalt. Use of asphalt had become more common during the first half of the 19th Century.

89The historic images also show a small plinth or step out at the base of the walls and it is concluded that this shows the upper limit of the stone foundations and that the walls were probably made of brick which, as previously mentioned, were rendered.

Neither brick nor render or indeed the walls other features were evidenced in the remaining archaeology.

90The perimeter was made up of straight walls between the buttresses forming a sixteen-sided polygon. Historic photographs show the external perimeter enclosed by a wrought iron fence. However, in the aerial photograph of c1922 it appears that the fence has been replaced with solid walls. It is not know when or why this happened and there was no archaeological evidence of this alteration.

The B Division Panopticons

91Excavations at B Division revealed the foundations and above ground remains of two panopticon exercise (airing) yards built at the same time as prison block in 1858/9. Prison building plans show that they differed from the panopticon at A Division by having 14 yards as opposed to 16 and that the external perimeter wall was circular as opposed to a sixteen-sided polygon. These details were borne out by the archaeological evidence.

Figure 39

Prison building plans

Credits: Public Records Office Victoria

92The structures were both 27.3m in diameter (approximately 2m larger than A Division) and, as with the A Division panopticon, resembled a spoked cartwheel in plan.

Figure 40

Aerial photograph of B Division first panopticon exercise (airing) yards

Credits: DIG International

Figure 41

Aerial photograph of B Division second panopticon exercise (airing) yards

Credits: DIG International

93While both sets of foundations were of similar dimensions and layout, but they differed markedly in construction. The western yard foundations were large unmortared basalt bluestone blocks, roughly shaped, with average dimensions 950mm by 600mm and 350mm deep.

Figure 42

Photograph of the western yard foundations

Credits: DIG International

94The eastern panopticon foundations, however, were made of small irregular bluestones bound by lime mortar in a rubble wall construction style.

Figure 43

Photograph of the eastern panopticon foundations

Credits: DIG International

95Both buildings were constructed at the same time and by the same builder. Why the foundations were built so differently was not immediately apparent. However, during removal of the foundations of the western yards in 2019 it was discovered that the soil underlying these foundations comprised of imported fill material. It is likely that the larger blue stone blocks were used to raft over the unstable ground.

Both yard buildings were enclosed in large courtyards formed by the wings of B Division and the perimeter walls of the prison.

96The central watchtower foundations were of similar dimensions despite the different construction and while not completely circular the average internal diameter was 4.2m.

97The c.1922 aerial photo shows the possibly disused eastern, panopticon in the background (note by this time the western yard had been demolished). In the photograph, the tower appears to have a high lantern style upper storey with narrow windows beneath a conical roof, matching the details of the architectural drawing. No photographs were found that showed the western yard but it is assumed that the superstructures of both buildings were the same even though the foundations differed.

98It is not known why the design of the watch towers differ from the tower at A Division. All three were constructed by the same builder and were completed only a year apart. It is possible that Champ wanted to test different designs. Certainly, the facades of A and B divisions differ as do some of the internal configurations.

99Radiating from each of the towers, foundations of fourteen walls were discovered. These supported free-standing walls that formed solid, physical partitions between fourteen triangular yards into which, prisoners were exercised. The yards measured approximately 9.4m long (along the central axis) and approximately 4.7m at the widest point at the perimeter. As with the A Division panopticon the partition walls continued though the perimeter wall to create short buttresses or stub walls on the outside face of the structure.

Figure 44

Photograph of the short buttresses on the outside face of the structure

Credits: DIG International

100The foundations were solid and well made (even though in the western yard they were laid without binding mortar) however, similar to A Division panopticon, there were slight variations in their alignments so that spacing between walls at the tower varied by a few centimetres. Unlike discoveries at A Division, fragments of the dividing walls survived at B Division. Remnants of brick walls survived on top of the large block foundations of the western panopticon. These were laid in classic English Bond and were two-brick thick at foundation level reducing to one-and-a-half-brick thick for the elevation.

Figure 45

Photograph of the remnants of brick walls in the western panopticon

Credits: DIG International

101No internal surfaces of either the yards or watchtowers survived. However, running down the central axis of each of the eastern yards were earthenware drain pipes apparently leading from the central watch tower through the perimeter wall to a drain running around the outside of the structure. These presumably emptying into the large cistern in the north-west corner of the courtyard. This was not seen at the other two sites. With no yard surfaces surviving, it is not know whether this drain also took surface water from the yards although it seems excessive to have 14 drains just for the tower so it is likely that these serviced the yards as well. A number of leather shoes and shoe fragments were discovered in one of the eastern yards. This was clearly a post use deposit and it is possible that during the short period after the yards went out of use and before they were demolished the buildings were a repository for waste. It is unknown whether this find originated from the prison or from elsewhere. No other artefacts were discovered within meaningful contexts or associated with either the buildings or their functions.

