Adelaide Gaol History

Locked up in time:
Exploring the rich history of Adelaide Gaol

A Glimpse into the Past: A brief history of Adelaide Gaol, South Australia’s oldest prison

The Adelaide Gaol was built in 1841. It housed approximately 300,000 prisoners during its 147 years of operation. These prisoners consisted of men, women, and children. It also housed those unfortunates who were referred to at the time, as lunatics. The Gaol was closed in 1988 and is known as the longest continuously operating prison in Australia.

The Adelaide Gaol is one of the two oldest remaining public buildings in South Australia. The other is Government House which was built at the same time as the Gaol.

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Why the Adelaide Gaol was needed

In 1836, when South Australia was first established as a free colony, it was decided that a Gaol was unnecessary. Free settlers being of good character would be unlikely to break the law. Within a few years, this attitude proved to be a ridiculous speculation. The first prisoners needed to be held on the HMS Buffalo, which was moored at the Adelaide seaside suburb of Glenelg.

When the Buffalo was recalled to the eastern states in June 1837, prisoners were transferred to a tent on the Torrens River. Prisoners were chained to logs to prevent them from escaping.

Later, in 1838, a temporary Gaol, called the Stone Jug, was set up in a wooden hut which was surrounded by a wooden fence. This enclosure was often overcrowded and escapes were frequent.

Designing the Adelaide Gaol

In 1840, Governor Gawler called for tenders to build a more substantial Gaol. George Strickland Kingston then designed the present Gaol which is based on the semi circular design of Pentonville Prison in the UK.

The Gaol’s early money problems

By early 1841, costs had already exceeded the £17,000 estimate and the Gaol was far from complete.

At the time, this situation almost bankrupted the state of South Australia and Governor Gawler was recalled to England to explain the high cost of the Gaol.

The first prisoners were moved into the new, but incomplete Gaol in March of 1841.

Extending the Gaol

Various additions and modifications were made to the Adelaide Gaol throughout its working life.

From 1849 to 1969 Yard 2 was regarded as the women’s section. In 1969 women were transferred to the Northfield Women’s Rehabilitation Centre and the Adelaide Gaol became an all male facility.

In 1871 the Remand Centre cells were built. These cells were built to face into a central corridor rather than an exercise yard. It is interesting to note the skylight which was innovative for the time. It heated the cell block in winter but made the cells unbearably hot in the summer.

The New Building was constructed in 1878-79 and is the only building in the Adelaide Gaol which was constructed by prison labour.

Additional cells were added in what is now the Dormitory area above the South Laneway in 1880. The early construction was of wood although this was converted to the current Dormitory in 1961.

A gallows was installed in ‘A’ Wing of the New Building in 1886. It was used for 21 executions from 1894 to 1950.

The ‘Rose Garden’ was started in 1932 by female prisoners. The men took over caring for the garden in 1969.

In 1953, the west tower, which had been used as a storeroom, was converted to a gallows. Four executions were performed in this area before capital punishment was abolished in 1976.

Post 1955 better medical attention was provided in the Gaol. A doctor was in regular attendance and prisoners could request to see a doctor rather than having to prove that they were in pain.

The new Visitors Centre was erected in 1958. This structure minimised drug trafficking problems and provided protection from the weather.

After 1969, Yard 1 was upgraded to accommodate prisoners. It subsequently fell into disrepair and was not used for many years.

A new kitchen was built in the South Laneway in the 1970s at a cost of $100,000. Communal meals were also introduced at around this time to enhance prisoners’ ‘social skills’. By 1976 the quality of food and general living conditions were considered to be ‘impressive’.

The new Watch Tower above Yards 3 and 4 was built in 1971-72 and provided an excellent view of all yards in the Gaol.

A new electronic surveillance system comprising 49 cameras was installed and connected to a central control room in 1984.

Unearthing the past: The exciting archaeological findings at Adelaide Gaol

As an AGPS volunteer was wandering through a building in Yard 2 he fell through some rotting floorboards and, to his surprise, discovered another level which looked like the floor of a prior building. Fortunately, he was unharmed but amazed at his find.

The SA Museum and an archaeologist were contacted and over a two year period they discovered a new and exciting facet in the Gaol’s history.

