Napier Prison (Former)

55-57 Coote Road, Napier

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

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 181 Date Entered 1st September 1983 Date of Effect 9th December 2020 Date of Last Review 19th November 2020


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).

City/District Council

Napier City


Hawke's Bay Region

Legal description

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


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.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The former Napier Prison has outstanding historical significance for its association with the fledgling years of New Zealand’s penal history, when prisons and jails were under the control of provincial governments. It has rarity value as the most complete, purpose-built prison from the provincial government era. The site also has special historical significance through its association with the development of mental health care in New Zealand and the establishment of New Zealand’s first purpose-built lunatic asylums. It includes one of only two remaining lunatic asylums constructed by provincial governments.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

The former Napier Prison is a place of special aesthetic significance with aesthetic qualities that can overwhelm the senses, evoking feelings of oppressiveness and unease. As you approach the formidable stone prison wall and enter through the large kauri doors into the main prison complex, the stillness and eerie quiet provides a stark contrast to the noises that would have rung out within the prison throughout its 131 history. The prison has largely been left as it was when the doors closed for the final time in 1993 and visual details such as the painted gallows (a later addition), solitary headstone of Rowland Edwards, padded solitary confinement cell and prisoner graffiti provide powerful glimpses into the prison’s darker moments of history. Similarly, the twisted corridors of the main cell block and its small and dingy cells together with the lingering musty smells, general ageing appearance of the buildings and foreboding stone walls are a confronting reminder of the harsh conditions faced by inmates at the prison. The strong aesthetic values of the former prison are acknowledged by visitors in their reviews of the site, which is both recognised and promoted as a ‘dark tourism’ venue.

Archaeological Significance or Value

The former Napier Prison is of special archaeological significance for its potential to provide information about New Zealand’s early penal history as well as information about the formative beginnings of mental health care in the provincial government era. The site is uniquely placed to tell these parallel aspects of our history and its intactness and authenticity mean that there is the potential to provide significant information through both archaeological excavation and non-invasive techniques. Standing building recording in particular has the potential to yield important information about the construction of one of New Zealand’s earliest prisons and about the evolution of the Napier prison complex over its 131 year history as it responded to changes in the penal system and an ever increasing prison muster.

Technological Significance or Value

Napier Prison (Former) has special technological value on account of its various stone boundary and retaining walls, which reflect different stonemasonry techniques. The execution and design of the main prison wall in particular have led to it being described as a nationally important example of stonemasonry. The wall’s heavily rusticated design with individually worked stones and the personal inscriptions on some of the stones set it apart from other remaining examples of stonemasonry walls, particularly those constructed by prison labour. The wall’s authenticity, intactness and accessibility make it an excellent representation of early 20th century stonemasonry technology.

Cultural Significance or Value

Napier Prison was built on Hukarere (Bluff Hill), a site of cultural significance to Māori. Located at the north-eastern end of Mataruahou (Napier Hill), Hukarere was a landmark that was used by tohunga for astronomical purposes to assist with customary planting, harvesting and fishing activities and it is mentioned in various kōrero. The cultural significance of Hukarere and Mataruahou more broadly is demonstrated by the official geographic name change from Napier Hill (and Bluff Hill, Hospital Hill and Scinde Island) back to Mataruahou, as provided for in the Ahuriri Hapū Claims Settlement Agreement.

Spiritual Significance or Value

Napier Prison (Former) is a spiritual place to Māori as the site at which tohunga performed astronomical rituals. It is of further spiritual value as the site where three Māori prisoners were executed in the late nineteenth century, and as the final resting place of two of those prisoners - Haira Te Piri and Makoare Wata. It is of particular sacredness to the descendants of these men. The site’s tapu nature is acknowledged through tikanga such as the provision of fresh water upon exit to lift the tapū.

This place was assessed against all criteria, and found to qualify under the following: a, b, c, d, f, g, i, and j. It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category 1 historic place.

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

Napier Prison (Former) has outstanding historical significance as it reflects the formative years of New Zealand’s penal system, when more substantive prisons and jails were constructed and administered by provincial governments. It also reflects the policy of using prison labour to help construct prisons, and the evolving development of the New Zealand penal system, with the site and its buildings responding to changing philosophies and requirements throughout its 131 year history. Napier Prison (Former) has rarity value as the most complete example of a purpose-built prison from the provincial government era, and its intactness, authenticity, integrity and long history mean that is able to reflect these aspects of New Zealand history particularly well.

The former Napier Prison additionally reflects the early development of mental health care in New Zealand, when provincial governments constructed purpose-built lunatic asylums across New Zealand. While the stand-alone 1875 asylum at Napier Prison was demolished in the early 20th century, the original 1869 lunatic asylum remains as part of the main cell block and has rarity as one of just two remaining examples of the provincial government’s early lunatic asylums.

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

The outstanding historical significance of Napier Prison (Former) is further enhanced by its association with several events, persons and ideas of importance in New Zealand history. In 1866 a number of Hauhau prisoners were held at the prison, prior to their transportation to Rēkohu/Wharekauri (Chatham Islands). These prisoners included Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, one of the most significant Māori leaders of the nineteenth century. Napier Prison is additionally associated with the execution of four men; perhaps most infamously Pai Mārire disciple Kereopa Te Rau and convicted mass murdered Rowland Edwards in 1872 and 1884 respectively. The hanging of Kereopa Te Rau following his eventual capture, trial and conviction for the murder of Anglican missionary C.S. Völkner is arguably one of the most important events to have occurred in New Zealand during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The former Napier Prison is also strongly associated with the devastating 1931 Napier earthquake which caused considerable damage; the evidence of which can still be seen today through details such as the warped corridors and addition of buttresses to the main 1905 prison wall.

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

Napier Prison (Former) has considerable potential to provide knowledge about the developing penal system and the beginnings of formalised mental health care during the provincial government era in New Zealand. This information potential is enhanced by the former prison’s integrity and completeness, as well as the availability of detailed historic records, such as historic photographs and plans. Investigative techniques such as standing building recording have the potential to yield significant information about the evolving nature of the prison over the course of its long history, reflecting changes in New Zealand’s prison system more broadly.

d) The importance of the place to tangata whenua

The former Napier Prison site is valued by tangata whenua as it has a Māori history which predates the construction of the prison and relates to the use of the land by tohunga for astronomical purposes, and to its status as a local landmark, as referred to in different kōrero. It is one of several sites that have been earmarked as properties for cultural redress under the Ahuriri Hapū Claims Settlement agreement. Napier Prison (Former) is also important to tangata whenua due to its association with events such as the imprisonment of Hauhau prisoners including Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki in 1866, and is a place imbued with tapū, particularly to the descendent groups of the three Māori prisoners executed at the prison, two of whom remain buried there to this day in unmarked graves.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

Napier Prison (Former) has special characteristics that make it one of the leading sites in New Zealand to educate the public about the fledgling years of the country’s penal system, and about the evolution of prisons from the nineteenth century to late 20th century. The prison is largely hidden from public view until you approach up the main driveway off Coote Road but is open to the public for tours and is a popular tourist attraction in the city. Its largely authentic and complete condition and the presence of objects associated with the prison’s history enable the public to readily understand the conditions of the prison from its original construction in 1862 to closure in 1993, and to learn about different aspects of daily life for those incarcerated there.

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

The prison’s foreboding boundary and retaining walls reflect considerable technical accomplishment, particularly the main prison wall which is an outstanding example of stonemasonry. This wall has remained largely untouched since its completion in 1905, thereby enabling easy appreciation of the fine workmanship of the prisoners in individually working the stones, and adding their own personal touches through incised initials and designs such as a sailing ship and masonry tools.

(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from an early period of New Zealand settlement

Napier Prison (Former) opened in 1862, during the first decade of provincial government control over prisons, and within the first decade of European settlement in Napier. Subsequent wings were added to the building in 1863 and 1869. Together, these early buildings form the u-shaped main cell block, which is thought to still contain a significant proportion of original fabric from the 1860s.

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

Napier Prison (Former) is a rare example of a nineteenth century prison reflecting the early development of New Zealand’s penal system. Research indicates that only five nineteenth century prisons remain today, and in some cases only partial remains are extant. Within this surviving group, the former Napier Prison is the most complete example of a purpose-built prison from the provincial government era and its rarity is enhanced by its very high integrity, intactness and authenticity.

Conclusion of Review

It is considered that there are sufficient grounds to vary the extent of the List entry for Napier Prison Wall (List No 850) to include the wider prison complex as part of the Category 1 historic place. Research indicates that Napier Prison (Former) has outstanding historic significance as one of a few remaining nineteenth century prisons, and the most complete example of a provincial government prison still extant in New Zealand. It reflects the early years of New Zealand’s penal history, prior to the development of a coordinated, national prison system. It also has special historical significance for reflecting the formative development of mental health care in New Zealand through its dual role as a lunatic asylum from 1869 to the mid-1880s.

