Whether you’re a history buff or not, you’re likely to find the Richmond Gaol a fascinating and eye-opening experience. It’s the oldest gaol still in existence in Australia. A well-preserved timepiece of the convict era that still visually depicts the harsh lives lead by prisoners.
Construction of Richmond Gaol
The first stage of construction commenced in 1825. This was only one year after Richmond was proclaimed a village and five years before the Port Arthur penal settlement existed. Most of the key features you see at Richmond Gaol today were constructed over a 15 year period between 1825 and 1840.
The gaol started off small as a courthouse, servicing the police district in the area. It held convicts who were used as slaves to construct roads, the Richmond Bridge and key buildings in the growing Richmond area.
This first state comprised of four men’s cells, one women’s cell, a javelin’s room (privileged convicts who were given more senior work roles), convicts room, keeper’s room with underground cellar, passages and an entrance hall.
Richmond Gaol had quickly become overcrowded and convicts were frequently escaping. The harshness of the convict system didn’t deter convicts from attempting to escape, with prisoners removing roofing shingles, digging under the floor and escaping through windows.
Construction of a second level commenced in 1832 and was completed in 1833. This upper level held the Gaoler’s Residence with the downstairs section being used as storage.
As the population grew, it became important to separate male and female prisoners. In 1835 eastern and western wings were constructed to facilitate this (the current entrance is through the western wing). In the new female area a cookhouse and oven were installed.
In 1840, the paling fence was replaced with a 3.4 metre high stone wall, which surrounded the gaol and made it much more difficult for convicts to escape.
It’s use for incarceration ceased in the 1920’s. It became a State Reserve in 1945, and by the 1960’s the gaol was classified as an historic site and run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Richmond Gaol’s Unfortunate Convicts
Most prisoners were those guilty of minor crimes such as drunkenness, fighting, unpaid debts, as well as those who were awaiting trial or further punishment after trial.
One of the most infamous convicts prisoners at Richmond Gaol was Ikey Solomon, an Englishman that was supposedly the inspiration for the character Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. He was an interesting character who had been locked up in London twice for selling stolen goods. His wife had been arrested and shipped as a convict to Tasmania, so Ikey thought he would follow her. Soon enough he was arrested and spent a period of time at Richmond Gaol.
Not all prisoners were white, British men. Aboriginals were also detained. There were many clashes between white settlers and Aboriginals in the Richmond area. The large number of new settlers in the 1820’s led to many fences being constructed, separating the wheat farmer’s plots of land. Aboriginals were used to being able to roam free in these areas, which resulted in tensions. Parties were led to capture Aboriginals, who were then detained.
A small number of female prisoners were also held at Richmond Gaol. Most female convicts were used as private slaves or sent to work at the Hobart Cascades Female Factory, however those who were more unruly were sent to Richmond for a period of solitary confinement.
Punishment at Richmond Gaol
For the convicts who misbehaved, there were two main forms of punishment. And at Richmond Gaol, you can catch a glimpse of how horrific these must have been!
Solitary confinement was commonly used for even minor acts such as swearing. Convicts were locked in a cell approximately 1 metre by 2 metres (about the size of a public toilet cubicle). There was no bed, no window and no one to talk to. Convicts were kept in silence and isolation for varying lengths of time ranging from one day to thirty days, depending on the crime. The original solitary confinement cells still stand today, and are accessible to all visitors. A trip to Richmond Gaol wouldn’t be complete without being locked up in the cell for a minute and briefly experiencing what it felt like.
The other common punishment was flagellation. The open courtyard was centre scene for the floggings, where convicts could receive 25 to 100 lashes. This may seem harsh but really these convicts were lucky – in Hobart convicts could receive up to 500 lashes. Salt would be rubbed into the
The flogging yard was the location set for another common punishment aside from solitary confinement, flagellations. The number of lashes would range anywhere from 25-100, considered conservative for the day (in Hobart Town this number could go high as 500!). The floggings were supervised by a surgeon, who would intervene if the convict’s life was in jeopardy. While they wanted to punish convicts they couldn’t kill them. Executions were only conducted in Hobart and Launceston, and convicts were valued to a degree for the labor they could provide in the growing town. Once the surgeon had treated the convict and confirmed they were no longer at risk, the flagellator would continue administering the flogging.
Those who were not in solitary confinement or receiving a lashing would work long days in the “chain gangs”. Convicts played a vital part in building the roads and key buildings in the town. The Richmond Bridge is a fine example of their work. Convicts would mine the stone from Butchers Hill, load it into carts and drag it to the Coal River and construct the bridge.
While there are many ghosts in the area, the ghost of Richmond Gaol is the one that is most commonly noticed. A number of visitors, men in particular, have felt haunted by a ghost in the third cell of the men’s block. Some hear moaning and deep sighs, while others feel a cold shiver as they approach the cell.
What Visitors Can See at the Gaol
Most of the original gaol is still present and accessible for tourists. Visitors can conduct a self-guided tour, following a detailed guide document with an abundance of interesting and useful information. You can visit areas such as the solitary confinement cells, punishment cells, holding rooms, flogging yard, cookhouse with an original oven.
Many original items from this period have been retained and are on display. This includes the whips used for lashing, handcuffs, chains used for chaining convict workers together to ensure they didn’t escape, construction tools and clothing. There are also many artefacts that portray everyday life in this period, such as cutlery and plates, and a manual rotary clothes dryer.
Key Visitor Information
Open Hours: 9:00am to 5:00pm, 7 days a week
Cost: Adults $10, Children $5, Family $25 (2 adults, 2 children). Group Concessions may be available on request
Address: 37 Bathurst Street, Richmond Tasmania 7025
Phone number: (03) 6260 2127
By JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons (cropped and compressed)