New Plymouth Prison

1 Downe Street And Robe Street, Marsland Hill, New Plymouth

  • New Plymouth Prison. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: walgert . Taken By: walgert – flickr. Date: 1/06/2016.
  • New Plymouth Prison. Northern elevation.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Blyss Wagstaff. Date: 23/10/2008.
  • New Plymouth Prison. Original cell door.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Blyss Wagstaff. Date: 23/10/2008.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 903 Date Entered 13th August 2009


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Sec 1 SO 13324 and Sec 1 SO 13406 (CT TNJ4/731), Taranaki Land District and the building known as Unit One of New Plymouth Prison thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. Extent of registration does not include any other structures on the land except the original beachstone prison walls and the structures contained within, although the land as described above is included to recognise its potential as an archaeological site (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

New Plymouth District


Taranaki Region

Legal description

Sec 1 SO 13324 and Sec 1 SO 13406 (CT TNJ4/731), Taranaki Land District

Location description

The prison is located on the corner of Downe and Robe Streets.


This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is the original citation considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration. Information in square brackets indicates modifications made after the paper was considered by the NZHPT Board.

New Plymouth Prison, dating from the 1870s, is the country's oldest operational prison and has special heritage significance as an artefact of the development of New Zealand's penal system.

The structure evolved from an 1850s building, a wooden military hospital built on the former Maori stronghold of Pukaka Pa, now also known as Marsland Hill, in central New Plymouth. Constructed in the late 1850s to serve the adjacent military barracks, the hospital building provided care to Imperial troops injured in the conflicts of the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s. After the last regiments had been withdrawn it was decided to reuse the building to meet a pressing need within the community, as the new district jail.

In 1870 the wooden walls were clad in iron and cement floors were laid over a layer of stone rubble, to increase the security of the facility. The prison at this time consisted of cells (mainly for men, but a couple for the incarceration of female inmates), kitchen, dining, ablution and chapel facilities, as well as upstairs accommodation for the gaoler and his family. A large exercise yard was enclosed within the walls, as well as another where prisoners sentenced to hard labour broke stones from the adjacent quarry - a punitive practice which continued at least until the late 1950s.

It was this building which formed the basis for the prison as it exists today. Penology in the nineteenth century was strongly influenced by the ideas of English prison reformer John Howard, who believed that without the classification and separate confinement of prisoners according to factors such as their history of offending, crimes, age and gender, the likelihood for reform was lessened and the chances of the emergence of a criminal class were increased. Those in the Justice Department in New Zealand followed this theory, and accordingly the facilities at New Plymouth were expanded from 1879 onwards as part of a comprehensive drive to improve the country's penal system. Captain Arthur Hume, appointed Inspector of Prisons in 1880, was primarily instrumental in implementing this 'progressive stage classification system' nationwide, and the design of the New Plymouth Prison with its three separate wings reflects this theory. Although the prison complex has been added to over the decades the basic layout and original fabric remain intact. The 7 x 10ft cells are now the smallest in the country (by today's standards), but the prison remains in operation as a minimum to high-medium security facility for 112 prisoners, plus offenders on remand.

New Plymouth prison is of outstanding historical and cultural heritage significance and value, and the place represents many layers of history. As the oldest operational prison in New Zealand the building is a valuable architectural and technological artefact of Victorian penitentiary design, which directly reflects the establishment of a standardised prison system based on the penal philosophy of the time. As a recognised necessity in society, the continuous operational history of the facility has social value to the community; this is enhanced by the contribution of the inmates to the local townscape through the construction of valued public amenities, including the breakwaters at Moturoa. The aesthetic impact of the forbidding yet finely-worked stone walls and intact fabric of the interior has captured the imagination of the public and artists with its ability to evoke a sense of the life of hard discipline for those accommodated within. The prison is also of special historical significance for its associations with the military history of the Taranaki Wars of the 1850s-1860s and the earlier Maori history of the site of Pukaka pa.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

New Plymouth Prison is of significant historical value as the country's oldest prison building to remain in operation, dating from the period of nationwide implementation of a standardised penal system in the 1880s. The longevity of the prison has seen it become a rare artefact that directly links us to the time of its construction and the penal philosophy of the nineteenth century; it is also a living artefact which continues to be adapted and relevant for use in today's justice system. As a complex which has evolved out of an earlier 1870s structure, which itself evolved from an 1850s military hospital building, which is situated on a site of importance to Maori, New Plymouth Prison embodies many layers of history.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

For most of the populace the interior world of a prison is a mysterious unknown, and the design of New Plymouth Prison reinforces this mythology. The blank expanse of the stone walls, topped with razor wire, presents an imposing, forbidding, sombre face which gives nothing away but hints at a plain, hard life of discipline; and here this aesthetic effect is contrasted with the intricacies and detail of the masonry finish. The fine stone work is similar in style to that of the nearby St Mary's Church (Category I, Record no. 148), but here is used for a different kind of aesthetic impact. The high enclosing stone walls and the relatively intact interior of the old prison block (including the small cell size and original doors) convey the grim functional reality of the building, which has inspired artists and helped capture the imagination of the public.