The prison is additionally a place of special aesthetic significance which provides an unsettling sense of life in an ageing prison, as recognised by visitors to the site and the promotion of the prison as a ‘dark tourism’ site. It has considerable archaeological value with a very high potential to reveal further information about New Zealand’s early prisons, and its high levels of authenticity and integrity enhance its ability to educate the public about this often darker aspect of our history.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Wilson, F. Gordon

'Wilson, Francis Gordon', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

Sheppard, Fergus

Fergus George Frederick Sheppard (1908-1997)

New Zealand Government Architect between 1959-1971. During his time as ‘the voice of good design in government’, Sheppard’s most prominent project was his co-authorship of the Executive Wing (‘Beehive’) extension to Parliament Buildings. Sheppard collaborated with Sir Basil Spence to prepare the 1965 Design Report for the building, and then led a team of Ministry of Works designers to prepare detailed working drawings to realise Spence’s conceptual Beehive form.

Miller, William

William Miller was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1824 and was living in Wellington, New Zealand by 1856, where he married Mary McGlashan. Miller is recorded as living in Napier by 1858, where he was working as a carpenter on Shakespeare Road. Little is known about Miller’s early building work and he soon went into partnership with fellow Scottish carpenter David Earl Lindsay who arrived in Napier from Wellington in 1860-1861. In early 1861 Miller alone was awarded the tender for the construction of the new Napier gaol, though it is possible that Lindsay was also involved as construction did not commence until late 1861. The newly formed building partnership of Lindsay and Miller was reputedly responsible for ‘all the incidental job work in the Government Buildings’ in Napier in the early 1860s, and their work had given ‘universal satisfaction’. They were responsible for the construction of the Napier Athenæum and Mechanics’ Institute on Browning Street in 1865 for example, and the construction of the Hawke’s Bay Boiling Down Company buildings in 1868 in West Clive. Their partnership dissolved in June 1868 when Miller took up the position of gaoler at Napier Gaol and Lindsay continued working independently as a builder and contractor. Miller held the role of gaoler through until 1891, when he was dismissed after 23 years’ service. Miller had also worked as a fire inspector and held the role of Superintendent of the Fire Brigade for a long period, and more latterly, was employed as a builder inspector for the Education Board. Miller died in Napier in 1905 aged 80 years.

Bryson, Mr A.

Built 1863 addition to Napier Prison List No. 181

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Early Māori History

‘Ka mau tā Māui ki tōna ringaringa e kone e taea te rūru’

‘What Māui has got in his hand he cannot throw away’

This whakataukī (proverb) refers to the response of Māui when his brothers begged him to release the fish he had caught.

Tribal traditions, whakapapa and archaeological evidence all indicate many centuries of Māori occupation in Ahuriri (Napier), centrally located within the wider area of Te Matau-a-Māui (Hawke’s Bay). Te Matau-a-Māui translates to the ‘fish hook of Māui’ and is an allegorical reference to the legendary explorer and ancestor Māui who fished up Te Ika-a-Maui (the North Island) using a hook fashioned from his grandmother’s jawbone. The hook transformed into the coastline of Te Matau-ā-Māui, with Te Kauwae-a-Māui (Cape Kidnappers) at the tip.

Early Māori tribes in the region descended from Māui and down through Toi-kai-rākau, and included Ngāti Hotu, Ngāti Mahu and Whatumamoa. When Ngāti Kahungunu arrived in the region in the sixteenth century, Whatumamoa, Rangitāne, Ngāti Awa and elements of Ngāti Tara were living in Pētane, Te Whanganui-a-Orotū (the Napier Inner Harbour, also known as Ahuriri Harbour) and Waiohiki. These groups are all ancestors of the current hapū within Te Matau-a-Māui.

Ngāti Kahungunu became the dominant tribal group in the region through both warfare and strategic marriage though large numbers left the area in the 1820s due to armed raids from both the west and north, and most sought refuge at Māhia. They started ‘filtering back’ to Ahuriri-Heretaunga in the 1830s and 1840s with the Treaty of Waitangi providing the prospect of ‘being able to return to their ancestral lands in peace’. European traders, whalers and missionaries were living in the region by this time, and by 1851 small beach communities had taken up residence on both sides of Te Whanganui-a-Orutū (at Onepoto and on the western spit). That same year Land Commissioner Donald McLean negotiated the purchase of the circa 265 000 acre Ahuriri Block which included Mataruahou (Napier Hill, formerly Scinde Island); the subject of some discussion during McLean’s negotiations with iwi.

Mataruahou referred to the mirror images of faces which appeared in the pools alongside the tracks over what was effectively an island. Mataruahou and other smaller islands surrounded Te Whanganui-a-Orutū which was highly prized by Māori for its plentiful resources including fish, shellfish and birds, making it an attractive place for early settlement. The area is recognised as a place of cultural, historical and spiritual significance for Māori, as demonstrated by the proposed name change back to Mataruahou. A number of whare wānanga (houses of learning) were established on Mataruahou such as at Hukarere (Bluff Hill) at the north-eastern end. Here, tohunga (priests) would ‘observe movements of the stars and prescribe times for planting, harvesting and fishing’. In particular, they would watch for the arrival of the star Whānui (Vega), a sign that it was time to harvest the kūmara: ‘Ka rere a Whānui, ka tīmata te hauhake’ (when Vega rises, the harvest starts). The harvesting was followed by a period of feasting and celebration. Whānui disappeared from the sky as Matariki appeared, signalling the commencing of the Māori winter.

The archaeological record indicates Māori terracing and a number of midden deposits on Hukarere. Hukarare was also the site of Tūhinapō, ‘the most sacred spot in the district for here stood the altar at which were offered the first fruits of the season. None but the tohunga himself dared approach the spot’. The Tūhinapō astronomy wānanga extended throughout many of the iwi down the North Island’s East Coast and into the South Island. Mataruahou was also a tapū place in that it housed the caves of Io Pikopiko, an important atua (god) for maintaining the mauri ora (life force) of Hawke’s Bay Māori. It is known that there were pā and kāinga on the hill, such as Matapane Pā, Hukarere Pā and Pukemokimoki Pā (since destroyed by quarrying), and several midden have been recorded.

Laying out of Napier Township

Mataruahou was not considered an ‘attractive or healthy site’ for a township, effectively being ‘a small semi-island between the sea and inner harbour, which was prone to flooding’, with limited road access to the ‘mainland’. It was the perfect location for a port though, and three years after the Ahuriri Block purchase, newly appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands and Resident Magistrate Alfred Domett laid out the first plan of the township known as Napier. Domett’s plan was a ‘representation of what should or could happen for the future’ and included public facilities such as ‘reserves and sites for a town hall, hospital, gaol, cemetery and schools’. The ‘Goal Reserve’ (sic) and adjacent ‘Slaughter House Reserve’ were located on the corner of Coote Road and Marine Parade, in keeping with the policy of the time to ‘segregate undesirable activities’.

Napier’s First Lock-up/Gaol

Napier’s first policeman Corporal Henry Groom arrived in Napier in May 1854, leasing a whare in Onepoto from Ngāti Kahungunu rangatira Karaitiana Takamoana. The whare also initially served as a lock-up, but in 1855 tenders were let for the construction of a police station/lock-up and the building was completed in February 1856 to a cost of £200. It was reportedly located on the corner of Faraday and Carlyle Streets. The ‘primitive’ lock-up was one of the first public buildings erected in the fledgling township and security was rather lacking ‘with nothing very formidable in the way of locks and bars’; prisoners were given notice to be back at 10pm or risk being locked out for the night.

In December 1856 the Wellington Provincial Government determined that the lock-up would also serve as the gaol but by 1859 the lock-up was deemed ‘unfit’ for this dual purpose, with its accommodation being ‘barely adequate for the purposes of the first’. In May 1859 the provincial government proposed a £125 addition to the lock-up to enable it to continue through until 1860 when measures were to be taken to erect a permanent gaol building. Nothing had happened by 1860 though, at which point the existing gaol/lock-up was considered ‘a scandalous place’ - something more was now ‘imperatively required’.

A New Gaol for Napier

Upon their establishment in 1853, provincial governments became responsible for the administration of prisons, subsequently building a number of New Zealand’s earliest gaols. In early 1861, the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Council (which was formed in 1858 when Hawke’s Bay separated from the Wellington Province) voted to set aside £800 for a new gaol building in Napier. The want of a purpose-built gaol ‘had been long grievously felt’ in Napier, and finally, it had become a reality.

