Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Parramatta Gaol

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Parramatta Gaol

The Parramatta Correctional Centre, located on the corner of Dunlop and New streets, is the oldest and most intact gaol in original use in Australia. The structure reflects the changes in penal philosophy from the 1830s until Long Bay Prison was built in the early twentieth century.

The current complex, completed in 1842, was the third gaol built in Parramatta. The first was built in 1796 on the north bank of the river, near the southern boundary of the present Prince Alfred Park. It was designed by Governor John Hunter to house robbers, and the plan, with its single cells, followed contemporary English penal concepts. It was constructed of double log and thatch and on 28 December 1799, the flammable structure was torched by arsonists; several of the incarcerated inmates were 'shockingly scorched'.

The second Parramatta gaol

Work began in August 1802 on the second gaol. It was built on the original site, and it was supervised by the Parramatta magistrate, Reverend Samuel Marsden. He was famously known in Sydney as 'the flogging parson'. The building was financed by a tax on spirits, which probably led to the increased use of illicit stills.

The new gaol was completed in December 1804. A linen and woollen manufactory had been included, and the Dundee weaver and political prisoner George Mealmaker, became the superintendent of both male and female convicts. Floggings took place within the gaol yard, while executions were public affairs held outside. Stocks at the entrance were used to expose minor offenders to public scorn. Separate yards were provided for male and female prisoners but other facilities were shared. Having survived another incendiary attack in December 1807, the three-room gaol quickly became overcrowded and continued to deteriorate over the next 30 years.

A new gaol

From his arrival in1831, Governor Richard Bourke appealed to the Colonial Office in London for a new gaol, and colonial architect Mortimer Lewis submitted a design for the third gaol in 1835. However, it was a design by the new commanding royal engineer Captain George Barney that was used by the builders James Houison and Nathaniel Payten at a new site to the north of the town. In 1842 economic depression halted construction of the gaol, however a perimeter wall, a governor's house-cum-chapel, and three of the proposed five double-storied radiating wings had been finished. Governor George Gipps proclaimed the incomplete prison open on 3 January 1842. The first gaoler was Thomas Duke Allen. He spent most of his 20 years in charge trying to requisition sufficient facilities to make the gaol habitable. His wife Martha acted as matron for the female prisoners.

From the late 1850s, with better economic times, the gaol area was doubled, workshops and a cookhouse were built, two of the original cell wings were converted to male and female hospital wings, and a new stone perimeter wall surrounded the enlarged enclosure. Between 1883 and 1889, three additional cell wings were built, largely by prison labor. One of these wings was reserved for prisoners certified insane.

In 1897, Parramatta was the second largest gaol in the colony, with 364 men and eight women inmates. Under William Frederick Neitenstein, the comptroller general of prisons from 1896, the prison system became more efficient and economical. By June 1899, all double cells were converted to single cells, electricity was installed, the prisoners' circumambulatory walks were replaced by physical drill, and a sixth wing was completed.

Changes in the twentieth century

Parramatta gaol was designed to house habitual criminals and recidivists with long sentences who could be trained for productive work. By 1929, it had become the State's principal manufacturing gaol, producing boots, brushes, tinware, clothes, joinery and foodstuffs. It also became a centre for rehabilitation, and the single cells were once more converted to multiple cells. It was closed from 1918 to 1922 and briefly used as a mental health facility.

Various unsympathetic architectural additions were made to the nineteenth century structure in the 1940s. In the 1970s, the Parramatta Linen Service, a large auditorium, and an extension to the 1846 gatehouse were built. In the 1990s, reception, administration and visitors' buildings were designed to better match the original sandstone structure. The prison was briefly dis-established in July 1997.

Today, the Parramatta Correctional Centre is classified as a medium-security, short-term Remand Centre, Transient Centre and Metropolitan Periodic Detention Centre. It houses both un-sentenced and sentenced male inmates, including Drug Court sanctions and male periodic detainees.


Terry Kass et al, Parramatta, A Past Revealed, Parramatta City Council, 1996

James Kerr, Parramatta Correctional Centre: Its Past Development and Future Care, Commissioned by the NSW Public Works for the Department of Corrective Services. Sydney, 1995

New South Wales Heritage Branch website, State Heritage Register, www.heritage.nsw.gov.au

Heritage Group, North Parramatta Government Sites: Conservation Management Plan, NSW Department of Public Works and Services, 2000