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Adelaide Gaol History

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Paranormal Field Investigators first went in to investigate the Old Adelaide Gaol in 2002 and have been there ever since largely due to the amount of experiences we had there over the years, some of which we will touch on here. The full story can be read in the book ' Ghosts of the Past - One Paranormal Team's Experiences in the Adelaide Gaol' by Alison Oborn.


It was back in 1838, soon after Governor Gawler took up position in Adelaide, that Sheriff Dutton started to press for a new Gaol to be built. He felt the present system they had was inadequate and indeed it was. For a while prisoners were kept on the ship H.M.S. Buffalo, but when the ship was recalled for duty in 1837, it left authorities having to look for a new place to keep their growing number of prisoners. A small wooden hut on the banks of the Torrens River was to follow but also proved to be unsatisfactory, especially as the prisoners were finding it easy to break out of. Governor Gawler, due to increasing concern on the issue of prisoner escapes and for the safety of the citizens of Adelaide, finally commissioned George Strickland Kingston to be Architect for a new and more permanent building. His design was bold and based on other overseas designs, in particular Pentonville Prison in the UK. Borrow and Goodier were to build the new structure and work finally commenced in 1840. The stone was quarried from the quarry that sat behind where Parliament House stands now, Dry Creek and the red bricks were made on site. The sandstone that is seen on the sills and towers came from Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania.

However, the building of the Gaol was not without it's problems. Originally the estimated cost was to be approximately 17,000 pounds, but soon these costs escalated and by 1841 only half the proposed Gaol had been completed. This was largely due to Gov. Gawler making changes to the design, including the towers which there originally should have been 4 of, and increasing the size of the Governor's residence. To many, the building of the Gaol had proved to be an expensive folly and soon Governor Gawler was relieved of his position and held responsible for putting the State into extreme financial difficulty. Governor Grey was his replacement and soon after stepping into the role put a halt to the building work. This caused further problems and the builders Borrow and Goodier ended up taking it to court and nearly going bankrupt themselves in the process.

Although finally opened in 1841, the Gaol continued to be built in stages, with additions being built over the years. At the time, it was questioned as to why such an expensive Gaol was needed, especially in a State that was a free colony and not a penal one. However it soon proved its worth, and started to fill up fairly rapidly. A good case of 'If you build it, they will come'. A section of the Gaol was also used for a short time as a mental institution before other sites were built in Adelaide to house them.

Over it's 147 years of service, an estimated 300,000 men and women have passed through its doors and 45 prisoners were executed on the premises, where they remain to this day. One of the more famous cases was Elizabeth Woolcock, who was hanged in 1873 and the only woman to have been hanged in South Australia. She was found guilty of poisoning her husband with mercury. However, he was already a sick man and was being treated by several different doctors, all of whom would have used small traces of mercury in their medication. A retrial was held recently and the same evidence was presented, at which poor Elizabeth was found not guilty as the evidence was not strong enough against her. Ironically she had tried to commit suicide a year earlier by hanging herself, but the attempt failed. Some people feel she should not be there now, and still leave flowers on her grave.

Between 1840 and 1964 one woman and 44 men were hanged at the Adelaide Gaol in four separate areas. Originally executions took place out in the Park Lands, but after a public hanging went terribly wrong, a portable gallows was erected and used in what is now the car park of the Gaol. Due to a large number of people turning up for these hangings to watch the 'entertainment', they eventually moved the portable gallows behind the privacy of the Gaol walls and further executions took place along the walkway between the outer walls. Another 21 were hanged in the New Building and finally the last four were hanged in what is now known as the hanging tower. All of these people are still buried within the Gaol and their graves can still be visited along the outer walkways.


Stories of ghostly sightings had been coming out of the Gaol for many years. We had reports of staff working in the office on their own, who would hear footsteps crossing the upper floor when nobody was there and sounds of furniture moving around. There were reports from another volunteer, who upon leaving the office to deal with the public in the shop, would return to find her paperwork strewn across the floor, even after she started placing mugs of coffee on them. At one point it was suggested that she told it to stop, as it was scaring her, which she did and never happen again.

Then there were stories of a lady dressed in white. In fact we were told how one school group, after a sleepover, approached staff the next day and asked where the mannequin had gone from one of the yards as it had been there the night before. They were informed there had been no mannequin in that yard, but they insisted they had seen a lady dressed in white just standing there. The only lady on record that ever wore a white dress in the Gaol, had been Elizabeth Woolcock at her execution. Was she still haunting the place?

But the stories that interested us the most were the ones that were coming out of the New Building, where 21 of the executions had taken place. It was regularly reported that a guard would be seen at the top of the old metal staircase. In fact interviews show that even when the Gaol was working, prisoners and guards alike often found it uncomfortable in that block and made requests to be moved. I personally interviewed a guard who used to work there and he informed me that a couple of the guards refused to do night duty in that block as they could hear somebody patrolling the gantries, when they were sitting in their office.

Finally in 1988 due to the appalling living conditions, the Gaol was closed and the Adelaide Council were called in to clear it out. We tracked down a couple of the workers who described how they often felt uncomfortable in there and complained to supervisors.

There was also the work experience student whose first job was to go into the New Building and put up the government No Smoking signs. It wasn't long before he too, ended up back at the office shaking. He said he had seen a guard come out of the top offices and run down one of the gantries and into a cell before disappearing. He was told that if he wanted to work there, he had to get used to the guard as he was part of the Gaol.

And the list of stories went on.

And so it was in 2002 we were invited to come and officially start investigating the Old Adelaide Gaol, to see if there was any truth in the rumours. Originally we were only going to do a 6 month investigation but we had so many intriguing experiences that we would have been foolish not to have stayed. Eight years later we are still there and just going through a whole new round of experiments. We never forget how lucky we were to get such a fantastic old building to work with.

We thank management and the Department for Environment and Natural Resources for for the trust they gave us right from the start. Eventually we, like many other volunteers that work tirelessly there, fell in love with the place and went on to become volunteers ourselves and ended up assisting to take some of the Ghost Tours for them, which we still do today.

For more information on the Adelaide Gaol, it's history and tours please visit: The Adelaide Gaol


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