Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Newcastle Gaol - 1818 - 1860

Newcastle gaol was constructed in 1816 - 1818 on a site overlooking the ocean above Newcastle beach and divided from the inhabited portion of the town by a tract of sand. The vegetation was said to have been removed from these sand hills to prevent escaping convicts concealing themselves.

The Gaol was constructed during Commandant James Wallis' tenure at Newcastle.

Newcastle Gaol

Enlargement from map entitled Port Hunter and its Branches (c.1819)from the Dixon Collection. State Library of NSW

James Clohesy was employed as Overseer of the Stonemasons for most of this time. In correspondence dated 7 July 1823 Clohesy outlined the projects he had worked on at Newcastle. His correspondence is significant in the early history of Newcastle.....I held the situation of Overseer of Stone Masons and builder nearly seven years; that I drew the plan of and executed the church, erected then in the year 1818; that I laid the foundation stone of the pier there to under Knobbys Island to the Mainland; and other public works there such as the Gaol, Hospital, Officers Quarters. [21]

The Gaol was built in the Georgian style with grid windows and pilasters topped by a pediment. At ground level on each side there was an attached room, perhaps used as a guard house. The building was two-storied and (later) surrounded by a stone wall twelve feet high with foundations of stone and walls of brick. In the interior of the structure, wide corridors ran the entire extent of the building on either side of which were strong barred cells. The upper story was similar. By the sketch above it was similar although much smaller than, the Hyde Park Barracks structure in Sydney which was designed by architect Francis Greenway.

In the Newcastle Gaol yard, various instruments of torture stood out prominently. Here the convicts were flogged by Scourgers and public Executions were carried out. Outside the walls a cottage stood which was occupied by the keepers and turnkeys; through this cottage an entrance led to the interior of the gaol. The building was substantially constructed of brick, stone and hardwood. [15]

Gaolers 1818 - 1830

Henry Dale was employed as gaoler until his demise in 1819 when Morris Landers was appointed to the position.

Landers gave evidence before Commissioner J.T. Bigge in January 1820........

1. How long have you been in your present situation? About ten months.

2. Are you a prisoner? I am a prisoner for life.

3. What is your pay or allowance? I have no pay, but 1 have a ration and a half and the indulgence of a government man.

4. How do you employ the government man? He works for a settler who allows me seven shillings per week and he [the settler] gets his [the convict's] ration.

5. What is the number of prisoners now confined in the gaol? Sixty six and of these twelve are sick........

In May 1822 James Croft was appointed Gaoler. Croft was an ex convict who arrived on the Lady Castlereagh in 1818 after being sentenced to transportation for life in Leicester.

He petitioned for emancipation in 1823 [21].....

James Croft Petition

Petition for emancipation of James Croft per Lady Castlereach in 1823

In May 1827 the Grand Jurors assembled in Newcastle where they visited various government buildings including the church, wharf and gaol. They declared the Newcastle gaol to be clean and in good order and the provisions wholesome at this time. [7]

Female Factory at the Gaol

The Female Factory at Parramatta was over crowded in 1828. A number of the women there were not available for assignment because they were encumbered with children. After an inspection of Newcastle gaol by the Chief Engineer, Captain Dumaresq, plans were put in place to prepare the gaol for the reception of one hundred and fifty women from Parramatta. They were to be employed as usefully as possible. Once estimates of expense were approved it was proposed to build walls, lodges, gates and partitions to accommodate the women. [1] Although women had been held in the gaol before, this was the beginning of the Female Factory at Newcastle where a separate area was designated for them.

Gaolers and Turnkeys 1830 - 1835

Francis Beattie who arrived on the Indian in 1810 was employed as gaoler in 1830. In 1831 John Hooper, turnkey and Robert Young the scourger were tried for the manslaughter by hanging with a rope, of inmate John Mason. They were convicted and sentenced to be imprisoned for three months. The Report of the trial in the Sydney Gazette underlines the barbarity of the times and makes interesting reading for anyone who had an ancestor incarcerated in Newcastle gaol in the 1820s and 1830s.

Samuel Bailey
was employed as turnkey at the Gaol in 1830 - 1831.

Henry Kingsmill was employed as gaoler in the years 1831 - 1833. He was appointed gaoler at Parramatta in 1833.

The old Newcastle stalwart John Butler Hewson succeeded Henry Kingsmill as gaoler at Newcastle gaol in 1833.

Newcastle GaolNewcastle Gaol top right

Gaoler John Field 1835 - 1845

John Field who had been Chief Constable at Port Stephens was appointed gaoler on 4th July 1835. His wife Eliza Jane née Brady was appointed Matron on the same day.

The gaol was visited by Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker on 24th July 1836 and about 120 prisoners were addressed by the missionaries who remained six days in Newcastle. As well as the Newcastle gaol, Backhouse and Walker visited the iron gang at the Breakwater and Iron Bark Creek bridge party; held religious interviews in the town post office and conducted temperance meetings. During their visit they met with Major Crummer, Rev. Wilton and Dr. George Brooks. One of their final private visits was to John and Eliza Field at the gaol. [16]

Classification of Prisoners

In addition to the hardened criminals of both sexes that formed the main part of the establishment, there were several persons confined for debts and others for breaches of the Masters and servants Act. In 1840 a Bill for the adoption of certain parts of the English Prison Act which would empower Magistrates to visit and Report on the state of the Gaols in their respective Districts came into effect. However, according to some it didn't address all the necessary issues such as classification of prisoners.

Correspondence dated December 1840 explained some of the inadequacies at the Newcastle gaol.....

Gaol Discipline. We are happy to perceive that His Excellency has introduced a short Bill for the better regulation of the Gaols in the Colony. A magistrate is to be appointed as visitor, with powers, we presume, such as are exercised by visiting magistrates at home where it is usual to associate a clergyman with the official visitors.

Another very great improvement in the present discipline is to be enforced by the Bill we have alluded to, which is to keep persons confined for various offences employed during the day at some kind of light work. No-one who knows anything of the internal economy of our Colonial gaols, will attempt to deny that this alteration will be an improvement. It is painful to see men wandering up and down a Court Yard from sunrise until four or five o'clock in the afternoon, with nothing on earth to do but to talk of by-gone crimes, and to devise plans for the commission of fresh ones when again let loose upon society.

We regret that His Excellency's Bill makes no provision for the proper classification of the confines. This we conceive to be a vital error. Immigrant boys of from sixteen to eighteen years of age are indiscriminately herded with old and notorious convicts, and too often leave the gaol with minds prepared to do anything rather than return to the paths of honest industry.

The same is to be said of the female division of the gaol. A child of twelve years of age is now lying in Newcastle Gaol (an emigrant we regret to say, and a native of Scotland); she is obliged to herd with the most degraded of her sex, and to learn from them the vices that have caused their own degradation. The unfortunate child is committed for theft; she was sent from Patrick' Plains about a fortnight before the last Maitland Quarter Sessions - too late to be included among those who were tried at that session, she must therefore remain in the society we have described until February; her four months primary imprisonment will do much to confirm her in the evil propensities which have already but too clearly manifested themselves. Imprisonment is a punishment intended as much for the correction of the delinquent as for, his punishment ; but how -is it possible to hope to effect any amendment in the morals and habits of young, and comparatively slight offenders, if these are compelled to eat, drink, sleep, converse, and associate with hoary veterans in the paths of iniquity ?

The Gaol of Newcastle is eminently unsuited to its present purpose; it is a felons' gaol, a prison for minor offenders, a debtors' prison, a female factory, and a female felons' gaol. The building is old and rotten, so much so that half a dozen resolute villains might with ease break out ; the wonder is that such attempts have not been made. The security of the prisoners depends exclusively upon the vigilance of the gaoler and his assistants, but in no degree upon the strength of the building. When speaking of it as a debtors' gaol, we think it just as well to inform those whose misfortunes may possibly compel them to suffer arrest, that what is called the Debtors' Prison in Newcastle Gaol is a room eighteen feet by twelve, in which all who come to the gaol as debtors are compelled to stow away. It may be as well to remind expectant arrestees, that by a late alteration in the Rules of the Supreme Court, a party arrested and lodged in the Debtors' Prison in Newcastle, cannot proceed to Sydney by order of the Sheriff as formerly, he must, employ both Attorney and Council to procure an order of Judge of the Supreme Court to obtain a removal to Sydney, so that an additional expense of ten pounds is incurred, Making in all fifteen pounds to obtain an order and to cover the Sheriff's Bailiff, expense to remove a debtor to Carters' Barracks in Sydney.

Possibly when the Maitland Gaol is finished, which is expected will be the case about the commencement of the Greek Calendar; though others more sanguine say in the beginning of the ensuing century, a better division may be made.

Newcastle Gaol is fit for three purposes only -it should be a debtors prison exclusively, a female factory and hospital or a gaol for the confinement of persons who have come free, or were born in the Colony, and who may be sentenced to various periods of imprisonment. A Tread-mill ought to be established in the Gaol of Newcastle at once ; its work might be made to pay its original cost in less than one year. At present men are sent under sentence of hard labour to Newcastle Gaol for various periods, but there is no labour for them to perform. Men are sentenced by the various Benches up the Hunter to be worked upon the Tread-mill,- these must be forwarded to Sydney at the expense of the country.

The truth is, that the population of the Colony has outgrown its prison accommodation, so that contrary to the principles of British law, offenders are visited with all the thunders of the law, but are entirely excluded from the mercies of the Gospel. Our prisons, instead of being places for the punishment and reformation of delinquents, are, in point of fact, seminaries for the inculcation and nurture of the vilest and most diabolical crimes. Surely some effort ought to be made to mitigate this state of thing. Can rulers and magistrates imagine that they will correct the evil dispositions of the people through the instrumentality of our present gaol system
Let prisoners see and feel that the law is made not only with a view to punish offenders, but also to instruct them in the paths of moral rectitude and virtue, that they may return to society improved by the discipline they have been subjected to. What would a Howard, or a Fry, say, if either of them could now, in the middle of the nineteenth century, pay a visit to the Gaols of New South Wales ? - [17]

The debtor's correspondence dated 10th September 1841, included a rough sketch showing the design of the prison which proved that the main yard of the gaol ran down to the sea beach and was the common yard for felons, prisoners under committal and confinees either with or without hard labour.

The women's yard which was separated by a wall from the common yard, also ran down to the beach.

The debtors and servants' yard, known as the front yard, was on the town side of the building but the felons and other prisoners had to pass through that yard in going from their cells to the common yard and back again. The document reveals a great deal not only about the physical aspect of the gaol but the classification of prisoners and day to day running of the gaol. The correspondence was gleaned from government documents and re-printed in the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1911 as part of a series of articles on the early history of Newcastle.

There were six distinct classes of persons, who, in greater or smaller numbers, constantly occupied the gaol -

1st. Men committed by the several benches in the district for trial at the Circuit Criminal Court or at the Courts of General Quarter Sessions

2nd. Men who have been convicted at one of these courts and remaining in gaol until forwarded to their destination

3rd Men who are sentenced to periods of confinement either with or without hard labour

4th Servants assigned to the gaol by the Government

5th Debtors in execution from the Supreme Court and from the Court of Requests

6th. Women confined for punishment and women eligible for assignment to private services. The latter occupy a portion of the gaol which is entirely separated from that occupied by the men.

Proposals for Improvement

The correspondent also submitted proposals for the improvement of the gaol - A draft of the plan of the gaol was included together with a second one marked in red ink with recommendations for alterations devised by the gaoler John Field which would cut off all communication between the felons and the servants, confinees, debtors and persons who daily visit the debtors.

The correspondent referred to newly arrived emigrants who were sentenced by the benches to imprisonment for terms either with or without hard labour for minor offences. There were about 25 such men in the gaol at the time, many of whom were there for breaches of the Masters and Servants Act.

The worst feature of the system was said to be the herding together of felons and men who had merely absconded from service in order to get a better job with another master. The latter class were chiefly immigrants. Not only were they together all day long in the common yard, but nothing was given them to do and they passed the time singing songs and listening to the exploits of highwaymen and notorious criminals.

The justices in their wisdom apportion the punishment to the nature of the offence and naturally suppose that the intention of the Legislature is carried into effect. To the repeated and hardened offender, hard labour is prescribed in addition to the confinement. This sentence however, is a perfect nullity; virtually, the punishment is not more severe on the old offender than it is on the raw, misguided emigrant. The sentence of confinement in gaol and confinement with hard labour are practically synonymous. There is not any hard labour. There is not labour of any sort in the gaol and the inevitable consequence is that the man who enters the gaol a misguided, although working man is discharged a lazy scamp; and by constant contact with the felons it is something more than a miracle if he be not an accomplished thief to boot.
Your Excellency will perceive on reference to plan numbered one, that even in the present state of the gaol regard is paid to the classification of the men by night....

Classes numbers one and two are locked by night into what is called the strong room.
Class number three is confined in two rooms on the upper story. Class four is also locked up at night in a room adjoining that occupied by the debtors. In the daytime the first three classes are turned into the common yard, where, from sunrise until sunset they lie basking in the sun, either singing songs, the burden of which are deeds of highwaymen or they are grouped together relating the knavish exploits of their youth, in which the grosser the facts the greater pride they appear to take in the recital. It is there and then that the uninitiated acquire habits of laziness, which they will not easily shake off when liberated. It is there the emigrant, whose greatest offence has been a desire to get clear from one engagement and enter another service in which he can obtain a higher rate or wages becomes familiar with vice, and is turned out a finished vagabond. To provide hard labour if possible and if not practicable to provide some sort of labour for this class and to detach them from the felons are subjects worthy of your Excellency's consideration as a Governor, a philanthropist, and a man.

With reference to the separation of the classes by day, the common yard is sufficiently capacious to admit of its being divided into two, without detracting from its healthiness or its convenience. It stands on the declivity of a hill, and is an inclined plane, the top of the lower wall being a little higher than the base of the upper part. The aspect is seaward, and a healthy breeze always blows into and ventilates, the yard and that part of the building opposed to it. The length of the two yards, and the range for exercise as in plan two will not be altered by the division. The expense of this alteration will be the cost of the bricks and lime; the labour can be performed by the hard labour confinees. I would here remark that a passage carried through the building as suggested will permit a freer ventilation of the gaol and will greatly contribute to the health of the prisoners.....

