Located in Thebarton, Adelaide Gaol is one of the oldest buildings in South Australia and one of the longest continually operating prisons in Australia, opening in 1841 and closing in 1988. During this time it housed over 300 000 male and female prisoners and saw 45 executions. Designed by George Strickland Kingston and based on England’s Pentonville Prison, today the Adelaide Gaol still retains much of its early character despite numerous additions and alterations. The Adelaide Gaol currently operates as a tourist attraction, museum and function centre.

A Colony Without Crime?

In 1837 offenders waiting for trial were held in a temporary wooden stockade and convicted felons were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) or to Sydney, New South Wales. Transportation continued until 1851, when British transportation laws changed, with over 200 men and women sentenced during this time (Scheiffers 2002:1).

The stockade was unhygienic, many prisoners suffered from dysentery and rheumatism, and it rapidly became dangerously overcrowded with 100 prisoners committed in 1838 where provision had been made for only 28. Consequently, in May 1840 George Strickland Kingston was commissioned to design a permanent prison for the Colony. Construction was to take priority over all other planned buildings.

Building the Adelaide Gaol: 1840-1850

In July 1840, successful tenderers Borrow and Goodier, began construction on the new gaol using stone from the nearby quarry, red bricks made on site, and imported sandstone from Van Diemen’s Land for coping, sills and towers. On Christmas Eve 1840 the first fourteen prisoners were moved to the new gaol.

Despite original estimated costs of £7 000, by 1841 the costs had exceeded £16 000 with only half the work completed, mostly due to changes to the plans by Governor Gawler. George Grey, who replaced Gawler that year, immediately stopped construction and a court case ensued when Grey refused to honour payments. Notwithstanding these problems, the Gaol was officially completed later that year.

1845 saw the first call for repairs at the Gaol and the ordering of more work, including ongoing maintenance. The outer wall was completed in 1846 and by 1848 most of the gaol was finished. The final sections of the inner wall were completed during this time.

Expansion and Improvement: 1850-1900

The second half of the 19th century saw a series of expansions, renovations and improvements to the Gaol, beginning with the construction of a work yard on the western side in 1853. In 1854 Yatala Labour Prison opened and Adelaide Gaol became primarily a prison for remand and short term prisoners. Many prisoners were employed within the prison bakehouse and kitchen or as cleaners and maintenance workers. Others were permitted to work outside the walls in the vegetable gardens or olive plantations, or were employed in building roads, planting trees or damming the Torrens (Hill 2006:6).

In 1858 the ground and first floor of a new multi-storey cell block was constructed. In 1862 a bluestone cell block was erected, and in 1864 part of the original central 1841 cell block was demolished to make way for another two storey building between. 1864 was also the year that the Gaol was supplied with gas for lighting.

A new cell block (the Remand Centre) was constructed in 1871, with cells facing into a central corridor rather than back to back. This was followed in 1872 by stage one of a new service wing, stage two of which was completed by 1879. This wing, to the south of the original prison and now sitting between the New Building and the rest of the Gaol, has undergone many alterations and at closure housed the bakery and kitchens.

With up to three prisoners sharing cells in 1875 (Scheiffers 2002:28) there was increasing concern over overcrowding and poor conditions, which resulted in the construction of the New Building in 1879.

From 1884 a magistrate began to visit the Gaol once a fortnight to hear complaints, answer questions and to oversee the trials of prisoners who had broken rules (News 7 November 1942 p.4). The majority of cases recorded in the Prisoner Misconduct Books 1885-1956 (State Records of South Australia, GRS/2758) relate to minor fights between prisoners, possession of prohibited goods and destruction or defacing of the cell or items within it and were mostly punished by a period of solitary confinement.

Adelaide Gaol in the early 20th Century: 1900-1942

Although there were fewer major structural alterations in the early 20th century, the Gaol did continue to change in the years leading up to the Second World War. 1905 saw a new wall erected to separate different classes of prisoners and in 1916 electric lights were installed in the New Building’s padded cells. By1942 every cell in the gaol was fitted with electric lights, which could remain on until 9pm.

1942 also saw a change of fashion for the women in the gaol with the old uniform of ankle length grey-blue cotton dresses, flannel petticoats, poke bonnets, white stockings and black laced boots replaced with shorter blue dresses, broad-brimmed hats and tan shoes (News 7 November 1942 p.4).

Military Use: 1942-1946

During the Second World War (1942) part of the New Building was taken over by the military to be used as a detention barracks, as well as to hold some foreign nationals under the Enemy Aliens Act (Scheiffers 2002:35). While soldiers and regular prisoners were usually kept separate, in 1945 an enquiry found that 'soldiers under detention for purely military purposes were adversely affected by contact with prisoners with civil convictions' (The Advertiser, 4 October 1945 p.6).  After the war, in 1946, the military moved out of the New Building and it was extensively repaired and restored to return it to its pre-war state.

Post War Repairs and Additions: 1945-1970

Several changes occurred across the Gaol following the war. In 1947 radios with headphones were installed in cells but were replaced, in 1958, with fixed speakers. It is reported that these radios were most often tuned to classical or religious stations (Scheiffers 2002:37) but by the 1980s the graffiti suggests that SAFM was the most common radio station listened to by prisoners.

In 1956 a non-contact visitors’ centre was constructed which meant that prisoners and their visitors no longer had to shout across the Sally Port, but could sit at booths and talk. This also reportedly led to more contraband being smuggled into the prison.

In 1961 Dr Blum (the dentist) began to visit weekly and he, along with the doctor (who had begun visiting in 1955), greatly improved the health of the prisoners.

