Saturday, 13 June 2015

Stewart's Creek Gaol

Queensland’s only nineteenth-century prison building still in use is at the Townsville Correctional Centre at Stuart.
Central watchtower at Stewart's Creek Gaol, 1916.
Photo:  State Library of Queensland.

The Stewart’s Creek Gaol, as it was then known, was built between 1890 and 1893, to replace an earlier gaol located in North Ward, on the site of what is now Central State School. By the late 1880s the old gaol was overcrowded and considered to be too close to the town centre.

Opened in 1893, it was designed by the Colonial Government Architect’s Office and constructed by Thomas Matthews. The gatehouse building housed quarters for both the Governor and the Chief Turnkey, and behind this building were three brick cell blocks, laid out in a radial pattern.

In May that year, 27 long-term prisoners were transferred from the old town gaol in North Ward to the new prison at Stewart’s Creek.  Initially the facilities at the new gaol did not cater for female prisoners, so they remained at North Ward until after the appointment of Matron Elizabeth Ryan at Stewart’s Creek in September 1894.  
Stewart's Creek Gaol, Townsville, 1914.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.

Stewart’s Creek Gaol was described in August 1894 by Comptroller-General, Charles Pennefather in his report on the prisons of the colony, as the best in the State.

“The North possesses by far the best constructed prison in the colony in the penal establishment at Stewart’s Creek, which has cost over £35,000; while the South has to put up with an ill-constructed old wooden building, badly adapted for administration, separation, and the proper classification of prisoners, with inferior and insufficient accommodation,” Mr Pennefather said.

“I think the time has arrived when a penal establishment designed on modern principles should be built for the southern portion of the colony,” he said.

The development of the modern prison reflects a change in the way society viewed justice, with a system of dealing with offenders that was corrective in nature, rather than punitive.

In the late eighteenth-century, Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and criminal law reformer designed a concept prison called the Panopticon.

The Panopticon was a circular building with individual cells built around a central tower with windows and lighting arranged in such a way as to make the occupants of cells visible at all times, while those in the central tower remained hidden from view.

The influence of Bentham’s Panopticon can be seen in the radial design of nineteenth-century prisons commonly built in Queensland up to the late 1800s, including the old Town Gaol at North Ward.
Townsville Gaol, North Ward, 1885 (centre of photo).
The buildings in the foreground are the Townsville Hospital.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

A semi-circular shaped wall surrounded this complex with the buildings inside radiating outwards like the spokes of a wheel, which enabled observation from a central position.

Bentham’s concept of surveillance from a central tower has survived into the modern era, albeit in variously modified forms.

The central watchtower at Stewart’s Creek Gaol was designed by John Smith Murdoch, a Government architect whose later design work included Brisbane’s original Victoria Bridge, Boggo Road Gaol, and old Parliament House in Canberra.

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