The gaoler who has the general superintendence of the gaol, the supervision of the accounts and returns with other duties which frequently take him from the gaol for many days at one time ( I allude to his attendance at the Circuit Courts and Courts of Quarter Session with his prisoners) could not spare time to minutely inspect the class. The turnkey who appears to have been judiciously selected, is a shrewd intelligent man, and my observation of his active and bustling habits satisfy me that he is fully competent to carry out such a scheme and that he would do it well. His duties however would become more onerous and more complicated and would require and merit an increase to his salary.
Ten Government men are assigned to the gaol as servants. Their duties consists in supplying the gaol with water, cleaning the rooms, cooking, going errands into the town, and attending generally on the prisoners. The work of one half of these can be performed by the hard labour men, and five out of the ten may be exchanged for mechanics selected from the Government establishment who might act as under-overseers and instructors to the prisoners under the immediate superintendence of the turnkey. ....

If any part of this plan shall find your approval, I shall be richly repaid. If, on the contrary, your Excellency shall view my suggestions as chimerical, I shall still have the gratification of feeling that my motives were good, although I have failed in my purpose. I have etc.
, J.D.C
(This was probably John Duncan Campbell who was admitted to Newcastle gaol with ten other men on 21st August 1840. On his arrival at the gaol he refused to give any information about himself whatsoever. The proceedings of the case can be found in the Hunter River Gazette).


It seems likely that these recommendations never eventuated as by 1842 the gaol was said to be falling into disrepair. When Major Crummer applied for funds to make repairs because of insecure facilities in January 1842 he was told to apply to the Officer in charge of the Stockade for the use of some of the convicts.

In March 1842 John Field submitted a report to Major Crummer... Sir, I have to report that the brickwork of the coppers in which the prisoners' rations are cooked is in such a state of decay that it is with the greatest difficulty they can be used; and since my reporting this circumstance to you on the 17th ultimo. It is so much worse that I was obliged to employ one of the confinees in the gaol nearly the whole of Saturday night last in temporarily repairing the work to enable the cook to have the meals ready by anything like the usual times. I respectfully suggest that some means be immediately issued to place the coppers in a serviceable state. There is a note on the back of the letter in Major Crummer's handwriting 'Can Lieutenant Fraser allow some bricklayers from the gang to repair the work at the gaol so urgently required?'[3]

The Gaol in the 1840's

The gaol became overcrowded as the Assizes dates neared. In the beginning of 1842 a total of 164 people were incarcerated behind the walls - 111 men and 53 women. The Governor of the gaol was congratulated for his management of the situation at this time for preventing an outbreak of 'pestilential fever' due to the overcrowding.

Later in the year there were several complaints made against John Field, some by ex- turnkeys and also by the Magistrate at Maitland Edward Denny Day. In May 1842 there had been an outbreak by five prisoners from either the Stockade or the gaol, while John Field was absent at his Farm. Read more about the escapees here. Major Crummer was called on to investigate the circumstances and John Field was called on to defend himself.

John Field's letter of explanation to the Governor was accepted and no further charges were placed against him, although he was reprimanded - The Governor trusts the forbearance now shown to him will render him more circumspect in his conduct in future [4]

Prisoners may have been forced to travel great distances. In Scone a complaint in the early 1840's was that even those convicted of minor offences such as drunkenness were harshly treated. If they were unable to pay their fine they were sentenced to 48 hours in Newcastle gaol, despite the availability of two pairs of stocks in the Scone lock up. Many were willing to make any sacrifice to save themselves the walk to Newcastle and were known to pay 10/- for the loan of a guinea to pay the fine. If they were unable to raise the required amount they could expect to be absent for up to a month as the escort to Newcastle was often very slow.

In June 1842 a correspondent wrote to the Sydney Gazette telling of the decayed state of the Newcastle gaol - 'a military guard is requisite to prevent the escape of the prisoners. About sixty men were sent for trial to Maitland and were it not for the military guard stationed at the gaol day and night, the prisoners with ease may have thrown it down and escaped'.


By 1842 executions were no longer being carried out within the walls of the gaol or in a prominent position nearby.

Thomas Homer
who was executed for the murder of his overseer Mr. Stone had to walk quite a distance to the gallows which were erected in a hollow and able to be 'witnessed only by those assembled on the spot'. A gruesome record is contained in a letter from John Field to the Police Magistrate, dated 27th September 1843 -

'Sir, In consequence of several unhappy men being at present under sentence of death in this gaol and it appearing probably that the drop may be required, I beg respectfully to report to you that it is absolutely necessary it should undergo some repairs, to render it serviceable when required; and in order to prevent any undue haste or carelessness in effecting them, I now beg to represent the necessity of the repairs being performed, to afford time for them to be done properly and effectually' The matter was referred to the Governor, and the Colonial Engineer was directed, on 2nd October, to 'Give the requisite orders for repairing the apparatus employed for the execution of criminals at Newcastle'

Select here
to read about the execution of bushranger Long Tom Forrester at Newcastle gaol in 1844.