The archaeological investigations have revealed that this site was in fact the ‘camp site’ or ‘temporary home’ of the first white settlers to South Australia. They shared their temporary site with the indigenous population whilst waiting for their permanent houses to be built in the Adelaide city centre.

It has long been suggested that the first settlers were camped somewhere along a stretch of the River Torrens quite near the Gaol. It is also said that the first Gaol (a flimsy affair) often referred to as the Stone Jug was located in this vicinity. It is now believed that the Stone Jug in fact, was located near the Parade ground on North Terrace

The construction of the Adelaide Gaol in 1840-41 placed a ‘lid’ over these sites and sealed it for 160 years. The archaeological dig revealed what can be regarded as a five tier layered cake where each layer represents a period of our history.

The five periods of Adelaide Gaol history revealed

Level one

Level one, the lowest or deepest level, prior to 1836, shows evidence of the indigenous people of South Australia using this stretch of river for hunting, fishing and camping. Objects left behind by them include stone tools and weapons.

Level two

Level two spans the period from 1836 to 1840 and shows evidence of the first settlers who arrived from Port Adelaide and set up camp in tents and mud huts. This was their home while waiting for their homes to be built in the Adelaide centre.

They left behind an assortment of ceramic, glass, metal, buttons and even a child’s milk tooth. A sheep bone was also discovered confirming that there was travel between the states at that time.

Level three

Level three appears to cover the period from 1840 to 1847 and we can see that construction of the Gaol had begun. There is evidence of the area being used as a work site. Bricks were fired here and there is a section of what appears to be brick paving.

Borrow and Goodiar the builders of the Adelaide Gaol employed 200 workers on this site and they camped nearby. They left behind scraps of metal, iron, broken bricks, mortar, buttons and animal bone from their meals.

Level four

Level four shows the original floor of this building and relates to the time frame of 1847 to 1900. The building was the same shape as it is today but had a wooden floor and was divided into six cells.

Female prisoners occupied the building and were given sewing and oakum picking activities. Needles, pins, thimbles, oakum, string and buttons slipped down between the floorboards and remained there, undisturbed until the dig.

In 1867 the new women’s cell block was ready for occupation and the building was used for ‘work rooms’ and a Matron’s room. In the same year a fireplace was added in the Matron’s room. Coke, used in the fireplace, was stored beneath the floor in the cell opposite her room. On the outside of the Matron’s room, at the back, we can see an old wall and traces of coke were found on both sides of this wall.

This wall may be part of a forge which was built on the site for the construction of the Gaol.

Level five

Level five is what we see today, dating from 1900 to 1988. The concrete slab is in place and a very old air conditioner was installed. The room is no longer divided into six cells.

An interesting discovery was that there are two areas of concrete below the concrete slab. This was probably laid during the 1920s to support copper boilers.

Prison officers used this area as a recreation area and tea room. This would explain the cutlery, tea bags and sugar sachets which were discovered at this level. For a while, the area was also used as a utility space i.e. bathroom, laundry and kitchen.

The excavations have been left open for public viewing and many of the items which were retrieved from the dig can be viewed in the display case located in this Yard 2 building.

Adelaide Gaol books

AGPS sell a wide range of books about the Adelaide Gaol which will provide you with a detailed history of the Gaol.

These books can be purchased directly from the AGPS by sending an email to


Book Title Author Price
A Governor, aye every inch a Governor Malcolm David Johnston $15.00
Dead Woman Walking Allen L Peters $24.50
Executions – Victoria Trevor J Porter $12.00
Fly with the Eagles G.S. Valance $25.00
Gaol Ghosts – The Residents Trevor J Porter $12.00
History of the SA Police Force Historic Society $5.00
Inman: First Commander of the SA Police Max Slee $30.00
Notable SA Crimes Trevor J Porter $12.00
SA Police 1838-2003 Chas Hopkins $24.00
Seven Lengths of Rope Trevor J Porter $12.00
The Hempen Collar David J Towler & Trevor J Porter $38.00
The Rainbird Murders Peter Liddy $10.00
To Walk a Fair Beat Patricia Higgs & Christine Bettess $30.00
Visitors Guide Book (Green) Adelaide Gaol Preservation Society. $5.00
Adelaide’s First Gaol Max Slee $10.00


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Starts On:
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8:00 PM
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5:30 PM
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6:00 PM
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