Shelbourne Street Gaol

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Unwanted, Unneeded, Unremembered: The Life of the Nelson Gaol 1850-1898

The Nelson Gaol built at Shelbourne St in 1850 is little known or remembered as part of modern day Nelson society. But at its prime it gained a lot of social attention, from the controversy surrounding its introduction, to the Maungatapu Murderers right through to its destruction in 1898. The Gaol was constantly put under the spotlight.

In 1846 money was approved by the provincial government to build a Gaol at the site on Shelbourne St.1 The Gaol however wasn't opened until 1850. The Gaol was made out of wood to prevent earthquake risk and the structure had six cells and one juvenile cell.


Click  image to enlarge

The Gaol wasn't exactly needed in the area at the time, the crime rate was quite low as people busied themselves with creating the colony. Gaoler William Rogerson was mostly left to look after himself, but the government found it was their duty to have a building suitable for housing people who offended;  this was essential to building the foundation of a city and further creating the colony.2

The European settlers of Nelson were nervous about robberies of their new found land and possessions as well as fearful of the Maori tribes in the area, as they were unsure of their values and beliefs. A civil prison relaxed the nerves of the citizens of Nelson.

In 1854 a commission of enquiry was set up by the Provincial Government Select Committee to examine the gaol conditions and they found it "unsuitable in every respect"3. It was, according to the commission "Badly designed, badly constructed and destitute of many of the conveniences requisite for the health of the prisoners. Its accommodation is so wretchedly inadequate that it is impossible to attempt any classification of prisoners. Debtors, lunatics, felons, prisoners awaiting trial and runaway seamen all mix indiscriminately together"4.

Prisoners were paid 10 shillings per week to watch the "lunatics", as the Gaolers were unqualified.5 Most of the prisoners were Maori and the language barrier proved a problem.6 Law and Order was good in the region and the Gaol proved a major embarrassment for the provincial government.

The fact that the lunatics and the prisoners were held together become a matter of issue for the enquiry and in 1855 the provincial government responded. Tenders to alter the gaol and provide a separate wing for a lunatic asylum were commissioned.7

This did little to help though. By 1864 the Gaol was notorious for the extreme ease in which people who were incarcerated could escape.8 Any dangerous criminals were sent to the far more sturdy Wellington Gaol, which was made of stone. The Nelson Gaol, however, held its fair share of dangerous criminals, ones that would be remembered.

The story of the Maungatapu Murders is a legend in Nelson. In 1866 three of the gang of murderers were housed in the Gaol awaiting sentencing and on 5th October 1866 they were hung in the prison yard on scaffolding built by the prisoners themselves. The hanging drew a large social crowd to the Gaol, which had never seen more people, and the death of three criminals became the social event of the year. After they were hung the bodies of the murderers were buried in the prison yard and remain there to this day.

They were not the only victims killed on this scaffolding. A little over a year later on, 20th December 1867, Robert Wilson was hung after being found guilty of murdering his mate James Lennox. His hanging is less well documented but his body is also buried in the same yard alongside those of the Maungatapu Murderers.9

Many great policemen were appointed Gaolers in Nelson including the first, William Rogerson followed by Henry Clouston and, in 1874, Sergeant Major Robert Shallcrass.  Shallcrass was the head inspector in the case of the Maungatapu Murderers.10 The Gaolers were considered by The Colonist (Nelson's Local Newspaper) at the time to be "lame and aged" and would meander around the Gaol in a leisurely fashion. The prisoners suffered an exceedingly gentle form of punishment. The Gaol was not up to scratch and public opposition to it began to grow.11

Nelson Gaol Tragedy. Observer, Volume 6, Issue 151, 4 August 1883, Page 6 [Papers Past]
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On 28th July 1883 Warder Samuel Adams was killed in the line of duty by convicted killer John Davidson. Davidson was due to be moved to Wellington prison, and the fact that he was still in Nelson several months following his sentencing was a bureaucratic oversight. Davidson stabbed Adams with a butcher's knife from the kitchen and then stole a revolver. Gaoler Robert Shallcrass was awoken by a scream and a gunshot and went down into the Gaol to find Davidson pointing a gun at him and ordering him to open the barrier gate. Shallcrass talked him down for 50 minutes before convincing Davidson to kill himself, Davidson carried out the suggestion and shot himself.

Davidson was buried in the Gaol Yard and Adams was buried in neighbouring Hallowell Cemetery. Shallcrass was criticized for his role in the tragedy and he resigned later that year12. The tragedy brought the attention of the community to the prison once again and caused the provincial goverment to rethink the situation of the Gaol.  

In 1898, after the completion of the building of Rocks Road, there was no longer any labour for the inmates of the Gaol to carry out as punishment, and it was decided that the Gaol be closed and the inmates and  warden would be transferred to Wellington.

Plaque marking the site of the gaol
Click to enlarge

Nelson now only contained a Police Gaol at the John St Police Station.

In 1906 The Nelson Education Board secured the Shelbourne St site for a Girls School and the Gaol was demolished the school building opened in 1908. In January 1927 all area schools became co-ed and the building became the Nelson Education Board Office until 1996 when it was sold.13

The Shelbourne St Gaol site is now a tan coloured town house and only a plaque marks the spot where it once sat. Nelson Gaol is not the city's proudest facility but it has marked its place in Nelson history as a place best known as unwanted and unseen, but a necessary part of the community.

Gemma Winstanley, Nayland College, 2011

Sources used in this story

  1. Neale, J. (1986) The Nelson police. Nelson [N.Z.] : New Zealand Police, Nelson District
  2. Neale
  3. Armstrong, D.(2005)  Beyond the Maungatapu. Nelson, N.Z. : Nelson District Law Society
  4. Armstrong
  5. Asylum & Gaol Hospital Records 1842-1901
  6. Bertram, J.B.(1996)  Drama in the Nelson Gaol. Nelson Historical Society Journal 6(1)
  7. Asylum & Gaol Hospital Records 1842-1901
  8. Armstrong
  9. Bertram. J.B. (1993) Death at Deadmans Creek (1993)  Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies,2, (5) , p.34
  10. Neale
  11. Armstrong
  12. Bertram (1996)
  13. Shelbourne Street Gaol www.nelsoncitycouncil.co.nz/nelson-gaol

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  • I believe my husbands gg grandfather Richard Mills was head of the Nelson Prison. from 1844 -1849 then transferred to Wellington 1849-1860 Richard was head of the wellington prison. Interesting article. Thank you.

    Posted by Katrina Simpson, 29/04/2017 6:59am (6 months ago)

  • The story of Adam's murder by Davidson has a different version in papers past July 28 1883 in the Marlborough Express

    Posted by jan douglas, 11/06/2014 12:51pm (3 years ago)

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