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Portable Justice: the old Bacchus Marsh police lock-up

By ADMIN Posted Under Inside Museum Collections

Guest post by Mark Brandi.

Bacchus Marsh lock-up - interior graffiti. Photograph by Mark Brandi.

“No more jail for me. Last lag. 29-11-88”

Scratched into the timber wall of the old Bacchus Marsh police lock–up, these crudely formed words might be a prisoner’s repentance before finally going straight. Or perhaps their regret was short-lived, soon returning to a life of crime.

We will never know if they remained faithful to their promise, but the pledge gives life to the bitter solitude of this place, and others like it.

Prior to the widespread construction of police lock-ups, suspected criminals were subject to primitive forms of detention. In some towns, alleged culprits were tied to trees while awaiting trial, and were often subject to threats of lynching.

Old Lock-up at Seymour. Reproduced with permission from the collection of Victoria Police.

Early lock-ups were typically makeshift structures of logs and bark, and were – not surprisingly – very insecure. But as the goldfields expanded across Victoria, the rapidly growing population and increase in arrests led police and local residents to lobby the government for better infrastructure.

From the late 1850s, police lock-ups were established in many small towns – like Bacchus Marsh – to hold a prisoner prior to a court hearing, or as a form of overnight punishment. Lock-ups also offered useful (if uncomfortable) surge capacity when the local jail was full.

While permanent lock-ups were being built, the Public Works Department provided portable structures as an interim measure. These cells were based on an English design and built by the maintenance and construction section of Victoria Police. This area was staffed with skilled tradesmen who were tasked with construction and repairs of police infrastructure.

Restored Bacchus Marsh portable lock-up. Photograph by Mark Brandi.

Portable cells were then used around Victoria from the mid-nineteenth century, and demand often outstripped supply. The design stipulated thick wooden timbers to be mounted on a cast iron frame, then bound together with holding rods - an early form of flat-pack construction, being easily transportable, and relatively quick to assemble (see image below, detailing specifications for a portable lock-up at Melton).

Specification for portable lock-up at Melton. Reproduced with permission from the collection of Victoria Police.

The original sandstone lock-up, at the rear of the Bacchus Marsh Police Station, was built in 1857. The portable timber lock-up was brought to the township in 1977, after the sandstone lock-up was decommissioned.

Standing inside the timber lock-up today, one can easily imagine the despondency of those held there, even if only for a short time. The interior measures roughly 2.6 metres high and 2.7 metres across. There was no heating, bedding or lighting, and prisoners were provided only with a blanket. There are no windows, and although two ventilation grilles in the front and rear wall provide a sliver of natural light, there is little respite from the oppressive sense of containment. A number of small holes drilled into the ceiling are (apparently) intended to provide ventilation.

Bacchus Marsh Lock-up, interior view. Photograph by Mark Brandi.

The lock-up was classified Category C and was used for short-term imprisonment of less than twenty-four hours. Its usual function was for holding drunks overnight, detaining alleged offenders while awaiting interview, or those found guilty in the local court and waiting transport to jail.

It’s not surprising to learn the cell is based on a design from the Victorian era, where such models of isolation and sensory deprivation were intended to force prisoners to reflect upon their actions. History has taught us that such forms of punishment were often futile and, more frequently, counterproductive.

The Bacchus Marsh lock-up is one of a number of portable cells Victoria Police had retained as ‘spares’, and prior to its use in Bacchus Marsh, it had been temporarily sited at a coastal location. It arrived in Bacchus Marsh unassembled and was to be rebuilt on-site, to the west of the decommissioned sandstone cells at the rear of the police station.

Bacchus Marsh Lock-up, exterior view with open door. Photograph by Mark Brandi.

As seen in the photos, the structure primarily consists of four cast-iron corner pieces, a doorframe, and a steel floor. Once this skeleton was erected, the thick wooden weatherboards were slotted into place, with each board pre-marked by a roman numeral denoting its position.

However, as with modern-day flat-pack constructions, what seems straightforward on paper is sometimes more difficult in practice. A senior constable, who was present at the time of construction, recalled that local carpenters had major difficulties building the cell, especially as some of the holding rods had been bent.

The location of the cell was similarly problematic. It was first placed at the end of the driveway, where it was more easily supervised, but this also meant it was visible from the street. Friends of prisoners often walked down the driveway to chat to the accused from outside the cell, or sometimes yelled out greetings from the roadside. Unsurprisingly, the local sergeant – whose residence was on the grounds of the police station – found this behaviour less than acceptable.

As a consequence, the cell was moved in 1989 to a position behind the police station and away from easy public access. Here the cell remained in use until 1993, when it was finally deemed unsuitable for holding prisoners due to ‘humanitarian’ and occupational health and safety concerns. Since then, presumably to their relief, prisoners have been held at the Melton Police Station.

In 1996, the cell was officially decommissioned. It was then mostly used for police storage up until 2002, when a renovation of the station meant the cell had outlived all usefulness.

Fortunately, the nearby Blacksmith’s Cottage and Forge (a heritage property owned by Moorabool Shire Council) caught wind of its impending demise and offered to relocate the cell to their property. Keen to avoid dismantling (then rebuilding) the structure, the cell was carefully ferried by a large forklift to its current home at the rear of the forge.

But it wasn’t until twelve years later that it was restored to its sinister former glory, allowing public access to this unique artefact of Victorian policing history. With the guidance of a heritage architect, great care was taken to ensure it was sympathetically returned to its original state.

In Victoria, there are now only a few portable lock-ups remaining, such as those at Bacchus Marsh, Mansfield and Great Western (pictured below). There are also a number of log lock-ups still in existence (such as the one pictured at Seymour), as well as more durable masonry buildings, usually situated at the rear of police stations around the state.

Old lock-up at Great Western. Reproduced with permission from the collection of Victoria Police.

While clearly unsuited for modern custodial practices, it is a small irony that the Bacchus Marsh lock-up was – in the end – saved by its diminutive size and mobility. Beyond its functional life, it now offers insight into how we, until very recently, held prisoners in cruel and dehumanising conditions.

It seems fitting to return once more to the good intentions of our unknown prisoner: “No more jail for me”. We will never know if it was their “last lag”, but we can be grateful for one thing – the old portable lock-up at Bacchus Marsh has long since farewelled its final, reluctant guest.

This piece was written with the kind assistance of the Bacchus Marsh Blacksmith’s Cottage & Forge and the Victoria Police Museum. If you’d like to visit any of the sites, or for more information, please contact the Victoria Police Museum.

This guest blog post by Mark Brandi is part of a series coordinated by Museums Australia (Victoria) highlighting treasures, stories and what happens behind-the-scenes in museum collections across Victoria.

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