Adelaide Gaol

Adelaide Gaol was an Australian prison located in Thebarton, South Australia, Australia. The gaol was the first permanent one in South Australia and operated from 1841 until 1988. The prison is now a museum, tourist attraction and function centre.


When the first colonists arrived at South Australia in late 1836, any prisoners (there were few at first) were held in irons aboard the ships HMS Buffalo and then Tam O'Shanter. In early 1837 the public were warned that escaped convicts from New South Wales may reach the colony. In mid-1837 Buffalo and Tam O'Shanter sailed away. Recognising the need, tenders had already been called for a "temporary" gaol. Meanwhile, the Governor's guard of Royal Marines held prisoners in their encampment at present Botanic Gardens, chained to a tree.

As the population expanded, a temporary lock-up became necessary, which was built in early 1838 near Government House, Adelaide (then a mere hut) so the marines could guard both prisoners and Governor John Hindmarsh. This was a wooden slab affair, with timber palisade fences, although one room was freestone, which became known as the 'stone jug'. It was located at the north-east corner of present Government House Domain. In 1838, the first Sheriff, Samuel Smart, was wounded during a robbery that led to one of the offenders, Michael Magee, becoming the first person to be hanged in South Australia on 2 May 1838. When Governor Hindmarsh left, he also took all his marines, so the South Australia Police then ran the temporary goal (through until Adelaide Gaol was built). Long term prisoners were sentenced to transportation in the eastern penal colonies, escorted there by police on inter-coastal ships. Even so, the gaol was overcrowded, sometimes holding up to seventy prisoners. Parts of the gaol became so "dilapidated that if it had not been for the building behind, would have collapsed". In July 1838, it was reported that prisoners easily escaped because "the walls were rotten and there were gaps in the foundation".

When Governor George Gawler arrived he was appalled at the conditions, saying that security was only being maintained by an "expensive multiplicity of sentries". London police sub-inspectors James Stuart and William Baker Ashton arrived in November 1838 to form the first police force, but found it had already been formed, in April 1838, under Henry Inman (police commander). Sensing that the gaol needed its own professional management, Gawler thereupon appointed Ashton to the new position of Governor of the Gaol, effective 1 January 1839, but still answerable to Inman for funding, administration, and staff.

Construction and disputation

Although Governor Gawler was under orders from the Select Committee on South Australia in Britain not to undertake any public works, in 1840 George Strickland Kingston was commissioned to design a permanent Gaol to hold 140 prisoners. The plans were based on England's Pentonville prison. Proceedings of the Select Committee indicate that in Britain nothing was known of the gaols construction and there is no record of any mention in any official dispatches from South Australia.

The original estimate for construction was £17,000, however in late July 1840, one month after construction began, the plans were altered by Governor George Gawler. Although all the foundations had been laid the new plans halved the building work, which effectively reduced the contract cost to £10,000 although this did not include the cost of work already completed. In October Gawler again altered the plans by now including the gaolers house he had earlier dropped from the original plans, added two more towers and increased the quality of the stonework by specifying ashlar which cost fifty percent more than the wrought stone specified in the original contract. These new alterations added £9,000 to the cost. By March 1841 the goal was nearing completion, the builders Borrow and Goodiar had already received £l0,950 and they now requested a further £8,733 which Gawler refused. The dispute resulted in the claim being arbitrated in court and the arbitrators requested an independent valuation of the work completed.

In May, Gawler was replaced by George Grey who accused Gawler of acting "under no authority whatever". Gawler denied responsibility for the work and blamed Kingston. Kingston himself claimed the work was authorised by the Board of Works who denied even inspecting the site despite evidence they did so weekly. As Gawler had kept no documentation whatsoever regarding the contract it could not be determined who was responsible and Kingston's appointment was later terminated on 4 August, six days after the gaol was completed. In early September the valuation was completed with the value of work estimated at more than £32,000 above the sum already paid, which the court awarded to Borrow and Goodiar. On 5 November the builders submitted a claim for the £32,000 plus interest, commission, legal costs and arbitration fees of more than £4,000. Grey refused and threatened to put the case before the British Government. In February 1842 Grey commissioned another valuation that presented a revised valuation of £19,650 based solely on the original plans, which was offered to the builders. It was initially declined but accepted following pressure from the Bank of South Australia with whom Borrow and Goodiar had an £11,000 overdraft. By the end of 1842 both of the colonies newspapers had taken up the cause in favour of the builders and a memorial was presented to the Secretary of the Colonies in Britain, demanding that the arbitration decision be honoured or put before a jury trial. The sum was reluctantly paid, although the actual construction costs still resulted in the builders declaring bankruptcy.

