Sydney’s Darlinghurst Gaol was open for business in 1841, replacing an earlier gaol on the corner of George and Essex Streets in The Rocks.

Darlinghurst Gaol in 1891, by Henri Bertrand - State Library of NSW

With the end of convict transportation in the 1840s, NSW was no longer a penal outpost. From this time, the NSW government had to deal with the punishment of a home-grown criminal class.

When the site of Darlinghurst Gaol had been selected in 1822, it was on the outskirts of the city. The first section of the gaol to be built was the sandstone perimeter wall under the direction of the Civil Architect Francis Greenway, but work ceased soon after.

By the mid 1830s, the gaol in The Rocks was dilapidated and overcrowded. With Sydney’s growing population and the extension of city limits eastwards, the need for a new prison became more urgent. Work on constructing Darlinghurst Gaol began in November 1836 and took 50 years to complete.

Inmate labour was essential to the enterprise, with prisoners literally building the gaol around themselves. Although stone masons were employed to build the first two wings and governor’s quarters, ironed gangs of convicts assisted with quarrying, cutting and preparing the sandstone from nearby Barcom Glen.

Henry Keck 1847, by William Nicholas - National Library of Australia

Irish-born Henry Keck was appointed as the first Governor of Darlinghurst Gaol in 1841. Keck arrived to Sydney in 1832 with his mistress Sarah Whitehouse (masquerading as a governess) and six children; although he claimed his wife Teresa was dead, she landed on Australian shores in 1835 and was later employed as the Matron of the gaol. Keck fathered a total of 12 children with both his wife and mistress. He was first appointed as the Governor of the gaol in The Rocks in 1837.

Keck’s eight year reign at Darlinghurst from 1841 was notable for the high level of corruption; not only his but that of the ‘turnkeys’ (warders) and the visiting magistrate, Captain Joseph Innes Long.

Keck, Innes Long and the head turnkey Elias Hibbs were making money ‘out of the prisoners in every possible way’. Prisoners, including one man charged with manslaughter, were released from solitary confinement and from their irons to work as personal servants, coachmen, and as horse-breakers. They worked in the vegetable gardens and tended to Keck’s birds (which included two emus). Parties of prisoners were taken on fishing trips at Woolloomooloo and on picnics. Other prisoners were allowed to leave the confines of gaol for the day, as long as the returned by nightfall. In all, there were 25 escapes during Keck’s governorship.

Keck also had a tidy business setting prisoners to work making clothes, shoes and cabbage tree hats. They made up to 200 cabbage tree hats a week, often working through the night and on the Sabbath. Female prisoners milked the cows (kept inside the prison grounds), feeding them hominy which was an integral part of the prison rations. This was not a problem, as the prisoners were renumerated for their work, and were able to spend their earnings in the shop that Keck kept in the quarters underneath his house.

In August 1849, the Legislative Council held an inquiry into ‘the discipline and security of the Darlinghurst Gaol’. Thirty-five witnesses were called over 19 days. The Committee of Inquiry found that the gaol had ‘become a nest of profligacy and corruption’. On 27 August 1849, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that ‘That burglaries should be fearfully on the increase, that life and property should be daily and hourly becoming less secure in this city and in the suburbs, can hardly surprise when the model gaol of the colony is converted from a prison into an hotel; from a house of mourning into a house of feasting; in short, from a place of restraint, discomfort, and hard-fare, to a place of luxury and no discipline’.

The inquiry also revealed that Keck had come to the job with forged qualifications: although he said he had been an ‘office keeper’ at the Dublin Castle, it transpired that he had actually worked as a clerk in an office in Dublin.

Although his behaviour cannot be excused, Keck was administering a prison in a period when ideas about punishment were in flux – NSW was in transition from a penal colony to a free society at this time. He was also capitalising in some way on ideas about the use of inmate labour in an institutional context, although whether it was having a reformative effect on the prisoners is debatable. And let’s face it, he was lining his pockets and theirs.

Keck was never charged or punished for his corrupt dealings, and indeed left his position at the gaol a very wealthy man. He was later appointed the Clerk of the Sydney Markets, and died in 1863.