Where Louisa died: a tour of Darlinghurst Gaol

October 5, 2014

What is your new book called?

 

It's a question I get asked all the time at the moment, and the answer is: 'My book is called Last Woman Hanged, and it's about Louisa Collins - a plump, drunk mother of ten- who was both the first and the last woman to be hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.'

 

There was a time - not all that long ago, actually - when people were hanged in public in New South Wales. More than 10,000 people turned up to see a Navy captain, John Knatchbull, executed, outside the main gates of the prison, pictured here.

 

Louisa's execution was witnessed by a handful of people, inside the gaol, and it was an absolutely ghastly affair but more about that later.

 

The gaol is longer a gaol. The building is today the National Arts School and, last Thursday, I was blessed to receive a tour of the site from Julie O'Reilly, who is events manager there. 

 

The old women's section, where Louisa was held in a tiny cell, is now the Cell Block Theatre. 

 

Julie unlocked the old green door (see below left) - and while I know I'm supposed to be unemotional in my telling of Louisa's extraordinary story, I was rendered speechless. 

 

It's quite something to stand in that room, where Louisa herself once stood, and to feel the old stone walls that she too must have run her hands over. She must have been so frightened - and yet she was so determined, writing letters from prison, demanding better treatment, and pleading for help with her case. 

 

Louisa was tried four times for murder. She was walked to court each day through an underground tunnel (below right) that leads directly from the gaol to the Darlinghurst courthouse next door. They still keep the tunnel locked at both ends.

 

 

 

 

 

Hundreds of famous people spent time in Darlinghurst Gaol in the 19th century, among them Henry Lawson, whose mother, Louisa Lawson, who campaigned ferociously for the women's vote (and for the right of women to sit on juries: Louisa was tried before four juries of 48 men.)

 

There is a small plaque with Louisa's photograph and some details about her case on the wall in the women's section (see below). 

 

It was a moving experience, and I can't thank Julie enough for showing me around. And I'm delighted that representatives of the National Arts School will be able to attend the launch of Last Woman Hanged at the Sydney Institute on 27 October. Tickets will be available to the public from the 13th. I'll post a link when it's available. 

 

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