History of H.M. Gaol Alice Springs
Explore the history of HM Gaol and Labour Prison Alice Springs and discover its relevance to contemporary issues about mental health, crime, punishment and rehabilitation.
HISTORY AT A GLANCE
Her Majesty’s Gaol and Labour Prison Alice Springs opened in 1938 and operated until 1996. Additional cells and facilities were added over the years, especially in the late 1960’s and 1970’s as the population grew.
It was gender segregated until the mid-1980’s before becoming male only due to overcrowding. Female prisoners were sent to Darwin.
In 1996, the prisoners were moved to the new gaol south of Alice Springs.
After lengthy negotiations, the site was offered in 2006 to the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame for dual-use; a women’s museum in the former kitchen and women’s cell block areas and the preservation of stories and buildings of H.M. Prison and Labour Camp, Alice Springs.
The Gaol holds an important place in our local and national history and continues to have relevance to contemporary issues through sensitive storytelling.
1933 Alice Springs experienced a rapid increase in the non-Indigenous population of due to the railway line which was completed in 1929 and a new Gaol was proposed to replace the small stone Stuart Town gaol in Parson’s Street. The population of Alice Springs was 526.
1937 Construction commenced on the new prison on 24 September.
1938 Construction was completed on 31 October at a cost of $13,950. Prisoners were transferred from the Old Stuart Town Gaol in Parsons St. The new prison was planned to be segregated Aboriginal/European and male/female but we understand that in practice the women were never segregated on the base of race.
1939 – 1945 World War II. One section of the gaol was set aside for alien (German and Italian) prisoners for a few months. They were then transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Victoria. By 1944 the town’s non-Indigenous population was 597, with a further 7,395 Armed Forces. Three Japanese prisoners of war were also held there.
1956 Telka Williams started work in the female section, of the prison working with Mrs Seymour and Mrs Muldoon who were Superintendent’s wives.
1960 Sewerage system installed. Prior to this, prisoners had to make do with buckets.
1964 Aborigines given full citizenship in the Northern Territory and the prison was officially racially desegregated.
1966 Population of Alice Springs was 6,390, with Aborigines counted as part of the population for the first time.
1967 As a result of a Commonwealth referendum, Aboriginal people throughout Australia were granted full citizenship.
1970s Female prison officers became the first public servants in the Northern Territory to get equal pay with their male counterparts.
1984 Telka Williams retired. Female prisoners with sentences longer than a week were transferred to Darwin. The Gaol later became an all-male prison.
1988 On the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Gaol, the Northern Territory Government announced plans to build a new Alice Springs prison.
1994 The Stuart Town Gaol was added to the Northern Territory Heritage Register.
1996 The Gaol was closed and the prisoners moved to the new prison about 20 km south of the town. By this time the town’s population had increased to 27,000.
1997 Word was spreading that the Northern Territory Government of the day intended to clear the Gaol site and sell the land and that the bulldozers were about to move in. A “Heritage Tent Embassy” was set up in the Gaol grounds and a petition of more than 200 signatures was gathered. In November 1997 the National Trust was forced to go to court to get an injunction to prevent the Government from carrying out any works on the Gaol.
1998 The Northern Territory Government demolished all the non-heritage listed buildings on the site. After lengthy negotiations, the site was offered to the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame for dual-use; a women’s museum and the preservation of the stories and buildings of the Alice Springs Gaol and Labour Prison. The Superintendent’s residence, adjacent to the front car park was sold to private owners.
2006 Restoration work commenced on the complex.
2007 National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame at the Old Alice Springs Gaol was officially opened on March 8, coinciding with International Women’s Day.
2013 8 March the audiovisual exhibition looking at life in the female cell block through the eyes of Telka Williams (Matron 1956 – 1984) and Janie Whistle (who spent time here) was launched.
2015 National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame commissioned local designer Elliat Rich to create a conceptual framework for the overall interpretation of the Old Alice Springs Gaol. The aim of this conceptual framework, Framing Site, Revealing Stories is to ‘aid the curatorial direction and development of integrated collateral to tell the stories and reveal the historic and contemporary relevance of the Old Alice Springs Gaol site’.
2016 Twentieth anniversary of the Gaol being decommissioned. National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame received grant monies from the Northern Territory Government to work on an extensive exhibition drawing on the theme of “Relationships”.
2017 Relationships exhibition launched in men’s and women’s cell blocks
2019 The National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame changed its name to the Women’s Museum of Australia.
2020 Rebranding of the site commenced including the refurbishment of the car park, new interpretive signage and new plans for future exhibitions and public programs.