Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Maitland Gaol History - 1840s

Prior to the construction of Maitland Gaol in the 1840's the facilities for holding prisoners in Maitland prior to transfer to Newcastle gaol were appalling.

Missionary James Backhouse wrote of the gaol in July 1836:

16th - We made several calls in the town; in which a considerable number of the native Blacks, were working for the inhabitants, as hewers of wood and drawers of water. We also visited the Jail, a place of temporary confinement, till the prisoners are examined and transferred to Newcastle; it consists of a few cells, enclosed within a high, wooden fence, and is said to be sometimes so crowded, that prisoners have to be brought into the yard to avoid suffocation. [6]

Site of the Gaol

After calls for a new gaol in Maitland, tenders for construction were invited in April 1839.[2] The site decided upon was on a hill overlooking East Maitland which commanded a fine view over the country for miles around.

Building the Gaol

Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis designed the building and construction began in 1844.

In 1845 the sum of 1000 pounds was voted in Council towards completing the gaol. Alterations to the original plan were suggested at this time.

Instead of wings with many solitary cells and no yards attached it was proposed to have a number of smaller buildings with separate yards for classification. The Colonial Architect William Mortimer Lewis (b.1796) agreed that the range of cells could be shortened by one half and two wings which might be curtailed so as to admit of their being completed for about 5000 pounds. By putting five persons in a cell the gaol would hold three hundred prisoners. In 1847, the Government expected to contribute another 2,500 pounds towards the construction of the new gaol.

The foundation stone was laid at 10am on the 16th February 1844 near the north-west corner of the enclosure within the walls. Very few people turned up for the ceremony on that day owing to the showery day and short notice and Edward Denny Day was assisted in laying the stone by just a few men. Several coins of the reigns of George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, together with an inscription were placed in a bottle, sealed up, and deposited within the stone. The inscription read:

In March 1846 it was announced that the contract for building of the new gaol at Maitland which had been discontinued since the removal of the stockade to Newcastle, was awarded to Messrs. Brodie and Craig of Sydney. The contract was for twelve months.[3]

Brodie and Craig were under the superintendence of Clerk of Works Mortimer William Lewis (jun)(b. 1820) [5]

Prisoners Transferred from Newcastle Gaol

On 30th December 1848 the prisoners confined in Newcastle gaol numbering about forty and accompanied by gaol keeper William Tristram and his turnkeys and watchmen, were loaded onto the Steamer at Newcastle wharf to be transferred to the new gaol at Maitland. Maitland Gaol had been declared the gaol for the Northern Circuit District a few days previously. [4]

On arrival in Morpeth a few hours later the prisoners were transferred to Maitland where they would have been ushered to the walls of the gaol that enclosed an area about 300 feet square.

On entering the compound they would have been confronted with a substantial building giving the impression of vast strength; a solid building made from the best and most durable stone in the neighbourhood.

Description of the Gaol

The stones were dovetailed into each other in such a manner that to escape a prisoner would have to cut through the solid stone wall, the outer wall being 2 1/2 feet thick. From the outside the prisoners would probably have observed the roof of slate and the large, handsome, vertical ironed windows that opened from inside passages. (to allow breezes on a hot day). In the yard they would have noticed the space 120' x 36' between the new wing and the outer wall (fenced off for an exercise yard) and other temporary sheds, store houses and loose rejected stones spread about the yard where soon other buildings would be constructed. Perhaps the gallows, which had arrived the previous day from Newcastle were also on view in this area.

One wing of the intended buildings within the gaol walls had been completed. It was 108 feet long by 40 feet wide and contained 28 cells. When the prisoners were moved to the interior of the wing they were confronted with cells measuring 12 feet by 8 feet. Two smaller cells 5' x 8' were intended for condemned prisoner cells. The cells were arranged in a similar manner to other prisons, with 7 cells on the ground floor on each side of a 15' passage; and 7 cells on each side of the second story; a stone walk or parapet 3' and with an iron railing ran past the doors of the upper cells. A stone staircase led up to these parapets. Each cell was considered sufficient to house five prisoners.