Sometimes the military were called on to restore order at the gaol. In 1844 a disturbance took place in the gaol airing yard where male prisoners were confined. The main instigators were Norfolk Island expirees who were again imprisoned after escaping from the Newcastle hospital in the cutter 'Brothers'. The men became unruly and insubordinate towards the gaol constables and Mr. Field immediately called for a military guard from the barracks. The soldiers secured the prisoners who were later sentenced to solitary confinement for a month.
Select here to find out more about the men who absconded on the Brothers in May 1844.

Calls for a New Gaol at Maitland - 1840's

The Newcastle gaol was said to be capable of holding only half the number that were incarcerated there.

Select here
to read a former inmate' description of the gaol in 1843.

In December 1845, Major Crummer drew attention to the state of the gaol and the outer walls. His correspondence dated 2 December 1845 to the Colonial Secretary as follows:

Sir, I have the honour to draw your attention to the state of the outer walls in particular of this prison, the bricks of which being so washed away from the action of the sea air, and sun as to have rendered them so very insecure that apprehensions are entertained by competent persons who made an inspection of them that they will fall. The overseer of the public works at this place, at my request examined the state of the gaol throughout and, as I am informed by him, made his report upon its general condition to the Colonial Architect some time back, but no steps have been taken towards carrying into effect these most essential repairs; and I feel it my duty to bring the present dilapidated condition of the buildings under the notice of his Excellency the Governor, in order that no blame shall be attributable to me or to the gaoler in the event of any accidents occurring there from. The general health of the prisoners has been good and the provisions issued were of a fair and wholesome quality. The regulations established for the general guidance of the gaol appear to have been strictly complied with

By 1843 Maitland was campaigning for a new gaol. Situated 20 miles from Maitland, Newcastle Gaol was described as miserably deficient both as regards safe custody and the classification of prisoners. Bond and free, debtors and felons were all indiscriminately mixed together, so the recommendations made two years previously had never eventuated. Gaoler John Field thought some inmates had committed petty thefts for the purpose of being sent to gaol as they had nothing to do and lived better than they did out of prison; there was not only no hard work in the gaol but still no work of any kind by which the prisoners could be employed. Besides the inadequacies of the gaol considerable expense was incurred in the transmission of prisoners from Newcastle to Maitland at each Circuit Court and Quarter Sessions and back to Newcastle after they had taken their trials. At the end of the year 1843 it was noted in the Gaol Entrance Books that a total number of 911 people had been admitted to the gaol in the previous 12 months. Large batches of prisoners were sent from Newcastle to Maitland from time to time for trial.

On the 3rd September 1844, Major Crummer wrote to the police magistrate at Maitland:
' Sir, As the military guard granted by Major Last to escort the number of prisoners proceeding from the gaol at this place to Morpeth by steamer tomorrow morning may not be adequate to ensure their safe custody from thence to Maitland. I have deemed it requisite to acquaint you of the fact in order that you may be enable to render assistance by your constables being in attendance at the steamer on her arrival at Morpeth to afford the military additional strength in conducting them to Maitland.'

The number of prisoner on that occasion was between 40 and 50. The military guard consisted of one sergeant and six soldiers. One constable also went with the guard [11]

Death of John Field

John Field died in May 1845. Major Crummer reported the death of Mr. Field on 16th May 1845 in the following letter to the sheriff -

Sir, it is with deep regret I have to report the death of Mr. Field, the keeper of the gaol at this place which took place at three o'clock this morning. I have in consequence directed the principal turnkey Mr. Andrew Milligan to take charge of the establishment until such time as a successor to Mr. Field may be appointed.

In 1846 John Field's wife Eliza appealed to the Legislative Council for some consideration should be granted her on account of the twenty years service her husband had given as gaoler at Newcastle.

John Field's Obituary - Mr. Field's private worth will be justly remembered by many, even beyond the circle of his family and friends. But one whose personal knowledge enables him to record his character as a public officer, feels that in doing so he discharges a religious duty. Mr. F. obtained the appointment of gaoler about ten years ago, by the recommendation of Sir Edward Parry, whose cordial solicitude for his welfare procured for Mr. F., when his patron left the colony, the countenance and good offices of that excellent man s friends. Having resolved to correct the demeanour of the miserable persons under his charge, he entered on the task by enforcing the sanctity of the Lord's Day. This he effected with a perseverance, kindness, and consistency to be ascribed to other sentiments than those of official obligation. But his anxiety on their behalf went beyond considerations of discipline. When he could do so without violence to peculiarities of faith, he spoke of truths on which he rested his own hopes of happiness ; and we may hope that many of that class of persons to whom the gaol of Newcastle was as the gates of death, learned the way of salvation through the prayers and persuasions of their gaoler. A public servant who seeks in the first place the approbation of God and his conscience, meets with many vexations ; satisfied with the rectitude of his own intentions, he does not perceive the propriety of securing the commendations of others, nor does he fear their censure. This was Mr. F.'s experience. Although honored with the kind consideration of the functionaries of the courts of law ; although allowed by the Judges the privilege of speech to an extent approaching to familiarity, because of their confidence in his good faith ; although his eulogium was repeatedly pronounced by these dignitaries from the bench and in their chambers ; yet he was sometimes misunderstood, and generally most severely condemned when most punctually dutiful. These calamities nearly overwhelmed him, but they are mentioned here because of his reliance upon the particular providence of God, whose signal mercies in raising up friends in his distress, in the most remarkable as well as unexpected manner, he used to recount with overflowing gratitude, and with the humility of a Christian. [20]

Gaoler William Tristram 1845 - 1848

William Tristram was appointed in John Field's place.

On 19th May 1845 Major Crummer wrote to the Sheriff concerning the appointment of a matron over the female prisoners -

Sir, In answer to your letter of the 17th instant upon the subject of a matron to the female factory at this place, I beg to acquaint you that Mr. Tristram, the present gaoler, has informed me that he is married, and that his wife is now living with him at Newcastle [13]

The following communication from Major Crummer to the Colonial Secretary gives particulars of the escape of another prisoner from Newcastle Gaol in 1845. The man was awaiting his trial for housebreaking with firearms. ..

Police Office, Newcastle 10th November 1845.
Sir, I do myself the honour to transmit for the information of his Excellency the Governor, the enclosed statement, taken by me respecting the escape of the prisoner from this gaol on the 5th November. It appears that the escape of the prisoner was effected without the knowledge of the officers of the gaol and might have remained a secret but for the unusual appearance of slabs being found against the wall of the airing yard, which created suspicion; as the precautionary measure of calling the roll of the prisoners upon their transfer to and from the airing yard, previous to the constable taking and resigning charge of them, had not up to that date been adopted by the present gaoler or his predecessor, Mr. Field - an omission which certainly was the primary cause of the prisoner not having been missed when the prisoners were removed from the airing yard at dinner time on the day in question. The constable (William Nelson) on duty in the yard did not, I have reason to believe connive at the escape of the prisoner. By the confession of the latter, the constable after the prisoner left the yard, visited the only building there; and when he went the round of its walls, the prisoner followed stealthily in rear of him out of view, and thus eluded his notice. The planks found against the wall, which assisted the prisoner in his escape were ript up from the lining of the brick platform in the yard; but even with out this assistance the state of the interior face of the wall of the airing yard affords very great facility for escape as the bricks of which it is built are so decomposed as to present sure footing to any prisoner of activity disposed to take advantage of any favourable opportunity that should present itself for escaping . This state of the walls of the prison yard has been represented and reports sent to the Colonial architect some time back but without the desired result; and I feel confident that had the walls been in a proper state of repair, the present occurrence would not have to be recorded. I beg to add that the prisoner was taken and brought back to the gaol by Constable Lackey in the course of a few hours. [12]

Transfer of Prisoners to Maitland Gaol 1848

A Proclamation dated December 20 1848 was published in the Government Gazette declaring the gaol in East Maitland to be the gaol for the Northern Circuit District. On 31 December 1848 the Newcastle Gaol was closed and inmates were transferred to Maitland Gaol by the steamer. William Tristram, the turnkeys and watchmen accompanied the prisoners to Maitland.

Newcastle Gaol Newcastle Gaol from the south - Colonial sketches: an album of views of Sydney and NSW / E. West, F. Terry, Conrad Martens et. al. - State Library of NSW

Newcastle Gaol 1848 - 1855

Some convicts remained in Newcastle to work on construction of the Newcastle Breakwater.

