Mackay Prison (1883-1935)

The timeline of the HM Prison, Mackay, is slightly more complicated than most, and there has been some confusion over the lifespan of that prison. Two prominent online articles date it at as operating between 1888-1908 (see here and here), but parliamentary records show that a prison was proclaimed in Mackay as early as 1883, and that it closed in 1935. The confusion seems to stem from the changing use of two different Mackay buildings for the prison.

Victoria Street, Mackay, c.1907.

Mackay is a north/central coast city that was first populated by Europeans in the 1860s. It soon became the ‘sugar capital’ of Queensland, and the plantations in the general area extensively exploited South Sea Islander labour. This industry drove the rapid development of the district, which of course necessitated a law and order presence.

A prison was officially proclaimed for Mackay on 18 July 1883. This was based in a small building that had been built as a two-cell police lock-up in the late 1860s, on the corner of Victoria and Brisbane Streets in the centre of town. According to annual prison reports, the prison authorities seem to have still classed it as a police gaol after 1883, meaning it was staffed by police and not prison officers, and used it primarily to house prisoners for a short while before transferring them to larger facilities elsewhere, such as Rockhampton or Townsville.

In the 1880s this prison was surrounded by a 3-metre-high stockade fence and consisted of a ward to hold ten inmates, a cell for another four, and two more cells large enough to take two prisoners each (although safety rules stipulated that cells could only hold one or three persons). In reality it was cramped and usually overcrowded. In his annual report for prisons in 1885, the Sheriff of Queensland wrote that:
‘Two of the cells are required for drunks and lunatics, one for female prisoners, leaving only one cell for other prisoners. Kanakas, Cingalese, Javanese, and other coloured races, and European prisoners have to be confined in the same cells, which is highly objectionable, and leads to constant quarrels among the prisoners.’
A scathing article in the Mackay Mercury in 1886 described the prison as ‘a disgrace to the district and the whole colony’.

Although a number of improvements were made to the original prison during the 1880s, a new five-cell prison was built in 1888 on the north side of Mackay, around Goldston, Basset and Vine Streets, and the prisoners from the old lock-up were sent to this new facility. It had single cells for 16 inmates, and a ward for another 12.

This new building was proclaimed to be a prison on 20 February 1889, and was ready to be used during the following month. The proclamation for the former prison was rescinded on 20 march 1889. The new prison was described in a newspaper article:
‘The residence provided by the country for criminals, which was recently opened on the North Side, is now in full working order, late Senior-constable Schneider being gaoler, and having under him two turnkeys. There are at present confined in the gaol 18 prisoners, 17 males and 1 female, who are treated on what is known as the silent or separate system, all communication between them being strictly prohibited. The gaol, which would accommodate on a pinch double the number of prisoners, is thoroughly well ventilated, and provided with suitable yards, outbuildings, hospital, and reception wards; The two latter are particularly well fitted up, and point the moral that a sick or mad prisoner is a great deal better off than a healthy one. In fact Gaoler Schneider says the number of his birds that assure him they are sick shows that the benefits of the hospital are thoroughly appreciated. Everything is as clean as water, soap, and brushes will make it, and the place reflects credit on the muscular energy of the prisoners as well as upon the careful supervision of those who run the show. Outside the gaol, draining, clearing, etc., is going on, supplying the prisoners with hard labor and at the same time greatly improving the precincts of the gaol. Further alterations, such as enlargening the exercise yards, heightening the palisades, and building a watch-tower, are required. When these additions have been made the establishment will compare favorably with any in the colony as far as its completeness is concerned.’ (Mackay Mercury, 25 July 1889)
The northside gaol reserve, Mackay.

A government proclamation on 22 January 1891 that the Mackay police gaol was now a prison (while they simultaneously announced the closure of the police gaol) creates some confusion about the status of prisons in the town at this time. These announcements could have been technical requirements as the new Prisons Act 1890 had come into force just a few weeks earlier.

Despite the earlier praise from the Mackay Mercury, the Sheriff of Queensland noted in his 1892 prisons report that the ‘Mackay Gaol buildings are in good repair... but are ill adapted to the requirements of a prison’. It is unclear why he felt this way, but in September 1893 the new prison on the north side was officially closed and the old one on Victoria/Brisbane streets was reopened. This downsizing might have been the result of the opening of a large new prison in Townsville, but the Mackay municipal council passed a resolution opposing the switch, and expressed concern about reverting to the use of the old lock-up which was ‘centrally located in the best part of town’. It was noted in the annual prisons report for 1893 that the new prison had been closed, with ‘short-sentence prisoners being detained at the old original gaol attached to the lock-up... which has been proclaimed a prison’. Inmate capacity in Mackay dipped back down to 16, and long-term inmates were sent to Townsville.

It is probably worth mentioning (just to confirm that it had closed) that the former prison on the northside was temporarily used to quarantine people suspected of contamination during a plague scare in 1900.

The original Mackay prison on Brisbane/Victoria streets (State Library of Queensland).

Tragedy struck at the prison in 1903 when a man awaiting his murder trial used an axe to kill another prison and a police officer inside the yards there. The murderer was Sotulo, who was later executed in Brisbane Prison.

HM Prison Mackay operated until 31 October 1935, when it was one of only eight prisons in Queensland. It was gradually improved and expanded over the years. When it closed, all the Mackay prisoners were removed to HM Prison, Rockhampton.

So there had been a prison in Mackay since July 1883, although it is arguable that that first facility was technically a police gaol. There definitely was a new prison proclaimed in 1889, although that one only lasted for a few years before the authorities reverted back to using the original prison in 1893. Then, despite the stories that it closed in 1908, the prison remained open until the 1930s.


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