Signal Hill has long been famous for its role in military and
communications history. (1) Recent research is beginning to shed
light on another dimension of the hill's past: its role in the
institutional life of St. John's, Newfoundland. (2) For example,
from 1870 to 1920, abandoned British military buildings on the
hill served as hospitals, complementing medical facilities in the
city. In a similar vein, from 1846 to 1859 the hill was the site
of the city gaol. In addition to forming an interesting episode
in Newfoundland penal history, the story of Signal Hill gaol also
illustrates the declining commitment of the British military in
mid-19th century St. John's.
St. John's got its first gaol in 1730, a year after the
establishment of civil government. (3) Located in the same
building as the court house, the gaol served as a lock-up for
debtors and (after 1824) persons committed to stand trial in the
Supreme Court, and also as a temporary place of confinement for
drunk and disorderly persons. Those convicted of serious or
violent crimes were usually transported to prisons in England or
one of the neighbouring British North American colonies. Although
the gaol was small, overcrowding could be avoided by sending some
of the prisoners to outport gaols. (4) The gaol consisted of
three wards - one for debtors, one for the military, and one for
general use - and three individual cells, all at ground level.
Male and female prisoners were separated and, following the Upper
Canadian system introduced by Chief Justice Henry Boulton
(1833-38), debtors were kept apart from those guilty of felonies
and misdemeanours. The 1841 Criminal Law Commission found the
place agreeable enough, observing that prisoners enjoyed "a clean
and tolerable abode, regular and sufficient diet in lieu of a
precarious subsistence [sic], a total abstinence from any labour,
and enough of the society of their fellow prisoners to remove the
tedium of confinement." (5) If things were indeed this rosy, they
soon changed after 9 June 1846 when fire engulfed the city,
destroying nearly 12,000 houses, all of the Water Street
mercantile premises, and many of the public buildings, including
the court house/gaol.
The site chosen for the new, "temporary" gaol, was an abandoned
military barrack on the summit of Signal Hill. Signal Hill had
been a key element in the St. John's defence network since the
1790s, complementing the two main city forts Fort William and
Fort Townshend and a host of smaller works focusing on the
narrows. In 1831, the Board of Ordnance (which oversaw British
military spending at home and in the colonies) ordered that the
two city forts were to be gradually phased out, and their
personnel and facilities to be relocated to Signal Hill, which
was considered more defensible. The concentration scheme, as it
was known, was abandoned by 1847, but by then a major
construction binge had taken place on the hill. Among the new
buildings were a range of officers' and soldiers' barracks that
extended nearly 200 feet along the western, seaward ridge of the
summit. The officers' barracks consisted of what were known as
houses A and B, and the soldiers' barracks of houses C and D. (6)
From the beginning, the barracks were barely liveable. The high
winds that prevailed on the summit caused smoke from the chimneys
to back up into the rooms, and cold and damp easily penetrated
the stone walls. Matters came to a head on 14 January 1842 when
the infant child of one of the soldiers quartered in the barracks
died in its mother's arms from the combined effects of cold and
smoke inhalation. The Major-General Commanding for Newfoundland,
Governor Sir John Harvey, immediately ordered the removal of all
personnel from the barracks. In March the Board of Ordnance
approved the conversion of the barracks into military
storehouses; at the same time, the Board ordered the construction
of a new barrack in George's Valley, a more sheltered area of the
In July 1845, the Commanding Royal Engineer, Lieutenant Alexander
Watt Robe, applied to the Board of Ordnance for permission to
convert house B into a military prison for cases of solitary
confinement. (7) The Board approved the project the following
spring, and the conversion was under way when the city gaol went
up in flames. The military authorities quickly turned over the
Signal Hill facility to the colony as a temporary gaol, pending
construction of a penitentiary. Thirteen years were to elapse
before the penitentiary became a reality, and during that time
Signal Hill gaol was the main detention centre for the city.
Staff and prisoners from the old gaol were probably transferred
to Signal Hill immediately after the fire; certainly, they were
there by early July. (8) Because of its distance from the city,
Signal Hill gaol proved impractical for a short-term lockup.
Accordingly, a "temporary" lockup was found in the city, after
which Signal Hill received convicted prisoners and persons
committed to stand trial. (9) Once this arrangement was worked
out, another more fundamental problem remained. Signal Hill gaol
was located in an extremely exposed position, 500 feet above sea
level. It had already proven unfit for human habitation as a
barrack, and the conditions that made it so had not changed. On
19 September 1846, during a severe gale, the wind ripped the
roofs off houses A and B. and so badly damaged the walls that
part of the range had to be torn down in the spring. Thereafter
walls of the gaol were unstable and posed a constant threat, and
the roof leaked badly.
The following is a description of the gaol in 1851:
"The only place of confinement in this District, for both
criminals and debtors is in the stone Barrack at Signal Hill;
this building consists of eight rooms, one for the gaoler,
divided into bedroom, office, and sitting-room, another for the
turnkey, divided into two, bed-room, private store-room, and
sitting-room, another divided into a kitchen and two store-rooms,
for the whole establishment; the fourth room on the ground floor
is the female room, divided into two cells, and a sitting-room.
On the upper floor is one room, divided into three cells, and a
sitting-room for debtors; two other rooms of same size, similarly
divided, and one room with two cells - this is all the
accommodation. Of these cells six will hold only one prisoner
each; two, three each. The accommodation here described is wholly
insufficient; it is utterly impossible with it to carry out any
system of discipline, or classification of prisoners, and the
rules of the Supreme Court upon these points, are, from absolute
necessity, for the most part, inoperative." (10)
Between 1847 and 1850, an average of 120 prisoners were committed
annually; the average number of prisoners in gaol at any one time
was 20. The diet consisted entirely of bread, tea, oatmeal, and
salt; except for exercise in thee gaol yard, there were no
programs or activities. (11) William Magill, gaoler from 1849 to
1854, sometimes taught reading and writing to the younger
inmates, but did so on his own initiative and at his own expense.
Conditions were much worse for females than for male. (12)
Although there were nominally two cells for females, by 1856 one
of them was given over for storage space. This left one cell plus
a sleeping cell (possibly the "sitting-room" of the 1851
description). The sleeping cell contained only one crib, so most
of the women were forced to sleep on the floor. The main cell
also doubled as the official reception area for new prisoners.
Each new prisoner was given a haircut, after which he was
stripped and washed from head to toe. Whenever a male prisoner
was being received, all the female prisoners were crowded into
the sleeping cell and the keyhole closed up. Because there were
no female staff, newly arrived female prisoners had their "necks,
shoulders, bosoms and feet washed by men."
The High Sheriff was responsible for general management of the
gaol. Unlike his counterparts in England, the High Sheriff in
Newfoundland still exercised considerably authority - authority
confirmed under a Royal Charter accompanying the 1824 Judicature
Act. (13) The Governor nominated the High Sheriff and the
legislature paid his salary, which formed part of the colonial
treasury. Until 1846, the High Sheriff appointed the gaoler, who
was responsible for the day-to-day management of the institution.
After 1846, the Governor made this appointment, but usually on
the advice of the High Sheriff. The gaoler supervised the turnkey
and under-turnkey, the only other employees at the gaol.
Security appears to have been quite lax. Much of this was owing
to the dilapidated condition of the place, but there were other
factors. The gaoler often did not bother to lock the door to the
debtors' cell, and on one occasion in 1846 a debtor went into the
city for the night, returned the next morning and asked to be let
back into his cell. (14) There were numerous escapes, some
successful, some not. The most famous by far was that of Thomas
Bradshaw and William O'Kelly, whose real names were,
respectively, Dermot Brady and Edward Naughten. (15) Naughten was
a young Irishman wanted in England in conjunction with the theft
of 1900 pounds from the Manchester branch of the Bank of England
in 1847. He and Brady arrived in St. John's in July 1848 from
Fogo. They had earlier fled to Fogo from New York when the police
there had begun to close in on them. The two friends took up
residence in one of the city's better hotels, and for a while
were the darlings of St. John's high society. They were found out
by a shopkeeper, who suspected them of passing a counterfeit
note. An investigation revealed that, while the note was genuine,
its serial number matched that of one of the notes stolen at
Manchester. Naughten and Brady were arrested on 1 August and
placed in Signal Hill gaol to await the next transport to
The great escape took place in the early hours of 18 August. A
friend had brought Naughten a cake, in which there was concealed
a chisel. Naughten broke out of his own cell and busted the
padlock to Brady's. Together, they went up into the garret and
escaped via a window at the southern end of the adjoining
Ordnance storehouse. A military sentry spotted Brady and felled
him with a shot to the leg. Naughten, however, managed to
scramble down a cliff to the narrows, swam across to the south
side and made his way to the community of Blackhead. (16) Legend
has it that he was taken in by the locals, and that, under a new
identity, he lived there for the rest of his life.
Because the High Sheriff was liable for all expenses incurred in
tracking down escaped prisoners, escapes were a major irritant in
relation between the High Sheriff and the gaoler. An attempted
gaol-break in June 1854 indirectly led to the worst flare-up in
relations between the gaol's two main officials. (17) In their
investigation into the matter, the police magistrates raised
questions about the role of the turnkey, Joseph Score. Before
there were any further developments on that front, Score's wife,
no doubt to protect her husband, petitioned Governor Ker Baillie
Hamilton for the dismissal of gaoler William Magill on grounds of
"improper liberties attempted by Mr. Magill towards her, immoral
behaviour with female prisoners, and breach of prison
discipline." Hamilton appointed Charles Simms, Chief Clerk and
Registrar of the Supreme Court, to inquire into Mrs. Score's
charges. The High Sheriff, Benjamin Garrett, took an active part
in the inquiry, much of which was conducted in Magill's absence.
Before Magill had an opportunity to defend himself, the Governor
dismissed him from office; to add insult to injury, Joseph Score
was appointed acting gaoler. Magill continued to protest his
innocence, and accused Garrett of conspiring with Mrs. Score. It
was revealed in the press that on one occasion when Mrs. Garrett
was holidaying in Halifax, Mrs. Score left her residence and
moved in with Garrett to be his cook! Magill's efforts and the
related publicity caused the House of Assembly to reopen the
case. In the end, a select committee completely exonerated
Magill, but he never did get his job back a new gaoler, Richard
Brace, having been appointed in February 1855.
Intended to be temporary, the gaol led a precarious existence for
13 years. After it was again severely damaged by wind in 1850,
High Sheriff Garrett informed Governor Sir John Gaspard
LeMarchant that unless expensive alterations were undertaken
immediately, the building was in serious danger of collapse. (18)
But instead of making costly repairs to a building the colony
did not own, Garrett recommended that the colony construct or
acquire a new building. In 1851 the House of Assembly appointed a
select committee to study these alternatives. The committee's
report, submitted on 4 April, favoured construction of a new
penitentiary modelled after one recently completed at Halifax,
Nova Scotia. Accordingly, the House enacted the necessary
legislation and a board of commissioners was established to
superintend the construction and eventual management of the
proposed penitentiary. (19) The idea of following the Halifax
model was soon dropped, largely at the instigation of Garrett,
who was chairman of the penitentiary board. He felt that the
Pentonville prison in England - which disposed of the ward
concept in favour of confinement in individual cells - was a
better model. Garrett wrote to the Inspector-General of Prisons
in England and asked him to engage an architect to draft plans
based on Pentonville, but also taking into account local needs.
The plans, when completed, proved to be a little too grand, and
they were subsequently revised by a local architect. (20) The
penitentiary opened on 24 August 1859, by which date it still was
not completely finished. (21)
While the penitentiary was under construction, the Liberal
government of Premier Philip Little overhauled the colony's penal
administration. In 1855, control of the Signal Hill gaol passed
from the High Sheriff to the newly formed Board of Works.
Creation of the Board of Works represented a concerted effort to
centralize the management of Newfoundland's public buildings. But
it also produced a happy side effect, allowing the governing
party to exercise greater influence on hiring and spending. In
1856 High Sheriff Garrett was retired by the government and
replaced by longtime Liberal supporter John V. Nugent. (22)
It would be a mistake to ascribe to Signal Hill gaol too
prominent a place in Newfoundland penal history. Nevertheless, it
was the last of the old-style gaols in St. John's. The
penitentiary that succeeded it reflected the most recent trends
in English penal theory, and thus was the first "modern"
correctional facility in Newfoundland.
Signal Hill gaol is also important because it provides another
example of the shrinking commitment of the British military in
mid-19th century St. John's. In an era of British free trade and
colonial self-government, the maintenance of expensive garrisons
on colonial soil had become untenable. (23) The first obvious
sign of a shift in British defence policy was manifested in
Newfoundland in 1852 with the withdrawal of the Royal Artillery.
