The first permanent and substantial gaol built in Wagga was completed in 1862 and was located on the corner of Sturt Street (earlier known as Little Gurwood Street) and Tarcutta Street. Prior to this prisoners could only be held on a temporary basis, whilst awaiting trial, normally handcuffed or chained to a large log in a crudely constructed lock-up in Fitzmaurice Street, after which they were normally transferred to Goulburn to serve out their sentences.
Tenders for the erection of a gaol at Wagga were called for in September 1860. The Wagga Express of 2 March 1861 reported that Wagga’s own Hardy & Hodson were successful with a tender of £1900 for the construction of the brick building. The gaol was operational by the following year, with the NSW Government Gazette of 30 May 1862 declaring “…the said building to be a public gaol, prison and house of correction.”
The Courthouse in the foreground and the Gaol in the background. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Riverina).
Wagga’s Chief Constable at the time, Robert John Monteith was appointed as the first Gaoler, and his wife, Jane, the first Matron. At the end of 1863 a wall was constructed around the gaol, and several years later in 1870 watchtowers were also added.
The Wagga Gaol had the capacity to house up to approximately 40 prisoners at once, and both male and female inmates were accommodated there. Comprising of only eleven cells, the gaol was often overcrowded, perhaps due to the fact that it was regarded as a minor gaol and primarily used for short sentence prisoners from around the district. As an example during 1876, a total of 292 inmates passed through the gaol, thirty of which were female.
Conditions in the gaol were at times appalling. By 1869 there was still no drainage or sanitation, and even the law abiding residents of Wagga knew this to be inadequate, particularly given the gaol’s close proximity to the school and hospital. Another concern focussed on the appearance of the gaol. It was considered by many to be an “eyesore” in the very centre of Wagga’s busy business precinct.
The Wagga Gaol was also the site of at least five executions by hanging, all for murder. The first of these occurred in 1871 and the last in 1890. The gallows were first erected in 1871 at the right hand side of the gaol yard, the cross beam at approximately the same height as the gaol wall, and underneath a large gaping hole some seven feet deep which had been bricked in like a well. Normally a “hangman” was sent from Sydney to undertake the grisly job, and often found that local hoteliers would not give them accommodation, which meant they were accommodated at the gaol itself.
At least four escapes from the gaol were attempted between 1876 and 1893, with newspaper reports suggesting that the latter was actually successful, due to the fact that inmates awaiting trial were not given any sort of prison uniform to wear, and were therefore allowed to wear their own clothes.
The gaol’s status as a prison was reduced by 1909, and in January 1919 The Daily Advertiser reported that Charles Hardy & Co had begun demolishing the gaol buildings.
All the archives and records documenting the history of the Gaol and some of the inmates who were imprisoned there are available at State Records NSW. The records include copies of letters sent, register of letters sent by prisoners, entrance books, description books, photograph description books, discharge books, occurrence books, Gaoler’s journal, punishment books, ration books, stores books and visitors books. A full listing of all the records for Wagga Gaol is available at http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/Entity.aspx?Path=\Agency\422 .
References: The Daily Advertiser – “From Our Past” by Sherry Morris & John Winterbottom (19 November 1994 – p.24) (21 January 1919); The Wagga Wagga Express, 2 March 1861; The Gormly Index available in CSURA search room; State Records NSW website – http://www.records.nsw.gov.au ; NSW Government Gazette (7 September 1860, p.1680), (28 May 1862), (30 May 1862), (14 September 1863), (16 August 1909).