Dunedin Prison (Former)

2 Castle Street, State Highway 1 And Dunbar Street, Dunedin

  • Dunedin Prison (Former), Dunedin. CC BY-NC 2.0 Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Pursuedbybear. Taken By: Pursuedbybear. Date: 25/05/2014.
  • Dunedin Prison (Former), Dunedin. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Larry Myhre. Taken By: Larry Myhre. Date: 31/03/2017.
  • Dunedin Prison (Former), Dunedin. Building detail.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Jamie Douglas. Date: 13/02/2019.
  • Dunedin Prison (Former), Dunedin. Building detail.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Jamie Douglas. Date: 13/02/2019.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 4035 Date Entered 28th June 1984 Date of Effect 28th June 1984


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Sec 2 SO 303266 (RT 22482), Otago Land District and the building known as Dunedin Prison (Former) thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Sec 2 SO 303266 (RT 22482), Otago Land District


The Dunedin Prison, situated in an architecturally and historically important heritage precinct in Anzac Square, was first occupied in 1898 and is possibly Australasia’s only extant Victorian courtyard prison.

A Dunedin gaol has stood on this central city site since 1855. First occupied by immigration barracks, these were converted into temporary prison accommodation in 1855. The land was vested in the city as a site for a public gaol in June 1858. It was not until 1861 that new gaol buildings were readied. Additional buildings were added over the following years as need outstripped accommodation. With the appointment of Arthur Hume (1838-1841?-1918) to the position of Inspector of Prisons in 1880, a centralised system of penal administration began. He instituted a programme of new prison building, designed to implement the ‘English system’ of penal reform.

Plans for the new Dunedin Prison were completed in 1892 by John Campbell (1857-1942), Government Architect. Modelled on New Scotland Yard, the prison was designed in a Queen Anne style including cupola domes, dormers, striped brick and Oamaru stone elevations, and fine detailing. The layout consisted of four blocks surrounding a central courtyard. Construction was delayed as the Dunedin community felt the central site could be better utilised. Work finally began, however, in 1895. The exterior was finished by April 1897 and on 16 June 1898 the prison was occupied.

Due to staffing shortages during World War One, police staff were relocated from their neighbouring barracks into the prison’s administration block. In 1959 the accommodation was converted into a women’s prison. In 1974, it became a male remand and short sentence prison and remained so until 2007 when it was vacated.

Though visually the prison is an elegant and imposing building, enhanced by its setting in the architecturally and historically distinguished Anzac Square/Railway Station Heritage Precinct, this grace belies the lives of those within. The interior atmosphere is grim, dark and claustrophobic, giving an overwhelming sense of incarceration. The prison’s courtyard design was unusual at the time and is now thought to be unique. It appears to be the only Victorian courtyard design in Australasia which is still in existence. The prison is also a testament to Hume’s prison building programme which modelled the English system of penal reform. The structure’s largely unmodified exterior and interior transport the observer to nineteenth century Dunedin and give insight into the experiences of those serving their sentences imprisoned within its brick walls.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Dunedin Prison (Former) has outstanding historical significance. It gives insight into New Zealand’s penal history and the formation of early penal philosophies. The Prison represents the establishment of a national prison administration under the first Inspector of Prisons, Colonel Arthur Hume. He first confronted mismanagement and corruption in the local gaols, as exemplified by the inquiry into the Dunedin Gaol in 1883. Hume then sought to implement the English system of separation of prisoners, although it was not until the 1880s and into the 1890s that a programme of building new prisons with individual cells could take effect. While Hume did much to centralise and improve prison accommodation, his focus on the English system slowed New Zealand’s search for its own penal philosophy.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

Dunedin Prison (Former) has aesthetic significance – through its design and through the impact of its past, the imagined lives of those who served their sentences there over the past 110 years.

The design has strong visual impact with a façade emphasising elegance and respectability. Its English Tudor windows, cupola domes, dormer windows, oriel windows, horizontal Oamaru stone banding and exquisite detailing lend a refined and elegant character to its functionalism. The Prison surroundings also contribute to its aesthetic significance. It stands in one of New Zealand’s most architecturally distinguished city spaces, Anzac Square/Railway Station Heritage Precinct.

Inside all veneer of respectability drops away and the sense of incarceration and isolation are strong. It immediately overwhelms the visitor with a grim and dingy atmosphere. The spaces, particularly the cells, feel claustrophobic. The windows are small and the only outside space is also small and wire meshed. The aesthetic is bleak and harsh.

