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. 

No comments: