Pentridge Prison’s Panopticon

Recent archaeological digs at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne have uncovered three airing yards built in the design of a panopticon. Based on original concepts by Jeremy Bentham, the airing yard design allowed a single guard in the middle tower to keep an eye on each prisoner while they had fresh air for one hour a day.

On the top of a hill in Coburg, near Melbourne, there is a large bluestone building which, at a glance, looks like it could be a medieval castle. The outer walls reach high into the sky and there are turrets on the corners. Yet these walls are not trying to keep the enemy out, but the prisoners in.

This is Pentridge Prison, nicknamed ‘the bluestone college’. It was built in 1858 when the city was still young. Melbourne had seen rapid growth as people surged landwards towards the goldfields, and experienced all the social problems that go along with it. Old Melbourne Gaol and the prison hulks anchored off Williamstown were no longer coping with the prison population, and Pentridge Prison was built a suitable distance away at the time, but visually impressive to act as a deterrent.

The prison blocks of A Division and B Division operated along the guidelines of the separate system – a prisoner was kept in isolation in a small cell for twenty-three hours a day, during which they could contemplate their crimes and read the bible. Besides a weekly shower and shave, the only reprieve from the cell confinement was one hour a day in the airing yards.

There were three airing yards at Pentridge Prison, built in the form of the panopticon designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The structure is in the shape of a wagon wheel, with a guard tower in the centre who can monitor eight prisoners, each in their separate segment.

The panopticon was based on the idea that each prisoner was unsure whether they were being watched and would therefore always behave as if they were. Bentham saw potential in the design being used in hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he primarily developed it for use in prisons.

At Pentridge Prison, panopticons were effective in enforcing the separate system. A prisoner was covered in a mask and cowl (called a ‘peak’) and led out to the airing yard. Here, they were allowed to walk for an hour, open to the elements, before being led back to the cells. This gave them the benefit of fresh air and exercise, but kept them confined and isolated. Prisoners spent a month for every year of their sentence in this fashion, the idea being to break their spirits quickly.

The airing yards fell out of use over time, primarily due to prison overcrowding. The last time they were in use was the early 1900s. They were eventually demolished as the prison was modernised, and Pentridge Prison was eventually closed in 1997.

Adam Ford
Project DirectorPentridge Archaeological Excavation
Twitter: @AdamFord69

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The Hoddle Grid

In 1837 a surveyor named Robert Hoddle was sent from Sydney to the mouth of the Yarra, charged with the duties of laying out what would become the city of Melbourne. The design was a grid layout running parallel to the river, and has become known as Hoddle’s Grid.

When Robert Hoddle came to the shores of the Yarra River in 1837 there was little to greet him besides an illegal settlement of colonists who had come over from Launceston. He led a team that would map out the foundation for a new city, following the regulations laid out in 1829 under the previous governor, Ralph Darling.

The regulations had a lot to do with how the Melbourne grid was laid out, although Hoddle aligned it to be parallel to the river, rather than north-south east-west. It was the convenient thing to do.

The city was almost named Batmania as suggested by its original founder and local explorer, John Batman. However, it eventually took the name of then British Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and the resulting layout has become known as the Hoddle Grid. It is a name and design that has persisted to this day.

Hoddle followed the regulations of the time closely. All surveys would be exactly 10 chain square blocks, a chain being around 20 metres in length. This land was subdivided into 20 half-acre allotments, with streets being one and a half chains in width. The only alteration to the design was put in by Governor Bourke, who added the narrow laneways of Melbourne such as Flinders Lane and Little Collins St.

After Governor Bourke had left and Hoddle remained surveying, he gradually changed the survey practice to get rid of those lanes. So in East Melbourne the lanes were widened out to become streets.

As Melbourne grew through times of gold rush, war and federation, the city changed. The orientation of the city, originally conforming to Hoddle’s grid to follow the alignment of the river, grew outwards in a standard ‘north-south orientation’. This resulted in a kink in the city design, with dog-leg curves towards the ends of Elizabeth St and Swanston St.

Extra north-south laneways were added to facilitate sewerage and waste disposal. Skyscrapers replaced residential cottages, and the city sprawled outwards. Trams now clank down the streets where there were once only horses.

Hoddle was eventually given the task of auctioning off parcels of land on the grid he designed. With his commission he brought two blocks himself, at the cost of £54. He used one of these plots to build his retirement house at the corner of Bourke and Spencer streets, where he lived out his days in the grid that now bears his name.

Professor Miles Lewis
Architectural historian
Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning
University of Melbourne


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