Of the myriad of Australian prisons, few have as fearsome a reputation as Victoria’s H. M. Prison Pentridge.
First opened in 1851, Pentridge was envisioned as a state of the art prison where the worst of the worst would be sent to learn the errors of their ways. Unfortunately, Pentridge went from being an easily escapable stockade to a home of cruel and overly harsh punishment. Here many bushrangers did time for their transgressions and this list gives the accounts of several of the more notable cases.
1. Ned Kelly
By the time Ned Kelly had graced the bluestone walls of Pentridge Prison, he was already something of a minor celebrity in the criminal world. In May 1870 Kelly had made headlines for allegedly being Harry Power’s bushranging apprentice. The charges against Kelly were dropped, as was a charge of assault that came up soon thereafter against a Chinese man named Ah Fook. His first prison stint was in Beechworth for three months for assaulting a hawker named McCormack and sending his wife an obscene letter. Ned’s reputation as a young man to be wary of was cemented and shortly after his release he was spotted by Senior Constable Hall in Greta, riding a chestnut mare that had been missing from the Benalla postmaster’s residence. Hall pulled Ned aside and told him he had papers to sign from Beechworth Gaol and as the teen was dismounting, Hall grabbed him. A prolonged scuffle broke out, during which Ned managed to straddle Hall and dig his spurs into the portly policeman’s thighs. They fell and knocked over several lengths of a brush fence and Hall ordered some workmen to restrain Kelly. As Ned’s limbs were secured, Hall bashed him over the head repeatedly with the butt of his revolver until the sixteen year-old’s head was split open and bleeding freely. Once unconscious from the head trauma, Ned was dragged across the road to the lock-up, leaving a trail of blood in the dust. The attending doctor gave Kelly twelve stitches and complained about Hall’s seeming compulsion to crack open the head of an Irishman like a macadamia. Ned Kelly was charged with horse theft, but as his court case went on this was changed to feloniously receiving a stolen horse. Apparently, Wild Wright had borrowed the horse without permission and gotten her lost. He had subsequently loaned a horse from Ned so that he could ride home (he was a friend of Ned’s brother-in-law Alex Gunn). The agreement was that if Ned found her they would do a swap. This is what Ned was in the process of doing when he was bailed up by Hall. Ned was found guilty and received three years hard labour. For taking the horse, Wright was given 18 months.
The start of Ned’s sentence was in Beechworth Gaol, but after several months he was transferred to Pentridge, then on to Point Gellibrand as his ability as a labourer was considered useful for the work occuring at Williamstown. Prisoners from the prison hulks at time were generally employed building sea walls and repairing military structures. So, having spent several months becoming acclimatised to Pentridge, Ned was transferred to the hulk Sacramento. Ned was, by most accounts, a model prisoner. His record only shows one blemish: two days in solitary confinement for giving his tobacco ration to another inmate on Sacramento. Rather than simply smashing rocks, Ned’s time in Pentridge and Sacramento taught him trade skills, namely bricklaying, which he would use for a period once he was released in 1874. No doubt the time in gaol was gruelling, and being completely cut off from everyone he knew and loved for almost three years would have been a huge thing for a teenage boy to endure. Oral tradition recounts that Ned would often state, upon his release, that if he ever went back to gaol they’d have to hang him.
2. Andrew George Scott
The troublesome preacher and convicted bank robber, Andrew Scott, became something of a celebrity in Pentridge. The press took much delight in using his supposed alias, “Captain Moonlite”, when recounting his supposed misdeeds. There remains some doubt as to whether Scott truly did committ the daring robbery that sent him to gaol, despite many of the details proving compelling such as the motive (Scott was broke due to the church withholding his wages), Scott’s relationship to the men previously accused of the crime and Scott’s subsequent escape from Ballarat Gaol while on remand. Regardless, Scott was given seven years to think about his next move. Sent to Pentridge by Sir Redmond Barry, Scott would prove to be nothing short of a nuisance. His prison record demonstrates a series of infringements, which indicate that Scott had become something of a go-to guy in Pentridge for contraband. Whatever you wanted, Scott seemed able to get for you whether it’s newspapers or even new trousers. If you were able to make a deal then he would hook you up.
Scott became something of a nuisance to the prison authorities and any opportunity they could take to punish him was too good to miss. On one occassion Scott was found with a length of lead pipe that he claimed he found by the perimeter wall. The warders asserted that he intended to use the pipe to make a gun. During the subsequent hearing Scott, a qualified engineer, explained in painstaking detail exactly why the proposition was ludicrous. He maintained that basic physics dictated that the pipe was totally unsuited to a firearm because of the pressure build up caused by the act of firing a projectile in such a narrow tube. The authorities were unswayed and sent him to solitary confinement. This only put more fire in Scott’s belly.
