In 1917, Daphne Stewart broke out of her prison cell with a spoon.
Initially imprisoned the previous year for insufficient means, Stewart was being held indefinitely at Melbourne’s Female Prison under the Venereal Diseases Act.
She didn’t dig her way out — instead she used the spoon to open the door of her cell, along with the cells of four other women.
She was caught, cautioned and punished with “one day separate”.
The following week she and another prisoner were sentenced to two days’ solitary confinement for damaging government property.
Her actions are recorded in a hand-written ledger entitled “Record of prisoners charged before the Governor at Female Prison, Coburg”, or “Prisoners Offence Book” for short.
It’s just one of the previously closed files from the Victorian archives released to the public on New Year’s Day.
New historical resource
Victoria’s historical Women’s Prison registers have been available since 2015. They they tell us that Stewart was granted freedom in 1918.
But this is the first time the public have had access to records detailing the charges laid against Victorian female prisoners for their conduct while imprisoned.
Each year Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), the body responsible for maintaining Victoria’s government archives, opens 75-year-old “Section 9” files to the public.
What are Section 9 files?
- Some Victorian Government files are kept hidden under Section 9 of the state’s Public Records Act 1973.
- The section demands “personal or private” government records be withheld from public view for a period of time.
- Examples include police and prison files, medical records and documents concerning children in state care.
- Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds all state government records in climate-controlled conditions.
- Section 9 files relating to adults are generally made public after 75 years and those relating to children after 99 years.
- PROV releases a new batch of Section 9 files each year on January 1.
Justine Heazlewood, PROV’s CEO and Keeper of Records, says the Prisoners Offence Book is only being opened now because it is a bound volume covering the period from 1907 to 1944 — therefore containing some records that were still closed until this year.
“We have to treat them as collectives of records,” she said.
Used together with the Prison Registers and other sources, the files provide a peek into the life of female prisoners in that period, and a deeper insight into the characters of some of Victoria’s 20th century criminals.
“The nature of records is that they’re not usually isolated documents,” Ms Heazlewood said.
“One record may have many threads that lead to lots of different lines of inquiry.
Insolence, quarrelling and bad language
Entries in the Prisoners Offence Book make mention of the areas where the women worked — the kitchen and sewing room, for example.
In 1909, prisoner Mary Bourne was sentenced to two days of solitary confinement for “improper conduct in the laundry”.
Mary O’Day was given a similarly harsh sentence the same year for damaging a library book.
Church was compulsory. Prisoners were charged for disrupting the service or refusing to attend.
Many of the offences listed in the book are for disobedience, quarrelling, bad language or the somewhat-vague charge of “improper conduct”.
In the autumn of 1921, Edna Hill was sent to prison for a series of house robberies where she stole clothes, watches, jewellery and more. She even wore a hat she had stolen to court for her trial, where it was recognised by the owner who had been called as a witness.
During her first winter in prison she was charged with “disobedience of orders”. She apologised and was let off with a caution.
Others were not let off so lightly.
Mary Cuthbert was charged with strangling her infant child in 1905. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity — and jailed indefinitely at “the Governor’s pleasure”.
Cuthbert is listed in the Prison Offences Book at least seven times for charges including insolence, disobedience, bad language and refusing to work.
She was sentenced to solitary confinement several times, for periods of up to a week.
Charged for writing to husband
Prisoners were not allowed to write letters without permission.
Tasmanian-born servant Maud Buckland — also known by her alias, Lorna Ward — was imprisoned for larceny and attempted larceny in 1921, aged 24.
She and her 56-year-old husband Edgar Buckland had been found guilty of stealing blankets, quilts, clothing and hundreds of pounds worth of other items, which they had pawned.
She was sentenced to a total of one year in prison.
Four months into her sentence she was charged with attempting to communicate by letter with a male prisoner — presumably her husband.
The Prison Offences Book says her offence saw her remanded to the magistrate, although her prison register does not record the charge nor any punishment for it.
Book only available in-person for now
Members of the public can order the Prison Offences Book for viewing at the Reading Room of PROV’s North Melbourne facility.
While Section 9 files are often digitised and made available on the PROV website, Ms Heazlewood said “this year is a bit out of the ordinary”.
“We’re in the process of developing a brand new IT system,” she said, adding that the advantages of the new system will outweigh any short-term inconvenience.
The system will make searching easier and will improve access to PROV’s collection for those outside Melbourne.
Researchers will also be able to explore themed collections of interrelated records.
“People can explore connected records in a much more streamlined fashion,” Ms Heazlewood said.