For ventilation, a perpendicular tube was cut out of the middle of the solid stone outer wall of each cell and in addition there were two open windows of 6' at the top of each cell. There was a circular opening at the outer corner of the floor of each cell opening direct to the outer air to allow the escape of water. Each cell had two doors, the inner one of open bars of iron and outer of hardwood sheeted with iron.

The ceilings and floors were of large stones 1' thick, the ceilings strengthened by iron girders, the floors on dwarf walls so that they would not become wet or damp. [5]

The prisoners were moved from Newcastle gaol before the new gaol was completed as the Newcastle gaol was considered so insecure that it was imperative that the prisoners be removed at the earliest moment. Still to be finished on this first wing was the entrance area and rooms and bedrooms for the turnkeys. The turnkeys' room was to have a window overlooking the gaol yard and two open slits to be provided with shutters looking into the interior passage of the gaol.

Also still to be completed was a stone kitchen near the turnkeys end of the wing, a wing for female prisoners and a lodge on each side of the entrance gateway. The prison was also without a well or water catchment system within the walls.

First Prisoners

Joining the newly arrived prisoners from Newcastle in the gaol in the first few days were Joseph Sullivan a shepherd employed by John Bingle who had been sentenced to three months in prison for a breach of the Masters and Servants Act and John Smith a cook employed by William McDonald who was sentenced to 14 days in the new cells.

Magistrate and Surgeon

It was recorded in the Government Gazette on 2nd January 1849 that Edward Denny Day was to be appointed visiting magistrate and Dr. William Wilton, visiting surgeon.(Major James Crummer who had previously been stationed in Newcastle replaced Edward Denny Day as Magistrate at the gaol later in 1849).

With no kitchen, no nearby water and far less chance of escape, it is hard to imagine the prisoners being as enamoured of the gaol as others in the town who considered it would stand in comparison 'with any building in the colony not excepting the new Victoria Barracks in Sydney'.

The Execution of George Waters Ward 1849

'On Monday morning George Waters Ward, convicted at the late Maitland Circuit Court of the murder of Richard Connelly, was executed inside the walls of the Maitland gaol, in the presence of several hundred persons, including a great number of children, and some women.

About five minutes past nine o'clock Ward was brought out from the gaol into the yard accompanied by the
Rev. Mr. Rusden (who had been with him since six o'clock that morning), C. Prout, Esq., the Under Sheriff, E.D. Day, Esq., Dr. Wilton, Mr. Tristrem, and others. The Rev. Mr. Rusden read prayers, in which Ward joined with apparent fervour. Having reached the scaffold, Mr. Rusden knelt down with the unfortunate man, and passed some minutes in prayer, Ward audibly joining in the responses.

About twelve minutes past nine Ward mounted the scaffold, Mr. Rusden still accompanying him, and the executioner following. On reaching the platform Ward called out in a clear firm voice, 'Good bye, Mr. Tristram, God bless you, and you all', looking round on the crowd. Having engaged in prayer with Mr. Rusden for a minute or two, Ward addressed the crowd assembled nearly as follows: 'My friends, I am going to die this day, and I hope that you will take warning by me and keep from drink, and that if any of you ever give evidence in a court of justice you will speak the truth. I am not going to accuse any one, but I will only say that some spoke the truth on my trial, and some spoke false. I die in peace with all the world, and in the hope of a better life. I pray for you all, and hope you will all take warning by my example'.

The executioner then fastened the rope round Ward's neck, and put a white cap over his head and face, during which Mr. Rusden continued praying and Ward joining with him. Mr. Rusden then left the scaffold, and the bolt being drawn, the wretched man fell, and died after struggling convulsively for a few minutes. Ward's bearing on the scaffold was firm and composed throughout
' .......Maitland Mercury 21 March 1849

Notes and Links

Mortimer William Lewis junior was also employed in the Colonial architect's department and in 1848 was appointed Clerk of Works on the Breakwater at Newcastle. He married Ellen, a daughter of Dr. John Edward Stacy in December 1847 at Newcastle.


[1] Maitland Mercury 17 February 1844

[2] Sydney Gazette 23 April 1839

[3] Maitland Mercury 11 March 1846

[4] Maitland Mercury 27 December 1848

[5] Maitland Mercury 30 December 1848

[6] Backhouse, James, A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies, p. 389