In February 1861 Mr Joseph Lucas (‘J. L.’) Hodges was appointed Keeper of the Gaol at an annual salary of £120, ‘pro forma’ until the new gaol was completed. Tender notices indicate that plans and specifications for the new gaol were available from the office of Edward G. Wright, Director of Works. The gaol was to be located atop Bluff Hill, a site considered ‘not an inappropriate one for a prison, being the top of a precipitous cliff…’ In August 1861 Messrs Ekholms and Lound were awarded the tender for excavating the foundations for the new gaol. Carpenter William Miller successfully tendered for its construction, for the sum of £1050. Construction was delayed slightly due to the difficulty with placing orders for timbers (tōtara) of ‘unusual sizes’, but the timber had arrived by late 1861. The new gaol would afford accommodation for 14 prisoners, with quarters for the gaoler and police, and had been planned to allow for future expansion as necessary. In January 1862 a proclamation was issued by Governor Sir George Grey, declaring the gaol (still under construction) a place of execution under the Execution of Criminals Act 1858.

The new gaol was ‘near completion’ in March 1862 and in April 1862 tenders were called for the making of furniture for it. The gaol was complete and in occupation from June 1862, when it was declared a public gaol in the Provincial Gazette. It was under the care of previously appointed gaoler J.L. Hodges who lived with his family in a ‘handsome house’ at the gaol. Hodges only lasted a few months though, as once he learned that gaolers might need to serve as executioners (if an executioner couldn’t be found), he tended his resignation and was later replaced by Thomas Barnaby. In November 1862 the rules and regulations of the new gaol were published in the Provincial Gazette. These rules covered various aspects of prison life from the cleanliness of prisoners and their cells to daily rations, offences and their punishment. It was against prison regulations for example to sing, engage in loud conversations or make ‘angry expressions’ or noises.

The prison had clearly soon reached capacity as in April 1863 tenders were called for the addition of a new wing to the prison; Mr A. Bryson was the successful tenderer with the sum of £336. The Provincial Council also gave £100 for the hiring of an additional turnkey for the gaol – a position that was found ‘necessary owing to the number of prisoners’. In May 1863, tenders were sought for the delivery of tōtara to fence the gaol yard, and in 1865 a cost of £70 was reported for fencing of the ‘Gaol Reserve’.

From circa March-June 1866, the Napier Gaol temporarily housed a group of Hauhau prisoners including Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki. During his time in the gaol, Te Kooti made several unsuccessful requests to the Provincial Superintendent Sir Donald McLean to be tried in court, but he was sent without trial to Rēkohu/Wharekauri (Chatham Islands) on 5 June with the third group of Hauhau prisoners.

Addition of the Lunatic Asylum and Lighthouse (1860s – 1870s)

In April 1868 the prison was investigated as part of the Commission on Prisons and found to be clean and in good order, but with inadequate accommodation for the ‘attainment of strict penal discipline’. One of the ongoing issues was the co-habitation of prisoners with the mentally ill, a situation described as an ‘abomination’, being a ‘refined species of torture – unworthy of the age’. The Crown Colony government had made no provision for the mentally ill in the 1840s and so if they were not able to be cared for by family, gaol was their only other option. In the 1850s and 1860s provincial governments across New Zealand responded to this issue by building lunatic asylums. In 1868 the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Government decided to add a further wing to the gaol to serve as a lunatic asylum. It was built by the gaol’s hard labour gang, and was under the charge of the gaoler. In January 1869 the new ‘West Wing’ was declared a public asylum under The Lunatics Act 1868. The prison’s hard labour gang also constructed ‘250 feet of very substantial close board fencing’, to enclose separate yards for female prisoners and asylum patients, male asylum patients, and a works yard for storing equipment and materials.

In his May 1870 report, gaoler William Miller noted that various improvement works had been undertaken using prison labour. The hard labour gang was also employed outside the gaol, working primarily on the developing town’s roads and streets, principally Coote Road on which the prison was located. The use of prison labour to complete public works such as roads, reclamation, and drains was common in New Zealand at this time, particularly in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin (which all had major prisons). As labour historian and archivist Jared Davidson writes, prison labour ‘was cheap and convenient. But its use was as much about ideology as it was pragmatic’.

By December 1873 an octagonal timber lighthouse measuring 26 feet (7.9 metres) high and 13 feet (3.9 metres) in diameter at the base had been erected on a small plateau at the southern end of the gaol reserve. The Provincial Council contented that this location would save on costs as the gaol officers on night duty could attend to the lighthouse’s gas light. The gas light was lit for the first time on 9 March 1874.

In 1874 the construction of a new asylum separate from the gaol was considered a work that could ‘no longer be delayed’. A new asylum was subsequently constructed (largely by prison labour) at the northern end of the gaol reserve, in a position overlooked by the gaol. Built of timber with an iron roof, the asylum building was u-shaped; male patients were housed in dormitories in the right wing, with female patients in the left wing. There was an enclosed courtyard between the wings, and other courts on each side, along with associated ‘out-offices’ and new underground concrete water tanks. The new asylum remained under the control of gaoler William Miller, but a resident warder and his wife were appointed to ‘attend entirely to the Asylum’, which opened in 1875.

Executions 1872 – 1889

‘Kei raro te whare aituā, e hāmama i rungo ko te whare o te ora’

‘The house of misfortune is below, gaping open above is the house of life’

An early whakataukī attributed to Ranginui which alludes to the cycle of life and death.

The first execution took place at Napier Gaol in 1872, 10 years after it was declared a place of execution, and 30 years after New Zealand’s first execution. In January 1872, Kereopa Te Rau, a leader of the Pai Mārire religious movement, was hung after being convicted in the Napier Supreme Court for his involvement in the murder of Anglican missionary Carl Völkner in March 1865. Kereopa spent his final night in the cell with Mother Aubert (Kereopa had been baptised as a Roman Catholic 30 years prior) and refused ‘all refreshments and stimulants’. At 8am on Friday 5 January he ascended the scaffold erected in the gaol yard, which had been boarded and screened so as to prevent any public viewing. Kereopa was accompanied by Reverend Samuel Williams who gave a final prayer in Māori, but no other Māori were present, despite ‘tickets’ being sent to Ngāti Kahungunu rangatira Kariatiana Takamoana and Tareha. After the hanging and a subsequent inquest, the body of Kereopa was removed by Tareha and later buried in the Ngāi Tahu Ahi urupā across from Waiohiki marae, approximately 12 kilometres to the southwest of Napier. 142 years later, Kereopa was officially pardoned for his role in Völkner’s death as part of the Ngāti Rangiwehiwehi Treaty Settlement.

The second execution at Napier Gaol took place 12 years later in 1884. In February 1884 Rowland Herbert Edwards of Ōpōtiki was charged with murdering his four children (newborn baby Maud, Arthur aged 3, Ella aged 5 and Robert aged 7) and wife Mary. His subsequent one day trial in June 1884 was limited to the murder charge for his wife, and he was sentenced to death, though it has since been questioned whether ‘the elements of the defence of insanity were accurately explained to the jury’. Edwards was hung at 8am on 15 July 1884, with a large number of people witnessing the execution from elevated positions above the gaol, despite privacy provisions being ‘rigorously adhered to’. He was buried in the gaol yard, where a small stone inscribed with ‘R.H.E. July 15 1884’ marks his grave.

The last two executions took place at Napier Gaol in 1889. On 13 May 1889, 28 year old Haira Te Piri was hung following his conviction for the murder of storekeeper Frank Pook, his wife Jane and their baby Bertie at Mataahu on the East Coast. The gallows had arrived in Napier on 8 May via the S.S. Australia, and were fixed in the yard so as to avoid any outside viewing. The hangman was supposed to have been on a steamer which could not be tendered to bad weather, and so a prisoner was procured to undertake the execution instead. The prisoner (who had been jailed for wife desertion) had the remainder of his imprisonment cancelled and was given free passage elsewhere in exchange for undertaking the execution. Just prior to the execution at 8am, Te Piri requested to bid farewell to the other Māori prisoners at the gaol, and they filed into his cell one by one, shaking hands and greeting each other with a hongi, in what was described as a very emotional scene. Following the execution, Drs Hitchings and Mirbach performed an inquest on Te Piri at 2pm and he was then buried in the ‘gaol grounds’.

The final execution occurred a few months later when Makoare Wata was hung on 28 September after being convicted by the Napier Supreme Court of the murder of shepherd Robert Gollan at Mahia, as well as arson. Wata gave a final farewell to three of his children at 6am and was executed at 8am by notorious executioner Thomas Long. The execution was attended by five members of the local police, Sheriff Birch, Reverend Parkinson, coroner Dr Hitchings and four members of the public ‘who were admitted by ticket from the Sheriff’ (despite public executions having been abolished some years prior). Dr Hitchings held his inquest at 2pm and at 4.20pm Makoare was buried in the gaol yard by Reverend Parkinson.

