Selling off Victoria’s heritage?

A call for the historic Pentridge D-Division to remain as the long-promised Pentridge Museum

 By Michael Hamel-Green


The main developer, Future Estate, of the southern section of the Victorian heritage-listed Old Pentridge Gaol has recently put the historic bluestone D-Division up for sale. The sale was advertised by KillenThomas Melbourne on 2/2/18. This continues a pattern of the present developer merely selling at great profit parts of this heritage precinct while avoiding its legally binding obligations under the 2008 Covenant (attached to the title) with the Heritage Council of Victoria. The estate agent’s advertising of the site makes no mention of the heritage obligations under the Covenant, rather promoting the site as a possible hostel for “backpackers”.

As the Victorian Heritage Register Pentridge Statement of Significance notes, “a new female prison was constructed on the site between 1887 and 1894 … now known as D Division [and] remained the main female prison in Victoria until it was replaced by the new women’s prison HM Prison Fairlea in 1956” (p.2). One of the most famous women prisoners was Adela Pankhurst, the suffragette and anti-war activist who was imprisoned there in late 1917. It was also the site to which Ned Kelly’s remains were transferred from the Old Melbourne Gaol some decades after his 1880 hanging (and then exhumed a decade ago prior to site redevelopment).

As one recent study of Pentridge history notes: “Conditions in the female prison were very harsh. Few of the prisoners even had beds to sleep on … conversation was only permitted occasionally at work.” (Don Osborne, “Pentridge Behind the Prison Walls”, Echo, Melbourne, 2015). After it ceased to be Victoria’s main women’s gaol, it became the Remand Division, housing those awaiting trial. Needless to say, the social history of this division and the suffering that went on behind its walls, has been almost totally obliterated by the successive developer owners, whose ideas of heritage “interpretation” seem to focus on “ghost” tours and painting the whole building in bright past colours, thereby obliterating over half a century of women prisoners’ writing and drawings on the cell walls.

Inside Pentridge D Division
Inside Pentridge D Division. Date/Photographer unknown.

The legally binding covenant between the site owner and the Heritage Council requires the establishment of a properly curated Pentridge Museum in at least 8 D Division ground floor cells and one of the exercise yards. Under the associated Heritage Audit Management Plan, Part B(1) relating to D Division, the Covenant called inter alia for “heritage infrastructure interpretation material” to include “At least eight ground floor cells for interpretation to the north façade of D Division for interpretation and museum administration, while under section Part X(3) inspections and works were to be reviewed three yearly from June 2010. The required museum, it should be recalled, was a firm promise of the Victorian Planning Minister, Justin Madden, at the time he approved the current round of Pentridge development, stating “A museum…will be built on the site” (The Age, 29/1/2000). Under a recently approved August 2016 heritage permit (H1551) for mixed use development in exercise yards attached to D Division, Heritage Victoria, again made it a condition of that permit the Covenant requirement of “the establishment of an interpretative museum within the components of Lot 4000 comprising eight D Division ground floor cells, its remaining intact exercise yard and the single-story north annex building”.

Unfortunately, one decade after this legally binding heritage covenant came into force, there has been no substantive movement to establish the museum by the successive developers who own the site, and no effort on the part of either Heritage Victoria or successive State Governments to enforce the covenant. Instead, a green light has been given for further high rise development across the whole Pentridge precinct, including five 18-19 storey apartment towers, one of which was rejected by Moreland Council and is currently being considered by VCAT, which has issued a 12/2/18 interim order that requires the developer to “revisit the design to moderate the massing of the upper levels to address our concerns” (p.19).

The developer is asking $4.5 million for this unique and irreplaceable site, little more than the cost of four Melbourne suburban houses. Given the obvious unwillingness of developers over a whole decade to comply with key heritage requirements at the site, particularly the establishment of a properly curated Pentridge Museum, we ask, as a matter of urgency, that the State Government buy this site, and establish, as originally promised, a properly administered and curated museum in the building.

For further information and how to add your signature to the appeal, contact Michael Hamel-Green.

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