Jail time: museums award win for former Ararat prison and asylum

Photo credit: Friends of JWard

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Discover an award-winning tourism site with a dark past run by Ararat volunteers.  

This year’s volunteer-run museum prize in the 26th annual Victorian Museum Awards went to J Ward – an Ararat goldfields prison turned mental asylum for criminals. For the past 26 years it has operated as a tourism site. Judges commended "the impressive outreach of the site as a tourism attraction for the region and the obvious passion of the volunteers in creating an excellent visitor experience."

Team accepting awardOrganised by the Australian Museums and Galleries Association Victoria (AMaGA), the award win is great news for Ararat, a town of 11,000 residents, 200 kilometres west of Melbourne. Each year, J Ward’s daily tours, run by 71 volunteers, attract an impressive 13,000 visitors who are drawn to the region’s compelling, checkered past.

And checkered it is in all senses of the word. Initially, J Ward was a prison that opened in 1861 to cater for the consequences of the gold rush in the district and shut in 1886 after the 60,000 gold seekers left the area when gold reserves were depleted. Three men were hanged during that time and their unmarked graves remain within the prison walls. Then, from 1887 to 1991, the site operated as J Ward, a maximum security hospital for the ‘criminally insane’, holding up to 50 patients at a time.

Geoff White"Our visitors come from many parts of the world," says Ararat local Geoff White, 70, who has been a J Ward volunteer for the past 15 years. "‘Dark tourism’ such as jails and asylums has a huge following. Yet while visitors are initially drawn here by the mystique, on the tour they’re soon made aware of the harsh living conditions, restraints and shock treatment. Our tour guides describe the changing attitudes to mental illness over time – all fascinating to visitors.

"From about 1940 onwards, the government started making positive building changes within the grounds, making it more acceptable as a hospital. Prior to that, patients were housed in single cells in what was really a jail, although it was called a hospital. Visitors on our tours all find it astounding that J Ward was only closed in 1991."

One inmate was Mark “Chopper” Read, held at J Ward in the 1980s for several weeks before being transferred to Pentridge prison. Other inmates included Bill Wallace (the oldest incarcerated person in the world, he spent 64 years at J Ward, dying at the age of 107); Charles Foussard (the person held longest at J Ward, he was admitted in 1903 at 21 and died there aged 92) and Sidney Jeffryes (an inmate with schizophrenia who was previously part of Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition in 1913).  

patients workThe AMaGA award, says Geoff, is great recognition after many years of dedicated work by the passionate volunteers who, along with guiding, also take charge of accounts, administration, computing, ticketing, catering, gardening, maintenance, marketing and promotion. "The best part of being a volunteer is the challenge of running a successful organisation, the amazing success of the J Ward stories, and the fellow volunteers and tourists whom you meet," he says, "and you learn quickly that volunteers are working for a cause and aren’t motivated by money.  

"Hopefully," he adds, "publicity from this award will lead to a greater recognition of how J Ward volunteers promote understanding and empathy of those with mental health issues. Possibly one day that could be our main role as a museum."

Find out more at J Ward, Ararat’s Old Gaol and Lunatic Asylum.