Signal Hill Gaol, 1846-1859


Melvin Baker and James E. Candow (c)1990

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXXV, no. 4 (Spring/Summer 1990), 20-3

Entrance to St. John's harbour in the early 1880s

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 hill.

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 England.

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.