The cost blow out to approximately £40,000, being a fifth of the total funding for the establishment of the newly settled colony was the main cause of a statewide depression and numerous bankruptcies. Governor Gawler was summoned back to England to explain his "extravagant" building program. Originally designed to have four ornate turrets, only two towers were completed, and only one of those was the ornate turret as planned.


Opened in 1841, William Baker Ashton became the first Governor, a position he held until his death 1854. From that time the police no longer staffed the gaol, as Ashton now had his own budget. Also, he was now fully answerable to the Sheriff, instead of the Commissioner of Police. Gaol staff consisted of two "turnkeys" and two guards. During this time the gaol was commonly referred to by the public as Ashton's Hotel. From 1867 to 1869 Sister Mary MacKillop regularly visited the gaol and along with members of her order tended both male and female prisoners. Sister Mary's order initially provided assistance for female prisoners after their release until November 1867 when the order extended its services to all women. At times the prison was guarded by a number of troops on loan from Tasmania until 1846 when Francis Dutton, who went on to become the seventh Premier of South Australia in 1863, complained that the gaol was both an eyesore and a waste of money as since being opened it had housed on average only two prisoners per month.

The first attempt at escaping occurred in August 1854 when two prisoners were caught in the act with each receiving 36 lashes. The first "successful" escape was in 1897 when three prisoners made it as far as Blanchetown before being recaptured.

In 1942 the "New Building" was taken over by the military for use as a detention barracks. The gallows located in the building were used for a civilian execution on 26 April 1944. Following public protests over the unsanitary conditions at both Yatala Labour Prison and Adelaide Gaol, extensive renovations were carried out in 1954–55. A toilet block was constructed in 4 and 6 yards and a semi-circular wall built in "The Circle" to allow more privacy for visits. Previously, prisoners would line up toeing a brass rail in the Sally port of the main gate with visitors standing opposite and no closer than 2 metres (6.6 ft) which required the raising of voices to be heard over adjacent conversations. Former prisoners have stated that after a few minutes the noise level would be so high that no one could be heard. In 1961 a shower block was constructed and a bakery established which would supply bread to both Yatala and Adelaide Gaols. By this time the gaol was badly affected by salt damp and throughout the 1960s many prisoners were kept busy repairing it. In 1963 the Deputy Keeper's rooms in the Governor’s residence were converted to administrative offices and a new residence was built in the forecourt, adjacent to the Gaol entrance.

In 1965 it was announced that the gaol would be demolished and all but essential maintenance work ceased. In 1969 this decision was reversed and the gaol’s female inmates were transferred to a new facility at Northfield. Throughout the 1970s considerable modernisation of the old buildings occurred with one building (6 Yard remand prisoners) demolished and rebuilt. In 1971 all staff housing on the site was vacated with most of the guards former residences demolished.

In 1980 it was announced that the gaol would be closed once new facilities were completed and the only major work that took place until it did close was the installation of security cameras in 1984. Later that year the remand prisoners were transferred to the new Adelaide Remand Centre. The remaining Adelaide Gaol prisoners were transferred in 1987 when Mobilong Prison opened.

Adelaide Gaol was decommissioned in 1988 and the site taken over by the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage and reopened as a museum and tourist attraction. The Deputy Keeper's residence, built in 1963, was later considered not in keeping with the overall architectural style of the complex and demolished in October 2009.


The Gaol has a radial plan which means access is gained to all the cellblocks and exercise yards from one central point. This point was called "The Circle" as wagons delivering supplies or prisoners to the gaol would have to complete a full circle in order to leave. The cellblocks were divided into "yards" which offered varying facilities and housing for prisoners based on their category.

