Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Darlinghurst Gaol

Any pedestrian visitor walking along Forbes Street, Darlinghurst will be immediately impressed by the tremendous stone walls stretching along the eastern side of the road, punctuated by a magnificent sandstone gateway – in fact the entrance to today’s National Art School.

But for much of the 19th Century this entrance was the gateway to death and damnation for many unfortunate Sydneysiders. For this was the entrance to the infamous Darlinghurst Gaol, a place of brutality, confinement and misery.

The original gaol in Sydney was located in George Street, but by the mid 1820’s was grossly overcrowded, and the conditions so barbarous, that the Government agreed that a new gaol was necessary. A wag noted at the time that at the George street lockup it was so overcrowded that whilst it was possible to hang six people at once, there was only room enough to hang two in comfort. This was classical “gallows humour” at its worst.

A site was chosen on the heights above Woolloomooloo and building commenced for a new gaol, using locally quarried sandstone cut and placed by convict labour to produce a rectangular space surrounded by four huge walls. This was known as the Woolloomooloo Stockade but it was not until 1841 that prison buildings within these walls were partially completed according to a plan prepared by the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis. He based the design on the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which featured a central building from which cellblocks radiated outwards, like the spokes of a wheel. 

Plan for the gaol, c 1840 signed by the Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Call no: SSV1/Gao/Darh/1 - Click to enlarge)

On June 7th 1841 the prison, although incomplete, was ready for occupation and the residents of Sydney were treated to a remarkable procession when the prisoners from George Street were marched through the streets up to their new accommodation – Darlinghurst Gaol. The recollections of an old ex gaol warder, who saw the scene, recalled the events in the Sydney Morning Herald of 9th January 1914:

“On the morning of June 7, 1841, a strange procession passed through the streets of Sydney—119 men in convict garb, chained together, on their way from the old gaol to the new one. "The redoubtable Curran," remarked the "Sydney Gazette," of the period, "heavily ironed, took precedence of his brother culprits." Later in the day, the female prisoners, numbering about 50, passed through the streets”. (The Curran referred to was Paddy Curran – the bushranger who was to become the first man hanged at Berrima Gaol in 1842).

 And so began a period of 73 years when Darlinghurst gaol was the main detention centre for NSW, producing a long and brutal history involving floggings, hard labour, and on 77 occasions the “extreme penalty” of the law, which in those days was execution by hanging.

A "birds eye" view of the Gaol, the Illustrated Sydney News, November 1866. (Click to enlarge)

The Herald’s article of 1914 provided some further detail:

“The first execution at Darlinghurst Gaol took place on October 29, 1841, when George Stroud and Robert Hudson were hanged, the former for murdering his wife, the latter for the murder of a fellow-convict.
In those days, an execution was a public thing, and was witnessed by hundreds of people. It is stated that no fewer than 10,000 people assembled to see the execution of the notorious Knatchbull in 1844. Public executions were abolished in Sydney in 1853, and it was not till 15 years afterwards that they were abolished in England. In all, Darlinghurst has seen 76 executions”.

And by the way, if you think hanging was a humane method of execution, many existing records show otherwise. In several cases, the knot in the rope that is placed behind the ear slips out of position during the drop and instead of the neck being broken, slow strangulation results. In these cases the onset of death can take 15 to 20 minutes. This happened at Darlinghurst with the Mount Rennie executions and with the hanging of Digby Grand, the Auburn murderer.

After only 15 years of operation the gaol had become overcrowded, so an extra wedge of land was purchased at the northern end of the site and a “Y” shaped cellblock was built there. It was in the cleft of this “Y”, that a gallows was built, replacing the makeshift structure that had been used in front of the gaol in public executions, and later in the prison yard when these were abolished. A little later, the circular building at the centre of the complex was completed – with the ground floor a reception area and the upper floor the prison chapel.

Sentry towers were built on top of the walls at the corners and these were manned 24 hours a day. A senior warder described how the guards operated while on sentry duty when they had to call to the senior warder every half hour, even all through the night:

"Half-past 1 o'clock. . . All's well. . . Number one."
The sentry at the gate has spoken.
"Half-past 1 o'clock. . . All's well. . . .Number two."  
And sentry No. 2, revolver at side, proceeds on his rounds. All's well in wings A, B, and C.
"Half-past 1 o'clock. . . All's well. . . .Number three."  
All's quiet at the hospital. "Half-past 1 o'clock. . . All's well . . .Number four."
Nothing suspicious in the Burton-street wing—wing E.
Sentries No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 pass on. The senior warder, attentive and alert, has noted their reports. All's well at the gaol. All's silent”.

The neighbours near the gaol got used to the mournful calls of the sentries that floated over the rooftops of Darlinghurst night and day for 365 days of the year.

A view of the gaol in 1874 from the October edition of the Illustrated Sydney News. (Click to enlarge)

As an interesting architectural feature, a tunnel was constructed that connected the holding cells beneath the adjoining Courthouse with the gaol. The prisoner would enter the tunnel on the gaol side and come up inside the Courthouse and then return by the same path.

As the years passed, construction proceeded, and by 1874, most of the main buildings had been completed. The main gate, opening out on to Forbes Street had been relocated from its original position a few metres up towards Burton Street and entirely remodelled in a rounded “buttress” style. This relocation was to prevent prisoners” rushing” towards the main gate from near the Governors residence.