When Scott learned of a fellow inmate, Weachurch, attempting to murder a warder while in solitary confinement, he took it upon himself to act as a witness in the trial and use the opportunity to make public what he claimed was a massive cover up of institutionalised brutality. The cries fell on deaf ears however and Weachurch was eventually hanged for the crime.
While in Pentridge Scott befriended a juvenile delinquent from Richmond named James Nesbitt, who would become his closest confidante and, by some accounts, his lover. On one occasion Nesbitt was even punished for smuggling tea to Scott. When Nesbitt was released, Scott still had a significant portion of his sentence left. The friendship was enough to motivate Scott to pull his head in for the remainder of his sentence so that he was able to join Nesbitt outside the prison, which he promptly did when he gained his liberty.
3. Harry Power
Harry Power was to become one of Pentridge Prison’s most well-known inmates. His first stint in the prison came in 1863 when he was imprisoned for stock theft. Having done time on the prison hulk Success, he found himself back on dry land in Pentridge. By now Power had begun to develop the health problems that would plague him ever after, most notably a bowel stricture. The stricture made hard labour difficult and thus he was put on light duties. The prisoners were tasked with clearing the scrub by the Merri Creek end of the compound in preparation for the bluestone boundary wall to be built. Power’s job was to man the handcart that took the green waste to the mullock heap, but Power had a plan. He had begun piling the waste over a depression in the ground and when tools were downed and muster was called, he hid in the depression and covered himself with branches. When the coast was clear he climbed out and left via the gap in the incomplete perimeter wall. Crossing the creek, Power managed to make good his escape by allegedly hiding in a crowded pub.
The next few months saw Power increase his reputation as one of Australia’s most indomitable highwaymen. Covering vast territory and committing a number of robberies comparable to legendary bushrangers such as Gilbert, Hall and Morgan, Power managed to attract a reward of £500. He briefly operated with a teenage sidekick (Ned Kelly, as mentioned earlier) but was not fond of the arrangement, reportedly abusing the boy frequently when in camp, prompting his exit.
The reward money proved too tempting and he was sold out by one of his harbourers, Jack Lloyd, who helped police to locate Power’s hideout. After a dramatic capture by police, Power was tried in Beechworth and soon found himself back in Pentridge to serve fifteen years.
This time, Power’s health had deteriorated rapidly and he was frequently in the prison hospital. On one occasion he had the cheek to try and escape by cutting through the hospital floor with the intent of tunnelling out. Unfortunately for him he was caught in the act. As his ability to engineer escapes diminished he became belligerent and was frequently punished for minor offences, which were usually related to smoking his pipe or starting fights with other inmates. During one of his many stints in the hospital he was interviewed by an undercover journalist who called himself The Vagabond. The account was colourful and portrayed Power as something of a vainglorious raconteur. Power would begin to settle somewhat in the later years of his sentence, eventually getting out in the mid 1880s.
4. Frank Gardiner
Frank Gardiner, the alias of Francis Christie, spent his first prison sentence for stock theft in Pentridge. On 10 June 1850 he and John Newton attempted to shift 21 head of stolen cattle from Salisbury Plains, South Australia, to sell them in Portland (at that point Victoria was still part of New South Wales). They were nabbed near the Fitzroy River a couple of days after setting out, then taken to Geelong to await trial. The pair were tried in Geelong at the Circuit Court before the Resident Judge William A’Beckett, and upon being found guilty on 22 October 1850, were given five years hard labour on the roads. Gardiner remained in Geelong Gaol until he was transferred to Pentridge stockade on 4 February 1851.
At the time Pentridge was little more than portable wooden cells and brush fencing. The inmates were the ones tasked with preparing the grounds and building the fortifications, but during these early days escape was frequent due to the lack of barriers and poor security, and the rate of recapture was laughable.
On the afternoon of 26 March 1851, a group of seven convicts broke out of Pentridge, one of whom was Gardiner, at that time still being referred to as Francis Christie. Gardiner managed to make good his escape and headed for the McIvor goldfields where he fell in with a gang of bushrangers who planned to rob a gold escort.
In 1853 the notorious heist was executed and the gang made off with almost 3000oz of gold and £700 cash. Within days the police had tracked down Gardiner, then still using his real name, and arrested him in the middle of having sex in his tent. He was assumed to be the mastermind and somehow evaded imprisonment, likely by ratting out his accomplices, and quickly made his way to New South Wales where he continued his criminal career.