The number of convicted persons in Newcastle gaol from the 1st January 1855 to the 19th June according to a return laid on council table was 681. The sentences vary from a few months to 15 years, and the nature of the employment is described as follows: - quarrying stone, repairing the breakwater, removing ballast, fencing, manuring, and planting the sand hill. The following are the officers and salaries connected with the department -

Visiting justice receives £300 a year as Police Magistrate, subject to a deduction of one third the gold allowance for quarters;

Superintendent £395 12s 6d. per year with an allowance of one prisoner as servant by the Government, and a deduction of one third the gold increase for quarters;

Surgeon at £91 5s a year besides £50 as health officer, £20 as coroner, £20 as vaccinator, and one prisoner servant allowed by the Government;

Protestant clergyman at £50 per annum;

Catholic clergyman at £40;

Foreman of works £205 6s 3d per annum, with one prisoner as servant allowed by Government and one third the gold increase deducted for quarters;

One clerk at £109 10s per annum;

First overseer £159 13s 9d per annum and three other person at £95 16s 3d each with one third the gold allowance deducted for quarters. [5]

The subject was discussed in the Legislative Assembly in June....The Government are about to abolish the penal settlement at Newcastle, there being so few convicts as to render it unnecessary. Of the twenty-four convicts at Newcastle, only four were employed on public works; the boats' crews were principally employed transporting wood for the officers, and those on the beach in getting coal for the superintendent and the mechanics in working for the same person. [19]

Six months later, there was still dis-satisfaction about the expense and uselessness of the gaol. One correspondence commented in December 1855...

{Extract} -though some months have elapsed since our penal establishment here was broken up, and its furniture and implements sold, yet the buildings have been allowed to remain unappropriated, or unlet, as if liberally to afford a place to a superintendent, whose duty must principally consist in superintending the bare walls of an empty gaol, like the notable Governor and surveyor of Vancouver' Island, recently celebrated in the Examiner, whose duties for want of a population on which to exercise their powers, consisted, the one in governing the surveyor, and the other in surveying the governor; in short, the memory of the by-gone days of official comfort enjoyed in this establishment, and of the munificent feelings in regard to it which once animated our Government, and which, in the case of our superintendent, exhibit a vitality even in decay, excites poetical feeling, and beautifully illustrate' those lines of Moore's.... You may break, you may ruin the vase, If you will, But the scent of the roses remains round it still. I had almost forgotten to say that to the duties of the superintendence of the gaol is attached the heavy charge of a garden; (so called; of some two or three acres on the sea shore, in which grow a few stunted shrubs to bind the sand in which they are planted. [8]

Although the above correspondence indicates the gaol was empty, there were still prisoners held there. There was a steady stream of men and women admitted to the gaol throughout the 1850's. Often they were held there until they were tried at the Quarter Sessions at Maitland or before being sent to Parramatta to work out their sentences.

The last prisoner admitted to Newcastle gaol seems to have been John Griffin in 1859. He was discharged in January 1860 however there were others still in the gaol serving longer sentences. Newcastle gaol was used for some years for the storage of gunpowder before being condemned.

Grim Relic of the Past

It was reported that the youths of the 1870's on their way to the beach for a daily dip, often explored the interior of the grim relic of the past. Eventually the crumbling ruins were demolished and the bricks were used for the foundations of the far eastern end of Scott Street.

A little cottage near the old gaol was the only occupied building close to the beach. [8] This was probably the cottage of Rev. Christopher Vincent Dowling. Rev. Dowling was stationed at Windsor when he first came to the colony and also at East Maitland. He came to Newcastle in the 1830's. Although in the early days, Rev. Dowling may travelled vast distances to offer spiritual consolation, the cottage on Gaol Hill remained his residence for all the rest of his days. He died in January 1874 and his obituary was printed in the Freeman's Journal .....

His heart was wrung with anguish to witness the miseries of those unhappy people whose delinquencies had placed them in the hands of the law, and he did much both by remonstrance and appeal to alleviate their sufferings, which were rendered needlessly excessive by inhuman official minions. It must have been painful to the tender Christian pastor, the gentleman of culture with an ever sympathetic mind, to witness so much degradation on the part of his fellow creatures. The residence of Rev. Father Dowling was on the margin of the sea, on a little hill; and on another hill almost within speaking distance was the Old Gaol, now a mass of hideous ruins whose very appearance is suggestive of dark deeds. It will soon disappear from its prominent position on the sand hills, and with it may pass away the memory of scenes which it recalls. Where are they who tenanted it in the early portion of Father Dowling's colonial life? Military commandant, sentinel, gaoler, aye and grim functionary of the law, all or nearly all must have long since passed away

Excavation of the Old Gaol Site

The Maitland Mercury reported that the Gaol was being demolished in February 1876. -

That relic of the early population of the City of Newcastle, viz., the Old Gaol, is being rapidly removed from the surface of the earth, and before many days it will be actually, as it has long been nominally, a thing of the past. The crumbling walls are now being pulled down, and the rubbish removed in carts. At the present the institution shows to the town a long array of cells, which have been opened up to view by the pulling away of the front wall. What tales could they not unfold were they gifted with speech. [22]

Some of the walls and foundations of the old Gaol were removed about 1892 when the site was excavated for the tram terminus at the eastern end of Scott Street and it was reported that at least one of the old Newcastle residents was watching with interest the removal of the soil at the old Gaol Hill. He knew of several convicts who had been buried there and claimed to be able to identify the spot where their remains were buried.[6]

In 1897 parts of the foundations could still be seen cropping out of the sand on the 'Old Gaol Hill'.[15]

Notes and Links

1).Some of the Turnkeys and constables employed at Newcastle gaol included John Large in 1825; James Edwards; John Broadbent in 1826; James Collins in 1826; Philip Joseph in 1828; Samuel Bailey in 1830; Charles Osborne in 1837; William Berry in 1838; Matthew Frazer in 1841. Richard Mara was employed as constable in the gaol in 1828-29.