Closure of the Lunatic Asylum and Additions to the Gaol (1880s – 1900s)

From mid- 1885 the lunatic asylum was used as a ‘receiving ward’ only – any patients requiring more than temporary treatment were transferred to the Wellington asylum. The asylum was finally closed on 1 August 1886 when its ‘existence could no longer be tolerated’. The remaining patients were transferred by steamer to the Wellington asylum and an arrangement was made with the Prisons Department to hand over the Napier asylum and its ‘accessories’.

In 1890 the Provincial Council purchased a quarry site opposite the gaol in Coote Road (on Town Section 715), with gaoler William Miller concurring that ‘it would be a most suitable one for Corporation requirements’. Four years later, the gaol’s hard labour gang commenced the quarrying and preparation of stone from the prison quarry for the gaol’s much needed boundary wall. This preparatory work continued through until the early 1900s, and other walls around the gaol were constructed in the interim, such as the retaining wall which was built at the bottom of the reserve in 1901, and the ‘substantial’ retaining wall re-built in 1902 to prevent slips from the Native Girls’ School next door to the prison buildings. Other improvement works in the early 1900s included the installation of a fire prevention service and gas lighting, including a light in each cell ‘so that prisoners who care for reading have every opportunity of improving themselves’. Around this time a building (comprising various service rooms and stores) alongside the original wooden wall of the prison was also demolished to make way for the new stone boundary wall.

Construction on the boundary wall finally commenced in 1904 and it was near completion by the end of the year, when it was ‘pronounced by people competent to give an opinion as equal as anything of its kind in New Zealand’. The wall was finally completed in 1905 and that same year the Inspector of Prisons highlighted the need for new warder’s cottages at various prisons, including Napier. In 1906 prisoners constructed a new warder’s cottage at the prison, though its exact location is unclear. Two additional ‘neat cottages’ were constructed the following year and were located outside the boundary wall on the former asylum site. They were built using timber recycled from the dismantled asylum.

A Call for Closure (1909 -1920)

Despite the various improvements made to Napier gaol in the early 1900s, by 1909 it was described as the worst prison in New Zealand by the Inspector of Prisons, occupying a ‘beautiful site which could be utilised to much better advantage’. The Inspector recommended closure of the prison as soon as alternative accommodation was found for the inmates, and echoed these sentiments in his 1913 report, describing the prison as ‘hopelessly obsolete’. The prison remained open though, and was primarily used for local short-sentence prisoners. Among the prisoners at this time was Alice Parkinson, who was held there for several months during her Napier trial for the murder of her boyfriend Albert West, who had refused to marry her following the death of their illegitimate baby during labour. The trial captivated the nation at the time and Alice’s subsequent conviction of hard labour for life saw large public meetings and petitions calling for her release.

In 1919 the prison’s status was reduced to a police gaol, staffed by a Principal Warder and one officer, as opposed to a Gaoler and four officers. The ultimate aim was still to close the prison, and there was a proposal to dispose of the prison reserve to Napier Borough Council for £5000. All was progressing well and there were plans to complete the purchase on 31 March 1920. However, the Council had to take a poll of ratepayers in order to authorise a loan needed to purchase the site, and ratepayers vetoed the proposal. The Council was unable to proceed and the Prisons Department consequently decided to continue using the site for ‘penal purposes’.

Further improvements were made to the prison throughout the 1920s, including the installation of electricity, construction of a retaining wall around ‘an extensive slip on the side of the main entrance road’, and construction of a 430-foot (131 metres) long stone retaining wall along the Marine Parade frontage of the prison reserve, which included ‘steps and approaches’ to the prison. This wall was 5.6 feet (1.7 metres) high, topped with cement, and averaged 0.6 metres wide at the base and 0.45 metres wide at the top. Prisoners also created a vegetable garden from an overgrown area of the reserve to enable the prison to become more self-sufficient. The garden provided work for the prisoners, alongside the ongoing quarrying of road metal from the prison quarry. In 1928 prisoners also erected a retaining wall on the Clyde Road part of the prison reserve.

The Napier Earthquake of 3 February 1931

At 10.47am on 3 February 1931, the Hawke’s Bay experienced a devastating earthquake, resulting in 256 deaths and thousands of injuries. Some buildings collapsed immediately, while others such as Napier Prison sustained significant damage. The prison had sunken foundations, broken water and sewerage systems, deep fissures in the yards and damage to the warder’s cottages, Superintendent’s residence and prison kitchen facilities. The various prison walls were particularly affected; the internal division walls were demolished, the eastern wall fronting Marine Parade was ‘completely razed’ and the front wall facing Coote Road was ‘badly fractured’. The damage to the prison walls was particularly concerning due to the security implications at a time when there were several dangerous prisoners locked up, with anyone being able to ‘walk in and all about the prison at any hour of the night without being detected’. The cells received little damage in comparison – doors could still swing and lock, though floors dropped and walls were strained.

The prison muster at the time of the earthquake was 21 and there were 11 prisoners working in the quarry. Several of the prisoners in the quarry were buried by earth and two received severe injuries - they were dug out by their fellow prisoners who also assisted with the rescue of a woman buried by earth in Coote Road. One of the injured prisoners later died in hospital. The prisoners spent the night of the earthquake out in the open prison yard but later moved with the gaoler to Public Works Department tents on a ‘blind road’ about 100 yards (91 metres) up from the prison, due to the frequency and intensity of the aftershocks. The day after the earthquake five prisoners were released on remission, eight were transferred to Wellington and the others (bar one) were later released from custody.

Tradesmen prisoners were sent from Wellington along with the necessary tools to repair the earthquake damage. In his 1932 prisons report, the Inspector of Prisons noted that the eastern wall was completely rebuilt, the front wall was reconditioned and ‘the whole of the wall’ was buttressed on the inside. Three of the internal division walls were rebuilt in brick with cement mortar and reinforced with wire bonding, and various prison buildings were repaired, including the warder’s cottages and the Superintendent’s residence. Subsequent repairs included patching of the exercise yard floors, further sewerage repairs, and repainting of the prison buildings (exteriors), with a tradesman prisoner sent from Wellington to specifically undertake the task. All the old paint was burnt off and boards were replaced where damaged, resulting in a finish described as ‘fresh and clean…it is hard to realize [sic] the buildings are so old’. In total, the earthquake repairs cost £170.

In the years immediately following the earthquake, the prison quarry continued to be the main focus of prison labour (and revenue); though the 1935 Prisons Department report noted that there had been a steep drop off in demand for stone since the post-earthquake restoration of Napier had been completed.

Further Repairs and Alterations (mid-1930s – 1940s)

The ageing nature of the Napier Prison meant that there were always maintenance and development works to be undertaken, and prisoners continued to provide the labour. Their work was reputedly not of as high standard as would be required by an outside contractor, but the prison buildings were ‘so old and of such poor standard (approx. 80 years) that this should not matter greatly’. Key works undertaken in the mid-1930s-1940s included installation of a wireless system; considerable maintenance of, and repairs to, the three warden’s cottages, ‘extensive repairs’ to the prison buildings, and erection of new or replacement walls around the complex, such as the two stone retaining walls ‘at the back of the prison’. In 1948 the lighthouse was ‘successfully dismantled’ for the Marine Department and in 1949 the prison quarry was extended with a new 36 foot (10.9 metre) section. Flower growing also commenced during the 1940s, proving rather profitable.

The installation of the wireless system opened up new entertainment opportunities for the prisoners, who were permitted to listen to ‘sessions of news, sporting events, and variety programmes nightly, and Church broadcasts on Sunday’. Prisoners were also entertained by visiting concert parties and picture screenings; the 1949 Prisons Report states that 18 concert parties had visited the Napier Prison during the year and seven moving pictures were screened. Regular divine services were conducted by a wide variety of denominations, and were well-attended by prisoners.

Formal Reservation as a Prison and New Prison Buildings (1950s-1960s)

On 28 June 1951 the prison site (defined as Town Section 715 and former Suburban Section 675) was finally gazetted as a prison reserve, almost 90 years after the prison first opened. The 1950s also saw the construction of a new timber recreation hall, sited in the north-east corner of the prison (within the boundary wall). The original brief was for a hall 40 feet (12.1 metres) long by 23 feet (7 metres) wide with a stage 12-14 feet (3.6 – 4.2 metres) deep at one end, with steps leading up to the stage from either side. A new timber Superintendent’s office was also built just south of the solitary confinement building (‘the Pound’), designed by Government Architect Gordon Wilson.

In late 1961 the Department of Justice made the decision to build a new house to replace the old Superintendent’s residence which formed part of the main prison complex. The new house was subsequently built by contract on the ‘triangle of garden’ at what is now 29 Clyde Road and the former Superintendent’s residence within the main prison was repurposed as accommodation for inmates.

