For almost 150 years it kept some of Australia’s most infamous criminals contained behind its towering sandstone walls and razor wire fencing. These days, however, Maitland Gaol welcomes a far more law-abiding crowd through its foreboding iron gates.
Thousands of visitors from all over the world flock to the commanding convict-built structure every year to explore the fascinating, frightening and sometimes far-fetched sounding stories of what life was like behind its grim stone walls.
The award-winning tourist attraction is one of around a dozen historic gaols and similar sites that are now open to the public across Australia, providing an insight into the country’s prison system, as well as many other aspects of early life in the colony.
Positioned prominently on top of a hill in East Maitland, Maitland Gaol was built in the mid-1800s using sandstone sourced from the local area including Morpeth and Farley. The foundation stone was laid in 1844, with the first prisoners incarcerated in the multi-building complex in December 1848.
The gaol was built over several stages between 1844 and 1900, with much of the masonry work carried out by prisoners. While some additions and alterations were undertaken in the late 1960s and ’70s, the closure of the gaol was announced in 1996 as part of an upgrade to the state’s prison system. It was determined that security at the site no longer met community expectations, while the overall conditions were considered unsuitable and the cost of operating the antiquated facility was excessive.
Maitland Gaol closed as a maximum security prison on January 29, 1998, with the honour of being Australia’s oldest structure in continuous use as a gaol. Thirteen months later Maitland City Council was awarded a 50-year lease for the site, with plans to adaptively reuse the Gaol as a museum. The Gaol was also added to the State Heritage Register in 1999.
Over the years since being reopened as a tourist attraction, a number of guided tours have been developed at the Gaol, with themes covering everything from crimes of passion to daring escapes.
There is certainly plenty of source material to draw from for the tours, with the Gaol housing some of the country’s most notorious criminals at one time or another. Previous ‘guests’ included Sydney underworld figure Arthur 'Neddy' Smith, John Travis and the Murphy Brothers, who were convicted of the murder of 26-year-old nurse Anita Cobby, bank robber Darcy Dugan and backpacker serial killer Ivan Milat.
A total of 16 executions (carried out as public hangings until 1861) were enacted on the Maitland Gaol site between 1843 and 1897, including 13 for murder and three for rape, while the last corporal punishment in NSW – the whipping of an inmate – occurred at Maitland in 1905.
The Gaol was also the site of numerous daring escapes, with almost 40 attempts made throughout its history, although most of them failed.
The last recorded escape plot, on May 17, 1997, was thwarted before it even began after drug baron George Savvas, Milat and two other prisoners planned to overpower the prison officer in A Wing, steal his keys and use them to gain access to the general yard. From here they would have escaped over the wall to a car waiting for them on the other side. However, increased security regulations meant the plot was uncovered before it could be put into action.
Not surprisingly, the ex-warder and ex-inmate guided tours are among the Gaols’ most popular offerings, providing a unique perspective into life behind bars with stories that are not for the faint-hearted.
Among those who believe, Maitland Gaol is said to be the most haunted site in the Hunter, making its regular ghost tours another popular activity for those curious about the paranormal.
For more information about its history and the wide variety of activities now on offer at the site, visit www.maitlandgaol.com.au