Darlinghurst Gaol was built to replace an earlier prison in The Rocks. When it was ready for occupation in 1841, prisoners were marched along George Street to their new home high on the hill at Darlinghurst, which was at that time at the outskirts of the burgeoning city.

D Block was the second wing to be built as part of Darlinghurst Gaol. Like the rest of the gaol, the cell block was constructed from large, locally quarried sandstone blocks. It was three-storeys high, with 36 double cells and six single cells. There was also a padded cell on the ground floor.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the gaol at Darlinghurst had outgrown its use. It was also no longer at Sydney’s fringe, but was almost at its heart. In 1909, the female prisoners were moved to a new purpose-built gaol at Long Bay. Darlinghurst Gaol was closed by 1914.

In 1922, it was decided to establish a branch of the Sydney Technical College in the former gaol buildings. There was an art school established here, but courses were also offered in handicrafts, wool classing and cooking. D Block, the former women’s cell block, did not form part of this educational campus. An early proposal to use the building as part of the adjacent courts complex was not realised, and the building was left to decay.

Cell Block Theatre 1960s

By 1955, when the East Sydney Technical College became an independently administered entity, it was decided to convert the neglected D Block into a theatre space. And thus the Cell Block Theatre was born.

The Cell Block Theatre was established in the immediate post-war period. At this time, there was a growing middle class who were demanding popular entertainment, which went hand in hand with a lack of theatre space. The largest space available for any type of theatrical or musical production was Sydney Town Hall.

Within a few years, work began on converting the former D Block into a theatre space. The floors and cells were ripped out, leaving a cavernous internal space with great acoustics. It was ideal for a range of performances, from opera, pop bands and dance to theatre, art exhibitions and ‘artists balls’. Because the Cell Block was a ‘hall for hire’ and not administered by a production company, it was a flexible space which fostered a range of avant-garde performances and small theatre companies. Acts that performed there over the years, before the hiatus in the 1980s and 90s, included Ravi Shankar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Check out the book on the history of the Cell Block Theatre, and don’t miss the current exhibition at the National Art School, running until 28 May 2011.