Construction of the gaol commenced in 1859 and the facility was opened in October 1861. In 1887 it was converted for use as a maximum security psychiatric ward for the criminally insane. J Ward officially closed in January 1991 and in 1993 it was re-opened as a museum providing tours.
Construction of original building commenced in 1859, as a goldfields prison, based on the Pentonville concept, by the Public Works Department. They were built out of blue stone. On 10 October 1861 the gaol was opened, with a total of 21 prisoners incarcerated. The first Governor was Samuel Walker (previously the Governor of Portland Gaol). In 1864 the gaol housed 40 prisoners and in 1867 John Gray became the gaol's second Governor, a position he held for ten years. On 15 August 1870 the first execution was conducted at the gaol, when Andrew Vere was hanged for the murder of Amos Cheale in January 1869. The second execution at the gaol was held on 25 September 1883, when Robert Francis Burns was hanged for the murder of Michael Quinlivan. In 1877 Henry Pinniger was appointed as the gaol's third Governor. On 6 June 1884 the gaol held its third execution, with Henry Morgan being hanged for the murder of Margaret Nolan in November 1883. In 1884 George Fiddimont became the gaol's fourth Governor, he died of a heart attack at the goal on 14 September 1886.
J Ward is now a museum open to the public. Tours are run every day except on public holidays at 11 am, 12 pm, 1pm & 2pm. Other notes about J Ward include the amazing art work done by prisoners on the walls outside in their open area, the way this place makes you still imagine it being operated, and the thought to detail is amazing. J ward was not only occupied by the criminally insane but also the insane who had not committed any crimes, but were eventually moved to a facility established to their needs.
- Charles Fossard – admitted in 1903 at age 21 and died in custody in 1974 at age 92, he was the longest serving patient at the facility (he was incarcerated for 71 years)
- Garry David – also known as Garry Webb, said to have served more time in prison than any other person in the history of the State of Victoria. David spent a total of 33 years in various institutions
- Bill Wallace – admitted in 1926 at age 43 remaining in custody until his death in 1989 at age 107, he was the oldest patient at the facility (he was incarcerated for 64 years)
- Mark "Chopper" Read – was transferred from Pentridge Prison in late 1978 after arranging for a fellow inmate to cut off both his ears. Read only remained in J Ward for a few months before being transferred back to Pentridge
|Name||Date of execution||Crime||Notes|
|Andrew Vere||15 August 1870||Murder||Shooting murder of Amos Cheale at St Arnaud.|
|Robert Francis Burns||25 September 1883||Murder|
|Henry Morgan||6 June 1884||Murder||Cut throat murder 10 year old Margaret Nolan after sexually assaulting her near Panmure|
- "J Ward (Ararat Asylum)". Victorian Heritage Database. Heritage Victoria. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- "Execution of the Wickliffe Murderer". The Evening News. NSW: National Library of Australia. 25 September 1883. p. 2. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- "Execution of Morgan". Traralgon Record. Traralgon, Vic.: National Library of Australia. 13 June 1884. p. 4 Edition: morning. Retrieved 21 October 2013.