If the traveller continued along the western side of the street in 1829 he would arrive at the gaol when he reached the corner of Essex street, i.e., opposite the site of the premises of Nock and Kirby, on the other side of the road. Sydney’s first gaol was a tent. It can be understood that some of the queer human freight brought by the First Fleet were in need of such accommodation within a short time of their landing. But although the walls of the prison were frail, we can be sure that, even if blankets and sheets were omitted from the equipment of this Fleet, there was no dearth of manacles and irons, and the chances of the prisoner escaping were small. Some buildings for a goal must have been built in the early days, but it was not until 1796 that a proper gaol was erected. This was constructed of logs, and, in view of the times and the population, was quite commodious. It was burned down in February, 1779, and replaced by one in stone, which remained in use until June, 1841, when Darlinghurst gaol was opened.
The gaol was a prominent feature in this part of George street—a too prominent feature, if we are to believe a writer of 1834, who, after referring to proposed improvements in this part of the town, wrote, “As a consequence of this proceeding, that unseemly spectacle in the centre of the metropolis, the jail (with its gallows towering above the walls) must be removed, and not before it was wanted.” In one of my scrapbooks is a cutting taken from “The Australian” of June 22nd, 1831, which I regret space will not allow me to quote in full to illustrate the gulf that divides the outlook of 1831 from that of today.
The article records the hanging of eight men all together at this old gaol. The offence of four was burgling a but in the country belonging to Gregory Blaxland. These protested their innocence to the last. The writer of the article had himself some doubts on the subject but philosophically sums up on the question of tainted evidence in these words. “If, in cases like this, a few persons suffer who are not exactly guilty of the fatal crime, the circumstances, however to be deplored, is in a great degree the unavoidable and necessary consequence of the present state of prison discipline and of society.” Two of the other culprits were convicted of entering the dwelling house of Mr. Raymond, the postmaster.
Another was guilty of attempting to murder a fellow convict, an act committed, he said, in order that he might be hanged, and the eighth unfortunate was there on account of a highway robbery. In attendance on the doomed men, in addition to the clergy, was Mr. Thomas Hyndes, a benevolent merchant of the day, of whom the facetious writer remarks that he “appears to have no ordinary predilection for waiting upon unhappy culprits at their dying hour, and making their exit to another and a better world as comfortable as it well can be.” The inhumanity of these proceedings is not surprising in an age which could send a child of nine to transportation for seven years for robbing an orchard.