Archaeological Significance or Value:

New Plymouth Prison is of special archaeological significance. Its location on Marsland Hill, a site long associated with the early days of European settlement in the area and the military presence of the 1850s-1860s, and which prior to that was an important Maori pa, Pukaka, has the potential to provide much knowledge of New Zealand history. The prison building itself has evolved out of an 1850s structure, and the grounds are thought to contain the burials of at least eight prisoners, including those executed pre-1900.

Architectural Significance or Value:

The New Plymouth Prison is of architectural significance as an important artefact of Victorian penitentiary design. The layout of the structure is a direct reflection of the theory of 'progressive stage system of classification', with the radiating wings of cells enabling the classification and separate confinement of felons. The relatively intact interior and largely original fabric of the place is of great heritage value.

Social Significance or Value:

Prisons play an important part in New Zealand's society, and the 140 years of operational history of the New Plymouth Prison lend it great social significance as a recognised necessity to the balanced functioning of the social order. The prisoners accommodated at the prison have, over the years, contributed significantly to the townscape through their labouring to build roads, a hospital facility and the breakwater at Moturoa - a public amenity that was long-awaited and celebrated by the townspeople, and vital to the economic and social success of the community. Stories of infamous characters that have spent time within the prison walls have also captured the imagination of the public. Department of Corrections staff are also proud of the prison's historical status, and the building has been listed as an item of heritage significance in the New Plymouth District Plan, demonstrating the esteem of the community.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

New Plymouth Prison is the oldest prison still in operation that dates from the drive to standardise the New Zealand penal system through an extensive prison building program in the 1880s. The place also reflects the predevelopment period of this phase, and has historical associations with the military history of the Taranaki Wars as well as pre-European Maori history.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

New Plymouth Prison is associated with Captain Arthur Hume, Inspector of Prisons, who during his nearly 30 years in the position was the driving force behind the redevelopment of New Zealand's penal system. He is recognised for his achievements in establishing a national system of prison administration and an infrastructure of improved prison buildings and trained personnel.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:

New Plymouth Prison has high potential to provide knowledge of New Zealand's history through archaeological remains. Its location on Marsland Hill/Pukaka Pa, an area that has provided archaeological information on Maori, early European (both pre-Colonial and post-settlement) and military history makes it likely that the prison site contains more archaeological remains. The prison building itself dates from c.1879 and is likely to conceal evidence of the earlier structures it evolved from, as well as being the site of at least eight burials.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

New Plymouth Prison is of significance for its design, which directly reflects the penal philosophy of the time of its construction.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

Following the demolition or closure of most of the other prisons dating from the late nineteenth century, and with the current redevelopment of Mt Eden prison which will see the use of that original prison block changed to house staff and administration quarters, New Plymouth prison is now the only prison dating from Hume's redevelopment of the penal system to still remain in operation as accommodation for prisoners.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

New Plymouth Prison's location on Marsland Hill, on an historic Maori pa site and former military barracks and hospital, adjacent to recorded archaeological sites and memorials to various aspects of New Plymouth's history, places it in a wider historical and cultural landscape of great significance to New Plymouth. Pukaka Pa was a significant Te Atiawa stronghold, where evidence of terraces and kumara pits have been found as well as other artefacts from Maori occupation. The abandonment of the pa following attacks by Waikato taua in the 1830s (momentous events in Te Atiawa history) links this site to the wider history of the tangata whenua, as does its involvement in the military campaigns of the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, c, g, j, k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

New Plymouth prison is of outstanding historical and cultural heritage significance and value, and the place represents many layers of history. As the oldest operational prison in New Zealand the building is a valuable architectural and technological artefact of Victorian penitentiary design, which directly reflects the establishment of a standardised prison system based on the penal philosophy of the time. As a recognised necessity in society, the continuous operational history of the facility has social value to the community; this is enhanced by the contribution of the inmates to the local townscape through the construction of valued public amenities, including the breakwaters at Moturoa. The aesthetic impact of the forbidding yet finely-worked stone walls and intact fabric of the interior has captured the imagination of the public and artists with its ability to evoke a sense of the life of hard discipline for those accommodated within. The prison is also of special historical significance for its associations with the military history of the Taranaki Wars of the 1850s-1860s and the earlier Maori history of the Pukaka pa site.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is the original citation considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration. Information in square brackets indicates modifications made after the paper was considered by the NZHPT Board.

Taranaki is thought to have been settled by Maori around 600-700 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that pa were being built in the region as early as the 15th century. The area which would become New Plymouth was populated by Te Atiawa, and a major settlement of the Ngati Te Whiti hapu was the fishing village of Mataipu, at Ngamotu near Paritutu and the Sugarloaf Islands.

By the time of the colonial settlement of New Plymouth in the early 1840s, the pa at Ngamotu, called Otaka Pa, was still populated but many other strongholds in the region had been abandoned following attacks by taua from the Waikato a decade earlier, which had prompted a major migration of the remnant Te Atiawa population to Otaki, Wellington and Marlborough. One such abandoned pa was at New Plymouth very near to the future site of the New Plymouth Prison. Wells, writing in 1878, states that the ruins 'of a very strong pa were observable before the war on the top of Marsland Hill ...The name of this stronghold was Pukaka.' Te Atiawa levelled the top of this hill and created terraces and kumara pits on the sides.

European whalers initially arrived along the Taranaki coast in the first half of the nineteenth century. Organised colonial settlement at Taranaki was first instituted by the Plymouth Company in 1839-1840, who arranged to purchase land from the New Zealand Company for the settlement of immigrants from Devon and Cornwall, although this purchase would be much disputed in the future. The site of the township was chosen and laid out by Chief Surveyor F.A. Carrington, and settler ships arrived from March 1841 onwards.

By this time the Plymouth Company had fallen into financial difficulties, and was formally merged with the New Zealand Company in May 1841. Settler ships continued to arrive, but disputes around the Crown's role in transferring land out of Maori ownership, and between tangata whenua over who had the authority to transfer land were already evident, frustrating all involved. An enquiry by Commissioner Spain in 1844 upheld the initial European purchase of 60,000 acres, but this was re-investigated by Governor FitzRoy (1804-1865) and reduced to 3,500 acres. Over the next 15 years large blocks of land were purchased by the Governor on either side of New Plymouth, but tensions (both inter-tribal and between Maori and Pakeha) continued to escalate, and the series of prolonged conflicts that ensued are now commonly known as the Taranaki Wars. The situation was further inflamed by the New Zealand Settlement Act of 1863, which allowed the Government to confiscate large amounts of iwi-owned land as retribution from those Maori who were deemed to have played a part in the hostilities, whether the individual hapu of the area confiscated were actively involved or not. This led to 185,000 acres of land within Te Atiawa's rohe (district) being confiscated.

Complaints from anxious settlers eventually forced the Government to station troops at New Plymouth, and the site of the former Pukaka pa was transformed into a military stockade and barracks in 1855. The reserve, a hill at the convergence of what is now Downe and Robe Streets and bordered to the southeast by the Huatoki River, was renamed Marsland Hill after a friend of Plymouth Company agent Captain Liardet's, and a further 12 metres was levelled off the summit, where galvanised iron barracks brought over from Melbourne were erected. A wooden military hospital building set on the southern slopes of the hill was also presumably built around this time or soon after, to serve the Imperial troops injured in the ensuing conflicts. Marsland Hill remained the headquarters of the British Army in north Taranaki during the 1860s, throughout the major battles of the Taranaki Wars.

As the frequency of battles decreased the British troops were gradually withdrawn, until the last detachment of the 50th regiment left in 1867. In 1870 the Government proclaimed that they would reuse the existing wooden hospital building in the Marsland Hill barracks to respond to a pressing need in the community: a new prison to replace the outdated facility on Devon Street as the new district jail.

The need for a new jail had been recognised since the early 1850s and had provoked extensive discussion within the provincial council and in the forum of the Taranaki Herald, but it was instead decided to prioritise the bridging of the Waiwakaiho River. The town's first real lock-up was a simple floorless wooden shed with no floor, sited on Mt Eliot, which entered into local legend on the night that five drunken prisoners escaped from their incarceration by together lifting the gaol off the ground from the inside, walking it over to the edge of the hill and toppling it down the slope, freeing themselves once again. The next gaol was constructed in 1844 on Devon Street, beside the Te Henui Stream, but was again considered to be a very inadequate facility, with prisoners forced to endure inhumane conditions that residents felt gave the town a bad name. Timber was ordered for the erection of a temporary gaol 'on the site of the old pound' to rectify the situation in 1864, but from early December 1864 through 1865 advertisements were placed in the Taranaki Herald calling for plans for a new permanent facility on a site 'at the Henui', presumably near the Devon Street lock-up. A tender was even accepted for the supply of stone for this construction, but it appears the project was again stalled due to limited resources for public expenditure, which was at that time managed by the Provincial Council.

The Governor's 1870 proclamation to make use of the existing military hospital building on Marsland Hill was a solution which maximised efficiency of resources, and there are also some indications that this site had been earmarked as the location for the town penal facility since the 1850s. Although now in the centre of New Plymouth city, the site of the new gaol was at that time hidden from the town behind the hill, of which other parts had been designated as cemeteries.

A reporter from the Taranaki Herald visited the new gaol on Marsland Hill in October 1871, soon after the building was occupied. Approaching along a 'well formed and metalled road', the reporter met Mr Bosworth, the gaoler, in the storeroom in the right wing of the building, which also contained the female ward, a reception room for visitors, and a passage past the exercise yard (paved in cobbles) to the cells. The cells were praised for their security, with cement floors laid over a layer of stone to prevent escape by undermining, and each was lit and ventilated by a fanlight over the door. Opposite of the cells was the cookhouse and dining room, and to the rear was another large yard for those sentenced to hard labour to break stones in. This yard also contained two cells 'very strongly made, without a particle of light being able to penetrate into them' for the solitary confinement of 'refractory prisoners'. The gaol also contained a kitchen and chapel, and upper storey rooms for the gaoler and his family. At that time only the right wing of the building was occupied, but additions were planned to extend the facility, including a ward for debtors and an exercise yard for female prisoners. It was this building which would became the basis for the present prison complex.

In the mid 1870s a scheme was also being developed for the construction of a brand new Central Prison - a major national penal facility - to be built at Moturoa in New Plymouth, four kilometres away from the Marsland Hill gaol. It was planned to then subsequently make use of convict labour to build the town a breakwater. New Plymouth had suffered from the lack of a safe port from the earliest days of the colonial settlement, and the construction of a breakwater and port facility was considered to be of the utmost importance to the town, and it was this need that saw the town being chosen above others as the site for this government-built central penitentiary. This central penal establishment was seen as the most efficient way to achieve the regime of severity and surveillance deemed necessary for all long-sentence prisoners in the colony, in order to prevent the emergence of a criminal class.

The intended Central Prison represented the penal philosophy of the time, developed from the English system first proposed by influential prison reformer John Howard in 1777. Howard, in his book The State of the Prisons, argued that the classification of prisoners into 'types' of felons - sorted by offences, age and gender - and their separation and solitary confinement, combined with punitive measures like hard or industrial labour, would prevent 'contamination' and general disruption, facilitate discipline and encourage reform. Howard's arguments were influential in the development of an international prison reform movement. Inspector of prisons Captain Arthur Hume, appointed in 1880, would push this philosophy through in New Zealand by instituting an extensive prison building program to enable the realisation of the 'progressive stage system of classification', but some of those involved in developing the New Zealand penal system were already thinking along these lines.

Colonial Architect William H. Clayton (1823-1877) in 1876 reported that designs and working drawings had been issued for the proposed Central Prison at New Plymouth, after two years of study of 'plans and details of nearly all the prisons in England and Ireland, from which I have gathered (as I believe) such information as will enable me to erect an establishment as complete as any in its class in other parts of the world.' The radial-winged building was planned to accommodate 408 prisoners plus the necessary facilities, and historian R.I.M. Burnett believes it to be the first gaol in New Zealand architecturally designed to be 'an all-embracing separate confinement institution modelled strictly on English lines' since Thomas Fitzgerald's designs for prisons at Wellington and Nelson in the early 1840s, neither of which fully came to fruition. The complete New Plymouth design would also never be fully realised, as the protests of the New Plymouth populace at having hundreds of the country's worst criminals in their midst, along with the bureaucratic disarray following the abolition of the Provincial Governments in 1876, saw the plans for a Central Prison in the area abandoned soon after.

