The History of the Gaol
The Victoria County Gaol was built in 1863 at the same time as the court house, after Victoria County separated from Peterborough County. Prior to this, all court activity and incarceration was handled in the town of Peterborough. Victoria County’s gaol and courthouse were both designed by architect William G. Storm of Cumberland and Storm, and both were constructed by the same builder, John Kesteven.
The original gaol building was constructed of limestone and white brick with a slate roof. It was fashioned in the Italianate design, common for jails at that time, distinguishable by strong symmetrical, round-headed windows. The characteristic entrance featured an oaken door placed in a setting of Ohio stone and surmounted by a chain festooning. The festooning was replaced with a portcullis. At the time of original construction, a wooden fence surrounded the front of the property.
Cells in the second story were built in accordance to the directions of the architect, however, they proved to be insufficiently strong and prison inspectors ordered sundry iron fastening. Prison inspectors also recommended more expensive locks. Other alterations at the time of construction included: extra masonry in foundations, altering brick work of cells, extra height of prison walls, extra iron work, additional cut stone work, extra lock stones, and altering the floor for all gates.
In 1927 a verandah was added to the south side of the building, allowing for a separate entrance to the Gaoler’s quarters. The specification was written by Lindsay architect, John T. Hornsby, and the work was completed by local trades. The verandah remained until the 1982 renovation.
The original building was a little smaller than it is today. The north cell block and south wing were added in 1982, in keeping with the style and construction materials as the original structure. Extensive renovations were made of the interior as well at this time.
The Gaol was in continuous use as a correctional institution until February 2003, when the inmates were removed to the Central East Correctional Centre, located just outside Lindsay.
In 2000, the the building was designated as a heritage building and the front of the gaol was protected by the Ontario Heritage Act. By-law 2000-68.
INSIDE THE GAOL
Over the years, very little has changed about the cell areas from Storm’s original design of the Victoria County Gaol. The windows in the cell blocks directly line up with the cells, affording all inmates a view of the sky. The solitary confinement cell block had windows until the time of the north cell block addition.
The cement block walls are several feet thick, and used to be painted orange. They were painted over with deep blue in 1978 by an inmate as a form of punishment.
Originally, the main floor entrance was the large oaken door, which opened to a wide foyer that included a visiting room or parlour. The area to the north of main entrance contained the turnkey’s quarters, the warden’s office and a small surgery. To the south of the main entrance was part of the living quarters for the warden’s family: a small living room, dining room and kitchen. On the second floor, the warden’s family occupied five bedrooms and a bathroom.
The 1982 renovation included the addition of the south wing and the north cell block. The new south wing addition comprised the warden’s office and a high security visitor’s area. The addition of the north cell block added five cells that housed two inmates each. Meals were taken inside the cell, as inmates were only allowed out at recreation time when they could watch television or play cards. This wing also included a caged area used when moving an inmate.
This renovation virtually gutted the main floor, removing the original fireplaces and adding central heating. A control room became the heart of the institution. From this room guards could control all the doors and lights in all cell blocks. Televisions became windows to the outside. Visits were controlled here, with guests signed in, and guards radioed to bring down the prisoner for the visit. The guard was locked into the control room for the entire shift.
COURTYARDS AT THE GAOL
The three courtyards at the rear of the gaol served several purposes.
The south courtyard was used by inmates for recreation and exercise. A door from the kitchen opens to this courtyard.
The centre courtyard was where juvenile inmates played, where hangings took place, and where at least three bodies were buried. Gallows were constructed for each hanging and then removed.
The north courtyard, the wood yard, was where inmates fulfilled their hard labour sentences. In the early days, the inmates chopped the wood that heated the town’s public buildings. Other times the labour consisted of breaking rocks.
The doors between the courtyards had to be removed after prisoners escaped by climbing up on the door and scaling the walls.
Originally the courtyard walls were constructed of red brick, which would have been made by a nearby brickyard from local clay.
In 1990, after standing for 127 years, the courtyard walls were replaced and built higher to prevent jailbreaks. Between the period of 1985 and 1990 alone there had been three successful jailbreaks. The very first jailbreak occured in November 1863, mere months after the gaol became operational.
Text by Sara Walker-Howe