Although established as a free colony in 1836 without convict labour, South Australia by 1840 had enough lawbreakers to warrant the erection of a secure gaol. Designs were therefore prepared by George Kingston and in 1840-41 the first section of a gaol, in the parklands adjacent to the corner of North and West Terrace, was built by Borrow and Goodiar. Additions were made in 1843, 1847, 1858, and 1878.
The original plan included two battlemented towers, but the north¬east one was not completed as Captain George Grey, Governor, curtailed expenditure on his arrival in 1841.
Security and prisoner observation, however, were not limited and Kingston’s semi-circular design incorporating the towers gave guards an uninterrupted view of the cells and exercise yards. As an added deterrent to escapees, outer walls were topped with loose bricks which even with the aid of a hook and rope would be difficult to scale.
The outer walls are built of limestone quarried from North Terrace near the site of the present Adelaide Railway Station, and the copings, sills, and towers are of sandstone imported from Tasmania. Building bricks came from brickyards in Hindmarsh.
The original two-storeyed cell blocks are protected by brick arcades, while the cells themselves have curved ceilings. One notable feature is the main gateway which is flanked by two Aboriginal heads, one a male and the other a female. Other heads, which are thought to be Gothic in design, adorn tower windows.
Current status and listings
At the time it was built the Adelaide Gaol was the largest and most costly public work undertaken in the infant province of South Australia. Dating from 1841 it is the State’s oldest surviving penal establishment and along with Government House one of the oldest public buildings in South Australia. Designed by Inspector of Public Works and Buildings / Government Architect George Strickland Kingston and intended to meet the colony’s future as well as immediate needs the 34000 pounds project was criticised as lavish and extravagant. It contributed to the colony’s bankruptcy in 1840 and the consequent replacement of George Gawler as Governor the following year. The panopticon design emulating trends in England and America at the time is unique in Australia being the only one of radial design still intact. Later additions to the complex provide evidence of progressive demands for increased accommodation and security over the gaol’s long history up until its closure in 1988.