Somehow I registered for an event with the alluring title of “Gallows and Governance at the Old Adelaide Gaol”. It seemed perfect for my interests – history and Adelaide! I signed up for this free event by the History Trust of SA. The presentations by Rhondda Harris and Dr Steven Anderson are briefly summarised below:

Adelaide was established by free settlers in 1836 and, when Colonel William Light planned the city, he didn’t include a gaol. Gaols were for convicts, and Adelaide would have none of these lower class individuals.

Until they did.

Convicts from the east travelled overland (a long and hard journey), and brought their wiley ways to SA. Plus there were drunken sailors from the port, aboriginal people, and the mentally ill. They all needed to be locked up

Initially the HMS Buffalo was used as a gaol, but when it left, so did their holding facility.

As a temporary measure, prisoners were tied to trees in the parklands, but clearly a gaol needed to be constructed. And such a gaol would need a governor.

Rhondda Harris is the author of Ashton’s Hotel, which describes the time that William Baker Ashton was the governor of Adelaide Gaol. Rhondda discovered Ashton’s journal, which is a vivid account of the gaol and his personal life. Within the journal, he mentions 360 prisoners by name, describing petty and large events. Overall, Ashton was a compassionate man for his era, including to the inmates in his prison.

The other speaker we had for the event was Dr Steven Anderson, who has recently studied the hangings of Adelaide Gaol.

The first execution in Adelaide Gaol was on the 2nd of May 1838 of a man called Michael Magee. It was a makeshift event in the Adelaide parklands, which was far from a clean death. 1000 people witnessed the spectacle. Things changes overtime, with executions often held out the front of the gaol. The last public hanging was 1858, and then all executions occurred within the walls.

Early executions were compared to the final execution in South Australia on the 24th of December 1964. When Glen Sabre Valance was to be hung, where there was public outcry about the killing, and the execution was conducted very-privately (with no press) in the walls of the gaol. Capital punishment was abolished in South Australia over ten years later.

One of the most fascinating things about the events of the Old Adelaide Gaol is its recency. Glen Sabre Valance was executed in my parents’ lifetime. The gaol only closed in the year of my birth. Of course, the Old Adelaide Gaol is a SA tourist attraction where many places, including the hanging tower, can be viewed by the public.