From Melbourne’s earliest days the housing of prisoners was a concern to the government of the day. The first prisoners were makeshift buildings and offered little in the way of security. One prison was even located next door to a hotel, with just a large wall separating the two. The crime rate soared as the gold rushes vastly inflated the population. A small stockade at Coburg was rebuilt as Pentridge Prison between 1857 and 1864.
Whilst it was obvious that females inmates needed to be kept separate from male inmates, until 1956 this was achieved by keeping the females in a separate ward of Pentridge. In the mid 1950s it was decided to utilize part of the site of the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum as a new women’s prison, to be named Fairlea.
The Asylum had closed back in 1906? and some buildings had been utilized as Fairhaven, a hospital for treating venereal diseases. The hospital had closed in 1951 and the Government decided that it would be a good site for Victoria’s first women’s prison.
The prison opened in 1956, and although conditions were not perfect they were a vast improvement on Pentridge Prison. The prison remained a small affair, with an average of 35 to 60 inmates held at a time. The buildings were generally run down, some of the buildings dating back to the Asylum days. In 1982 a fire broke out in one of the dormitories and three inmates lost their lives. The fire was deliberately lit, possibly to highlight the poor living conditions of the women. As a result of the fire, many of the inmates were temporarily housed at Pentridge Prison whilst Fairlea prison was upgraded. In total 3.7 million dollars was spent on the rebuilding, which now allowed the prison to hold up to 106 women at a time.
By 1986 Fairlea Prison was back operating, however within ten years a change of Government would see the demise of the prison. The new Liberal Government began the privatisation of the prison system and as a result private contractors won the right to administer the women’s prison system. A new prison, the Metropolitan Women’s Correctional Centre was built at Deer Park and during the course of 1996 the inmates of Fairlea Prison were transferred across to the new facility. Fairlea Women’s Prison ceased operating in August 1996. During its forty years of operation nearly 18,000 female inmates served time at Fairlea Women’s Prison.
If you are researching an inmate for your family history, the Public Records of Victoria hold some records. On the website are fact sheets (or PROV guides) under the Research Tools heading. The PROV guide entitled "Prison records" may help you.
Russell, Emma. (1998). Fairlea: the history of a women’s prison 1956 – 1996. Kew: Core Publications.