Instead, efforts were directed towards expanding and redeveloping the existing jail on Marsland Hill into a permanent regional penal facility - albeit on a smaller scale than the proposed Central Prison. Extensive construction work on the existing facilities was deemed necessary in order to institute the classification system of separate confinement. [Although it was reported in the Taranaki Herald on the occasion of the retirement of William Bosworth, the gaoler, that the design of the new prison was ‘entirely his own’, it is probable that some of W.H. Clayton’s design ideas were adapted for the project, or least had a strong influence on the architecture of the New Plymouth Prison.] Clayton's appointment as New Zealand's first and only Colonial Architect, during the period of implementation of Julius Vogel's expansionist schemes for public works and immigration, saw him contribute greatly to New Zealand architecture in the eight years he held this office, where he was responsible for the design of hundreds of public buildings.

Repairs and work to improve the permanence of the old structure (originally wood with iron plates to secure the walls) was underway by 1878, with the walls, roof and partitions of the building being replaced with concrete and the yard enlarged in 1879. At this time the exterior walls were being constructed, and a dressed stone bearing the inscription 'New Plymouth Gaol 1879 - J Bosworth, Gaoler' [or H.M.G., Bosworth, 1879'] was reportedly installed in an entrance archway to a yard [facing the gaolers' cottages]. The six new cells were 7 x 10ft (2.13 x 3.05 metres), and were 'fitted up with all of the latest improvements.' With Hume in charge of driving the progressive stage system classification scheme there was more impetus behind the project, as he felt that until new purpose-built facilities were constructed across the country 'classification can only be of a superficial kind, unworthy of the name'. Consequently, the 1881 Department of Prisons annual report on prison labour records that 23 prison labourers were being employed on 'new prison buildings' at New Plymouth, and similar reports continued for the next seven years. In 1885 Hume reports that the number of prisoners at New Plymouth was increased, 'in order that building may progress more rapidly', and 'another wing of the prison has now been completed and is ready for occupation.' The same year Hume writes that the new prison at New Plymouth, along with those underway at Mt Cook in Wellington and Mt Eden in Auckland and those pre-existing structures that were adapted (such as the Lyttelton gaol), 'should afford ample accommodation for a complete cellular system of classification.'

Construction of the three-winged complex progressed in stages as a result of relying on prison labour to do the job. Although it apparently worked out at an average of three prisoners working to the same capacity as two free men, the benefits outweighed the slow progress, and prison labour was employed on similar projects as part of Hume's building scheme. The 1883 'Annual Report on public buildings and other works, North Island' in the Department of Public Works Annual Report states, of the slow pace of work on the new prisons planned for Auckland and Wellington:

'Prisoners can not be expected to take the same interest in work that free men do; therefore the building operations do not and will not progress so rapidly as they otherwise would were they done by contract. Moreover many of them are novices and have to learn or become accustomed to the particular kind of work on which they are employed; at the same time a very large amount of work has been done at both places and will compare very favourably with that executed by free labour.'

From around 1881 convict labour was also used to construct the breakwater at Ngamotu, an amenity that had been a long time coming for the people of New Plymouth. The work gangs, containing prisoners transferred to New Plymouth for the job, were marched to work under armed guard and waited out the tides and bad weather locked behind bars in a cave at the base of one of the Sugarloaf Islands. Along with other projects that prisoners were employed on over the years, such as roading and the construction of the hospital, the prison at New Plymouth has therefore contributed significantly to the townscape and facilities of the town. The land to the southeast of the Marsland Hill hillside played a large part in the punishment of those sentenced to hard labour; over the decades it has been quarried for stone by prisoners and as recently as 1958 an inmate told of his week spent 'cracking stones eight or nine hours a day':

'I heved [sic] rock till my back was going to break...It ran that way each day - cell to cold water; cell to quarry; quarry to cold water; cold water to cell. The monotony of it nearly drove me mad, but what could I do? I was a drunken driver and they must have intended to teach me a last lesson.'

New Plymouth Prison has had its share of infamous prisoners over the years. These have included Robert Wallath, known as 'The Highwayman', who terrorised the population of New Plymouth in the early 1890s by committing a series of armed robberies until being captured during his attempt to hold up the Criterion Hotel in July 1893. Wallath later penned a book about his exploits, A Highwayman with a Mission, and the well-known photograph showing his colourful highwayman's outfit was taken in the courtyard of the New Plymouth jail after his arrest. George Wilder was another character who caught the imagination of the public after his escape from the prison by scaling one of its highest walls in 1962, and his days on the run inspired the Howard Morrison Quartet to write the song George the Wilder Colonial Boy. It has also been suggested that Amy Bock, convicted for impersonating a man in marriage, served time with hard labour at New Plymouth.