Archaeological Significance or Value

Dunedin Prison (Former) has archaeological significance. The Prison was built was on top of the original gaol, formerly the Immigration Barracks. When the last of the old gaol buildings were demolished in 1899, three bodies were removed from the site. Recent archaeological investigations near the Dunedin Courthouse reveal excellent evidence of the old gaol. No doubt further important archaeological evidence regarding the use of the site would surface under the existing Prison.

Architectural Significance or Value

As chief government architect from 1889-1909, John Campbell’s influence on New Zealand architecture is remarkable. Although known for his Edwardian Baroque architecture, the Dunedin Prison (Former) is his best-known building in the Queen Anne style. Echoing Norman Shaw’s design for New Scotland Yard, the Prison includes red brick elevations striped with white Oamaru stone, cupola domes, white mouldings on the gable, English Tudor windows, and dormer windows in the roof. The Prison also displays Campbell’s skills in exquisite detailing. Although the building has an international model, it is considered to be more delicate and refined than its London equivalent.

The Prison also has a special and rare architectural value, in that it is one of the few prisons internationally that was built in a courtyard design. Research indicates that the Dunedin Prison appears to be the only Victorian courtyard design in Australasia which is still in existence.

Social Significance or Value

The Dunedin Prison (Former) has social significance. It speaks to society’s view of crime and criminals. Living conditions were expected to be inferior. Yet when the Prison became too overcrowded it was considered to be inhumane and requiring replacement. The evolution of the type of prison accommodation, then, mirrors society’s views of what was considered to be basic humanitarian conditions. Social views of punishment are also exhibited in the story of the Prison; from the use of prison labour to alter the landscape of the fledgling settlement to the acceptance of capital punishment.

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

The Dunedin Prison (Former) represents the history of the punishment of criminals and the contemporary philosophies of penal systems. Penal conventions evolved from the use of prisoners as cheap labour and prison buildings which could have been taken apart by hand, to imposing and elegantly designed brick structures which separated prisoners and inhibited contact in order to stop the spread of criminal contamination. The new Prison building owed its existence to the transfer of prison administration to the national level and the implementation of a penal philosophy, even though it was adopted from England.

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

The Dunedin Prison (Former) was designed by John Campbell, Government Architect. His architectural influence was notable and his imposing structures may be seen in centres throughout the country. In mimicking Norman Shaw’s design for New Scotland Yard, Campbell brought to Dunedin an imposing and elegantly designed building which belied its harsh functional purpose.

The Prison also represents the work of Colonel Arthur Hume, appointed Inspector of Prisons in 1880. He successfully brought the individual system of local gaols under centralised administration. Dunedin Prison was part of Hume’s prison building programme, designed to implement the separate cell system. It also relieved overcrowding and dubious accommodation.

Finally, the Prison is linked to the stories of a number of famous and infamous inhabitants. Among local personalities who spent time in prison, are also national figures like Minnie Dean and, more recently, David Bain whose stories have become part of popular culture.

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

The Dunedin Prison (Former) provides a largely unmodified example of nineteenth century prisons in New Zealand. While updated in some respects, the layout and significant number of original features, including cells, windows and courtyard, enable a glimpse into a late nineteenth century prison. The building not only reflects contemporary prison conditions but also speaks to contemporary penal philosophies which were prominent at the time, such as separate cells and capital punishment as exemplified by the separate yard for the gallows.

(d) The importance of the place to the tangata whenua

The Dunedin Prison (Former) is the site where 74 Maori prisoners were held from 1869 to 1873. Sentenced to penal servitude for high treason, the Maori prisoners originated from the Waikato and East Coast. They were organised into work gangs and employed on a variety of improvements including road building, harbour reclamation, quarrying and dredging. They gained the respect of the community and were released early from their sentences.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

For over 150 years this site has housed the Dunedin gaol and its various reincarnations. The site grew increasingly ill-favoured by the community as it became progressively more central to the city. Yet, despite opposition, it remained the site for prison accommodation and Campbell’s imposing design became a prominent and visible part of the central city. Despite the building’s use, the Dunedin Prison (Former) now forms a central part of the picturesque and historically significant Anzac Square/Railway Station Heritage Precinct. This area is highly valued by the Dunedin community and is an arrival point for many tourists. Picturesque and historically significant it is one of New Zealand’s most prominent heritage urban areas.

Public esteem for the Dunedin Prison has never been higher, now that it is being offered for sale. The printed media, heritage advocates and members of the public have been vocal about its continuing existence. Options are being investigated to ensure it’s the possibilities for adaptive reuse.

