Adelaide Gaol South Australian History

Adelaide Gaol


Adelaide Gaol 1933
Photograph courtesy of the
State Library of South Australia.

Adelaide's first gaol was a tent with a more substantial building erected a little later near the Police Barracks. As early as 25 May 1837, less than five months after the proclamation of South Australia, tenders were asked for the building of a temporary gaol in the new colony of South Australia which had been founded by free men without any convicts. As there was not much room some of the earliest prisoners were transported. Among them was James Gordon, who got seven years transportation for stealing a silver watch in May 1837.

The Adelaide Gaol, also known in the early days as Ashton's Hotel, was Governor Gawler's brainchild. After completion of the designs by George Strickland Kingston, Gawler gave instructions to build it. Crime, and the fear of escaped convicts from other colonies, resulted in it also being the first colony to have a police force. The extravagant cost of the gaol was very much a contributing factor to South Australia's bankruptcy in 1840.

According to Governor Gawler, it would be of a lasting advantage. When the first stage was the gaol was completed in 1840 it had two sections, one for felons and another for debtors. In those early days most people who had debts, which could not be paid, finished up with free housing and board at Ashton's Hotel.

William Baker Ashton, born on 6 August 1800 and the gaol's first governor arrived with his family in South Australia on 16 November 1838. He was appointed Sub Inspector of police on 1 June 1838 by the Colonisation Commissioners in England. He was granted a free passage for himself and family, fifty Pounds for his outfit, four months pay in advance from the day of sailing and a salary of 125 Pounds. The Ashton family, made up of William, wife Charlotte and their three sons boarded the Rajasthan on its first voyage to Adelaide on 17 July 1838. On 2 August Charlotte gave birth to a daughter who was named Victoria Hannah Ritchie Ashton. On 18 June 1843 they had another daughter.

Even though board and housing for prisoners at the gaol was free, it did not mean that all boarders were happy with the accommodation. One who was most upset about the arrangements wrote the following letter to Governor Ashton. 'Sir, In other countries laws and regulations have been made from time immemorial to prevent crime; but it remained for the theorizing quacks of this newly found settlement to punish men unaccused of crime. Debtors are here not only imprisoned, but imprisoned in the same building with convicted criminals, locked up at night in cells like felons, from 9 o'clock till 6 o'clock in the morning, and compelled to obey the calls of nature in the very apartments where they sleep.

To crown the tender mercies of the tyrannical democrats with which this Eldorado swarms, the solemn mockery of religion is added. A beast will not defile its liar, but the inmates of Her Majesty's Menagerie, after being doomed to degration which sinks them lower than brutes, are called upon to attend Prayers on the Sabbath. Reckoned lower than beasts six days a week and men on the Seventh!

Such a metamorphoses, elevating and degrading alternatively, making a rational creature first the victim and then the sport of creative power, would make Pythagoras stare, were he to arise from the dead and witness the pranks of the little demigods, or rather demons, of the far famed self supporting and now Bankrupt colony of South Australia'. The Governor's answer has not been found yet.

A local newspaper of 1840 reported that twenty-five men were confined and awaiting trial and even though all the Governor's care and attention, the number was far too great to be crowded into the limited space. It also pointed out that it was an injustice upon the innocents to have to wait such along time before their case was heard.


Adelaide Gaol 1850
Photograph courtesy of the
State Library of South Australia.

In 1843 the gaol had a governor, two turnkeys and two guards but no matron for female prisoners until 1850 when the second stage of the gaol was completed. The position of Matron was awarded to Charlotte Ashton. The gaol was also used for a number of years to house the mentally insane, as lunatics had to be restrained and kept out of sight. When the hangings became private a portable gallows was used in the North West laneway from 1861 until 1883. In 1894 a gallows was placed in the New Building and used from 1894 until 1950. The last time a person was hanged in South Australia was 1964. Most of them were buried within the gaol complex.

During its early years the gaol was guarded by a small number of troops, on loan from Tasmania for five years. With few prisoners to guard and even fewer people who wanted to get in, they had enough spare time during working hours to play cricket against the locals in the parklands. In 1846 Francis Dutton wrote that the gaol was an eyesore to the colony upon which 34,000 Pounds had been thrown away. It could hold 140 prisoners but had on average only two per month so far. Upon completion of the first part of the Adelaide Gaol, the Ashtons lived above the main gate and entrance. William Ashton remained governor of the gaol until his death on 28 April 1854. His funeral was attended by a very large number of people which included Alexander Tolmer. A public appeal launced for Charlotte, who had given birth to another three children, raised well over six hundred Pounds. She took up farming at Leasingham and for a number of years was also the licensee of the Leasingham Hotel.

On 24 December 1862 Malacky Martin, aged thirty-one, was hanged for the murder of Jane Macmanamin, an Irish servant girl of Salt Creek. There were also indications and strong rumours that he had been responsible for the killing of William Robinson and even his own mother. As late as 1864 it was suggested that convicted prisoners should be transported to the Falkland Islands. Many additions were added during later years, the largest one in 1879 when a huge 90 cell building was constructed.

Towards the end of 1883 a young lad by the name of Samuel Moyles was sentenced to one month imprisonment and a whipping of fifteen strokes for indecent assault and a John Haggerty was sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labour and a whipping of twenty strokes for rape. They received their floggings at the gaol in the presence of a doctor, the gaol's governor and some prison officers. 'The punishment was vigorously applied and the prisoners howled lustily', it was reported. Two years later, James Callow, a man of colour, was sentenced by Mr Justice Boucaut to life imprisonment with hard labour and fifteen strokes for assaulting a girl under the age of twelve.

Understandably not everyone was happy with his or her treatment at Her Majesty's Menagerie and several attempts were made to leave it before the official time was up. As early as August 1854, two scoundrels tried to gain their freedom but were caught in the act. To make them see reason they were rewarded with thirty-six lashes each. Although William Robinson Boothby, comptroller of Her Majesty's Gaols and Stockade from 1868, utilised prison labour to produce some prize winning olive oil, not all inmates were keen on being occupied in that work. In 1897 three prisoners were successful in getting out before their time was up and made their way via the Murray River to New South Wales. Their freedom was short lived as they were caught by Mounted Constable John Shanks at Blanchetown.

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