  • Yard 1 was built in 1850 to house women until 1969 when all female prisoners were transferred to a new facility. This block then had various uses such as for remand prisoners or for those with infectious diseases. The block was later renamed The Lane, so named as it both bordered and was accessed from the lane that separated the administration buildings from the cell blocks. From 1971 the block provided open dormitory accommodation for low risk prisoners deemed suitable. These prisoners wore suede shoes (work boots were the norm for prisoners) and could have personal items containing materials normally banned such as glass in photograph frames.
  • Yard 2 consisted of a three story cell block which also originally housed female prisoners.
  • Yard 4 consisted of two story cell blocks which housed the male prisoners.
  • Yard 6 included what was previously yard 5 after the separating wall was removed. As one of the yard 4 cellblocks was part of the wall separating the yards (see photo right), the east side lower floor was only accessible from yard 6. The yards own single story cellblock was demolished and replaced with a new building in the 1970s. This yard was for prisoners on remand.
  • The New Building was constructed in 1879 to accommodate increasing prisoner numbers. Called the "New Building" at the time, the name remained and is still the official name of the building. A permanent gallows was built in the A-Wing of the New Building which was used until 1950.

Several yards also contained ablution blocks, cells contained buckets for use as toilets and these were emptied and cleaned here.

Daily Routine

At 7am, breakfast was delivered to and eaten in the cell. At 8am the cell was inspected to make sure that it was clean and tidy. Toilet buckets were then taken into the yards to be emptied and cleaned by volunteers. As there were few recreational facilities available, most inmates would constantly walk up and down the yards or just sit and talk or play cards. Inmates returned to their cells at 11am for lunch after which they could return to the yards. Inmates returned to their cells at 4pm when dinner was served and the lights would be turned out at 10pm. At the beginning and end of every meal break, prisoners were counted and a roll call taken.

Each inmate was provided with a black Felt jacket and work boots. Twice a week trolleys containing a change of clothing were brought to the yards. Each week inmates were provided with 2½ ounces (71gms) of loose tobacco, papers and matches. Volunteering inmates provided services such as maintenance, cleaning and hairdressing to relieve the routine. Recreational facilities were limited to a library and decks of cards. Paper and pens were provided once a week to write two letters which had to be returned after use while writing materials were banned at other times.

From 1841 to 1988 around 300,000 inmates passed through the gaol. The highest number of prisoners held at one time was 440 in the 1960s when many were forced to sleep three in a cell. Normally inmates on remand were allowed to sleep two to a cell which, although having the same dimensions as single cells, were provided with a bunk bed. Prior to the 1960s the average age of inmates was approximately 22 years but during the 1970s this average dropped to 19 years of age. Once sentenced, those with terms of three months or less would be placed in single cells while those with longer sentences were transferred to Yatala Labour Prison, the Cadell Training Centre and, until it closed in 1975, Gladstone Gaol. Inmates sentenced to many years imprisonment that possessed certain useful skills (such as cooks) would often remain at Adelaide Gaol to serve their sentences.


Until an Act of Parliament in 1858 mandated private executions, seven hangings were held in public outside the gaol walls with the first occurring in November 1840 while the site was still under construction. From 1861 to 1883, 13 prisoners were executed on portable gallows erected between the Gaol's inner and outer walls. Executions were moved to the "New Building" in 1894 where a further 21 prisoners were executed. The "Hanging Tower" was converted to that use in 1950 and used for the last four executions before Capital Punishment was abolished in 1976. From 1840 to 1964, 45 of the 66 people executed in South Australia were executed by hanging at the Gaol. William Ridgway was the youngest at 19 in 1874, Elizabeth Woolcock the only woman in 1873 and the last was Glen Sabre Valance in 1964.

Notable prisoners
  • Squizzy Taylor
  • Elizabeth Woolcock
  • Rupert Maxwell Stuart
  • Bevan Spencer Von Einem
  • Valerio Ricetti
  • Sarah Francisco

Building Activity

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