Napier Prison (Former)

55-57 Coote Road, NAPIER

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Napier Prison (Former) atop Bluff Hill was built by the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Government in 1862 and remained in operation for 131 years, despite successive calls for closure from the early 20th century. The former prison has outstanding historical significance for reflecting the early development of New Zealand’s penal system and is the most complete example of a purpose-built prison from the provincial government era (1853 – 1876). It is of further special historical significance for including one of New Zealand’s earliest lunatic asylums. Its special aesthetic qualities and completeness, authenticity and integrity make it one of our key heritage sites for educating the public about the development of New Zealand’s penal system. Napier Prison was constructed on Hukarere (Bluff Hill), a site of cultural significance to Māori. This land was part of the 1851 Ahuriri Block purchase and a decade later planning began to construct a new timber (tōtara) gaol on the site, to replace the woefully inadequate existing gaol/lock-up which no longer met the needs of the growing township. The new gaol was designed to accommodate 14 prisoners plus the gaoler and police, and was planned with future expansion in mind. It was in use from June 1862. The gaol was at capacity within a year and a further wing was added in 1863. A third wing was added in 1869 to serve as a lunatic asylum under the charge of the gaoler, as the previous situation of prisoners co-habiting alongside the mentally ill was deemed an ‘abomination’. In 1875 a new, stand-alone asylum opened at the northern end of the prison site and in the mid-1890s prisoners started to quarry and prepare stone for the first of the prison’s boundary and retaining walls from the newly opened prison quarry. These walls were constructed in the early 1900s and included the striking main prison wall with heavily rusticated stones. Three warder’s cottages were also constructed in the early 1900s, two built from recycled timber from the demolished 1875 lunatic asylum. By 1909 Napier Prison was described as the worst prison in New Zealand and there were calls for its closure. It remained open, though in 1919 its status was reduced to a police gaol, mostly housing short-stay prisoners. Despite its reduced status and the ever present threat of closure, the prison was maintained and in fact continued to evolve throughout the 20th century. Repairs were made after the prison suffered severe damage in the 1931 Napier earthquake and several new buildings were added in the 1950s and 1960s. Overcrowding was an issue during the 1970s and 1980s but the ageing prison cells remained in use until December 1993 when the last prisoners and staff were transferred to Mangaroa Prison. In 2002 the former prison opened as a backpackers and prison tour operation; the backpackers closed in 2009 but the tours still run and escape room experiences are now also offered. In 2020 the former Napier Prison remains a popular tourist attraction in the city.

Napier Prison (Former), Napier | Blyss Wagstaff | 21/01/2020 | Heritage New Zealand
Napier Prison (Former), Napier | Blyss Wagstaff | 21/01/2020 | Heritage New Zealand
Napier Prison (Former), Napier. CC BY-SA 2.0 Image courtesy of | Floyd Wilde | 12/05/2008 | Floyd Wilde - Wikimedia Commons
Napier Prison (Former), Napier. Interior | Blyss Wagstaff | 21/01/2020 | Heritage New Zealand



List Entry Information


Detailed List Entry



List Entry Status

Historic Place Category 1


Able to Visit

List Number


Date Entered

9th September 1983

Date of Effect

12th December 2020

City/District Council

Napier City


Hawke's Bay Region

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 22991 (RT HBP3/1127) and part of the land described as Legal Road, Hawkes Bay Land District, and the buildings and structures associated with Napier Prison (Former) thereon. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 22991 (RT HBP3/1127), Legal Road, Hawkes Bay Land District

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