Discussion and Interpretation

102The former HM Prison Pentridge is of historical significance as the largest and most well-known prison complex constructed in Victoria in the nineteenth century. The construction of the first phase, the stockade in 1851, illustrates a significant development in Victoria brought about by two events; the Victorian gold rush of the same year and the separation of Victoria from New South Wales. Subsequent development of the site in 1859 reflects the changing social situation in Victoria (primarily caused by the ever-growing population and widening stratification of society due to the significant wealth of elements of the community).

103The introduction of the separate and silent regimes from Britain and the United States of America was an attempt to formalise penal systems in the colony and move the emphasis from crime and punishment to rehabilitation and salvation through penitent isolation and hard labour.

104The circular airing yards associated with the separate system are very rare structures both nationally and internationally. Well-preserved archaeological remains of three of only four excavated in the country are at Pentridge. While a small number of other examples exist, no yards have been excavated to this extent anywhere in the world.

105Together with the large documentary archive the archaeological remains of the airing yards have the potential to illustrate and inform on significant elements of Victoria’s cultural heritage such as social reform, penology, population and criminality and the capacity for Victoria to embark on large public projects early in its history. Pentridge shows a maturity of the young colony in the mid 19th Century that not only embraced global trends in penal reform but was able to successfully address considerable social challenges as the population exploded in the decades after the gold rush.

106The architectural merits and design of Pentridge is described elsewhere and is already acknowledged as being highly significant. The archaeological remains of the airing yards with their striking and highly unique layout have strong aesthetic value and illustrate purposeful design required to facilitate the separate system. The three different construction method displayed in the foundations of the yards add a surprising diversity.

107Pentridge as a prison has strong associations with ex-inmates, warders and those who work in police, probation and court services as well as the local community who lived or live around the iconic prison.

108While the excavations were large and had logistical issues, the archaeology was very simple. At Pentridge there were very few artefacts and none that could be attributed to the occupation phases of the structures. While the buildings were in use for decades they represent a single occupation and single function. The structures were built, used and then demolished. It is unusual that so much is known about the archaeological features before excavation. As previously stated almost all aspects of the building form, function (including internal spaces) and chronology were known. Once the yards were demolished their former locations remained open spaces; the panopticon site at A Division was non-designated open space and the two areas occupied by the airing yards in B Division became communal prison exercise yards.

109A question to be addressed therefore is; Why excavate the sites if there is so little to be gained beyond what is already known?

Archaeological excavation is both expensive and destructive and is generally discouraged unless the potential risk to a site requires intervention or there is a compelling research question that justifies excavation. At Pentridge, significant archaeological deposits were considered to be at risk which justified the archaeological program. Even so the approach aimed to investigate the archaeological deposits through excavation, but not remove the remains unless necessary to understand the site in the vertical plane. As it turned out, removal of in situ fabric was not necessary as variable survival of building remains allowed for the observation and recording of the complete nature of the deposits from above ground (in the case of A Division panopticon) to ground level and base foundations. While much was known about the sites prior to the archaeological investigation, a number of surprising features were observed that were not recorded in the historical documentation. Primary was the markedly different construction of the three panopticon airing yards.

110Looking at the architecture of isolation and confinement and hearing described the systems of silence and separation, it would be understandable to conclude that Pentridge was cruel by design. This was not the case. Pentridge was undoubtedly a harsh environment. There are many stories throughout its history of dehumanising brutality, unjust and extrajudicial punishment, and lethal violence. It was infamous amongst criminals, the prison service and the public.

111But the designs of prisons and governing systems developed in the early 19th Century and codified by Jebb and instituted in Australia by Champ were revolutionary steps away from punitive medieval punishment and towards a more intelligent, nuanced and enlightened approach to the management of offenders.

112Pentridge sits on a low ridge to the north of Melbourne and in the mid 19th Century the forbidding outline of the walls and turrets would have been visible for miles around. The eccentric design of the gatehouse projected much needed reassurance to a community concerned with increasing lawlessness. Its daunting nature also acted as a deterrent to those considering a life of crime. For those who passed through the great wooden gate in chains they entered a system that was designed to rehabilitate. Their names were replaced with a number but significantly their crime was also left behind so no one had knowledge of who they were and what they had done. This could be seen as dehumanising or could be seen as an opportunity to start again with a clean slate. The Separate System was supposed to provide a period of introspection and contemplation to initiate the prisoners redemptive journey. The cell blocks were designed to look like temples or neo classical churches. The term ‘cell’ comes from monastic architecture. The combination of architectural design and behavioural management was supposed to make the prisoner realise the error of their ways and launch them onto a more righteous path. The panopticons were central to this system.