In the 1940s and 1950s the prime location of the prison on Marsland Hill - now in the middle of the growing township - was cited as one of the reasons (along with the status of the prison as the national facility for sex offenders) for a deputation from the citizens to have the prison moved to somewhere less prominent. However, the solid stone construction of the building meant that removal and reconstruction was not a realistic option, and Ministry of Justice staff could not justify the demolition of a building that although old was in a reasonably sound condition. The jail was instead reclassified as a medium-security prison in the mid 1950s and £36,000 spent on improvements, including the construction of a new workshop, ablution block and boiler room, as well as three new houses for staff.

Over the years the prison has undergone a number of repairs and modifications for operational purposes, but the basic structure, layout and fabric of the old prison has remained the same. The beachstone exterior walls were heightened sometime between c.1900 and c.1915. Administration offices have gradually filled in what were once yards directly behind the north-facing wall, and a unit was built in the yard to the southeast in the 1960s, but the exercise yard to the southwest remains as it has for approximately 140 years. Historic images show that there was once a guards' walkway above the central 'Dome' area of the prison, but this is no longer in situ. The site once also contained five warder's cottages (at least one dating from 1882), but these have now been removed, and in one case replaced with a modern structure in the 1950s.

In 1908 there was accommodation for 50 male and 10 female prisoners, with the average number in custody being 25. Today the prison holds 112 minimum to high-medium security prisoners, plus offenders on remand. The facility was majorly expanded around 1990 by the addition of a modern prisoner accommodation unit (now used as the more minimum-security unit of the two) adjacent to the original stone compound.

The cells in the original block at New Plymouth Prison are reportedly the smallest in the country by today's standards, although the ceilings are 15ft (4.5metres) high and the historical use of hammocks would have created more space. Current prison staff are proud of the historic status of the prison, and work within the limitations of what is the country's oldest prison building still in operation. The gaol at Lyttelton closed in 1921 and has since been demolished, and the Mt Cook prison was demolished in the 1930s. Dunedin prison (Central Police Station (Exterior), Category I, Record no. 4035, built 1896) was closed in 2007. Napier prison (Napier Prison Wall, Category I, Record no. 181, built 1862) was closed in 1993 and is now backpackers' accommodation. Mt Eden prison (Category I, Record no. 88, constructed c.1882-1917) is the second oldest existing facility that dates from Hume's prison building project, but is currently included in a major redevelopment which 'will see the end of Mt Eden Prison as an operational prison', as the old structure is converted to a staff and administration block.

New Plymouth prison remains as a physical testament to the development of the penal system in New Zealand, and a lasting reminder of a time when prisoners as young as nine years old could be sentenced to hard labour. The grimness of the foreboding stone walls and the starkness of the small cells - which have occasionally offered up hints of their former occupants (notes dating from around 1920, meant for another inmate, were found inside the tin sheathing of a cell door during renovation work in 2004) - have provided inspiration for artists such as Jono Rotman through their ability to strongly evoke a sense of restriction, isolation and hardship.

The site of the prison also has high potential to provide knowledge of New Zealand history through archaeological remains. For example, there are thought to be at least eight graves of prisoners within the prison confines, including that of executed prisoner Wiremu Hiroki, who was hanged in 1882. The wider surrounds of Marsland Hill are of noted archaeological importance, and bottles and other artefacts have been found within the prison grounds. New Plymouth Prison is regarded as 'one of the few surviving examples of archaeological deposits associated with military hospitals from the period of the New Zealand wars, and has potential to provide information relating to the everyday life and activities of the colonial military and the domestic life of prisoners in the later part of the nineteenth century.' The prison site also has significant archaeological potential to provide knowledge of Maori history. Around 1960 five Maori stone adzes were reportedly found by prisoners digging in the prison gardens, and were deposited in the Taranaki Museum.

Physical Description

Construction Professionals:

Architect: [probably William Bosworth, Gaoler of New Plymouth Prison from 1864-1885]

Builder: convict labour

New Plymouth Prison is situated on a levelled platform on the south side of Marsland Hill in central New Plymouth. A gully drops away to the south of the complex, at the bottom of which is the Huatoki River, which borders the land parcel to the south and east. The eastern side of the hill has been quarried for stone, the activity of which was an integral part of prison life for many years. On the hill to the north of the prison is the New Plymouth Observatory, and further towards the crest is the Marsland Hill historic reserve, containing the former Pukaka Pa site and various monuments and memorials to New Plymouth's history (including Boer War Memorial, Category II, Record no. 845, and New Zealand Wars Memorial, Deficient Registration, Record no. 904).