The first threat of major demolition of buildings in the 20th century came in 1965 due to the poor condition of some of the older structures. Heritage listing prevented destruction. The inability to sufficiently upgrade the gaol to modern prison specifications resulted in a decrease in living standards which ultimately lead to its closure.

Conversion to an all Male Facility: 1970s

In 1969 female prisoners were transferred to the Northfield Women's Rehabilitation Centre and the gaol became an all male facility.  A new central watch tower was built in 1972 which allowed for greater surveillance of the yards and the Induction Centre, Activity Room and Library replaced the female laundry and toilet, the women’s kitchen became a classroom and the Yard 3 dorm became a clothing store.  The men also took over the care of the rose garden which had been established by female prisoners in 1932.

Final Alterations, Construction and Closure: 1980-1988

Concerns over the cost of maintaining heritage buildings were raised again in the 1980s and the decision was made to allow the Gaol to deteriorate, with plans to close the prison by the end of the decade. Very few alterations were made during this time, with exceptions being the conversion of a space in Yard 3 to the Activity Room in 1980 and installation of security cameras and exterior lighting in 1984. Contact visitations were also allowed for the first time in 1984.

In 1986 remand prisoners were moved out of the Adelaide Gaol and sent to the newly constructed Adelaide Remand Centre with longer term prisoners moved out in increments. Inmates were sent to other institutions, or, for those nearing the end of their sentence, granted early release, until on 3 February 1988, the final night of operation only six prisoners remained (Scheiffers 2002:123-124).

On 4 February 1988 the Gaol was officially decommissioned and in the process of turning the Gaol into a heritage and tourism site the State Heritage Branch ensured that:

as much of the heritage material as possible remained intact and in situ. Prisoners were invited to leave personal items in their cells when they finally walked out. These items included clothing, books and posters. (Scheiffers 1999:3).

Unfortunately many of these personal items have since been removed, although some stickers and posters do remain on the walls and doors of a few cells.

A Tourist Attraction: 1989-Present.

The Adelaide Gaol first opened to the public on the weekend of 14-15 August 1988 with tickets sold through Bass. Over 4 000 people attended, with following open weekends in June, July, August and September 1989 attracting between 500 and 1 000 visitors (Sheiffers 1999:3-4).

The gaol proved extremely popular as a tourist attraction with visitor numbers continuing to rise over the next few years. Self-guided tours were introduced in 1997 and from the early 1990s the Adelaide gaol was used for functions, festivals, movie screenings and charity events, which continue to this day. In 2013, the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) took over management.

Executions at the Adelaide Gaol

>On 18 November 1840, while the gaol was still under construction, Joseph Stagg, a runaway convict from Van Diemen’s Land was hanged for the murder of John Gofton. He was the first of forty five prisoners executed at the Adelaide Gaol. Stagg and a further six men were executed on a portable gallows outside the gaol until 1858 when an Act of Parliament prohibited public executions. From 1861 to 1883 prisoners were executed on a portable gallows between the gaol’s walls. Amongst the thirteen executed in this time was Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman executed in South Australia, on 13 December 1873.  William Burns, a sailor, was executed in January 1883 for the murder of Henry Loton on board the Douglass. Burns’ grave, located between the walls of the gaol, is decorated with inscribed graffiti of sailing ships.

From 1894 to 1950 executions were undertaken in a permanent gallows in the New Building. Twenty one prisoners were executed at these gallows before the construction of a forth gallows in the Hanging Tower where the final four prisoners were executed beginning with John Balaban in 1953 and ending with Glen Valance, the final man executed in South Australia on 24 November 1964.

Archaeology at the Adelaide Gaol

>Excavations undertaken in 2007 uncovered five distinct levels of occupation. Level one, which dated from prior to European settlement showed evidence of Indigenous use of the site through the discovery of stone tools. Level two showed evidence of early European settlement and was dated to between 1836 and 1840 through the discovery of a range of artefacts including glass, ceramic, buttons and a child’s tooth. Bricks, animal bones and scrap metal marked level three which dated from the gaol’s construction, 1840-1847. Level four, dating from 1847 to 1900 showed the original layout of the building which had been divided into six cells. Artefacts recovered from this layer revealed activities undertaken by female prisoners including oakum picking. The final level, level five, dated from 1900 and contained evidence of the building’s use as a recreation area and tea room. The excavations remain open and can be viewed by the public along with a range of the artefacts recovered.

In 2013 a large portion of the Adelaide Gaol’s extensive graffiti was recorded. Over 4 500 individual graffito were identified and analysed and it was discovered that location and visibility, along with the passage of time, both short term within an individual sentence and overall throughout the gaol’s operation, impacted the amount of graffiti and the themes expressed within it. Additionally, the graffiti reflected increased drug use and an increase in racism and political extremism in the second half of the 20th century, the emergence of 1960s counter culture, and a change in the way people identified themselves at the turn of the last century. The graffiti was also able to give some indication of the effectiveness of prison education programs and recidivism rates of the 1970s and 1980s (Agutter: 2013).

By Rhiannon Agutter, History Trust of South Australia

Uploaded 23 February 2015

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Adelaide Gaol, c.1843

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 2434/37, Public Domain.

Adelaide Gaol, 1933

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 10005, Public Domain.

Adelaide Gaol, c1945

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 46172, Public Domain

Adelaide Gaol, front entrance, 1971

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: 23434, Public Domain.

Adelaide Gaol Tower, 2007
Courtesy of/Photographer:Peripitus
Adelaide gaol cell block, 2007
Courtesy of/Photographer:Peripitus


The Governor and staff at the Adelaide Gaol, 1850

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA B 17790, Public Domain.

William B. Ashton, c.1854

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 25769, Public Domain.

Elizabeth, Thomas and Tom Woolcock, c.1865

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 12311, Public Domain

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