113This was the theory, but in reality then as today many people who entered the prison system had pre-existing mental illness. Enforced isolation would have been detrimental to most prisoners’ mental health and exacerbated behavioural problems. Poor behaviour was managed with beatings and additional isolation. The goal of penitent redemption became unachievable. The Separate System was founded on noble principles, but was a failure in practice.

114How a society manages citizens who break its laws is a reflection of the maturity and confidence of that society. So, penal history is important. But it is not necessarily a subject that has general appeal.

115The physical remains of the panopticons at Pentridge have significant cultural value in that they are interesting and visually striking structures that can be used to tell this story in an engaging way to a broad audience.

116In addition, the exposure of the unique and unusual structural forms, enabled the Pentridge story to refocus on the human scale and human experience. This was especially important as evidence of the human element (personal artefacts) was almost completely absent from the archaeological record.

Future Management

117In the time since the completion of the excavation and the production of this paper, the archaeological remains of the western exercise yard at B Division have been removed (under permit) to facilitate the early phases of the development of the site.

The management of the archaeological deposits of the two remaining airing yards needs to be devised to ensure the conservation of a highly significant archaeological site type.

118While the removal of the archaeological remains represent a significant impact on the values at Pentridge, it is acknowledged that the loss of the western yard foundations and the possible future loss of the eastern yards at B Division will enable the future conservation and management of the airing yard at A Division and the historically important standing structures of B, A, E Division (former hospital) and G Division (main gatehouse complex) as well as the remainder of the prison perimeter wall and watch towers. The losses are further mitigated by this excavation program, the very detailed recording of the archaeology and the extensive public engagement program that was completed during the excavation phase. The future historic interpretation program to be installed at Pentridge aims to further mitigate the loss of in situ fabric.

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Primary Resources

Cemeteries Records, VPRS 4834

Coburg Historical Society, extensive historical photos (also presented in Picture Australia)

Corrections Victoria Sites Register

Department of Planning and Community Development, File 83 4871

Howard, John, The State of Prisons in England and Wales (London, 1777)

Lands Victoria Aerial Photographic Register, Laverton Office

Lands Victoria Historic ‘Put Away Plans’, Bourke Street Office

Office of Building, Microfilm PGP 1.1.6, General Plan of Pentridge Stockade

Picture Australia public access web site, various historical photos

Public Records Office of Victoria, Historic Plans Collection

Public Works Department (Building Services Agency) Plans, Public Records Office of Victoria

Register of Government Buildings, Coburg Prison Complex, Public Records office of Victoria

Summary of Contract Books, VPRS 972, VPRS 2143

The Argus, “Pentridge Stockade” (Melbourne, 25 June 1856). Source: National Library of Australia

The Penitentiary Act, 1779

Secondary Resources

Allom Lovell and Associates, “1997 Pentridge Conservation Management Plan” (Melbourne, 1997)

Barrett, Peter “Her Majesty's Collingwood Stockade: A snapshot of Gold Rush Victoria”, Journal of Public Record Office Victoria (September 2007)

Barry, John V., “John Giles Price, (1808-1857)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

Barry, John V., “Thomas Napier Champ (1808-1892)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

Bastow, Michael et al., “A History of Pentridge Penal Establishment”, History Research Essay (Melbourne, Dept of Architecture, University of Melbourne, 1965)

Broome, R., Coburg, Between Two Creeks (Coburg, Coburg Historical Society, 1987)

Bryce Raworth Pty Ltd, “Former Pentridge Prison, Conservation Management Plan” (Shayher Properties, 2016)

Cunningham, J. B., “Victorian Gaols”, History Research Essay (Melbourne, Department of Architecture and Building, University of MelbourneDepartment of Architecture, University of Melbourne, 1964)

Davie, Neil, “The Panopticon. The Glass lantern Shattered: Jeremy Bentham and the demise of the Panopticon Prison”, The Fortnightly Review (2017),

Glyn-Jones, Anne, Holding up a Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (revised 2nd ed.) (Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2000)

Golder Associates, “Draft Report on Historical Review Pentridge Piazza Coburg, Victoria” (Melbourne, 2005)