The prison complex is situated down a driveway, entered from the corner of Downe and Robe Streets. The north elevation (and front entrance) of the old prison block is prominent, and one can follow the exterior walls of the original prison compound round to another point of entry at the south, via a more recently constructed administration block. The stone walls of the original prison block are faced with random rubble roughly brought to course (some in broken rangework) of New Plymouth andesite, laid with thick joints of cement mortar. The walls are over six metres high and are topped with razor wire. Many of the blocks contain drill marks evidential of the techniques used to quarry them, and the overall design is typical of Victorian institutional - particularly penal institutions - style.

The front (northern) façade is punctuated by a decorative entrance, set forward slightly from the main expanse of the northern wall. This front (historical) entrance contains an arched and iron-barred window on either side of an arched doorway; each features a row of corbelled voussoirs, with a decorative keystone at the top of each span. A string course extends across this portion of the façade, and the corners are faced with finely worked quoins. A corbel course features below the concrete capping of this extension. Original flagstones remain in situ in front of the entrance, under the present tarseal finish of the driveway.

The exterior walls continue in a rectangle, and encompass the original prison compound, which is known as Unit One. Additions to the top of this wall (made sometime between 1900 and 1914) are clearly visible. A plain concrete capping tops the wall. An octagonal tower is situated at the north-eastern corner; once a guard tower this now houses utility pipes. Three barred and arched windows are set into the wall to the west of the entrance projection.

The interior layout of the original prison block consists of three wings radiating east, west and south from a central area (named The Dome) which also provides access to administration areas to the north. Each wing consists of a vaulted central corridor providing access to cells on either side. Cells are typically small in size (approximately 2.5m x 3m) with high ceilings and a single exterior window placed high up in the painted concrete wall, with ventilation provided by way of a barred fanlight above the door. Each is furnished with a bed, toilet and basin, small cabinet unit and shelf. Many of the original cell doors remain in situ; these are of heavy wood sheathed with tin, and each has a small round viewing porthole, accessed from the corridor, covered with a swivelling iron plate.

Open yards are to the southwest and southeast, paved with tarseal. Some corners of the main wall are curved on the interior corners of these yards. Toilet facilities are recessed into the south walls of each courtyard; the exterior walls at these points are extended out to accommodate these recesses without compromising the thickness and security of the wall.

A simple brick unit is located within the southeast yard; constructed in the 1960s this is a freestanding building within the yard. Other later additions to the prison complex include a block to the east of the original prison walls, containing a workshop, chapel, gym, admin and boiler room. Another modern construction is a rectangular compound of prisoner accommodation to the northeast of the original prison; this is linked to the original building via an internal corridor extending from the northeastern corner and is known as Unit Two.

The prison site also contains a nursery shed to the west of the original prison walls, as well as a warder's cottage (dating from the 1960s) and sheds to the south of the site.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1850 - 1860
Site developed, wooden military hospital likely constructed

1870 -
Building converted to a gaol; stone and concrete floors laid; wooden walls clad with iron

1878 -

1879 -
Wooden wall partitions replaced with concrete; roof replaced; facility expanded including larger exercise yard; exterior stone walls constructed

1880 - 1888
Second and third wings constructed; central dome constructed

Additional building added to site
1882 -
Warden's cottage constructed

1900 - 1914
Exterior walls heightened

1900 -
Prison wired for electricity

Additions to the inside of the northern wall - cells, offices, administrative facilities; repairs to roof and floors

Additional building added to site
Guards viewing platform constructed

Guards viewing platform removed

1920 -
Kitchen floor re-cemented

1923 -
Wiring conduits replaced

1927 -
Alterations to kitchen: two female cells converted into a bakehouse; opening made through to kitchen.

Demolished - additional building on site
Warder's Cottages demolished/removed

Additional building added to site
1950 - 1960
Warder's house built to south of prison site

Additional building added to site
Brick unit built in southeast courtyard

Additional building added to site
1990 -
New prison compound ('Unit Two') built to northeast of original prison block

Construction Details

Stone (New Plymouth andesite), cement mortar, concrete, steel and iron

Completion Date

31st July 2009

Report Written By

Blyss Wagstaff

Information Sources

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives

'Annual report on public buildings and other works by the Colonial Architect', 1876, Vol 1, E-1, Appendix E, p.70

AJHR 1878, Vol 1, E-1, Appendix J, p.78

Department of Prisons Annual Report, AJHR 1881, Vol 3, H-2, p.3.