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

The design of the Dunedin Prison (Former) is rare, even by international standards, and certainly unique in Australasia. Entwisle’s survey of New Zealand prisons indicates that Dunedin Prison is the only surviving courtyard design in the country. A comparison with Australian prisons confirms a few small courtyard prisons but none of which are Victorian. Even in a brief international comparison, the courtyard design is revealed as rare. The Dunedin Prison, then, stands alone as a virtually unmodified example of a Victorian courtyard prison.

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

Dunedin’s prison accommodation has been on this site since 1855. An archaeological excavation of a small portion of the site found the old gaol’s foundations, building supplies and artefacts. This indicates that similar archaeology may be found under the existing Prison building’s foundations.

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

The Dunedin Prison (Former) is a rare historic place. Its courtyard design, for example, is now unique in New Zealand and rare internationally. It is also unusual in that the prison has been on the same site since 1855, over 150 years. Originally on the edge of the city at the water’s edge, the prison became now part of the central city as it extended. Despite opposition the new Prison was built on the same site as the old gaol and the story continued for another 110 years.

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

The Dunedin Prison (Former) forms part of the Anzac Square/Railway Station Heritage precinct. Although the railway station predominates, the Dunedin Prison and the surrounding judicial buildings also dominate the space. The precinct not only incorporates architecturally impressive heritage buildings but provides a picture of early settlement and the heyday of historic Dunedin.

Summary of Significance or Values

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


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

The Dunedin Prison (Former) is an outstanding historical place incorporating a number of special values. Designed by noted Government Architect John Campbell, the Prison is his best-known building in the Queen Anne style. Echoing Norman Shaw’s design for New Scotland Yard, Campbell gave Dunedin an imposing and exquisitely designed building despite its functional purpose. Campbell also used a rare courtyard design for the Prison. National and international comparisons indicate that this Prison is the only Victorian courtyard design in Australasia still in existence. Significantly, the Prison is also largely unmodified. The layout remains in tact and many original features have been retained. The building presents a glimpse into late nineteenth century prison conditions as well as penal philosophies. Hume’s building programme, which included the Dunedin Prison, was designed to implement the English system of single cells and prisoner separation.

Prominently positioned on Anzac Square, the former Prison is a central part of the picturesque and historically significant Anzac Square/Railway Station Heritage Precinct. An architecturally distinguished urban space, the precinct provides a time capsule of Dunedin’s nineteenth century glory days.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Campbell, John

John Campbell (1857-1942) served his articles under John Gordon (c1835-1912) in Glasgow. He arrived in Dunedin in 1882 and after a brief period as a draughtsman with Mason and Wales joined the Dunedin branch of the Public Works Department in 1883. His first known work, an unbuilt design for the Dunedin Railway Station, reveals an early interest in Baroque architecture.

In November 1888 Campbell was transferred to Wellington where in 1889 he took up the position of draughtsman in charge of the Public Buildings Division of the Public Works Department.

He remained in charge of the design of government buildings throughout New Zealand until his retirement in 1922, becoming in 1909 the first person to hold the position of Government Architect. Government architecture designed under his aegis evidences a change in style from Queen Anne to Edwardian Baroque. His best-known Queen Anne design is the Dunedin Police Station (1895-8), modelled on Richard Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard (1887-90). Among his most exuberant Edwardian Baroque buildings is the Public Trust Office, Wellington (1905-09). Although Campbell designed the Dunedin Law Courts (1899-1902) in the Gothic style with a Scottish Baronial inflection, he established Edwardian Baroque as the government style for police stations, courthouses and post offices throughout New Zealand. In 1911 Campbell won the nation-wide architectural competition for the design of Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Although only partially completed, Parliament House is the crowning achievement of Campbell's career.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative


The Maori history of this area relates particularly to coastal Otago (Te Tai o Araiteuru) and the tradition of the waka Arai Te Uru. Muaupoko (Otago Peninsula) in particular, provided a sheltered place for settlement. A settlement in what is now central Dunedin is believed to have been used as late as 1785 but was unoccupied in the 1820s when the area was described by Thomas Shepherd. Although ancient trails (ara tawhito), seasonal settlements (nohoaka) and canoe mooring sites (tauraka waka) were evident at the commencement of Dunedin, most soon vanished or were incorporated into colonial roads.

History of Dunedin’s Gaol

Dunedin’s first gaol was erected in September 1848 at a cost of £80. It was located at the foot of Bell Hill, now the corner of Stuart and Cumberland Street. In 1851 when Henry Monson the first gaoler was appointed, the wooden gaol consisted of two large cells and one day room. The Province’s Civil Engineer, John Turnbull Thomson, designed the gaol although his architectural experience hitherto lay in the construction of stone bridges. According to Judge A.J. Johnston, the goal was ‘engeniously misconstructed’.

