29 March 2021

A mysterious ship mural at the Former Ararat Gaol (H1067) will be conserved with a $55,000 Living Heritage Grant.

One of Victoria’s most significant outdoor murals was painted on the bluestone walls of the Former Ararat Gaol. The Former Ararat Gaol operated as a goldfields prison from 1860 to 1886. In 1887 the gaol became part of the Aradale Lunatic Asylum complex (H1223) and was known as ‘J Ward’.

J Ward was intended to be a ‘temporary’ measure, however the criminally insane were housed there until its closure in 1991. Aradale Lunatic Asylum cared for up to 1000 patients at its height, across a large complex of 70 buildings.

Aradale asylum from a distance
Aradale Lunatic Asylum. Unknown Photographer. (c. 1880). Front View of the Lunatic Asylum. Image sourced from State Library of Victoria
image of Ararat gaol
Former Ararat Gaol. Collins, John T. (1963-1967). Ararat Gaol Girdlestone Street. Image sourced from State of Library Victoria

The mysterious ship mural

Over 130 years ago, someone painted a mural consisting of three large ships. The ships were painted on an internal wall of the gaol courtyard. The existence of the mural is puzzling, as no one knows who painted it and why.

The mural was painted when the site was still operating as a gaol. The prevailing theory is that a bored inmate, or group of inmates, decided to paint the courtyard wall.

How and why they were permitted to do so is another mystery. Prison conditions at the time were harsh and punitive. The mural does not fit within our modern understanding of Victorian-era crime and punishment.

Vintage image of ship mural
Patient with ship mural. The Gamble Collection. (1910). Airing Court in Gaol Ward. Image sourced from Friends of J Ward

Mural conservation

Remarkably, the unique ship mural has partially survived the long history of J Ward. Although two of the ships are in poor condition, a third ship remains today as the clearest example of its type.

Identified as ‘Ship B’, this ship will be investigated and conserved with the help of a $55,000 Living Heritage grant.

The State Government grant was awarded to Friends of J Ward Inc. in Round 5 of the program.

Friends of J Ward believe that Ship B was painted over by a patient at the asylum in the 1970s. This intervention may have contributed to its longevity. The funded conservation works will help to determine the condition of the ship, identify the paints used, clean the mural and stabilise the powdery paint. These actions will preserve the Ship B mural for future visitors of J Ward to learn about and enjoy. The works are due to be completed in August 2021.

Man stands next to ship mural
Friends of J Ward Executive Geoff White with ‘Ship B’. Image supplied by Geoff White, Friends of J Ward. (2021)

Why paint ships?

Prison graffiti and art have been a feature of jails for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Names, drawings, slogans, and poems are commonly found on prison walls. Prison graffiti provides a record of a political, social, and historical moment in time. The ship mural at J Ward is one such example of prison art.

The sailing ship was a popular decorative motif at the time. Sailing ships were depicted in advertising, paintings, furniture, jewellery, architectural features, and many other decorative elements. The ships in the murals at J Ward are believed to be either Clipper Ships or French Schooners.

There are many superstitious meanings linked to the sailing ship motif. Ships often transported people, so sometimes their loved ones used ship imagery as a symbol of safe travels. Full or billowing sails, like those in the ship mural, are thought to symbolise an adventurous spirit - and a sense of escape!

Patients stand outside of the asylum
Patients at J Ward. The Gamble Collection. (1910). ‘A Group of Patients in the Gaol Ward’. Image sourced from Friends of J Ward

Page last updated: 08/04/21