Ten years after his stint in Pentridge he would cement his place in bushranging history as the mastermind of the Eugowra Rocks heist.
5. James Nesbitt
Nesbitt was not a master criminal by any stretch. He was raised in Richmond (at that time a massive slum) with an extremely abusive father, who was in and out of gaol for his violent behaviour, and few prospects to better his lot. Using his mother’s maiden name, Lyons, he fell in with a larrikin “push” that tailed a man who was flashing cash around from having struck it rich on the goldfields. They cornered him and beat him unconscious before liberating him of his cash. Nesbitt did not engage in the bashing, but rather acted as a lookout. The boys were arrested soon after and tried. Nesbitt was given five years.
His sentence began in Melbourne Gaol on 15 July 1875. He had previously done a stint of three months in Melbourne Gaol in 1873 for larceny. Only a few days later he was transferred to Pentridge, where he was obviously a troublesome convict. The infractions marked on his record include idleness, talking to a prisoner, claiming paper improperly and having trousers improperly, quarrelling and leaving his seat at divine service. This was all prior to his transfer in mid-April 1878 to Williamstown, where he was stationed in the barracks in order to work on improvements to the garrison. Here he was housed in the old military barracks at Fort Gellibrand and it is around this time that he befriended a teenager named William Johnson. Nesbitt seems to have mostly behaved himself at Fort Gellibrand, only getting in trouble for using improper language the day before his transfer back to Pentridge.
Upon his return to Pentridge, it seems, that Nesbitt befriended Andrew George Scott. Nesbitt now seemed to have settled down somewhat and the only remaining infractions on his record are two counts of him sneaking tea to Scott in the last two months of his sentence. On 17 September 1878 Nesbitt gained his freedom by remission and kept his nose clean on the outside until March the following year when he reunited with Andrew George Scott, who was fresh out of Pentridge himself.
Nesbitt and Scott tried desperately to find employment but their criminal history proved to be too much of an obstacle. Scott also had theatrical ambitions and roped Nesbitt into accompanying him on a tour of the colony to preach prison reform to the masses. The police caught wind of this and tried everything they could to silence Scott. Scott and Nesbitt then found themselves the target of false accusations by the police, who were desperate to pin something on them. One such case was when Scott and Nesbitt, with their pal Frank Johns, were seen in Williamstown and allegedly tried to help Nesbitt’s old prison mate William Johnson escape from the barracks at Fort Gellibrand. They were accused of forcing open a window to pass Johnson revolvers, but there was no evidence and the case was dropped.
This persecution was inevitably what led to Nesbitt joining Scott in his bushranging expedition into New South Wales, which resulted in his violent death by police at McGlede’s farm in Wantabadgery.
6. Owen Suffolk
Owen Suffolk led a very eventful life, like something out of a Dickens novel. Prior to coming to Australia, the Englishman had been a student at a boarding school, worked as a cabin boy, fallen into vagrancy, and become a conman. He was convicted for forgery in 1846, and the following June departed for Australia on the ship Joseph Soames. He arrived in Port Phillip on 24 September and was received at Geelong. He was one of the privileged prisoners who, upon arrival in the colonies, was allowed to roam freely under surveillance rather than be imprisoned or assigned. This would prove to be a terrible decision on the part of the authorities.
On 19 December 1848 Suffolk was given a sentence of five years on the road for horse stealing, the first three to be served in irons. Prior to this conviction he had been brought up on a different horse stealing charge but was acquitted due to inconsistencies regarding the ownership of the stolen horse in the paperwork. Knowing he had other warrants out against him, Suffolk attempted to bolt before the authorities could nab him. He was chased on foot by three police for only about thirty yards before he was re-arrested and charged with stealing a horse worth £10 from a man named Thomas Seal, on which charge he was found guilty. He was sent to Cockatoo Island where he was received in March 1849.
Suffolk was infrequently in trouble during his time on Cockatoo Island, receiving additional punishments for having letters and fighting in the square. He was granted a ticket of leave on 2 March 1851, but promptly absconded and took to the bush.
Suffolk was sent to Pentridge in 1851 for ten years for robbing the mail coach at Portland, the first three to be done in irons. The sentence was served at Pentridge as well as the prison hulk President at Port Gellibrand, the most notorious at the time for the cruelty inflicted upon prisoners there at the time.