In the early 1960s there was also a staged proposal for new buildings at the prison, with prisoners undertaking all the necessary carpentry work. Stage 1 involved construction of a new dining room. At that time, prisoners were taking their meals in an open shelter in the yard and it was felt that a ‘proper dining room’ was essential. The dining room was designed by Government Architect Fergus George Frederick (‘F.G.F.’) Sheppard and was completed in 1963. It was an extension of the kitchen located at the western end of the southern cell block wing, but there was a sheltered verandah dividing the two buildings due to a drainage sumps next to the kitchen that could not be built over.

By January 1965 the former open shelter dining room had been converted to an ablution block as part of the subsequent building works. Other building works completed in the mid to late 1960s included construction of two garages (for a vegetable store room and carpenter’s shop) and an extension to the recreation hall.

Scoping for a New Prison and Development of Centennial Gardens (late 1960s – 1970s)

By 1968 the Department of Justice had started scoping alternative sites for a new Napier Prison due to the poor condition of the existing prison. The Commissioner of Crown Lands identified three potential sites on the Department of Lands and Survey’s Ahuriri Farm Settlement, but in the end the Department of Justice decided to look elsewhere.

In 1973 the Napier City Council commenced development of their Centennial Gardens project at the former prison quarry (Town Section 715), to celebrate the centenary of Napier’s establishment as a borough and city. The Centennial Gardens were officially opened on 16 October 1974, comprising a waterfall and hanging gardens complex. The transformation of the former quarry into hanging gardens was undertaken by prisoners and then later Council gardeners, with all soil moved onto the site. 1974 was also the final year in which female prisoners were held at Napier Prison.

The Prison’s Final Years (1980s to 1993)

As the 1980s commenced, there was still no final decision on the future of Napier Prison with the Justice Department and successive governments having ‘delayed and deferred a final decision’ for over a decade. In October 1980, Mr Alan Millar, Central Districts’ Regional Secretary for the Public Service Association was quoted as saying that the prison buildings were ‘grossly substandard’ and that degraded conditions ‘will produce degraded human beings’. These comments were echoed by the Secretary of Justice Mr John Robertson who visited the prison in February 1981 and described it as a ‘blot on the country’s penal programme’.

The Justice Department consequently asked the Ministry of Works to undertake a feasibility study looking at three options for a new Hawke’s Bay prison. Two of the options involved construction of a new prison at Mangaroa, six kilometres south of Hastings, whilst the third option was a rebuild on the current Napier Prison site. The Justice Department prepared a briefing paper for Cabinet, and in 1982 a further feasibility study was undertaken for the third option of redeveloping the current Napier Prison site. However, in July 1983, the government announced their decision to construct a new prison at Mangaroa.

The Napier Prison was to remain open until the new Mangaroa prison was finished and it was reputedly always full during its final years of operation, with a high number of Mongrel Mob members inside, as well as members of rival gangs. Former prison guard John Dagg likened it to a ‘railway station’ with prisoners moving in and out daily. Some ‘favourite’ prisoners were kept on longer term though and worked in the gardens, in the kitchen or helped with building works around the prison, as throughout the prison’s history. Prison labour was used for example to help build new exercise yards (the ‘Cages’) for remand prisoners in 1984-1985. The state of the prison remained a cause for concern, especially overcrowding issues and substandard sanitary arrangements, the latter causing an ‘unbelievable’ stench in summer. Incumbent Minister of Justice Sir Geoffrey Palmer was apparently in disbelief that a place like Napier Prison could exist; with former warder Robert Hohipuha noting that it had become ‘an official embarrassment’.

Mangaroa Prison (now Hawke’s Bay Prison) opened ahead of schedule in 1989 due to a ‘prison-muster blowout’ across New Zealand. Napier Prison continued on for another four years though as a remand facility, to help alleviate crowding at Mangaroa, and there were even plans to redevelop the prison in 1992-1993. In late 1993 though, the remaining 56 inmates and 19 staff at Napier Prison were transferred to a newly built 60-bed block at Mangaroa Prison, and the site’s 131 year history as a prison finally came to an end.

Conversion to Backpackers and Tourist Attraction; Use as a Film Set

The former Napier Prison site was mothballed and subsequently disposed of to the Office of Treaty Settlements for possible use in Treaty settlement claims. It remained a place of great interest to the community though, as evidenced by the nearly 4000 people who attended an open weekend in March 1998. Apart from a short period of use as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting venue, the site remained vacant from its closure until 2002 when Marion and Toro Waaka entered into a lease agreement with the Crown and converted the former prison into a backpackers and prison tours operation. Minor alterations were undertaken and vandalised areas were cleaned and repaired.

In 2005 the reality television show Redemption Hill was filmed at the prison, during which the 10 teenage participants were given ‘a taste of prison life’ and helped to create a new garden in the south-eastern corner of the site. The backpackers’ hostel closed in 2009, but tours still run and three escape room experiences are currently provided. In early 2018 the Choice TV series Heritage Rescue filmed at the prison, undertaking improvements such as re-painting of the entranceway and installation of new display cabinets and interpretation panels. The Napier Prison site is part of the cultural redress package provided for by the Ahuriri Hapū Deed of Settlement which is currently passing through settlement legislation, but for now is managed under the existing lease arrangement. In 2020 Napier Prison (Former) remains a popular tourist attraction in the city.

Physical Description


The former Napier Prison is located on Hukarere/Bluff Hill at the north-east end of Mataruahou/Napier Hill. It is accessed via a steep driveway off Coote Road, one of Napier’s early roads featuring a number of worker’s cottages, bungalows and villas, and is located opposite Centennial Gardens which were constructed on the former prison quarry site. Other heritage sites in the immediate area include the Drill Hall (V21/415), which was re-erected across from the prison circa 1889/1890, and a well (V21/155) recorded underneath the south-east corner of the hall which is thought to have been associated with the immigration barracks erected on the site in the early 1860s. The sacred Māori site of Tūhinapō was also located on Hukarere in earlier times.

Overall Layout of Napier Prison (Former)

1) Former Prison Quarry/Centennial Gardens (not within the extent of List entry)

2) Lower Prison Wall

The former prison’s lower wall extends for circa 300 metres along the Marine Parade frontage of the site, continuing around the sweeping corner into Coote Road and then up to, and alongside, the prison driveway. Constructed of sandstone blocks from the former prison quarry, the wall is of varying heights and construction methods, and shows evidence of recent repair in places.

The 1920s Marine Parade section of the wall is squared rubble masonry and was originally faced with concrete that has eroded away over time, revealing the masonry beneath. Concrete gateposts and steps demarcate the overgrown entrance to the switchback path that once led from Marine Parade up to the prison. There is also a second opening in this section of the wall as it approaches the corner of Coote Road.

The Coote Road section of the wall is random rubble masonry with clear evidence of repointing. It is generally one metre or higher, with the exception of the low section edging the grassed area near the corner with Marine Parade, which has just two courses of stonework. Partway along the wall (as it approaches the prison entrance) is a small mail box or possible shelf for receiving milk.

The lower wall continues up the right-hand side of the prison entrance until it meets the main prison complex, a distance of circa 130 metres. This final section of wall is a mixture of random rubble and squared rubble masonry, and again shows evidence of repointing.

3) Former Warder’s Cottages and Other Outbuildings (1/57, 2/57 Coote Road)

To the left of the driveway up to the main prison gates are the two former warder’s cottages and associated outbuildings (i.e. garages and stores/sheds). There is also an old toilet to the side of the entrance road, now partially obscured by vegetation. As previously noted, these two cottages were built circa 1907 using recycled timber from the lunatic asylum, with corrugated iron roofs. A surviving Public Works Department (‘PWD’) plan labelled ‘Warder’s Cottage’ (which may well have informed the construction of both buildings) indicates that the cottage was designed as a double box cottage with hipped roof and small gabled centre bay extending from the front (north) elevation, with two double-hung windows surrounded by simple stick-work.

The two cottages have undergone a number of changes since their original construction, including restoration after the 1931 Napier earthquake, and later modifications and additions in response to the evolving needs of the prison and its staff. The latter included the addition of a carport and garage for each cottage and other stores/sheds, as particularly evident with the front cottage (1/57 Coote Road) closest to the prison driveway, labelled on later prison plans as the ‘Administration Building’. The basic form of the original cottages is still readable today though. Internally, the original timber board and batten ceilings are still evident in some rooms along with panelled wooden doors. The back cottage (2/57 Coote Road) appears to have retained more original features such as the hallway arch and areas of wooden flooring. There are several courses of brickwork on the ground alongside the northern elevation of the front cottage, where a verandah was once located. The verandah (somewhat modified) still exists along the eastern elevation of the back house.

