Wednesday, June 27, 2012

16 In A Box

“I am not guilty of the crime with which I was charged, and I told the judge so, but he would not believe me. May the Lord have mercy on our souls. Goodbye all.” - were the last words muttered on this earth by Charles Hines before the hangman, Robert  'Nosey Bob' Howard, pulled the bolt securing the trapdoor at Maitland Gaol May 21st 1897 at 9.07am, making Charles Hines the last man hanged at Maitland Gaol.

I could think of no better place to visit on a cold blustery June weekend than a mid 19th century penal establishment, so armed with my compact Sanyo S1275 camera, rugged up against the biting winds, I ventured through the gates of Maitland Gaol, entering into a world of confinement, razor wire, barred windows and surveillance.

The Maitland Gaol, which is actually situated in East Maitland (at the time the old Government/Administrative part of the Maitland district), along with Court House, sits along the grand axis of the Sir Thomas Mitchell town plan which was drawn up in 1829. The foundation stone was laid in 1844 and the reception of the first prisoners occurred in December 1848 (although some records indicate that this didn't happen until 1st January 1849). The first stage of the prison was designed by the NSW Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis, which makes Maitland Gaol the only remaining "Inspector's Gaols" and it is also the oldest substantially intact prison in NSW

The prison was constructed using local sandstone from quarries at Morpeth and Farley, with Messrs. Brodie & Craig awarded the contract (Maitland Mercury 11/3/1846). The cost of the first stage of construction is hard to ascertain, however it would seem that the initial contract cost £2,500 and was awarded  in 1846 (Maitland Mercury 2/9/1846), down from an initial estimated cost of construction of £6,327 (Sydney Gazette 19/6/1841) .      

The second stage of construction (1861 - 1887), which included the 3 storey 'B' Block and the  East Wing or 'C' Block (commenced in 1883) was designed by James Barnet, who was also responsible for the design of a lot of the regions Post Offices, including East Maitland, West Maitland (Maitland), Lambton and Singleton. 

In 1896 the prison also became listed as one of the Colony's principle prison for women inmates and they were housed in 'C' Block. 

It is a truly terrifying image as you wander around the site and note the harsh conditions that greeted all the inmates that were transported through the massive main gates. 

In 1972 the gaol was upgraded (electricty was added to 'B' Block around this time!) and from 1977 it became a Maximum Security institution, which eventually housed some of NSW's most notorious criminals including Darcy Dugan, Ray Denning, Ivan Milat, Neddy Smith, the Anita Cobby and Janine Balding murderers. 

The most chilling section, besides the Gallows (located at the front gate), is the clinical high security 5 Wing, which  was opened in 1993 to house the states worst prisoners and would have to be the most soul destroying part of the tour, with its segregation, the use of stainless steel and minimal human contact makes it  truly awful experience for casual observers And we were only there for 10mins, not 10 years! 5 Wing had all the charm of a dog pound and the ambiance of a morgue and although the other cell blocks were constructed in the 19th century, I would prefer to spend time in the notorious 'B' Block than be confined to the odious 5 Wing.           

The Maitland Gaol continued as a fully functioning prison up until its closure in 1998, then after 150 years of service it ceased its function as a prison as the cost of maintaining and securing a 19th century prison close to a heavily populated area was becoming prohibitive, so without fanfare the prisoners were transferred to other prisons in the system. The prison was then handed over to the community, which besides providing tourists a real insight into the history NSW's penal system, the prison also caters for a variety of events from Laser Skirmish to theatre groups and  ghost tours. 

If you do intend to visit Maitland Gaol, try and do the tour with a guide (self guided tours are available) for it is the stories that add real depth to the tour. Our guide was Peter Fraser, an ex-inmate, who was quite authentic in his descriptions of the day to day existence of prisoners at Maitland Gaol during latter part of the prisons life and his recollections of those days were enough to convince me that prison is not the place for me!

As for the '16 In A Box'  title for this post, well 16 prisoners were hanged in the prison and their mortal remains left in a box ... however it would seem that some of the departed souls decided to 'hang' around a bit longer!         

I'd like to thank the staff at Maitland Gaol, the online resources of the National Library of Australia & the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment for their assistance in my research for this blog. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Low Blow

When storms are approaching, most sensible people take cover, however, some less stable individuals grab their camera's and head out into the maelstrom.

Living in Newcastle we are fairly lucky with the weather,  we have a fairly temperate climate with hot summers and mild winters, all in all it is a pretty nice place to live, no cyclones, no hurricanes, no tornadoes, no ice storms, we don't even get snow!

This isn't to say that Newcastle isn't totally immune from extreme weather events and recently  we had our brush with our most unpredictable climatic visitor ... the East Coast Low (ECL). Now ECL's seem to feature on the Australian east coast around the start winter when warmer waters in the Tasman Sea (prior to this years event the sea surface temperature was around 21°) form eddy's off the coast and mix with a cold front moving through southern Australia. Although an ECL can form any time of the year, in my opinion, they seem to occur between April and late June.(more info on ECL's  can be found at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology )  

Our latest ECL occurred on the 5 - 6 June, when a low deepened off Victoria and then moved up Australian east coast bringing with it 7 mtr swell, wind speeds of 94 kp/h and 20 mm of rain. In terms of severity this storm was only a minor weather event and quickly blew itself out over two days. Which kind of makes  this latest ECL a baby when compared to the 2007 'Pasha' Storm, where Newcastle had a 14 mtr swell, wind speeds of 124 kp/h, over 200 mm of rain and caused the grounding of the 76,000 tonne bulk carrier the Pasha Bulker, or the 1974 'Sygna' Storm which had wind speeds of 165kp/h recorded at Nobbys Head! 