Hill, David, 1788 The Brutal Truth of The First Fleet (Melbourne, Random House Australia, 2010)

Jebb, Joshua, Modern Prisons: their Construction and Ventilation (J. Weale, London, 1844)

Judgement of Death Act 1823, The Statutes Project,

Kerr, J.R., Out of Sight Out of Mind: Australia’s Places of Confinement 1788-1988 (Sydney, S.H. Ervin Gallery, National Trust of Australia (N.S.W.), 1988)

McDougall, Alison, “Joachimi, Gustav Carl (1826-1899)”, Architects of South Australia database,

McGowen, Randall, The Well Ordered Prison. England 1780-1865, in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford, OUP, 1998)

Semple, Janet, Benthams Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993)

Serle, Geoffrey, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851–1861 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1977)

Spierenburg, Peter, “The Body and The State: Early Modern Europe, in Norval Morris and Rothman”, David J. (eds.), The Oxford History of the Prison: the Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford, OUP, 1998)

Trethowan, Bruce, “The Public Works Department 1851-1900, An Architectural History”, Research Report (Melbourne, Department of Architecture and Building, University of Melbourne, 1975)

Tsilimido, Alkios, dir., Everynight…Everynight, (Based on play by Ray Mooney), 1994 Feature Film, Siren Visual Entertainment, Dir. Alkios Tsilimido (Melbourne, 1994)

Victorian Heritage Register, H1551

Wilkes, Jonny, “In a Nutshell: Debtor's Prisons”, History Extra. BBC, 2015-02-10

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1 Peter Spierenburg, The Body and The State: Early Modern Europe”, in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (eds.) The Oxford History of the Prison: the Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford, OUP, 1998) p. 44.

2 Jonny Wilkes, In a Nutshell: Debtor's Prisons”, History Extra. BBC, 2015-02-10.

3 Anne Glyn-Jones, Holding up a Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (revised 2nd ed.), (Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2000).

4 Judgement of Death Act 1823, The Statutes Project,

5 David Hill, 1788 The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet (Melbourne, Random House Australia, 2010).

6 Janet Semple, Benthams Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993), chaps. 5-10.

7 Neil Davie, “The Panopticon. The Glass lantern Shattered: Jeremy Bentham and the demise of the Panopticon Prison”, The Fortnightly Review (2017),

8 Randall McGowen, “The Well Ordered Prison. England 1780-1865”, in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford, OUP, 1998).

9 Joshua Jebb, Modern Prisons: their Construction and Ventilation (J. Weale, London, 1844).

10 Bryce Raworth Pty Ltd, “Former Pentridge Prison, Conservation Management Plan” (Shayher Properties, 2016).

11 The Argus, “Pentridge Stockade” (Melbourne, 25 June 1856). Source: National Library of Australia.

12 Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851–1861 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1977).

13 Peter Barrett, “Her Majesty's Collingwood Stockade: A snapshot of Gold Rush Victoria”, Journal of Public Record Office Victoria (September 2007).

14 John V. Barry, “John Giles Price, (1808-1857)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

15 Barry, “John Giles Price”.

16 John V. Barry, “Thomas Napier Champ (1808-1892)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

17 Alison McDougall, “Joachimi, Gustav Carl (1826-1899)”, Architects of South Australia database,

18 Allom Lovell and Associates, “Pentridge Conservation Management Plan. Prepared for Department of Treasury and Moreland City Council”, 1996.

19 Lovell, “Pentridge Conservation Management Plan”.

20 Miles Lewis, “Building and Construction” (Melbourne, The University of Melbourne, 2008)

21 Public Records Office Victoria, Historic Plan Collection (microfiche) P14, 1847, VPRS.

22 Lovell, “Pentridge Conservation Management Plan”.

23 Historic Plan Collection (microfiche) P14.

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Adam Ford FSA, « All Seeing Archaeology: The Panopticons of Pentridge Prison »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2021, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Adam Ford FSA

Director, DIG International. With an archaeological career spanning nearly 30 years Adam has led and participated in expeditions to the Caribbean, British Isles, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Australia. He has extensive experience in international prehistoric and historic archaeological research and management, Aboriginal and non-indigenous historical archaeology and cultural heritage management. Adam was senior archaeological advisor to the UK Ministry of Defence and has held advisory positions for government bodies in Australia including the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority and Department of Public Works and Services and was the City Archaeologist for the City of Sydney. As director of archaeological consultancy, DIG International Adam has led excavations throughout Australia including the Victorian Goldfields, Melbourne, New South Wales and Western Australia. In acknowledgement of his work Adam was recently honoured by being elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

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