Built in 1847, the Old Dubbo Gaol was the location of much human suffering and even death. It’s spooky enough in broad daylight, let alone after dark…
The last slither of daylight hung limply in the air as we walked towards the imposing walls of the Old Dubbo Gaol, set back from the main street but very much in the thick of town. The heavy wooden doors swung open before we could even knock – a coincidence, according to our tour guide, Josh, who’d been keeping an eye out for us – but one that set the tone for the ‘Beyond the Grave’ tour; the Old Dubbo Gaol seems to look at you as much as you look at it.
Josh produced a small electronic device known as an EMF, and explained its function in detecting electromagnetic fields, which allegedly are what ghosts give off. He put the EMF in my reluctant hand and instructed me to observe if and when the lights flashed, before switching on his torch and leading us away from the familiar comfort of the street and into the cold, dark prison.
The Old Dubbo Gaol was built in 1847 as a courthouse lockup, and by 1887 had evolved into a maximum security prison with 13 regular male cells, a padded cell for psychiatric prisoners, two solitary confinement cells, a women’s division, exercise yards, a kitchen and an infirmary, all enclosed behind 12-foot brick walls. Those who had committed robbery, assault and even murder could find themselves within the walls of this Victorian-era prison, where conditions were brutal and treatment was rough. Eight prisoners were executed on site, hanged for murder with the very ropes and gallows that are still on display today. Two of them, plus a female prisoner who died of exposure, are buried in unmarked graves within the prison grounds, the locations of which are unknown. I kept my eye on the little device in my hand, simultaneously willing and dreading its flash.
After having taken us through the infirmary, which was dressed in Victorian-era hospital beds and equipment and in which several prisoners took their dying breath, Josh led us into the main cell block, first stop solitary confinement. “After you,” he said, holding open a heavy door and gesturing for me to enter the cramped, dark space beyond.
The cell, one of two solitary confinement holdings, is painted black, with no light penetrating, even during daylight hours. The walls are packed with six inches of dirt to block all sound, and there are double doors to ensure the outside world could not permeate through during the guards’ once daily visit to slide a plate of bread and water under the door. Now regarded as a form of torture, this ‘complete sensory deprivation’ was used to punish unruly prisoners, who could be placed inside the cell for more than a week at a time – enough to have sent more than one prisoner mad.
Two minutes was enough for me, and I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding once we eventually vacated the heavy air of the claustrophobic cell, the walls of which had bore witness to decades of unspeakable human suffering at the hands of barbaric punitive policy. Even when we returned to photograph the prison by daylight a couple of days later, I couldn’t persuade myself to go back in.
The main cell block is full of dummies in prison attire (be still, my pounding heart), illustrating stories of attempted escape and the daily life of prisoners. While during the night tour all was quiet (save for Josh’s soft murmuring of tales of prison woe), during the daytime the corridor of the cell block rings with voice recordings; bygone characters holler and shout over the top of one another, adding an unsettling but fascinating realism to the experience.
We then wandered through the women’s quarters, where conditions were slightly better with a flushing toilet and a bath, but the experience was often lonely – it was not uncommon for there to be only one female prisoner housed there at a time. My heart went out to her as I shivered with both the mid-winter cold and the metaphorical chill of the place.
With the tour complete, we then wandered back towards the front gates and the conversation returned to normal, which is to say Nathan and I broke our apparent vow of silence and ceased from vying for the middle position in our little trio while making wide eyes at each other as the EMF flashed. Which, I tentatively report, it did.
While the spooky yet fascinating Beyond the Grave Tour is perfect for adults with a thirst for both history and adrenaline, the Old Dubbo Gaol also runs a more kid-friendly theatrical Twilight Tour during the school holidays, with self-guided and group tours available during the day. It’s a wonderfully preserved piece of Dubbo’s history, and you truly feel as though you’ve stepped back in time as you pass through those towering brick walls.
The Old Dubbo Gaol is located at 90 Macquarie St, Dubbo, NSW. Click here for more information.