Bega Pioneers Museum

Prefabricated lock up

The Story

Location of Object:

Bega Pioneers’ Museum, 87 Bega St, Bega, NSW, 2550.

Accessibility of Object:

This object belongs to the Bega Valley Historical Society Inc., the organisation responsible for managing the Bega Pioneers’ Museum.

The museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday 10.00 am - 4.00 pm; Saturday 10.00 am - 2.00 pm. Closed public holidays.

History and Provenance of Object:

Timber and iron prefabricated lock up, relocated from Cobargo Police Station to the Bega Pioneers’ Museum in 1976.

Although the exact history of the structure remains unclear, according to a letter penned by the then President of the Bega Valley Historical Society Inc. Bernice Smith just a month after the cell was transported from Cobargo to Bega, it was reportedly used on the Montreal Goldfields prior to its time at Cobargo. In her letter dated 11 September, 1976, she noted “We have many brick outhouses and a Police Cell from the old Montreal Gold Field – a massive thing, took two cranes and a huge truck to get it here, but it looks great sitting up in the corner of the grounds.”

According to a 1976 newspaper report, six members of the Society spent almost seven hours partly dismantling and moving the cell from the Cobargo Police Station to the museum site.

After Canadian Henry Williams discovered alluvial gold on the beach about seven kilometresnorth of Bermagui in 1880, he and his partner L. Minnewhether registered their claim in September. Before long, Sydney newspapers were reporting on the find and, not surprisingly, diggers began flocking to what became known as the Montreal Goldfield.

Within three weeks, around 2,000 optimistic miners had made their way to the grounds, and by mid-October businesses had sprung up and a police station and court house had been established. The same month, the area became the scene of one of the nation’s most enduring mysteries when a party of five led by geologist Lamont Young disappeared without a trace.

One of only two seaside gold fields in the southern hemisphere, Montreal remained the scene of intense activity until about 1883, after which, like so many other 19th century mining settlements, it went into decline as the diggers moved on to new discoveries.

A police presence had been established in nearby Cobargo by the 1870s when Constable W. R. Fox was stationed there and by 1876, local residents were lobbying for a police station. Buildings comprising of a courtroom, office, three living rooms, kitchen, a single man’s quarters and cells were finally constructed in 1882 by Mr. Worthing.

Tenders for a new court house and police building were called in 1902, with the contract being awarded to John Hines. The courthouse opened for business in July 1903 and by December the same year, the previous buildings were being altered to accommodate the resident officer, Senior Constable Kelly and his family.

Because of the practice of relocating portable cells once they had outlived their usefulness in one place, it is entirely possible that the cell was relocated from Montreal to Cobargo after the downturn in mining activity. It may even have come to Montreal from another settlement. These portable timber and iron cells were relatively easy to transport and simple to erect, making them ideal for small rural towns and the gold fields that were often temporary in nature.


The Australian colonies and later the Commonwealth have had a close relationship with the prefabricated building concept since the very beginnings of European settlement.

The first such structure arrived on the First Fleet in 1788. Although described as a house, it actually consisted of a rigid numbered frame covered with canvas. Purchased in England by Governor Phillip himself for the princely sum of £125, it was erected on the east side of Sydney Cove, serving as Government House until the completion of a more substantial building. This was followed in 1790 by the arrival of the fledgling colony’s second such structure, a prefabricated hospital to replace the ramshackle collection of tents then serving as the sick bay

The importation of prefabricated or “portable” buildings to the Australian colonies continued to grow into the 1830s, and with the ongoing shortage of labour and materials, particularly in the wake of the gold rushes of the 1850s and ‘60s, the market only increased. The peak year was 1853, but demand continued throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century. Australian architectural historian Professor Miles Lewis of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning noted that "...they are a telling reflection of peculiar historical conditions which made the transportation of such buildings physically and economically feasible..."

Illustrated pattern books and catalogues enabled customers to browse and buy at a distance with designs ranging from simple cottages right through to larger, more impressive houses and grand villas along with civic buildings such as churches, schools and theatres. They were constructed in factories in London, Glasgow and Liverpool in Britain, Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia, or America, before being dismantled, every component labelled and packed into wooden crates and loaded onto ships for transportation to Australia. Some options even included floors, wallpaper, carpet and furnishings.

Timber was the most prevalent material of the prefabricated buildings brought to Australia, although cast iron and corrugated iron were popular. A range of other materials were also utilised including papier mache. Today, according to Professor Lewis, South Eastern Australia retains more extant 19th century prefabricated examples than anywhere else in the world.

