Spotlight: Historic Old Gaol – Darlinghurst Closed – 1914

Observer (Adelaide, SA : 1905 – 1931), Saturday 8 August 1914, page 37

Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney, ca. 1918 [Source]



“‘Gallows Hill’. we called it.”
“There were many executions in those ‘good’ (?) old days.”
“Early in the morning there sounded the clanking of irons as as the chain gang wended its weary way from Hyde Park Barracks to work on Flagstaff Hill or Fort Phillip. In the evening the tired convicts clanked wearily back through Jamieson and Hunter streets to the park. But ‘Gallows’ Hill is no more. Hyde Park and Carter’s Barracks are but memories. Now Darlinghurst is gone. For the first time the City of Sydney has no gaol within its borders.”
So speak the few old citizens who, during four-score years, have watched the little settlement in Sydney Cove develop (says The Sydney Morning Herald). And while there may be several who remember the genesis of Darlinghurst, there be but few whose memories go back to Gallows Hill.

— George Street Gaol. —

In these enlightened days, when “humanity” is the watchword of the prison system, when public executions are unthinkable, when the lash is almost obsolete, and when every criminal has a comfortable cell to himself, it is hard to imagine the horrors of the early days. But the old gaol bounded by lower George street, Essex street, ‘Little” Essex street; and Cambridge street, was a hell upon earth. It was only 85 ft. long, and built to accommodate 200 prisoners, yet 345 men and women had at one time been packed into it. Eventually a Legislative Council committee decided that it was miserably inadequate, ridiculously insecure, and in a ruinous condition. In a room 32ft. by 22 no fewer than 112 prisoners were herded together, some sleeping between the legs of others, for there was not even floor space enough. Attempts to escape were numerous, and the brutal treatment debased the unfortunate criminals. Executions were frequent. No wonder the spot; was called Gallows Hill. For 42 years it had done duty, but in Governor Brisbane’s time it was recognised that a new gaol was imperatively necessary. So an area of 3½ acres was secured just outside the city. Solid walls 20 ft. high were erected round the area, and the currency lads called the: place “Woolloomooloo Stockade.” Two of those original walls still stand, on the southern and eastern boundaries. And the initials of some of the hapless prisoners still catch the eye of the passer-by. It was not all built by the convicts. One hundred free labourers added their quota. A chain gang quarried the stone, from the Woolloomooloo quarry in William street, where St. Peter’s Church now stands. But the work progressed too slowly. There was too much “Government stroke.” The Sydney Gazette opined that it would be far more expeditious to call tenders and have the work pushed ahead by contractors. However, in 1835 Parliament voted £35,000 for the completion of the gaol. It was planned after the Eastern Penitentiary of Philadelphia, and took five years to build. Then on June 2, 1841, Darlinghurst was proclaimed a Government prison.

— Old Darlinghurst. —

Seventy-three years ago the first inmates were incarcerated. Sydney citizens have at different times seen many processions, grave and gay. But never since has there been such a mournful procession as took place on tbe bleak winters morning of June 7, 1841. Convicts, shivering and miserable, in clanking chains, guarded by armed police and warders, shambled along from the old prison to the new. There were old and young; hardened criminals and petty thieves. They seemed to crawl along George street and Bridge street, creep through the Domain, then stagger up the hill to the “Woolloomooloo Stockade.” There were 407 men and boys, with the murderer Curran in the van, heavily ironed, and destined soon to end his days in Berrima. Then, later on, a slower, sadder spectacle, came the 39 women prisoners, and Darlinghurst was populated. The year 1841 is memorable in other respects. In a faded and dilapidated old volume, issued in 1847 by Francis Low, and printed by Kern and Mader, at 7 Hunter street, we find that gas was first used in Sydney in 1841, and the company gave a brilliant illumination on Church Hill; that the census was taken, showing the population of the colony to be 130,856; that the High Sheriff, in a temporary fit of insanity, shot himself at Darlinghurst; and that two new weekly papers saw the light. The Observer, under, the auspices of Dr. Lang, and The Omnibus, edited by Col. Wilson. Also it is noted that six of the bushrangers belonging to “The Jew Boys’ Mob,” who had for 12 months kept the Hunter River Valley in a state of terror by numerous acts of daring, outrage, and murder, were executed. A few months later came the first executions. George Stroud murdered his wife, and Robert Hudson killed a fellow prisoner. They were hanged together, and many people assembled. But three years later, when the villainous Knatchbull was executed, about 10,000 citizens congregated, kept back from the scaffold by mounted troopers. But the crowd was a silent crowd and not a holiday crowd like some of those that graced public executions in the old countries. Public execution was abolished in 1853, 15 years before England thought fit to follow suit.

— The Scaffold. —

But many well-known criminals paid the penalty of their crimes at Darlinghurist— 76 in all —bushrangers and murderers. Capt. Moonlight was hanged in 1880, the Mount Bennie criminals in 1887, Louisa Collins in 1887. George Archer in 1893, and Montgomery and Williams in 1894. Others of note were O’Farrell, who shot the Duke of Edinburgh; Butler, and Jimmy Governor. The last to be executed at Darlinghurst. was Baxter, in 1907. And, though the public sense of propriety no longer sanctions public executions, there is a morbid interest attached to the gallows; and when the gaol was thrown open to visitors this week hundreds of curious citizens flocked to the condemned cell, and stood on the gallows where many noted criminals had stood before them. At odd times daring Jack Sheppards have broken out of the gaols at Berrima, Goulburn, Bathurst, Parramatta, and Biloela; but Darlinghurst has proved a tougher proposition. In the last 35 years only two prisoners have escaped; but there have been many bold bids for freedom; “Thunderbolt” was in Cockatoo Island Gaol for cattle thieving. He escaped, swam with his irons on to the shore, and took to bushranging. Once a number of prisoners found a likely “header” in the wall, and right under the eye of the warder cut the mortar away. Removing the stone when the warder had turned away, no fewer than 17 men scrambled through. They were lean, wiry customers, for the hole was small. Then a fat prisoner essayed the task, and stuck. He kicked in vain. When the warder returned he found the fat man half-way through, and a prisoner on each side of the wall playing tug-of-war.

— Past and Future. —

Back in the sixties a lot of rebellious prisoners from Cockatoo Island, were sent to Darlinghurst, and they revolted, dashed to the painters’ shed, seized a ladder, and scaled the walls. But on the other side they found armed warders ready to receive them; so they retreated to the cells, and barricaded themselves in. The guard attacked, and when one of the prisoners was shot the rest surrendered. Sometimes the dreary monotony of prison life became unbearable, and prisoners, finding escape hopeless, committed suicide. One man tried 14 times to shuffle off this mortal coil, but always failed; others were most determined, and succeeded. The old hands at Darlinghurst tell many tales of the prisoners and prisons of the past. But nowadays the prisoner’s lot is not altogether an unhappy one. He works, and reads, and empires; mostly he reforms. So now Darlinghurst passes from the list of gaols, like Berrima and Biloela, and Trial Bay. The prisoners have gone out to Long Bay to the penitentiary. Even as Gallows Hill has been forgotten, so will the tragic record of Darlinghurst pass into the seldom-opened pages of history. It will become a centre of light and learning, rather than the abode of criminals, Instead of the monotonous march of sentries will sound the music of children’s voices. The drab prison walls and railings will be superseded by graceful columns of an educational edifice that shall be a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.

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