Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Old Oatlands Gaol

Designed by Colonial Architect John Lee Archer, the gaol was built by convicts between 1834 & 1836. Accommodation was provided for both male & female prisoners, with a high stone wall dividing them. A hospital was provided for the prisoners, as well as prisoners from around the district. At its maximum capacity, the gaol could hold 270 prisoners. Most had been sentenced for terms of less than 7 years. The majority of these were convicts although some were free settlers.

The large building which survives today was the gaolers residence which serviced both the gaol and the gaolers family who lived on the 2nd floor. The main walls of the gaol were originally 20ft (6M) high) and surrounded the entire block on which the gaol was constructed. Construction took over two years with up to 68 convict tradesmen working at one time. The foundations alone required some 2000+ cart loads of stone.

However, despite the Governments best efforts, some prisoners managed to escape due to the inefficiency of the overall design of the structure. Disagreements between Governor Arthur and John Lee Archer resulted in cells that were built against the interior of the walls, allowing the prisoners the chance to climb over the roof and scale the walls to freedom. One such was John Beynon who, in 1837, managed to escape his cell and lower himself over the wall with tied up bedsheets. Another prisoner, George Jackson, escaped three times. However, for most prisoners there was no escape.

No occupation for the prisoners was provided, other than cutting wood, cleaning the gaol and cooking of meals. Female prisoners were kept occupied by washing the clothes of the prison population. The gaol was also used for convicts sentenced to short periods of solitary confinement. Hangman, Soloman Blay lived for many years at the gaol, sleeping in the condemned cells. Executions were held outside of the main gates of the gaol with 18 men having met their fate this way. In addition to executing people, Blay was employed to empty the gaol cesspits for which he was paid 5 pounds per year. The gaol remained operational until 1937 when it was finally closed and partially demolished. In 1954, the municipal swimming pool was built inside the old prison yard.

The pool is still in use, and the Gaoler’s Residence has been vacant for at least 20 years.  The pool is considered to have exceeded its practical working life, and a working group has been formed to explore the options for establishing a new pool elsewhere – demolition of the old pool would then essentially free up the Gaol to be restored and promoted as a heritage site. Until recently, the Gaoler’s Residence was in a severe state of deterioration, with an Engineer’s report in 2005 detailing a range of urgent rectification works required for the stabilization of the building.  A remedial works report in 2004 detailed works required throughout the building.

A conservation management plan was developed for the site 2006 which consolidated the Engineer’s report and remedial works report, and developed conservation policies to guide the implementation strategy detailed in that plan.  An $800,000 works program has recently been completed, which has fully restored the Gaoler’s Residence. Currently, an interpretation fitout of the building is being undertaken, as is landscaping of the part of the yard not being used by the pool.

A historical report and archaeological survey of the site was commissioned by Council in 2003 and determined that the site has a very high potential to yield significant archaeological remains relating to Tasmania’s early penal system.

Main Text & Information Sources –
Interpretive signs at the Gaol site
Southern Midlands Council Website

Historical Photos
Excavation Photo - Heritage Tas

A wonderfully detailed report about the history of the Oatlands Gaol - 

The Southern Midlands Council series of reports and analysis of the Oatlands Gaol Site -