A brief history of the Adelaide Gaol.
The Adelaide Gaol was built in 1841 and housed approximately 300,000
prisoners during its 147 years of operation. The Gaol was closed in
1988 and is known as the longest continuously operating prison
The Gaol is one of the two oldest remaining buildings in South
Australia. The other is Government House which was built at the
same time as the Gaol.
A number of very good books are sold by the AGPS and these provide
an excellent detailed history of the Adelaide Gaol.
These books can be purchased directly from
the AGPS by sending an email
to the AGPS President
Books about the Adelaide Gaol
Governor, aye every inch a Governor
with the Eagles
Ghosts - The Residents
of the SA Police Force
First Commander of the SA Police
(A Brief History of the Gaol)
Convicts Sentenced to Transportation
Lady of Towitta
by BA Peter
Lengths of Rope
of the Troopers
J Towler & Trevor J Porter
Walk a Fair Beat
Higgs & Christine Bettess
& Infamous Crimes (Aust. & NZ)
Guide Book (Green)
Gaol Preservation Socy.
a Brief History
The following provides a brief insight into the Gaol's history.
In 1836, when Adelaide was first established, as a free colony, it
was decided that a Gaol was unnecessary. This decision proved to be
incorrect and the first prisoners were held on the HMS Buffalo
which was moored at the Adelaide seaside suburb of Glenelg.
When the Buffalo was recalled to the eastern states in June
1837, prisoners were held in a tent on the Torrens River. Prisoners
were chained to logs to prevent them from escaping.
Later, in 1838, a temporary Gaol, called the Stone Jug, was
set up in a wooden hut which was surrounded by a wooden fence. This
enclosure was often over crowded and escapes were frequent.
In 1840, Governor Gawler called for tenders to build a more
substantial Gaol. George Strickland Kingston then designed
the present Gaol which is based on the semi circular design of Pentonville
Prison in the UK.
By early 1841, costs had already exceeded the £17,000 estimate
and the Gaol was far from complete.
At the time, this situation almost bankrupted the state of South
Australia and Governor Gawler was recalled to England to explain
the high cost of the Gaol.
The first prisoners were moved into the new, but incomplete Gaol
in March of 1841.
Various additions and modifications were made to the Gaol throughout
its working life.
From 1849 to 1969 Yard 2 was regarded as the women's section. In
1969 women were transferred to the Northfield Women's Rehabilitation
Centre and the Adelaide Gaol became an all male facility.
In 1871 the Remand Centre cells were built. These cells were
built to face into a central corridor rather than an exercise yard.
It is interesting to note the skylight which was innovative for the
time. It heated the cell block in winter but made the cells unbearably
hot in the summer.
The New Building was constructed in 1878-79 and is the only
building in the Adelaide Gaol which was constructed by prison labour.
Additional cells were added in what is now the Dormitory area above
the South Laneway in 1880. The early construction was of wood although
this was converted to the current Dormitory in 1961.
A gallows was installed in A Wing of the New Building in 1886. It
was used for 21 executions from 1894 to 1950.
The Rose Garden' was started in 1932 by female prisoners.
The men took over caring for the garden in 1969.
In 1953, the west tower which had been used as a store room, was
converted to a gallows. Four executions were performed in this area
before capital punishment was abolished in 1976.
Post 1955 better medical attention was provided in the Gaol. A doctor
was in regular attendance and prisoners could request to see a doctor
rather than having to prove that they were in pain.
The new Visitors Centre was erected in 1958. This structure minimised
drug trafficking problems and provided protection from the weather.
After 1969, Yard 1 was upgraded to accommodate prisoners. It subsequently
fell into disrepair and was not used for many years.
A new kitchen was built in the South Laneway in the 1970s at a cost
of $100,000. Communal meals were also introduced at around this time
to enhance prisoners' 'social skills'. By 1976 the quality of food
and general living conditions were considered to be 'impressive'.
The new Watch Tower above yards 3 and 4 was built in 1971-72
and provided an excellent view of all yards in the Gaol.
A new electronic surveillance system comprising 49 cameras was installed
and connected to a central control room in 1984.
As a volunteer was wandering through a building in Yard 2 he fell
through some rotting floorboards and, to his surprise, discovered
another level which looked like the floor of a prior building. Fortunately,
he was unharmed but amazed at his find.
The SA Museum and an archaeologist were contacted and over a two
year period they discovered a new and exciting facet in the Gaol's
The archaeological investigations have revealed that this site was
in fact the 'camp site' or 'temporary home' of the first white settlers
to South Australia. They shared their temporary site with the indigenous
population whilst waiting for their permanent houses to be built in
the Adelaide city centre.
It has long been suggested that the first settlers were camped somewhere
along a stretch of the River Torrens quite near the Gaol. It is also
said that the first Gaol a (flimsy affair) often referred to as the
Stone Jug was located in this vicinity.
The construction of the Adelaide Gaol in 1840-41 placed a 'lid' over
these sites and sealed it for 160 years. The archaeological dig revealed
what can be regarded as a five tier layered cake where each layer
represents a period of our history.
Level one, the lowest or deepest level, prior to 1836, shows
evidence of the indigenous people of South Australia using this stretch
of river for hunting, fishing and camping. Objects left behind by
them include stone tools and weapons.
Level two spans the period from 1836 to 1840 and shows evidence
of the first settlers who arrived from Port Adelaide and set up camp
in tents and mud huts. This was their home while waiting for their
homes to be built in the Adelaide centre.
They left behind an assortment of ceramic, glass, metal, buttons
and even a child's milk tooth. A sheep bone was also discovered confirming
that there was travel between the states at that time.
Level three appears to cover the period from 1840 to 1847
and we can see that construction of the gaol had begun. There is evidence
of the area being used as a work site. Bricks were fired here and
there is a section of what appears to be brick paving.
Borrow and Goodiar the builders of the Gaol employed 200 workers
on this site and they camped nearby. They left behind scraps of metal,
iron, broken bricks, mortar, buttons and animal bone from their meals.
Level four shows the original floor of this building and relates
to the time frame of 1847 to 1900. The building was the same shape
as it is today but had a wooden floor and was divided into six cells.
Female prisoners occupied the building and were given sewing and
oakum picking activities. Needles, pins, thimbles, oakum, string and
buttons slipped down between the floorboards and remained there, undisturbed
until the dig.
In 1867 the new women's cell block was ready for occupation and the
building was used for 'work rooms' and a Matron's room. In the same
year a fireplace was added in the Matron's room. Coke, used in the
fireplace, was stored beneath the floor in the cell opposite her room.
On the outside of the Matron's room, at the back, we can see an old
wall and traces of coke were found on both sides of this wall.
This wall may be part of a forge which was built on the site for
the construction of the Gaol or may even be part of the original 'Stone
Jug' mentioned earlier.
Level five is what we see today, dating from 1900 to 1988.
The concrete slab is in place and a very old air conditioner was installed.
The room is no longer divided into six cells.
An interesting discovery was that there are two areas of concrete
below the concrete slab. This was probably laid during the 1920s to
support copper boilers.
Prison officers used this area as a recreation area and tea room.
This would explain the cutlery, tea bags and sugar sachets which were
discovered at this level. For a while, the area was also used as a
utility space ie. bathroom, laundry and kitchen.
The excavations have been left open for public viewing and many of
the items which were retrieved from the dig can be viewed in the display
case located in this Yard 2 building.
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