My month of writing in gaol

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Michael Shelford

Photo of a hallway with stone ornate walls and lighting coming from an opening in the roof
Old Melbourne Gaol

In 1892 “criminal of the century” Frederick Deeming arrived at the gates of Old Melbourne Gaol. His steamship journey from Western Australia to prison had been followed closely by the media and was met at various points by flotillas of boats and sensation-hungry crowds. Once he had been settled into his cell, the serial killer commenced writing an autobiography stating that it would “contain revelations which would shock the world”.

My arrival at Old Melbourne Gaol received a lot less public interest, (I think an elderly person may have gawked at me through a bus window), and my stay was also somewhat less traumatic – mostly on account of not facing the prospect of termination at the end of a rope. I did have a feeling of impending doom however, as I was led through the front door and up the stairs to what would be my daytime home for the next four weeks.

The bluestone floor seemed to have a gravity that dragged at the very muscles in my legs, a heaviness that stayed with me during the entire period of my voluntary incarceration. Unlike Deeming, I was not a condemned man. I’d come of my own free will. I didn’t have wardens who watched my every move but museum staff were more than happy to share their knowledge. They even took me on impromptu, personalised tours of the gaol.

I had just spent a couple of years researching old Melbourne crime, (1900–1920), and had leafed through wads of court files and hundreds of dusty old boxes of police correspondence. Other historical writers would understand the compulsion to over-research a subject. There are countless interesting diversions one can take along the way and the line has to be drawn somewhere. The duty I set myself within Old Melbourne Gaol was to actually begin writing the book and also to get an idea of what life was like for the characters I’m writing about.

My cell was on the third level and a lot more spacious than those below. Historically, the purpose of the larger top level cells had been to house the convicts imprisoned for what were considered lesser crimes. Though still quite small, they had contained up to six persons and, for this reason, were often used to test an inmate’s readiness to interact with the outside world before their release. I had the luxury of a carpeted floor, desk and an ergonomic chair. I also quite liked being able to leave my cell to make use of the public amenities located adjacent to the gallows. I preferred this to having a bucket replaced once per day. More importantly I didn’t have to wear a hood or go out and break stones in the midday sun.

Aside from the 100 odd pages I came away with at the end of my four-week residency, I think the most amazing thing that I took from my experience writing in Old Melbourne Gaol was the intense memories of the space as a whole. Ten months later they are still as vivid as the day I left. Even though I couldn’t wait to get out of there at 4.30 every afternoon, I felt very sad when I was walking away for the last time. Strangely, now when I travel past Old Melbourne Gaol I still feel like it’s my place – I feel like I should be able to just walk in whenever I want.

The jury listened well
To the story I’d to tell
And they send me off to hell

(Frederick Arthur Deeming, Old Melbourne Gaol, 1892)

About Michael Shelford

Michael Shelford is a Melbourne based writer, musician and historian. He is a freelance contributor to various publications including The Guardian newspaper. He plays guitar in the punk band ThundaBox. He is currently writing a non-fiction book about Melbourne’s criminal underground, covering the years 1900-1920.

This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer magazine.

You can find more information about the Cells for Writers studios at Old Melbourne Gaol on this website.