Journal of William Baker Ashton,
first governor of the Adelaide Gaol
by Rhondda Harris
South Australia was meant to be the perfect colony: free settlers, no convicts, no crime and no lunatics. However it did not work out exactly like that. Within three years there was a temporary gaol and plans for a permanent one were well established. William Baker Ashton had been appointed governor and kept a journal from 10 March 1839 making daily entries until the end of 1845.
Researcher Rhondda Harris came upon this long-lost journal accidently and was soon absorbed by Ashton’s handwritten pages. They provided entry into the little-known underclass of early Adelaide and include entries of the many poor men, women and children who were incarcerated and came under his supervision.
They included inebriates, prostitutes, debtors, Aborigines, mentally ill or lunatics as they were often called, sailors, soldiers, runaway convicts of the eastern colonies, petty and hardened criminals, swindlers, rapists and murderers. At times Ashton even housed deserted women and children and those who had nowhere else to go. They were all looked after by him and his wife Charlotte and assisted by guards, doctors, nurses, police, soldiers and religious ministers, when available.
The journal provides fascinating reading and at the same time is a fabulous addition to the story of early Adelaide. Ashton made the first journal entry on 10 March and for the next few years they are mostly matter of fact, short and to the point. Entries like; ‘Tuesday – all safe, Thursday – Pye found Guilty-Death, Saturday - the Sheriff Call’d, 1 Dec. - All the mad prisoners Very Violent this day, Sunday – No divine Service’ were common. Ashton rarely wrote any comments or opinions about the prisoners in his care. However with Rhondda Harris’ research additional information has become available giving a comprehensive picture of Adelaide during the 1840s.
Most of his early entries concern sailors, escaped convicts and some Aborigines. Two Aborigines were hanged on 31 May and buried at the gaol. At that time it was believed that the free settlers in Adelaide didn’t commit crimes. This was soon to change. Escapes from the gaol were a common occurrence as the early guards were often drunk while on duty. When recaptured the escapees were transported to New South Wales or Tasmania. Not all escapees were prisoners. Occasionally a sentry on duty or a soldier also escaped, but that was called deserting.
Mentally ill people were often first sent to gaol until the opening of an asylum at Parkside in 1846 and from 1852 to the newly opened Adelaide Asylum. Whereas during 1839 the number of prisoners was in the mid to high twenties, by the end of 1840 there were as many as sixty. They included women and children as well as debtors, among them John Wrathall Bull. During that year several of the prisoners were sentenced to death, creating the problem of finding an executioner willing to hang them.
Between 1 September and 1 December entries in the journal are no longer made by Ashton but by someone else, luckily providing a little more information on everyone and everything, including Ashton. Ashton was again absent from 14 March 1841 until 12 May escorting prisoners to Sydney. This time we know that a Mr Bohr made the entries. With the transfer from the old to the new gaol during this time, it must have been a rather interesting but also testing time for all concerned.
Unfortunately Bohr gave even less information than Ashton and when an outbreak was attempted from the new gaol, also known as Ashton’s Hotel, the concerned Adelaide public had to wait for the latest edition of the newspaper to find out what was going on. On 14 May Ashton took charge again and learnt that during his absence South Australia had acquired a new Governor who cut wages, salaries, public works and jobs in an effort to ‘balance the books’. All of these measures impacted heavily on Ashton and his gaol.
With the downturn of the economy even more men were gaoled for debts. Among them were Charles and Edward Catchlove. They were discharged on 6 July having found the bail-money. On 22 July 1841 the Insolvent Debtors Act was passed into law and the number of debtors soon declined. Some debtors still found themselves in gaol. Stephen Hack, brother of John Barton Hack, was imprisoned during June 1843. Other notables were Dr Ulrich Hubbe, who got the job of looking after another insane prisoner from Germany, and EB Gleeson, founder of Clare.
Although the number of prisoners declined during 1842 there were
still several women and children among them, including a seven year old girl. Rosa Hyrdess, age 19 was brought to gaol for the murder of her bastard infant female child. Her two sisters aged 14 and 15 were also committed. Although Ashton made little ado about it their story was soon in the Adelaide papers. Rosa was imprisoned for 15 months on the lesser charge of concealing the birth.
During 1842 Ashton made several trips to Port Adelaide escorting prisoners who were to be transported to Hobart. One Aboriginal prisoner was whipped (75 lashes) in the presence of Moorhouse the Protector of Aborigines and several hundred people. In October an Aborigine from Port Lincoln received a similar treatment. During April 1843 Ashton was away to Port Lincoln with two Aborigines. One was to be hanged in his own country, the other to serve a life sentence. Another Aborigine was hanged in Adelaide in August 1843.
Occasionally we find a personal entry in the journal. Reading between the lines we can gain some idea what conditions were like in the gaol and more importantly what people did or didn’t do in certain circumstances. A good example is that of an Aborigine sentenced to gaol for exposing his body in public. He had been swimming in the Torrens, no law against that, but the locals didn’t like him swimming among them and this was a good charge to get rid of him.
During his time as Governor of the Gaol Ashton was constantly assisted by his wife Charlotte. She was involved with the care of women and children. Several of whom gave birth in prison while others were nursing their babies when arrested. Ashton always tried to separate child prisoners from the rest but this was not always possible. There were only sections for males, females and debtors, none for children or the dangerous or criminal insane such as William Wilkins or John Ryland Gill, brother to Samuel Gill.
One particular inmate, Isabella Anderson, an alcoholic, caused some serious problems for him. Being concerned for her well-being he was touched by her plight, and that of others affected by mental illness. He and his wife tried to help whenever and wherever possible. His journal entries provide a sobering insight into the place of gaols in the history of the mentally ill, both male and female.
When due for release the sheriff wrote; ‘Isabella Anderson, a woman hitherto of very abandoned character and a most confirmed drunkard…. Has now become decidedly insane and since her last committal has been getting worse every day….. due for release…. Not a fit subject to be allowed to go at large… request instructions as to what is to be done with this woman’.
During Ashton’s last year as governor of the gaol many things had improved or changed. However Aborigines and white prisoners were still hanged even though some people tried to stop capital punishment. Prisoners tried or did escape – often causing substantial damage to the buildings, some debtors were still gaoled, transportation to the eastern colonies was not stopped until 1851 and as many as 12 lunatics had to be catered for. Ashton had been fair and always did the best he could, not just for the women and Aborigines but for all the inmates. His kindness of spirit, under sometimes impossible circumstances shines throughout his journal which has been expertly introduced and contextualised by Rhondda Harris.
Ashton died on 27 April 1854. In 2013 a place for offenders found not guilty due to mental incompetence was opened in Oakden. It provides transition from a secure locked ward to life in the community. It is the first of its kind in Adelaide and has been named Ashton House in recognition of William Baker Ashton's care of the mentally ill in the early Adelaide gaols.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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