A POET awoke to find rats climbing across his face as he languished in what passed for Bendigo's prison in 1856.
Charles Thatcher rolled over, thankful that he was only in such an "abominable place" for a few days after a magistrate decided to teach him a lesson for punching someone during a bar fight.
"There are none of the comforts of a well-regulated prison, but a man is treated there worse than a savage beast," he would write in a letter published by Melbourne paper The Herald, 165 years ago this week.
The letter would help spur Bendigo into action.
Thatcher had become a regular at the Shamrock Hotel on Pall Mall by late 1856, where he performed comic songs ribbing the politics and culture of the day.
He was well known through the colony and his satirical poetry regularly featured in newspaper pages.
Thatcher had found himself jailed for two days after a fight at the Shamrock. The entertainer had not started it but the courts were in the midst of one of their periodic crackdowns on bad behaviour.
Some of it really had been awful. One man literally ripped a doctor's beard clean off during an unprovoked attack, then brandished his hairy trophy in court the next day.
That case had become infamous throughout the colony because the offender had not gone to jail. Instead, he had been fined.
Many people including the editor of the Bendigo Advertiser believed that punishment had clearly failed to measure up to the crime.
Bendigo's magistrates found themselves under pressure to send a clear message over the months that followed.
Besides, Thatcher was better off than many people going through the courts, the Advertiser observed.
"What is a fine of £10 [about AU$2000 today] upon a gentleman with an income of a thousand or two [roughly $209,000 and $420,000] a year?"
So the Advertiser's editor was unimpressed when The Herald decided to publish Thatcher's letter detailing conditions in Bendigo's jail.
"That gentlemen, instead of meekly resigning himself to his fate, and letting the matter drop into oblivion, seems bent upon parading his sufferings before the world, and claiming universal sympathy as a very much abused individual," the editor complained in remarks published in his paper's opinion columns.
Prison guards would vomit when they opened cell doors
Jails in 1850s Victoria were not exactly fun places to spend any time, but that was not the point, The Herald's editor responded in his own paper.
"We believe that the condition of all the gaols, but particularly on the goldfields, is scandalous, and disgraceful to a civilised society," The Herald retorted.
The Advertiser itself agreed with that, at least.
"The gaol and the lock-up of Sandhurst have for the last three years been a disgrace to the place and have been the subjects of constant complaint," it said in a later editorial.
Thatcher described it as a large, rudely constructed log hut complete with a set of four cells about five metres wide and five metres long.
Those small cells could sometimes hold as many as 25 men.
"Should a murderer be committed, he is put into the cells with the others; and it is only a week or two ago that some ruffians grievously ill-treated an inoffensive Chinaman there," Thatcher wrote.
"Curiosity induced me to visit one of the cells while the unfortunate prisoners were in the yard for exercise. The atmosphere was intolerable, and I rushed out of it, thankful that I was not compelled to be there."
Another section of the jail's roof had apparently blown off at some point but people were still expected to sleep there, Thatcher said.
"The poor wretches on wet nights are drenched to the skin," he wrote.
Thatcher had been given one small mercy during his 48 hour stay. He had been separated from the wider prison population, and slept in a "little den" with a footprint of roughly two metres by 1.5 metres.
None of what Thatcher described was poetic licence, even if his experiences did find their way into some of his verses.
Bendigo was a city that had grown from to a city of 30,000 within six years thanks to the gold rush and infrastructure was struggling to keep pace.
Half-hearted attempts to fix the problem had flopped until Thatcher's jailing, according to the Advertiser.
Perhaps the idea of a respectable citizen like him getting jailed focused might have made the town's genteel leaders pause for thought.
A number of them decided to pay a visit to the jail.
What they saw horrified them.
They found cramped, windowless, overcrowded cells unfit to hold the nearly 80 people imprisoned at a facility that staff tried valiantly but vainly to keep clean.
One visitor later recounted how every night "the air became vitiated, and the stench from the cells was so abominable that those who opened them were affected with nausea and vomiting", according to an account published in the Advertiser.
Within two months, the city's leaders were formally calling for new temporary buildings to be erected.
By the end of the year plans were forming for what would eventually become the brick building that still overlooks the city centre at Gaol Road.
Prisoners, poets and rats could now look forward to breathing a little easier.
This is the latest story in the Bendigo Weekly's history series, entitled WHAT HAPPENED?
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