Air of Authority

The Crown Overlooking Maitland’s Diverse Inmates

‘… there was no air – can you imagine five people locked in a cell with no air?…’ – former prisoner Allan James remembered his experience at Maitland Gaol in 1961.

Established in 1848, Maitland was the oldest intact gaol in NSW and had become notorious as one of Australia’s toughest prisons. Ventilation grills like this one were installed throughout the Gaol buildings, but were quite ineffective, as interior ventilation was poor. With no windows in the overcrowded cells, the walls sweated in summer and the inmates were freezing in winter.

Ventilation grills depicting the British royal crown were embedded in the walls of government buildings around the colony of NSW in the nineteenth century, marking the structures with the symbol of government authority. For Maitland Gaol prisoners, the grills were a constant reminder of the hand of the law which held them inside, but which failed to provide adequate ventilation to their stifling cells. Of course, those prisoners were all subjects of the British Crown. Or were they?

The Gaol Photographic Description Books of the 1870s – 1920s reveal that prisoners came from near and far. Many were born in Maitland, and around NSW and other colonies. Unsurprisingly, there were many from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and colonies such as Hong Kong and India. But many also came from beyond the British Empire – from North America to China, Zanzibar, Egypt, and from Prussia to Portugal, Greece, Holland, Italy, Germany, France and Scandinavia.