4) Shed/Garage

Further outbuildings are located to the right of the main prison entrance. Closest to the entrance doors (directly adjacent to a small flight of stairs) is a masonry construction shed with double timber doors and corrugated iron gable roof with an off-centre ridge line which creates a small ‘lean-to’ area adjacent to a double garage. The double garage is constructed of timber with gable roofed of corrugated iron and timber doors. These buildings are variously labelled on Ministry of Works plans of the prison complex; a 1960s plan describes them as a ‘shed’ and ‘car shed’ whilst a 1980s plan annotates them as ‘carpenters’ workshops’. Their exact date of construction is unknown; an 1898 PWD plan of the prison ‘as existing’ shows a smithy and woodshed in this general location, but it is difficult to reconcile the building depicted in an 1897 historic photograph of the prison with the existing masonry shed (see Figures 6 and 10 in Appendix 2 of the Review Report).

5) Napier Prison Wall (1905)

Of all the prison buildings and structures, the 1905 prison wall has been frequently cited as the most significant in terms of heritage values. The wall extends along the front (north) of the prison entrance for a distance of 51.5 metres, and along the side (east) of the prison facing Marine Parade for circa 14.5 metres. The wall is 0.5 metres thick and approximately 5.5 metres high. It is constructed of sandstone in a squared rubble design, and is heavily rusticated with the individual stones worked by the prisoners to different textures and patterns, creating a as ‘rich mosaic of texture and colour’. A number of the stones were also incised by the prisoners with initials or personalised designs such as a sailing ship, horses, dolphins and stonemason’s tools.

Sloped buttresses help to give the wall ‘a great feeling of solidarity’ and are spaced along the wall at regular intervals, reaching two thirds of the way up the wall, which is capped along the top. The main prison door is located towards the eastern end of the wall and may in fact pre-date the wall as the exact door is depicted on the 1898 PWD plan of the prison, when the prison was surrounded by a wooden wall. The kauri doors (now stained black) with hand forged nails are surrounded by painted quoins and surmounted by a stone hewn with two crossed keys and a padlock, painted black. Above this are stones with painted colour symbols representing the Royal Coat of Arms for the United Kingdom (roses, a thistle, clover, two lions and a crown). At the very top is a plaque reading ‘H.M. Prison 1906’. On the inside of the prison wall, the door is topped with the same plaque, beneath which is a stone hewn with two crossed keys, a padlock and a sword and rifle, and above which is a stone hewn with a rose. A second smaller entrance door is located between the last two buttresses at the far western end of the wall.

Cracks are apparent in the wall, both on the interior and exterior, but overall its well-preserved condition is a testament to the stonemasonry skills of the prisoners who erected it, and those who also repaired it following the 1931 Napier earthquake.

6) Western and Southern Walls

The main prison complex is bounded to the west and south by a high concrete block wall. This wall extends along the southern boundary and western boundaries, with the exception of the south-eastern corner of the prison site, where a small remnant of a random rubble masonry wall remains (refer to section 7-12 below for a photograph). Above the boundary wall is a lower concrete retaining wall which commences close to the south-western corner of the prison site, and extends along the western boundary. There is a further concrete retaining wall on the boundary with 12 Hukarere Road.

7) Main Prison Complex

7-1) ‘The Pound’ (Solitary Confinement) and Exercise Yard

The main prison complex contains a number of different timber buildings and on entering through the main prison doors, the first building on your right is ‘The Pound’. The Pound is believed to date to the prison’s original construction in 1862 and had different uses over the years - in the late 1800s it housed the prison’s clothing store, armoury and a padded cell, and was later used for solitary confinement (for up to two weeks) and as holding cells. The front of the simple timber building (facing the entrance yard) has a door and double-hung window and there is a second door out the southern side of the building, which leads to the caged exercise yard to the rear. Internally, the main room of the building has been fitted out with a shower and toilet (presumably from its time as holding cells) and there is a small display case of prison artefacts such as locks and keys. It is lined with timber and has a timber floor. There are heavy wooden doors through to the two rear rooms, which both have a small window with decorative grill. These rooms are also lined with timber and the back right room (the padded cell) is padded on the walls and floor. Names have been etched into the walls of the back left room.

The former exercise yard occupies the space between ‘The Pound’ and the prison wall (where the 1905 wall meets the western boundary wall). It is caged along the entrance and above, and there is a simple wooden bench along the rear wall. There is a roughly square patch of concrete on the floor which likely denotes the location of the former long-drop toilet which was here from the 19th century through until at least the early 1980s.

7-2) Recessed Entrance in Western Wall

Adjacent to the caged exercise yard is a small recessed entrance in the western prison boundary wall, with an iron gate resting across the front. Dating to at least the late 1800s, the recessed entrance is of unknown function.

7-3) Recreation Hall (Former)

The former recreation hall is located opposite ‘The Pound’ across the grassed entrance yard, in the northeast corner of the prison complex. Both the original hall (1958) and front extension (1967) are of timber construction with wooden window joinery and gabled corrugated iron roofs with overhanging eaves, though the roof elevation of the front extension is lower. A small porch provides access to the two doors at the front of the building. Part of the building was later used as a warder’s hut and for officers’ staff rooms, and is currently used for staff accommodation.

7-4) Superintendent’s Office (Former)

The former Superintendent’s office and store is a simple timber building on raised concrete piles, with a gabled corrugated iron roof with slightly overhanging eaves. The main entrance was originally on the side facing ‘The Pound’ but the entrance door has been closed in and the lean-to porch roof removed. The building is currently entered from the end facing out into the yard. To the right of the entrance door is a further window which seems to have been expanded from the original design and the building has also been extended to the left of the entrance, and the porch above the door has been widened. Internally, the two original rooms have been opened out into one larger room. The building was subsequently used as a visitors’ room and as a ‘detox’ room where prisoners would be disinfected before beginning their time within the prison. It is currently used as office space for the prison tours business, and is where visitors report to upon entry.

The former Superintendent’s Office is connected by a covered porch to the northern wing of the prison, and there is an entrance in the porch through into the main exercise yard, with the toilets and shower block (7-5) on the right.

7-5) Toilets and Shower Block

The toilet block is a small timber building with a flat corrugated iron roof and concrete floor, constructed hard against the western prison boundary wall. It comprises three toilet stalls with shortened doors, and the wash basin is located on the wall to the right of the toilet block. The toilet block is understood to date to 1963 when the neighbouring shower block was completed. The toilets are used today by prison visitors.

As previously noted, the shower block was created through the conversion of the former dining room (essentially an open shelter shed) in 1965. The shower block has concrete and brick walls and a gabled corrugated iron roof. Internally it is divided into eight shower cubicles with hinged wooden privacy doors – four along the western side and two along the northern end. The hot water cupboard is positioned in the north-western corner and there is a stand of eight wash basins (four either side) in the centre of the room. The showers were used by guests when the former prison operated as a backpackers’ hostel.

7-6) Main Exercise Yard

The large sealed main exercise yard extends from the toilet and shower blocks to the eastern wing of the main cell block, and is bounded on either side by the northern and southern wings of the main cell block. It was originally even bigger, but has been reduced by the construction of subsequent prison buildings, such as the dining room. This area is likely to have been used as an exercise yard since the early years of the prison’s history, and was where prisoners took their daily exercise, including games such as ping pong. The exercise yard was ruled by the Mongrel Mob during the prison’s final years of occupation.

7-7) Dining Room

The former dining room (1963) is a rectangular building with timber-framed walls on three sides that were internally lined with hardboard and sheathed with flat asbestos panels. Along the south elevation, the timber wall was constructed hard against an existing brick wall that comprised one side of the bootmaker’s shop (with openings subsequently bricked up). The building has a lean-to corrugated iron roof sloping downwards south to north.

The former dining hall was originally entered via the north elevation which featured two sets of double-glazed doors with asbestos panels and adjustable louvre windows, but this side was subsequently closed in with the addition of the television room (date unknown) and there is now a single wooden entrance door from the eastern end. The rear (south) elevation still retains some of the original four louvre and fixed pane windows along the top of the wall. Internally, the former dining room has a linoleum floor and painted walls with murals and displays about prison food around the world. The adjoining former television room has French doors which open out into a covered porch area.

7-8) Hanging Yard

A door in the southern wall of the covered porch between the former kitchen and dining room leads out a sealed yard in the southwestern corner of the prison; the former hanging yard. Gallows have been painted onto the stone wall to reflect the executions that took place here in the 1800s.

7-9) Store/Workshop

A store/workshop (9) divides the hanging yard from the adjacent graveyard. This is labelled on a 1983 Ministry of Works and Development plan of the prison as ‘laundry’, dating to ‘1898’, but the 1898 PWD plan does not show a laundry in this location. A later plan of the prison (date unknown) shows that there was a laundry building in this area, but this was located on the other side of the brick wall which once divided the trial yard from the drying yard. The remains of this brick wall can be seen today to the east of the store/workshop. There is also a concrete pad to the east of the store/workshop which may be the site of the former laundry.

