Tucked down a short alley from Dubbo’s main shopping district, the Old Dubbo Gaol — closed since 1966 — has been restored and maintained as a tourist attraction. With animatronic mannequins, motion-activated audio and many informative signs on exhibits, our time visiting the gaol was fun and informative.
While the jail was still functional, this entrance was closed off and an alternative built because Dubbo's townspeople didn't like the proximity of the jail to their businesses.
The entrance is paved with blocks of wood, not stone. While an abundance of Australian hardwood made this a practical solution, the timber also dulled the sound of horses' hooves and meant new prisoners could be brought into the jail without so much fanfare.
We actually planned our visit to the jail for the weekend to coincide with one of the shows that acts out prison life in the early 1900s, but the show was cancelled for unknown reasons — the staff were pretty relaxed and perhaps could just not have been bothered. This was the only disappointment in the experience, as we all wanted to see the theatrical performance! (Lesson: if you definitely want to see a show, call ahead of time to make sure one is happening.)
There are telltale points built into the walls throughout the premises. Every hour, a watchman had to insert his key and wind the spring. If he failed to do so, an alarm would sound, alerting other prison staff to the fact that the watchman wasn't patrolling properly due to falling asleep or being hindered in his duties.
For much of the time that we are exploring the site, we are the only visitors, and so the girls are free to run down the hallways and discover new exhibits for themselves.
Several cells hold talking mannequins who explain about life in prison. A bed in a cell like this is a wooden plank with a reed mat on top of it.
The flogging table is on display, along with a large painting that depicts how it was used. As my girls see this, they ask "Why?"
During its history, several prisoners attempted to escape, and plaques on the walls tell the story of each account.
All the drain-pipes are recessed into the bricks, but this was a modification done only after a female prisoner used an external pipe to shimmy up the wall.
In a separate building, only two cells are designated for women. We read that many of the prisoners were charged with infanticide. Early Australian-European society made it very, very difficult to be an unwed mother, and some women could not handle the pressure.
It's about halfway through our self-guided tour that the girls realise the bars are no boundary to them!
Two small exercise yards provide prisoners with a bit of relief from their cells.
Another, enclosed, exercise yard is marked with scratchings made by the prisoners.
Some of the names have dates beside them, too, but most scratchings are illegible.
This replica is constructed from pieces of the original gallows that was used to hang eight men between 1877 and 1904. Capital punishment was abolished in Australia in 1984, and the last person hanged in NSW was John Trevor Kelly in 1939.
My budding actor Brioni is keen to sample some punishment in the stocks.
The proximity of this shotgun in the hands of a mannequin got the girls pretty excited. Australia doesn't have a prominent gun culture, and so I don't think the girls have been around any firearms before.
I find it sobering to see these restraints on display. I associate them with slavery, rather than prisoners, and so they hold a negative personal connotation for me.
Some support rooms are also set up as historical displays, like this well-stocked kitchen.
Lana examines the toilet in the remand yard. Debtors would be held separately to the main prisoners until they had paid off their debts.
Brioni lifts Calista to ring the jail's bell. It was used to mark out the enforcement schedule and reminds me a lot of the bell outside my boarding school's dining hall!
When accompanying the girls around the jail, I was struck by their compassion to the historical prisoners. As they’re now growing up with a daddy who’s incarcerated, they can relate personally to the stories of those who were locked up or executed. When reading one sign that described how a nineteen-year-old was hanged, Aisha exclaimed, “But he’s just a kid!”
Since compassion is contagious, I know that our girls are well-placed to be world-changers. By practicing kindness to all people, thinking the best of others and offering unconditional love, we exercise our compassion-thought-processes until they take over from the self-centred ones.
I didn’t know if visiting a historical jail would be a good experience for everyone — especially given our personal encounters with modern correctional facilities, but it was. We loved the motion-activated mannequins, the historical tidbits written out in plain English and the relaxed staff.
All of us agreed that the jail experience was pretty interesting. If you’re in Dubbo for the zoo or other reasons, it’s probably worth a trip to the historical jail as well. For other home-educating families who will be visiting Old Dubbo Gaol in the future, an education kit will soon be available to download.