Fannie Bay Gaol A Brief History

“Prisons have the capacity to intrigue law abiding citizens in the same way that crime fiction and murder mysteries are popular reading.”  Inside Out by Mickey Dewar.
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Fannie Bay Gaol – Copyright Huni Bolliger 2017


I confess that when I first visited Fannie Bay Gaol, I had a perverse sense of fascination with the darkness of incarceration. How would I cope with being locked in one of these cells? What would it feel like if I was on death-row waiting to be hanged? The more I looked around the site, the more the feeling of the place spooked me. Who was locked in this place and what had they done? How were they treated? What was the history of this site? I wanted to know more!

There is little written about the Fannie Bay Gaol site and this is partly a result of the ravages of time and Northern Territory weather which have destroyed some of the historical records. The best writing I could find was a book by Northern Territory historian, Mickey Dewar called Inside Out published by NTU Press. In it, she reveals some of the social and political history over the life of the gaol. I have also found some fabulous records at the Northern Territory Archives including an original gaoler’s diary, a police inquest book, some photographs and oral history stories from local Territorians who remembered when the gaol was still operational.

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Fannie Bay Gaol from above – copyright Huni Bolliger 2017

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Original photograph Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 1168 Item 36

Re-capping on my project, I am creating three short animations about three real-life historical ‘characters’ who all spent time in the Fannie Bay Gaol. There will be a brief history of the gaol to give the stories some context. I am using as many original archival photographs and objects as I can find to re-imagine (re-animated perhaps) a little explored slice of Darwin history. I have uncovered so many fascinating facts about the gaol and the people who were locked in there but I can’t fit everything into a short film (!) so I will aim to detail more about the gaol in this blog over time.

Let’s start at the beginning. Fannie Bay Gaol was opened in 1883 with with 31 prisoners, three Europeans, eighteen Chinese and ten Aborigines. Many people in Darwin don’t realise that the Chinese were the dominant non-indigenous population here until around 1911. In fact in 1888 the Chinese out numbered the Europeans four to one. Many had come here to work in the gold fields and their hard labour helped to build and sustain much of the new ‘settlement’ in Palmerston (as Darwin was then called).  The Chinese also brought opium with them from China and this became a serious drug of addiction in the early life of Darwin. Between 1889 – 1911 the most common crime of the Fannie Bay Gaol prisoners was the possession or trafficking of opium.  Sentences for supplying opium were around 6 months hard labor. Occasionly prisoners died as a result of their deprivation of the drug in prison.

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China Town, Darwin – copyright Huni Bolliger 2017

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Original photograph from the Northern Territory Archive Service NTRS 3334_album 3_299

I confess that until I started this project, I knew very little about the history of the Chinese in Darwin and I was a little shocked and saddened to read about how they were treated in the early ‘settlement’.

To illustrate the attitudes of the time, it’s probably enough to give a few quotes from Mickey Dewar’s book Inside Out.

“ Leung Ping, the Chinese prisoner who returned to the gaol a short time ago, after escaping from the guard…Since his return he has made two determined attempts to commit suicide, first by refusing all food, this attempt was however frustrated with the aid of a stomach pump. The second attempt partook more of the happy dispatch character. On Sunday last by some means Leung Ping obtained possession of a brad-awl and stabbed himself a number of times in the abdomen, so determined was he to effect his purpose that he held the brad-awl driven in up to the hilt and determinedly resisted its removal. The wounds are not serious. It becomes a question whether it is not rather a mistake to interfere in such an affair as this instead of letting the man finish his case effectually. It would save the Government the expense of feeding and clothing an utterly useless animal.” NTTimes 24 march 1888

“Wanted, a hangman! Inquistive ones are already wondering who will give the ‘drop too much’ to the prisoners under sentence of death in Fanny Bay gaol…Two at least are sure to get off but the two Chinese..These miscreants fully deserve the hangmans’ rope, and the lesson may not be lost on our Asiastic community which badly wants keeping in check.” NTTimes 31 march 1899.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”-Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The House of the Dead.

I wonder what Dostoevsky would have thought about Darwin when Fannie Bay Gaol was open?!

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