Aerial photographs of the prison suggest that this building was constructed in the 1970s or early 1980s. It is a rectangular building with metal cladding (possibly aluminium). Along the western elevation there is a roller garage door and metal entrance door with a sign above reading ‘Kit Store’, and there are windows in the northern and eastern elevations (though in most cases the fixed glass panes or louvres are missing). The roof is gabled and clad in corrugated iron.

7-10) Graveyard

The prison graveyard is located to the east of the store/workshop in the former drying yard, and comprises a small gravelled area bounded by a low white picket fence. There is a single, small headstone for Rowland Herbert Edwards but as previously noted, three of the four prisoners executed at Napier Prison were subsequently buried in the ‘gaol yard’. Former prison officer Rota Hohipuha believes that Māori prisoners took offence to the other two headstones and either dug them up, smashed them or threw them over the bank, noting that it was a matter of mana.

7-11) ‘Eastern Extension’/Women’s Wing

Female prisoners originally occupied the eastern end of the main cell block’s north wing, but later moved to an extension at the southern end of the eastern wing, referred to as the ‘eastern extension’. The exact date of the extension is unknown but it is shown on the PWD plan dated February 1898. This extension has horizontal timber weatherboards and a gabled corrugated iron roof.

Internally the eastern extension comprises a larger entrance room (formerly a mess room) which leads to a short corridor with two single cells either side. A timber door at the end (with barred window above) leads out to the southern boundary of the main prison complex, where a toilet was originally located. There is a second door to the west which leads out to the former drying yard, and an adjacent four pane window with bars on the inside. The floor is linoleum and the walls and ceiling are lined with timber weatherboards. The cell doors are steel mesh (likely a later modification) which helped improve air circulation, and each cell has a single four louvre glass window.

7-12) Garden

A small garden is located in the south-eastern corner of the main prison complex. The garden was created in 2005 by the participants in the Redemption Hill reality show, and is still maintained. The participants transformed an overgrown outdoor area with various plantings, painted paving stones, and a ‘Redemption Hill’ mural. There is also a small plaque which commemorates the opening of the garden by the Honourable Parekura Horomia M.P. on 23 July 2005. A random rubble masonry wall runs along the southern end of the garden, and it features a recessed entrance like that in the western boundary wall (see (2) above).

This area was originally a yard (associated with the Superintendent’s House) which extended around behind the women’s wing/eastern extension, but a concrete block wall now runs from the end of the eastern extension to the southern boundary wall, closing the garden off. Plans of the prison indicate that there were also various outbuildings in this corner throughout the prison’s occupation, such as a wash-house, shed and workshop, so there is a strong probability of subsurface archaeological remains relating to these prior buildings.

7-13) Superintendent’s House (Former)

The former Superintendent’s House is situated at the eastern end of the main cell block’s south wing, with the front elevation facing Marine Parade. The house is understood to date to the prison’s original construction in 1862, and it is visible on historic photos of the prison taken during the late 1870s-1890s. As with many of the other prison buildings, the former Superintendent’s house has horizontal timber weatherboards and a gabled corrugated iron roof. The weatherboards have been painted/stained a reddish-brown colour though (as opposed to painted white or cream like most of the other prison buildings).

The building has undergone a number of modifications over the years, including conversion to cell accommodation and demolition of wings to the south and north, housing a kitchen and bedrooms respectively. There have also been changes to the front entrance of the house, along the eastern elevation. The house’s internal linings differ from those found in the main cell block and eastern extension/women’s wing, apart from the western entrance where a small area of flush boarding remains. The cells here usually housed between four and eight inmates, with the biggest room measuring 6.7 by 4.3 metres, and they were sometimes home to the prison’s highest ranking gang members who were considered ‘so dangerous that not even the wardens wanted anything to do with them’. Evidence of the cell accommodation includes the steel mesh doors on some rooms and the furniture and fittings which remain on display. Other rooms are currently used as part of the three escape room experiences provided at the former prison.

7-14) Main Cell Block

The ‘u-shaped’ main cell block is divided into three wings – north, east and south. The cell block is a timber framed building with gabled corrugated iron roof, and a mixture of cladding, both vertical board and batten and horizontal timber weatherboards. The vertical board and batten appears on the walls facing into the main exercise yard, except the western end of the northern wing which is clad with horizontal timber weatherboards, along with the other external walls of the main cell block.

Internally, the three wings of the cell block have timber floors (since covered with linoleum in most areas), with timber-lined walls and ceilings -predominately flush boarding. Each wing comprises a row of cells on either side of a central corridor, which appears warped in places as you look along it – a long-lasting effect of the devastating 1931 Napier earthquake. Back in 1980 (prior to the laying of linoleum), the floor of the cell block corridor was described as a ‘scenic highway – all lumps and bumps’, due to deterioration of the original piles beneath.

The cells in the main cell block are of varying sizes, with a typical cell measuring 2.7 metres long by 1.9 metres wide. The cells held two inmates (and sometimes four) in the latter years of the prison’s occupation, with a few single cells reserved for the fire crew. The cells were very basically furnished, regardless of the number of inmates within. Besides a bunk bed (or beds), there was a chamber pot for use during lock down, but generally little else in the way of ‘personal adornment’ - a reflection of the fact that most inmates were only there for a short term. There was no heating in the cell block and one can only imagine the tough conditions for inmates in the depths of winter, and indeed the unbearable heat and smell in the height of summer. Each cell does have a small barred window though and the introduction of the steel mesh doors also helped with air circulation.

A number of the cells have been left largely untouched to show the conditions for inmates during the prison’s final years; bed frames and bases are generally all that remain. The graffiti and gang propaganda provides further insight into everyday life in the cells. This is mostly found on the north wing (remand wing). The majority of the graffiti is by the Mongrel Mob who had the largest presence inside the prison, but there is also graffiti representing Black Power, White Power and the Nomads. Gang members wrote on their bed bases, which have since been attached to the walls of cells 5, 6 and 8 in the north wing (with a further bed base on display in ‘the Dome’ –see below).

Former guard and administration rooms are located at the western end of the north wing, along with a well room. The well was exposed for public viewing in 2018, in association with filming of the Heritage Rescue television series. The former prison kitchen is situated at the western end of the south wing, and ‘the Dome’ is positioned at the intersection of the east and south wings. This former day room allows views down the corridors of the south and east wings (including eastern extension), and former Superintendent’s House. It currently houses displays about the former prison, including material on gangs inside the prison.

7-15) ‘Cages’/ Remand Open Exercise Yards

The ‘Cages’ are located to the rear of the main cell block (where the north and east wings meet), along the eastern boundary of the main prison complex. A covered walkway leads from the northern wing (remand) to the cages, which were semi-sheltered outdoor exercise yards. At the time of the yards’ construction in 1985, this part of the prison was grassed over, but it had previously been the site of the original women’s wing.

The ‘Cages’ comprise two adjacent yards with concrete floors and probable timber framed walls to the north, east and south. These three walls are clad with corrugated iron and lined with what appear to be timber panels. A steel frame mesh fence encloses the western side of the yards and extends up to cover the roof. Corrugated iron also partially covers the roof. A gate in the western fencing provides access to each cage, both of which have toilet and shower facilities and bench seating. The southern cage is currently set up with exercise equipment. Prison warders could watch over the yards from one of the cells in the northern wing which was converted to an ‘observation point’. A bay window was added to the cell to provide an ‘uninterrupted view’ of both exercise yards.

Comparative Analysis

There were four main prisons located in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Lyttelton during the provincial government era, as well as thirty minor jails across New Zealand by 1876 when provincial governments were abolished. From 1880-1909, the colonial government rolled out a national prison-building programme under the leadership of Captain Arthur Hume, New Zealand’s first Inspector General of Prisons. New prisons were constructed in Wellington, Dunedin and Auckland during this period. Of the prisons and substantive jails constructed during the nineteenth century, just five remain today, and in some cases only partial remnants have survived.

Extant Nineteenth Century Prisons and Gaols

Mt Eden Prison, Auckland (List No. 88, Category 1) has very high heritage values, particularly in terms of its architectural, historical and archaeological significance and its potential for public education, but differs from Napier Prison in that whilst the prison had its genesis in the provincial government era, the main building itself dates to the Hume era, and beyond. The historic context of the Mt Eden Prison has also been compromised by the development of the Mt Eden Correctional Facility and the prison building itself isn’t likely to have the same authenticity and integrity as the Napier Prison due to the 1965 prison riot which caused extensive damage. The ‘gutted shell’ of the prison had to be rebuilt.