2). Findlay Kerr was employed as Clerk in 1847

3).Newcastle Gaol Description and Entrance Books have been microfilmed and are available to search at the Newcastle Public Library, Local History section and at Ancestry

4). In the 1880's there was a proposal to turn the Old Gaol site into a infectious disease hospital. Residents of Newcastle petitioned against this and eventually it was decided to locate the tram terminus on the site. In 1893 contractors were appointed and work was soon to commence preparing for the terminus. One of the first requirements was that the Gaol Hill was to be cut down by 20ft. At first much of the excavations were simply thrown over the hill onto the beach side. Measures were afterwards taken to procure as much of the earth being removed from the Hill as possible for the purpose of placing on top of the sand drift which stretched from Scott Street to the hospital. Some twelve carts were employed at the work and it was hoped that a great deal of the sand drift would be stopped. Messrs Walters and Smith, the contractors for the tramway were said to be rapidly removing the historic hill and by the end of June it was expected the excavating work would be finished. Several sidings were to be put in and a number of ash pits. It was expected that besides a commodious tram shed and workshops there would also be passenger waiting rooms and other buildings necessary for a depot.

5). In 1900 Mr. J.R. Rodgers, the contractor for building the new tram sheds at the Old Gaol site (also known as Parnell Place) was busy with the necessary excavations. The old Gaol Hill was rapidly disappearing as a result of the digging operations and during the proceedings, workmen encountered what was apparently an old cell floor, composed of brick work, the bricks being in a perfectly sound condition. [9]

6). Female prisoners admitted to Newcastle gaol in 1841:

Ellen Bain arrived per Mary Ann. Charged with Disobedience of orders and insolence at Dungog. Admitted 2 January 1841

Ellen Cleworth arrived per Surry. Sent to gaol hospital from Newcastle township on 2 January 1841

Catherine Murphy arrived per Whitby. Charged with being absent without leave at Newcastle. Admitted 8 January 1841

Mary Smith arrived per Surry. Charged with absconding at Newcastle. Admitted 8 January 1841

Catherine Logan arrived per Margaret. Charged with being absent without leave. Admitted 12 January 1841

Julia McAdam arrived per Isabella. Charged with drunkenness at Maitland. Admitted 13 January 1841

Mary McTeer arrived per George Hibbert. Charged with drunkenness at Maitland. Admitted 13 January 1841

Emilie Oxley arrived per John Renwick. Charged with absenting at Maitland. Admitted 13 January 1841

Mary Cunningham arrived per Margaret Charged with absconding from her husband at Singleton. Admitted 13 January 1841 ;

Eliza Herring arrived per George Hibbert. Charged with repeated disorderly conduct at Newcastle. Admitted 15 January 1841

Tabitha Hutchinson arrived per Mary Ann Charged Charged with repeatedly refusing to work at Newcastle. Admitted 15 January 1841

9). Members of the United States Exploring Expedition visited Newcastle gaol in December 1839


[1] The Monitor 22 March 1828

[2] Newcastle Morning Herald 24 May 1911

[3] Newcastle Morning Herald 7 June 1811

[4] Newcastle Morning Herald 21 June 1911

[5] Maitland Mercury 8 August 1855

[6] Maitland Mercury 7 May 1892

[7] The Australian 9 May 1827

[8] Newcastle Morning Herald 11 October 1933

[9] Newcastle Morning Herald 15 June 1900

[10] Newcastle Morning Herald 23 November 1910

[11] Newcastle Morning Herald 4 January 1911

[12] Newcastle Morning Herald 11 January 1911

[13] Newcastle Morning Herald 8 March 1911

[14] Newcastle Morning Herald 24 May 1911

[15] Windross, John, Ralston, J.P., Historical records of Newcastle, 1797-1897

[16] Backhouse, James, Extracts from the letters of James Backhouse: whilst engaged in a Religious Visit to Van Diemen's Land, New South Wales and South Africa accompanied by George Washington Walker, London 1842, Volume 1, p.79

[17] Sydney Gazette 10 December 1840

[18] The Empire 8 December 1855

[19] Maitland Mercury 23 June 1855

[20] Maitland Mercury 31 May 1845

[21], Colonial Secretary's Correspondence. Series: NRS 900; Fiche 3163-3253 Petitions To The Governor From Convicts For Mitigations of Sentences

[22] Maitland Mercury 19 February 1876