During his time in Pentridge, Suffolk was able to gain the trust of prison authorities and was given a bookmaking job. However, Suffolk used the position to secretly alter documents and shorten the sentences of his mates. It seems his forgeries were so well executed that he was kept in this role long-term, and on 28 March 1853 the prison authorities received a letter from the sheriff notifying them that his sentence had been commuted to five years.
Suffolk was referred to as “The Poet” because, despite his criminal leanings, he was an accomplished writer of poetry and even managed to write a popular autobiography during his stint in Pentridge, which was later released as Days of Crime and Years of Suffering. Many of his works actually pertain to his time in Pentridge and offer a unique insight into the experience of the inmates.
On 10 September 1853 Suffolk received his ticket of leave and was discharged. He would not enjoy his liberty for long as his tampering with the books was discovered in his absence and on 28 February 1854 his ticket of leave was revoked and he was sent back to President.
For this he was sent to the hulks at Williamstown, doing time on President where the worst offenders were sent to be broken. A little over a year later his poor health saw him transferred to Success and Sacramento.
When he eventually gained his ticket of leave just before Christmas in 1857, he was permitted to find employment in Ballarat but he was unable to, turning to crime yet again. It seems that his convict background had proven to be the biggest hurdle to his walking the straight and narrow and crime was the only way he could think of to survive. However, Suffolk was no ordinary crim. In 1858 he faced court of charges of theft where it was revealed he had taken a horse and tack in one instance, and £2 in another, by pretending to be an undercover detective.
In the 1866 Suffolk gained his liberty after his brother back in England had gotten him a pardon from the colonial governor. He almost immediately became involved in a forgery racket but skipped town before the headquarters was raided by police. Suffolk made his way to England where he pretended to be a wealthy squatter and journalist in order to gain the confidence of the wealthy English he mixed with. Through this he conned a wealthy widow named Mary Elizabeth Phelps into marrying him to gain access to her fortune. He then faked his death by drowning and ran away to America with his newfound fortune with his teenage niece, with whom he claimed to be married, where they lived the high life in New York. In 1868 his autobiography was serialised in the press, which coincided with his return to Australia. Following he was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for theft and bigamy. By September 1880 he was out of prison and back in England where he married Eliza Shreves. It seems that after this Suffolk, now in his fifties, managed to settle down as he fades out of the pages of history thereafter.
By Owen Suffolk
‘Twas a calm summer ere when a mother led forth
Her fair child to gaze at the beauties of earth;
She bade him look up too the bright stars on high.
Tiny islets of light in an ocean of sky;
Then she pointed him down were the silver moon threw
Her beams on the flowers beshangled with dew:
And the boy as he gazed with a heart undefiled;
Seemed an angel of love in the form of a child.
Then the boy turned and said with a voice sweet and soft,
Like the lay of a lark carolled out from aloft,
“How pure and how good must that wise Being be
Who created such beautiful wonders for me;
Oh, teach me to love and commune with in prayer
The maker of all things so holy and fair.”
And the fond mother wept with emotion of joy
As she clasped to her bosom her God-loving boy.
Years passed; and the boy had grown up to a man
When I saw him with visage so woe-gone and wan.
No longer he worshipped at purity’s shrine,
For his soul was enslaved by the demon of crime.
An alien to love and an exile from home
He lay shackled with chains in a dungeon of stone:
Whilst those phantons of evil – remorse and despair –
In terrible form ever haunted him there.
“Oh man,” groaned the captive with voice harsh and wild,
As he rattled his fetters and savagely smiled,
“How relentless in feeling, how ruthless in wrath,
Art thou to the wretched and guilty of earth;
On the fallen one wreak all thy vengeance; and though
He may crouch to the storm, or be crushed by its blow,
Yet thy chains and thy cruelties teach him to be
A fiend in his nature, and a terror to thee!
I saw him once more in a forest of flowers,
Where Nature smiled forth from her leaf-shaded bowers,
And the Spirit of Beauty that reigned o’er the scene
Poured a soul-soothing song from her wild haunts of green.
There his stern heart, o’ercome by the influence sweet
Of the music and calm of that sylvan retreat,
Expanded with love and a prayer rose above
To the God of all Nature – all Beauty and Love!
Oh! ’tis sad that the good may be soon clothed with shame
By the vices of earth which enchant and enchain;
But ’tis sweet to reflect that the worthless and vile
May be won back to virtue by Purity’s smile;
Be exalted in heart by a God-given zest
For all that in Nature is noblest and best;
Whilst the pitiless stroke of severity’s storm
May conquer and crush, but can never reform!