This was followed by a one-third reduction in the strength of the
Royal Newfoundland Companies in 1855. Although the process of
garrison reduction was reversed briefly during the American Civil
War (1861-65), as soon as the war was over the reductions
continued, with the last of the St. John's garrison being
withdrawn in 1870. But there had been other indicators even
before garrison reduction. One of the earliest, of course, was
the abandonment of the concentration scheme in the 1840s. By this
decade, as well, repairs to the Signal Hill blockhouse, a
military building, were being charged to the colony. The
signalling function carried out there no longer had any military
relevance, and served only to benefit city merchants who relied
on the service for shipping information. (24) Thus in 1859, when
a new blockhouse was erected, the colony assumed all construction
costs. Also in the 1840s, the Board of Ordnance approved the use
of George's Pond as a city water supply, and gave permission to
the Newfoundland Ice Company to use the pond as a source of ice.
To these developments we must now add the appropriation of a
military storehouse for use as a colonial gaol.
1. For an overview of the hill's history, see James E. Candow, "A Structural and Narrative History of Signal Hill National Historic Park and Area to 1945," Manuscript Report Series No. 348 (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1979).
2. James E. Candow, "Signal's Hill's Hospitals, 1870-1920," Research Bulletin No. 121 (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1980).
3. Daniel Woodley Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records (St. John's: Dicks, 1971, originally published 1895), p. 284.
4. Newfoundland. House of Assembly, Journal of the House of Assembly (hereafter JHA), 1851, Appendix, "Evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Assembly appointed to inquire into the expediency of establishing a Penitentiary in Saint John's," 13 March 1851, pp. 176-7.
5. JHA, 1843, Appendix, "First Report of the Commissioners for adapting the Criminal Law of England," p. 449.
6. Candow, "History of Signal Hill National Historic Park," pp. 73-7.
7.Great Britain, Public Record Office, WO55/879, fols. 531-2, Robe to Inspector General of Fortifications, 22 July 1845.
8.Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (hereafter PANL), GN2/2, Incoming Correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Garrett to Colonial Secretary, 9 July 1846.
9. Ibid., Stipendiary Magistrates to Colonial Secretary, 28 July 1846.
10. JHA, 1851, Appendix, "Evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Assembly appointed to inquire into the expediency of establishing a Penitentiary in Saint John's," 13 March 1851, p. 176.
11. PANL, "Blue Book," 1847, pp. 181-9.
12. PANL, GN2/2, Brace to Hogsett, 30 November 1855; and "Report of Committee appointed to visit the Gaol of St. John's, for the purpose of examining its condition and reporting thereon," 23 October 1856.
13. Ibid., Garrett to Crowdy, 19 May 1846. See also Thomas Talbot, Newfoundland; or a Letter addressed to a Friend in relation to the condition and circumstances of the Island of Newfoundland, with an especial view to Emigration. (London, 1882), pp. 57-8.
14. PANL, GN2/2, Garrett to Crowdy, 22 September 1846.
15. The following account is based on Alex A. Parsons, "Daring Escape from Signal Hill Prison," Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 2 (Summer 1962), pp. 19-20; PANL, GN2/2, Fergus to Garrett, 18 August 1848; Newfoundlander, 3 August 1848, p. 2.
16. Parsons, who did not name sources, maintains it was Brady who got away, but the gaoler, who filed a report on the incident, said it was Naughten. See ibid.
17. JHA, 1855, Appendix, "Report of Select Committee on Mr. Magill's Case," 4 August 1855, pp. 256-8; Patriot and Terra-Nova Herald, 5 March 1855, p. 2.
18. JHA, 1851, Appendix, "Evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Assembly appointed to inquire into the expediency of establishing a Penitentiary in Saint John's," pp. 176-83.
19. Ibid.; Statutes of Newfoundland, 14 Vict., cap. 8.
20. JHA, 1853, Appendix, "Report of the Commissioners of the Penitentiary," 13 March 1853, pp. 350-4; Ibid., "Evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Assembly appointed to inquire into the expediency of establishing a Penitentiary in Saint John's," pp. 262-9.
21. PANL, "Blue Book," 1859, pp. 235-43.
22. Ibid., GN9/1, Minutes of Executive Council, 11 April-7 June 1856.
23. For a good analysis of this subject, see C.P. Stacey, Canada and the British Army, 1846-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963).
24. Candow, "History of Signal Hill National Historic Park," p. 79.