Museum highlights the horrors of gaol time in Dubbo

JOHN ROZENTALS learns about the administration of justice in what must have been the bad old days for the unfortunate few who were caught.

Visitors need only spend a few minutes at the Old Dubbo Gaol, especially on a dank sort of afternoon, to gain some idea of the horrendous conditions suffered by inmates.

Not that the gaol, in some ways, is so old. It only ceased full operation, right in the city's main street, in 1966 - well within the lifetime of quite a few of us.

At least by then there was no reason to use the gaol's gallows. Ronald Ryan, the last Australian prisoner to be legally executed, had been hung at Melbourne's Pentridge Prison the year before.

I'd been to Port Arthur and Sarah Island - God help those who ended up in that hellhole on Tasmania's wet and rugged West Coast - so I was hardly surprised by the cruelty meted out in the Old Dubbo Gaol.

But I was surprised to find that the institution had been used only a bit more than half a century ago.

These days it is used as a museum that vividly shows the horrors perpetrated on those unlucky enough to hit the wrong side of the law in earlier days - complete with grisly re-enactments of deeds such as administering the noose.

The place is laid out much as it was in operating times, with men's and women's accommodation quarters, exercise yards and, of course, well within sight of virtually all occupants, the dreaded gallows.

Especially worth pondering over is the gaol's audio-visual display. The story of the hangman with no face will lift the hairs on the back of viewers' necks.

Also, while in Dubbo, make sure to visit the Western Plains Cultural Centre.

It's the prime artistic venue in this part of NSW and features significant permanent collections as well as regularly hosting a series of challenging temporary exhibitions.

Permanent exhibitions include People Places Possessions, a series of stories about Dubbo, with particular focus on pastoral landscapes, family ambitions and the stories within street facades.

Streets such as Cobra are packed seemingly cheek-by-jowl by good-quality motor inns such as the Cascades, where I'm staying for a few nights.

It's comfortable enough and comes with complimentary wireless internet, though the connection is a bit slow.

What lifts it above the pack is the on-site restaurant, Bellotti's, where Monica and Ashleigh Bellotti have put together an excellent Italian menu using a range of Central-Western ingredients such as Grassland poultry from Wellington, Breakout River lamb from Cowra, High Valley cheeses from Mudgee and very local eggs from Mother Clucker.

The lamb rump is sensational - moist, flavoursome, certainly not overcooked, and served with capanato, a Sicilian eggplant dish, and salad greens. It matches perfectly a glass of good red, just as the fried gnocci does a glass of Italian prosecco.

And do yourself a favour for breakfast. Drive the couple of blocks to the Short Street Store Café, which is housed in a seemingly very ordinary old weatherboard cottage.

The food is anything but ordinary, as exemplified by the poached eggs, served with avocado, homemade tomato relish, just the best home-baked beans and crisply toasted sourdough.

What a delicious way to start the day.

  • Disclosure: John Rozentals visited Dubbo as a guest of Destination NSW.

IF YOU GO

  • Old Dubbo Gaol, 90 Macquarie St, Dubbo, phone (02) 6801 4460, visit www.olddubbogaol.com.au. The gaol is open to the public 9am-4pm daily (except Christmas Day). Admission charge is $20 per adult for a self-guided tour ($6.50 for children aged 4-15). Night tours can be booked.
  • Western Plains Cultural Centre, 76 Wingewarra St, Dubbo, phone (02) 6801 4444, visit www.westernplainsculturalcentre.org. It's open daily 10am-4pm (till 6pm on Fridays) except for Good Friday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day. Admission is free, though some special exhibitions may be subject to charge.
  • The Cascades Motor Inn and Bellotti's, 147 Cobra St, Dubbo, phone (02) 6882 3888, visit www.cascadesmotorinn.com.au.
  • Short Street Store Café, 11 Short St, Dubbo, phone (02) 6882 3310.
  • For general information about Dubbo and the NSW Western Plains, visit www.destinationnsw.com.au.