This morning I journeyed out to Maitland Gaol for a self-guided audio tour experience. The Gaol is approximately one hour from Newcastle by train and very easy to access without a car. There are a few tour options available so definitely check their website before you visit. The only option I had available today was the self-guided audio tour that you can download to your device before your visit. You can take either the Maitland Gaol Revealed or Escaping Maitland Gaol tour (a kid’s tour is also available). Because I had the time, and really wanted to explore the Gaol, I selected Maitland Gaol Revealed. This is a 1.5 hour tour that guides you through all the main areas. The benefit of this app is you can re-read/listen to any sections post-visit. Before reviewing the experience, here is a brief history of the Gaol.
History of Maitland Gaol
Maitland Gaol officially opened in December, 1848. However, building the Gaol started as early as 1846 with a foundation stone laid in 1844. You will see in photographs that the sandstone used to construct the Goal is that quintessential convict-era sandstone. This was quarried by convicts at Morpeth – an area near the Gaol. The first structures to be built were the southeast wing, gate, and enclosing wall. Towards the end of the 1880s, the warders’ quarters, watch towers, and building containing the chapel were added. Extensions continued to be built to support the growing number of inmates. In 1972, Maitland Gaol became a maximum-security prison.
Fast forward to the early 1990s when modern prison cells were built including 5-wing – a high-security cell block for those who had committed especially serious crimes. Eventually the Gaol closed in January 1998. Today, it serves as a heritage-listed tourism site.
The Gaol was inscribed on the New South Wales State Heritage Registrar on 2 April 1999. Mainly because it’s the oldest substantially intact country gaol in New South Wales. It is also Australia’s oldest structure to be continuously used as a gaol and the last surviving example of the ‘Inspectors’ Gaols’ or those designed by the Colonial Architect in New South Wales.
Maitland Gaol Revealed
I strongly suggest taking the Maitland Gaol Revealed tour if you are wanting an in-depth experience. It is filled with firsthand accounts from both ex-inmates and wardens. I do think there is room to develop this tour to include more diverse voices. Each stop is well-timed and well-sign posted meaning I wasn’t getting lost or standing in the same place for too long. Overall, I really enjoyed the tour and exploring the Gaol. It was great being able to bring your own device and headphones (but both are available to purchase onsite if you need to). Here are my highlights from the tour:
The fifth stop on the tour is 5-wing. This is one of the most notorious cell blocks in the entire Gaol as it housed some of the worst criminals. It looks quite new as it only opened five years prior to the Gaol closing. Inmates weren’t allowed any personal belongings or contact with other inmates while in this wing.
After hearing a bit more about 5-wing, the next block you explore is C-wing. This was originally built in the mid-1880s to house female inmates. It is a building separate from the rest. When female inmates were no longer sent to Maitland (1950s onwards) it housed high-risk criminals and those with access to the outside (through visiting family and friends). Strangely enough, this block was used as a makeshift maternity hospital in 1949 when the main hospital’s maternity wing closed due to flooding.
3: The Kitchen
The reason why I’m including the kitchen in this list is because of its surrounding gardens. There are a few panels that explain what was grown in the garden to feed inmates. For example, one area grew lettuce and beans from 1900 – 1955 to provide fresh vegetables. There are a couple of amazing lemon trees planted outside the kitchen too. I am a food-orientated person so it’s always interesting to learn about anything relating to food.
Construction on B-wing started in 1867 making this the second oldest wing at the Gaol. It is three storeys high and long-term inmates were housed on the top level.
5: The Hospital
No surprises here – the hospital was another highlight of the tour. All inmates passed through the hospital before heading to their cell. As well as blood and urine tests, inmates underwent psychological evaluation. There is a little display here of some historical medical supplies.
6: The Chapel
The Chapel was a highlight for me as you can clearly see the great preservation work happening. The stained glass windows overlook the entire chapel and there are a few murals on display that were uncovered in 2007. I really enjoyed listening to the audio guide in this area. There was a great story about a chaplain who gave lamingtons to inmates attending his service. Lamingtons were classed as contraband so this had to stop and attendance dropped.
Opening in 1848, this is the oldest wing in the Gaol. The audio guide shares some LGBTIQA+ history via stories about those who identified as homosexual or transsexual. Going back to what I said before, it would be worth including the voice of someone from the LGBTIQA+ community. It is also the wing that held inmates sentenced to execution. The room where all these inmates spent their final days is at the back of the wing.
There are 25 sites in total to explore. A few have additional stories you can listen to during your visit.
As mentioned before, you can either drive or take public transport from Newcastle. There is some fantastic information on accessibility here: https://www.maitlandgaol.com.au/visit/visitor-services/accessibility/. The Gaol is open weekdays from 9am to 4pm and weekends from 10am to 4pm. You can find all the information on tours and tickets here: https://www.maitlandgaol.com.au/visit/.