Since I was holidays, I like a lot of other hardy fools, braved the howling wind and driving rain to head down to Newcastle to capture what was unfolding along the coastline.

Although the conditions were nowhere near the intensity of the '07 'Pasha' storm, the conditions were spectacular, especially around the southern breakwall to Newcastle Harbour, where waves continually pounded over the walkway, quite a sight. Another rare event that was occurring  were surfers were taking advantage of perfect sets that were entering the harbour on the lee side of the breakwall and were making the most of this unique opportunity! Unfortunately  even getting as close as you could to the pounding surf the camera could not capture the awesome beauty of 7 metre white crested waves that were being continually pushed up the coastline by the intense low pressure system.

So next time you are on the Australian east coast and you hear about an East Coast Low forming in the Tasman Sea, grab the camera, clear the memory card, charge the batteries, prepare the wet weather gear and head out Although you will be cold and wet, to get this close to nature at its unpredictable fury, is truly an unforgettable event.  

A word of warning though, if you are silly enough to venture out in these conditions be very mindful of the extremely hazardous conditions that you are exposed to, especially near the coast       

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Wollombi (2325)

"Last week we noticed that at the meeting of this body several communications from his Excellency the Governor were read over. We cannot forbear saying a few words with reference to one of these letters. It conveyed permission from his Excellency to the Council to hold their future meetings in a wretched looking hovel, bearing the dignified name of post office, with the proviso that their meetings should in no way interfere with the duties of that establishment. Now to us of the township, who know the building in question, this gracious offer with its stipulation appears highly ridiculous; and we will venture to say that this murky looking affair would never have been honored by the Governor's notice had he been rightly informed of its appearance and history. We will give both in as few words as possible. It is one of a group of old ruinous road-party huts, which have been allowed to remain, a standing disgrace to the township ; it is composed of slabs, with a mixed covering of thatch and bark, and it has served in its time for a constable's barrack, a bawdy house, and a gambler's hell. Such is the concern which no doubt misrepresentation induced the Governor to offer for the accommodation of the Council." The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 29 June 1844

It would seem that the locals at Wollombi were not happy with the state of their local Post Office in 1844!

Back in 1818 Governor Lachlan Macquarie decided it was time to open up the rich fertile land on the Hunter River around Wallis Plains (present day Maitland) and Saint Patricks Plains (later known as Patrick Plains or Singleton as we know it today) to free settlers. After several attempts, including a track that roughly followed the present day Putty Road through Bulga to Singleton, the route that was eventually selected by the government was a route that was surveyed in Heneage Finch in 1825 and roughly follows the present day Great North Road. This new 240 kilometre road was commenced in 1826 and using convict labour, was finally completed in 1836. The road, although better and easier to travel than the previous attempts was still steep and rocky in parts but it levelled out into rich pasture land at Wallumbi (Wollombi). Wollombi quickly became an important overland transport hub to the Hunter River port of West Maitland and an easy trek to Patrick Plains (Singleton).

The future of Wollombi seemed assured.

During the construction phase, as the road came north from Wisemans Ferry, various locations were sought to site the convict camps and one of those places happened to be on the banks of Wollombi Brook,  where soldier settlers (veterans of the Peninsular War), free settlers and emancipists had already began to take up allotments. The first sale of village allotments  took place in July 1838 and the first Post Office was established 1st January 1839 with a weekly mail service to West Maitland with Mr John McDougall appointed Postmaster.  Mr McDougall was an interesting choice as Postmaster as he was a former convict overseer on the Great North Road and was in charge of Iron Gang 7 from 1830 -1834. However his tenure as postmaster was quite brief as the it seems that Augusta Dunlop, eldest daughter of the new Police Magistrate, David Dunlop, took over the role of Postmistress in 1840.

As the town grew so did the services with the telegraph (3/3/1860), Money Order Office (1/7/1866), Government Savings Bank (11/12/1871) and then Wollombi finally gained official status (10/7/1882). Although the services provided expanded, it seems the building did not and there were many calls to upgrade the Post Office. In early 1892 tenders were called for for the erection of a new two storey building and in June 1892 the successful  tenderer was Elliot & Halliday who won the contract to construct the new Wollombi Post Office for £1852 (SMH 2/6/1892). Although no one seems to really know when the building was completed, it seems construction was well under way by September 1892 (The Maitland Mercury 13/9/1892) and seems to have been completed by September 1893 (Richmond & Windsor Gazette, 23/9/1893).          

Despite the boom years of the 1840's, the town was doomed by technology and it came in the form of the Sophia Jane, a steam powered ship that could do the run from Sydney to Newcastle in 8hrs and then travel up river as far as Green Hills (Morpeth). The next blow was the arrival of the Great Northern Railway at Maitland in the 1860's which meant that stock and produce ceased to use the old convict road to Sydney. The Post Office then lost it's official status in 1934, however the town still survived and the Great North Road served as an alternative road north. Then in 1945, with the building of the road bridge across Hawkesbury River at Peats Ferry, even vehicular traffic stopped using the winding hilly convict era road and this signaled the end of Wollombi as a vital transport hub. 

Today Wollombi is a quaint village, that is steeped in Australia's convict history, with many fine buildings that have stood the test of time, including the former Post Office, which is still standing after 120 years of service to the community and looks like doing so for quite some time to come.

I'd like to thank Newcastle Historical Society , Newcastle Library, The National Library of Australia & Neil Hopsons book 'The 'NSW & ACT Post, Receiving, Telegraph & Telephone Offices' for all their help and information