AJHR 1881, Vol 2, H-35, pp.1-2

'Annual report on Public Buildings and other works, North Island', AJHR 1882, Vol 1, D-1, Enclosure in Appendix H, p.51

Department of Public Works Annual Report, AJHR 1883, Vol 2, D-1, Enclosure in Appendix 1, pp.45-46

Report of the Inspector of Prisons, AJHR 1884, Session1, Vol 2, H-5, p.4;

Department of Prisons Annual Report, AJHR 1885, Vol 3, H-6, p.2;

AJHR 1886, Vol 2, D-1, Appendix I, p.40;

Department of Prisons Annual Report, AJHR 1886, Vol 3, H-4, p.3;

AJHR 1887, Vol 2, D-1, Appendix J, p.43

Department of Prisons Annual Report, AJHR 1890, Vol 3, H-4, p.4.

Burnett, 1995

R. Burnett, 'Hard Labour, Hard Fate and a Hard Bed; New Zealand's Search for its own Penal Philosophy', Wellington, 1995

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1908

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 6, Taranaki, Hawke's Bay, Wellington, 1908

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Crawford, J.A.B., 'Hume, Arthur 1838-1841? - 1918', updated 22 June 2007,, accessed 6 May 2009

Lawn, 1977

C.A. Lawn, 'The Pioneer Land Surveyors of New Zealand' unpublished manuscript, New Zealand Institute of Surveyors, 1977

Wellington 2005. Available from, accessed 2008.

New Zealand Gazette

New Zealand Gazette

1907 Vol.2, p. 2572

1998 p.1706

New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust

NZHPT file 12007-058, New Plymouth Prison (Confidential).

NZHPT file 2009-180, Archaeological Authority 2009-180, held at the NZHPT Central Region office.

Pratt, 1992

J. Pratt, Punishment in a Perfect Society: the New Zealand Penal System, 1840-1939, Wellington, 1992

Waitangi Tribunal

Waitangi Tribunal Report,

The Taranaki Report: Kaupapa Tuatahi, accessed 25 May 2009; Alan Ward, National Overview - Vol III - Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series, GP Publications, Wellington, 1997

Taranaki Herald

'New Chapel at Mangorei', Taranaki Herald, 16 Oct 1869, p. 2.

'Plans for a New Gaol for the Province of Taranaki', 28 January 1865, p.1.

'Tenders for quarrying and delivering the stone on the site for the new gaol at the Henui', Taranaki Herald, 10 January 1865.

'Prison Commotion', Taranaki Herald, September 17 1954.

Brown, Charles (Superintendent), 'Memorandum for the Grand Jury', Taranaki Herald, 20 August 1864, p.2.

'Supreme Court, Northern District', Taranaki Herald, 1 March 1862, p.2

Taranaki Herald, 23 April 1859, p.3

Taranaki Herald, 27 December 1864

Taranaki Herald, 21 May 1864, p.3

'Provincial Council: Opening of the Twentieth Session', Taranaki Herald, 10 June 1871, p.3

Taranaki Herald, 14 October 1871

Taranaki Herald, 21 February 1880, p.2.

Taranaki Herald, 6 January 1872, p.3

Taranaki Herald, Saturday September 13 1958

Department of Corrections

Department of Corrections

New Plymouth Prison, URL//:, accessed 17 October 2008

Department of Corrections, 'Hidden message helps unlock prison history',, accessed 11 May 2009

Department of Corrections, 'Frequently Asked Questions: Mt Eden redevelopment',, accessed 24 March 2009

Department of Corrections, 'Dunedin Prison Mothballed',, accessed 12 May 2009

Taranaki Daily News

Taranaki Daily News

Harvey, Helen, 'Prison Blues', 6 October 2007, p.13

Moorhead, 2005

Murray Moorhead, Colonial Tales of Old New Plymouth, Zenith Publishing, New Plymouth, 2005

Prickett, 1990

Nigel Prickett, Historic Taranaki: An Archaeological Guide, GP Books, Wellington, 1990

Wells, 1878 (1976)

B Wells, The History of Taranaki, Edmonson & Avery 'Taranaki News Office', New Plymouth, 1878. Reprinted by Capper Press, Christchurch, 1976

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Central region office

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.