Many famous and infamous prisoners passed through the gates of the gaol, including the bushrangers Frank Gardiner and George Scott (Captain Moonlite). Scott was executed for his crimes. Other bushrangers who were executed were the two Clarke brothers (hanged in 1867) and John Dunn, a member of Ben Hall’s gang (hanged in 1866).

Then there was Jimmy Governor who was executed in January 1901 for mass murder after a killing spree all across central NSW the previous year.

The infamous Mount Rennie rape case produced a dark climax when four youths, all under 20 years of age, (one only 17) were hanged at the gaol in January 1887, amid one of the great public controversies in Australia’s legal history.

Watercolour of the gaol by the inmate Henry Louis Bertrand, 1891. Bertrand was convicted of the murder of Henry Kinder in 1865 in one of Sydneys most notorious homicides of the time. He eventually served a 28 year sentence, one of the longest in Darlinghurst's history. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Call no: SV1/Gao/Darh/2 - Click to enlarge)

The only woman to be hanged at the gaol was Louisa Collins who was executed in January 1889 for poisoning two of her husbands in order to receive life insurance payments.

Louisa Collins - executed at Darlinghurst Gaol in 1889.
(Photograph from the NSW State Records Office)

Our great Australian poet Henry Lawson also “did time” at Darlinghurst, for unpaid debts and non-payment of alimony. In his haunting poem “One Hundred and Three”, he describes the tough conditions at the prison, referring to it as “Starvinghurst Gaol”, because of the meagre rations given to the inmates.

The severe punishment of a flogging was liberally used at the gaol, right through into the last decade of the 19th century, and was always a brutal form of torture. The horror of a flogging was well caught in the article that appeared in a contemporary newspaper account on 13th February 1895:

The young man, Robert Strong, for brutal assault upon a sailor, received his flogging of 20 lashes in Darlinghurst gaol on Saturday afternoon. From first to last stroke the man utterly broke down. He howled, wept, and prayed; his ejaculations, "Oh, God, have mercy," could be beard outside the gaol wails. When released he was able to walk with difficulty, and it was evident that he bad been effectually cowed, as there was the absence of that mock air of bravado visible as he marched to the whipping post.

Despite the heavy punitive nature of Darlinghurst, common to all 19th century Australian prisons, a real attempt at rehabilitation was also made, through trade training and education. In this respect the gaol was somewhat ahead of its time, particularly in comparison to other capital city gaols around Australia where punishment was placed well ahead of rehabilitation.

The gaol was an industrial prison, with a long line of workshops inside the wall on the eastern side. Diverse activities took place here, including broom and mat making, stonecutting, bookbinding and cobbling. During this work time strict procedures were in place and no conversation was permitted.

The gaol school room - from the Illustrated Sydney news of November 1866 (click to enlarge)

In what was very advanced thinking for the time some of the prisoners were also given instruction in a school room in order to achieve at least basic literacy before release. The Illustrated Sydney News reported in 1866 that the “Hours of labour were from 7 to 8, 9 to 12 and 1 to 4, in all 7 hours. A great many attend school; some one hour, others two hours, thereby reducing the hours of labour…”

There was a prison uniform that in its basic form consisted of a shirt with “Darlinghurst Gaol” surrounding a broad arrow on the back. There were variations of this uniform depending on the time of the year and the place of work of the prisoner.

In the broom factory, showing the broad arrow motif on the back of the prisoners shirts - from the Illustrated Sydney News November 1874 (click to enlarge)

In common with many 19th century prisons, tobacco was the currency within the walls. Friends of the prisoners would walk up Burton Street and throw tobacco packages over the walls where they would be eagerly seized by the inmates. Tobacco was used as trade in all sorts of transactions within the walls, swapping it for food, drink and perhaps for privileges from a corrupt guard.

After many years of increasing difficulty associated with an ever-rising inmate population and nowhere to expand, the inevitable happened and the Government looked for another site for a gaol.

Finally, in 1914, after 73 years of operation, Darlinghurst Gaol was closed and the existing prisoners taken by special tram out to the new accommodation at Long Bay. During the First World War Darlinghurst was used as an internment camp for Irish and German nationals, and then in a remarkably enlightened move it was transferred to the NSW Department of Education.

Above: The interior of the Darlinghurst gaol chapel c 1880. The stained glass windows were removed and taken out to the new chapel at Long Bay in about 1913. They were then returned to their original location in Darlinghurst in 1981. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Call no: SPF/168 - Click to enlarge)

After extensive renovation it was born again in 1921 as East Sydney Technical College, and since 1995, the National Art School. Today the buildings remain externally intact and form a unique example of a complete 19th century Australian prison complex. 

 The gates to the National Art School today - once the entrance to the dreaded Darlinghurst Gaol.
Image from Wikipedia Commons (click to enlarge)

Left: The shirt design motif worn by prisoners c 1880. 

References: Hope in Hell - Deborah Beck, Allen and Unwin, 2005

For a great series of contemporary images see


  1. Thank you for this essay. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and seeing the images. I am reading the book by the Beckett brothers called 'Hangman", and will add Deborah Beck's book to my pile.

    1. Hi Julie; Glad you enjoyed it.

      I've been for a few strolls through the old site and find it fascinating.

      You'll find Deborah's book very interesting too.