Lyttelton Gaol was once the biggest prison in New Zealand. Today, its Oxford Street site is a reserve, home to a children’s play area, rose garden and a clock tower dedicated to the memory of GP Dr Charles Upham.
The Gaol’s first buildings were erected in 1851, less than a year after the arrival of Canterbury’s European settlers, and it was fully operational by 1868. There were 149 cells for men and 29 for women.
In 19th century New Zealand, prison was about
punishment, not reform. And this was definitely the case at Lyttelton. Hard
Labour and frequent short sentences were the norm for many women. While the men
worked on roads and buildings around the town, female prisoners toiled in the
kitchens and laundries. They baked for the Orphanage on Cressy Terrace, and they
produced uniforms for all the prisons around New Zealand.
Lyttelton Gaol was overcrowded and cold, with repeat offenders crammed in alongside young girls. After 1913, women were no longer imprisoned at Lyttelton. The Gaol closed in 1918, and all prisoners were moved to Christchurch. It was demolished by 1923 and the land came under the control of the Ministry of Education.
The block of five cells along the northern wall of the rose garden, parts of the outer walls, and the steps through the reserve remain as a reminder of the decades when this piece of land had a far less happy purpose.