Included among the many portable structures imported into Australia were gaol cells or lock ups. Used throughout the various colonies from the mid-19th century, they were easily transportable and relatively quick to assemble on site, although often coming complete with a heavy cast iron door, they were undoubtedly weighty. Initially brought in from England, they were available in both single and double cell configuration.

Towards the end of the 19th century, colonial governments began producing their own simple, prefabricated lock ups. Based on the earlier English design, they were numbered for ease of construction. With no heating or windows and only open ventilation grills they could be oppressively hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

Widely used throughout New South Wales as an economical and efficient means of quickly providing lock ups to meet the growing need for safe and secure incarceration, they were a popular option in rural areas. They were also a typical feature on many goldfields, reflecting the often transient nature of the population.

Because of their standard design, portable nature and the tendency to relocate the lockups once they had outlived their usefulness in one place, it is difficult to date them or to know how many were used throughout New South Wales during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Fabric, design, manufacture and condition:

A standard single-storey prefabricated single-cell lock-up. Constructed of timber with horizontal exterior wall cladding, it has a simple gabled roof clad in corrugated iron with ventilators in the gable ends. There is a heavy cast iron door to the right side of the structure with a slide bolt and non-semicircular observation window and hatch cover. Located directly above the door is an unglazed window covered with iron bars.


Used by:

Reportedly the police stations on the Montreal goldfields and at Cobargo, although further research is needed to confirm this.



Production date:

Comparative examples:

Other examples of prefabricated lockups do exist around the state, including one at Cooma Gaol. However exact numbers are unknown.

Works depicting/highlighting this object:

Historic photographs of this object:

Historic photographs associated with this object:

Contemporary photographs of this object:

The particular significance of this Object:

[Currently under development]


Main theme:




Law and order


Keeping the peace in Bega Valley Shire

Other themes:












Towns, suburbs and villages



Government and administration


Living in Bega Valley Shire

Learning the landscapes of Bega Valley Shire

Building and industrial development within Bega Valley Shire

Exploiting the mineral resources of Bega Valley Shire

Technological innovation within Bega Valley Shire

Constructing townships within Bega Valley Shire

Housing locals and visitors to the shire

Working in Bega Valley Shire

Self-government and democracy in Bega Valley Shire

Thematic storylines:

• Geological and natural heritage

• Settling, developing and building the region

• Developing the settlements, villages and towns

• Governing and civic history

• Rural and regional industries

• Rural and regional industries - mining

• Law and order

• The economy and economic influences

Geographically associated places / sites:

Associated / linked places / sites / items / people:

• Montreal gold fields

• Cobargo Police Station

Heritage listings (statutory and non-statutory):

Further information:

Contributors to this ‘library’:

Angela George and Pat Raymond.

Acknowledgements, Rights and Permissions:

Acknowledgement of Bega Valley Historical Society Inc., Angela George and Pat Raymond.

© Angela George and Pat Raymond. All rights reserved.

References and bibliography:

• Apperly, Richard, Irving, Robert and Reynolds, Peter, A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architecture –Styles and Terms from 1788 to the Present, Angus and Robertson, 1995.

• Bayley, William. A., The Story of the Settlement and Development Bega, Bega Intermediate High School, 1942

Bega Budget

Bega Gazette and County of Auckland Advertiser

Bega Gazette and Eden District or Southern Cost Advertiser

Bega Standard

• Bignell, Marty, Some Assembly Required: Component and Ensemble in Prefabricated Australian Domestic Construction in Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand: Vol. 31, 2014 edited by Christoph Schnoor, pp. 425–434.

• Herman, Morton Early Australian Architects and Their Work, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954

• Lewis, Professor Miles, Culture of Building – Prefabrication, Illustrated lecture notes, n.d.

• Lewis, Professor Miles, Culture of Building – Prefabrication in the 19th century, Illustrated lecture notes, Nov. 2007

• National Trust, Portable Iron Houses, 2019,

• Prefabricated building, Wikipedia,

• Prefab in History, prefabAus, 2019,

• Simpson, Margaret, Industrial Revolution in Australia – impact on manufacturing in the 1800s, 29 August, 2018,

• Smith, Bernice, Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Kay, 11 September, 1976

• Stapletone, Maisy and Ian, Australian House Styles, Mullumbimby, Flannel Flower Press, 1997

• Swinbourne, Helen, and Winters, Judy, Pictorial History – Bega Valley Shire,Kingsclear Books, 2001

Sydney Mail

Sydney Morning Herald

© Angela George and Pat Raymond. All rights reserved.

This Bega Shire Hidden Heritage project has been made possible by the NSW Government through its Heritage Near Me program.

Any further information about this object or any associated histories will be GREATLY welcomed and will be added to the above library of information. Please email your contribution to


87 Bega Street, Bega, NSW, 2550.