For Your Thoughts

A Penny, Female Felons and Building Maitland Gaol

This 1826 penny, discovered in 2005 beneath a sandstone windowsill of A-Wing at Maitland Gaol, could only have been placed there during the building’s construction in the 1840s. For about 150 years the coin remained in place, witness to the thousands of inmates once incarcerated within the building’s walls, many of whom were female.

When photographed for Maitland Gaol’s entrance books, the female prisoners wore downtrodden looks and intense stares. Led into crime largely by poverty and abusive relationships, women were held there from 1848 until the early 1950s, first on the upper floor of the A-Wing cell block, and from 1899 in a dedicated women’s cell block. Many women’s offences were minor, such as indecent language, vagrancy or petty theft, but a few committed arson, robbery, and even concealment of birth and infanticide.

In the 1830s, the gang of about 80 transported British convicts constructing the gaol worked grindingly slow so were removed from the job in December 1845. A-Wing was still incomplete, but eight windows along one side were finished. Was it a convict mason who placed the coin about 1845, or one of the free stonemasons who took over the project in 1846? We may never know, but its likely that he was following a centuries-old tradition of leaving a personal memento to mark his contribution, in this case a coin from his pocket, hidden within the building’s walls.