St Helena

Originally, this small area of hills north of Greensborough was to be named Elba. Here, it was planned, an inescapable prison would be built on the northern fringes of the metropolis, great enough to contain criminals like the Kelly Gang (three quarters of whom died without ever seeing the inside of a prison) and Squizzy Taylor (four quarters of whom also died outside of prisons). The old bluestone walls of Pentridge in Coburg were seen as no longer sufficient to prevent the escapes of dangerous criminals, and by naming their new prison after the infamous location of Napoleon’s exile, the Victorian government hoped to emphasise this fact.

As usual, the government had cut a few corners in its race to appear to voters to be doing something. In this case, they had skimped on their research. The name of Elba was ill-chosen, for a number of reasons. First, it was only intended as a temporary solution to the Napoleon problem, a way station on the way to his true place of exile. Second, Napoleon escaped from Elba, and went on to the second, less successful phase of his military career after doing so (notable lowlights include his disastrous 1812 campaign against Russia and his defeat at Waterloo in 1815). This, it was suggested by certain wags, was not a good precedent for the naming of the new prison.

The embarassment of the government reached its zenith a few weeks later when these jokes were repeated – with additions – in Parliament by the Member for Ballaarat, one Peter Lalor, who jokingly suggested that the area and the prison be instead named for the site of Napoleon’s second and rather more final exile, Saint Helena. And although the government faltered in its resolve, and did not build the prison in the end, the name stuck, albeit in a slightly abbreviated form.

Suburbs near St Helena:

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