The former New Plymouth Prison (List No. 903, Category 1) has similarities with Napier Prison in that it was a regional facility dating to the provincial government era, and has a multi-layered history, being constructed on the culturally significant site of Pūkākā Pā (also known as Marsland Hill). It also had a long history of use, claiming the title of New Zealand’s oldest operational prison at its time of closure on 15 March 2013, and retains a comparable level of intactness and authenticity, with preservation of its historic context. The New Plymouth Prison was not purpose-built by the provincial government though - the historic compound of the prison (‘Unit One’) has its origins in a late 1850s wooden military hospital that was repurposed as a prison in 1870. The central dome and two further wings were added in the 1880s, during the ‘Hume era’ of prison administration. Like Napier Prison, the original compound of New Plymouth Prison also has a stone perimeter wall (dating to 1879 but heightened 1900-1914), though in this case the wall fully encloses the original compound and is integrated into the exterior of the compound buildings, as opposed to being an entirely standalone structure.

The Lyttelton Gaol (List No. 7353, Category 1) was constructed from 1857 with later extensions designed by renowned architect Benjamin.W. [Mountfort] commencing in 1871, and is another example of a purpose-built gaol during the provincial government era. However, it contrasts with Napier Prison in that it had closed by 1920 and most of the gaol buildings were demolished between 1922 and 1924. All that remains today are concrete retaining walls, part of a small cell block, concrete steps and historic pathways, though it should be noted that these remains are technologically significant as surviving evidence of the early use of concrete. The Lyttelton Gaol site is publicly accessible, but lacks the same high educational potential of the Napier Prison, given that only a small part of the gaol remains.

The women’s reformatory was the first part of Christchurch’s Addington Prison (List No. 7467, Category 2) to open in 1871 and [Mountfort’s] concrete Gothic Revival main cell block was constructed from 1874-1880. In comparison with Napier Prison, the main cell block’s design is more heavily influenced by emerging Victorian penal philosophy concerning classification, surveillance and prisoner reformation. The walls of the women’ s reformatory remain today alongside the 1880 cell block which, like Napier Prison, has prisoners’ graffiti in some of the cells. The remains of Addington Prison have both historic and architectural value but as with Mt Eden, the complex’s historic context has been adversely affected by development, with ‘intensive apartment buildings’ built in the former grounds and exercise yards.

The Queen Anne style courtyard prison in Dunedin (List No. 4035, Category 1) was designed by Government Architect John Campbell with Ōamaru stone elevations, and was in use from 1898 to 2007. The Dunedin Prison is recognised for its outstanding heritage values, particularly its architectural significance on both a national and international level. Its special historical significance differs from Napier Prison though in that it is a testament to Hume’s national prison-building programme from 1880-1909 (as opposed to a testament to the provincial government’s early years of prison administration).

In summary, when comparing the former Napier Prison to the other extant nineteenth century prisons, it has rarity value as the most complete, purpose-built prison from the provincial government era. Its authenticity, integrity and intactness make it an excellent representative example of New Zealand’s early prisons, with its vernacular timber buildings setting it apart from later nineteenth century prisons such as Mt Eden, New Plymouth and Dunedin which reflect both particular architectural styles and emerging theories of prison architecture. The historic context of the prison site has also been preserved, including buildings outside the main prison wall and the former quarry site across the road, which is a key part its history.

The significance of the former Napier Prison is further elevated by two factors, the first being the 1905 stone prison wall which partially surrounds the main complex of prison buildings. Mt Eden and New Plymouth prisons both also have perimeter walls which pre-date the main Napier prison wall by several decades, but the latter is regarded as a rare and special example of ‘the stonemason’s art’ on account of its heavy rustication and incised stones.

The second factor which sets apart Napier Prison from the other extant nineteenth century prisons is its parallel history as an early lunatic asylum. The 1875 lunatic asylum at Napier Prison was demolished in the early 1900s, but the original 1869 ‘West Wing’ lunatic asylum still survives as part of the u-shaped main cell block. As previously detailed, provincial governments established lunatic asylums across New Zealand to provide for those suffering from serious mental disorders, with the 1873 report on lunatic asylums recording eight asylums from Auckland to Dunedin. Very little physical evidence remains today of these early asylums.

Extant Nineteenth Century Lunatic Asylums

The former Carrington Hospital in Auckland (List No. 96, Category 1) is an impressive neoclassical building that represents the remains of the Auckland Lunatic Asylum (also known as Whau Lunatic Asylum). Whilst the Auckland Lunatic Asylum opened in 1867, two years prior to the Napier Lunatic Asylum, the building was gutted by a fire in 1877 and significantly reconstructed.

The Mount View Asylum in Wellington (List No. 1407, Category 2) opened in 1873, replacing the earlier Karori Lunatic Asylum, New Zealand’s first purpose-built asylum. Mount View finally closed in 1910 and the asylum was demolished to make way for the new Government House. All that remains of the Mount View Asylum today is a brick wall located within the grounds of Government House. The wall is believed to be part of a retaining wall and in a striking parallel with the main Napier Prison wall, the wall was constructed by prison labour and some of the bricks have graffiti (names and pictures). The graffiti is assumed to have been created by those laying the bricks.

The Porirua Lunatic Asylum opened in 1887 after central government took over responsibility for the administration of lunatic asylums, and it was the largest public building in New Zealand at the time. It continued to expand and by the 1940s was home to more than 1500 patients. All that remains of the asylum today is a later timber building (‘F Ward’) dating to 1910, which now operates as a museum (List No. 7444, Category 1).

Nelson Lunatic Asylum

A single timber building is all that remains of the former Nelson Lunatic Asylum which opened in 1876 at the close of the provincial government era. This building, known as ‘Montrose’, is part of the Braemar Campus of Nelson Hospital.

Seaview Lunatic Asylum, Hokitika

The buildings of the former Seaview Lunatic Asylum (founded 1872 and closed in 2009) are still extant, though these mostly date to the 1920s and 1930s when extensive reconstruction works were undertaken. Most of the original ‘dilapidated’ asylum buildings were demolished during this period of reconstruction.

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, Dunedin

A cluster of service buildings can be found at the former Seacliff Lunatic Asylum in Dunedin (List No. 9050, Category 1), alongside the remains of the main asylum buildings and other structures. Like Porirua, Seaview also post-dates the provincial government era – it opened in 1879 and the remaining buildings are thought to date to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Whilst the 1869 ‘West Wing’ Asylum at Napier Prison was integrated into the main cell block, as opposed to being a standalone building, comparative analysis indicates that it has special significance as one of only two remaining lunatic asylum buildings established during the provincial government era – the first step towards proper provision for mental health treatment in New Zealand.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1894 - 1905
Original construction prison wall

Original Construction
- 1862
Original construction gaol

Additional building added to site
- 1863
Wing Added to Gaol

Additional building added to site
- 1869
‘West Wing’ Lunatic Asylum

Original Construction
- 1873
Original construction: Lighthouse

Original Construction
- 1875
Original construction: New Lunatic Asylum

1890 -
Prison Quarry commences operation

Additional building added to site
- 1906
Warder’s Cottage

Additional building added to site
- 1907
Two Warder’s Cottages

Demolished - Redevelopment
- 1907
Remainder of Lunatic Asylum demolished

Original Construction
- 1925
Retaining wall along Marine Parade frontage

Original Construction
- 1928
Retaining wall along Clyde Road section of prison reserve

1931 -
Earthquake damage to prison buildings and walls

1931 - 1932
Earthquake repairs including reconstruction of prison walls (internal dividing walls and part of 1905 mail wall)

1931 - 1932
Earthquake repairs including reconstruction of prison walls (internal dividing walls and part of 1905 mail wall)

Demolished - Other
1948 - 1948
Lighthouse dismantled and removed

Additional building added to site
- 1959
Recreation Hall

Additional building added to site
- 1963
Superintendent’s Office

Additional building added to site
- 1963
Dining Room

Additional building added to site
- 1963
Superintendent’s House

- 1965
Conversion of Dining Room to Ablutions Block

- 1967
Extension to Recreation Hall

Original Construction
1973 - 1974
Centennial Gardens

Additional building added to site
- 1985
‘Cages’/Remand Open Exercise Yards

- 2002
Conversion to Backpacker Accommodation

Construction Details

Sandstone, tōtara, cement, asbestos, kauri, concrete, corrugated iron, glass, steel

Public NZAA Number


Completion Date

20th October 2020

Report Written By

Joanna Barnes-Wylie

Information Sources

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

McLintock, 1966

An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966

Pratt, 1992

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

Ministry of Justice

Ministry of Justice

Report of the Penal Policy Review Committee, Wellington, 1981

Clayworth, Peter

'Prisons', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2012,

Other Information

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Central Region Office of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero 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.

Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.

Historic Area Place Name

Napier Prison Lower Wall (Former)