In October 1855 Thomson’s gaol was burned to the ground when Monson tipped burning embers down the cesspool to purify it. Wind blew embers against the outhouses which quickly caught alight and spread the fire to the gaol. The lone prisoner bravely fought to save the goal and was badly burned for his efforts.

Following the fire, the Superintendent of Otago, James Macandrew, proclaimed the Immigration Barracks as a temporary gaol until new accommodation could be erected. The Barracks, one block towards the harbour, were owned by Macandrew who sold them to the Otago Provincial Council to serve as the gaol. The triangular section of land fronted Stuart, Castle, High and Dunbar Streets (once Gaol Street) and stood adjacent to the original bed of the Otago Harbour. The land was vested in the Superintendent of Otago and his successors for ever as Reserve No. 3, site for a public gaol, in June 1858.

Modifications were made to make to the barracks over the following years to make them suitable for a gaol. The cells were described as six feet, six inches by six feet, six inches. The bunks were so narrow that only one person could go to bed at any time. Yet prisoners were not confined to the gaol exclusively and a sentence of hard labour meant exactly that. Prisoners contributed greatly to the development of Dunedin through the draining of swamps, harbour reclamation, building roads and the removal of a large portion of Bell Hill. Octagon hill, about three and a half metres high, was also removed by prison work parties. Roads were formed, including the main routes along Cumberland and Castle Streets and roads on both sides of the harbour. Dunedin’s prison labour system became well known nationally and internationally. In 1874, for example, a prison officer from Melbourne made a study of the work carried out in Bell Hill.

In 1857 the Provincial Council set aside £2000 and plans were procured for a new gaol. By 1859, however, no progress had been made. During an inquiry in 1859 into the temporary wooden gaol, Monson noted that it ‘has never been secure…Any prisoner could have taken and pulled any part down, and could have taken out even the windows with his hand and escaped.’

In April 1859 it was announced the newest set of plans and specifications for the erection of a new gaol were ready. In January 1860, however, a report to the Supreme Court again noted the present gaol was inadequate but that the new gaol had not progressed. The plans had been sent to the central government but the decision had been deferred as the government was contemplating the erection of one gaol for the whole colony.

The decision to build was eventually made. Tenders were accepted in May 1860 and by June the foundations had been dug out. In August 1861 the Supreme Court noted the new goal was nearly finished. The new gaol, fronting Stuart Street, was a two storey bluestone building with a central tower built to hold about 134 prisoners. Although some problems were apparent, contemporaries felt it would afford sufficient accommodation despite the probable increase in crime due to the recent discovery of gold.

By October 1861 the new gaol was already said to be overcrowded and in December tenders were called for additions to the building. A debtors’ prison was built next to the prison with a frontage on Lower High Street. In 1862 a gaoler’s house was built and in 1863 further accommodation for female prisoners and lunatics was added. This provided accommodation for 176 prisoners in total. Sanitary conditions were later improved but at the expense of accommodation and barracks at Tairoa Heads were used for the overflow of prisoners.


On 6 November 1869, 74 Maori prisoners from the North Island were transferred to Dunedin gaol to serve between three and seven years. These were warriors of the Pakakohoe sub-tribe of Ngati Ruanui (part of Titokowaru’s army) who fought in the land wars in south Taranaki and captured at Patea in 1869. In August 1871 another five Maori prisoners were received from the East Coast of the North Island. All were convicted of high treason, the warriors were sentenced to hard labour. Almost a quarter were invalided due to the crowded conditions of their incarceration aboard a hulk in Wellington harbour. A day room was converted into a dormitory for their accommodation. While the Dunedin community was apprehensive about having these warriors in their midst, contemporaries soon noted that their, ‘obedience, industry, and attention, is highly spoken of, and the example and precept of the chief Rihare Watone Ngawakataurua, is cited as being in the highest degree satisfactory.’

Maori prisoners went out daily in gangs to work on projects such as harbour reclamation, the Botanic Gardens, Otago Boys High School, and forming roads in Andersons Bay, Kaikorai Valley and Pelichet Bay. For the year ended 31 March 1871 it was recorded that Maori prisoners had worked a total of 9268 days on Dunedin public works.

A report for the year ending 31 March 1873 noted that the Maori prisoners had recently been discharged under an amnesty. Resident Magistrate, Isaac Newton Watt, described them as ‘exceptional prisoners, who were treated exceptionally’.

The beginning of centralised penal reform

The Dunedin gaol came under the spotlight in 1883 when a central government inquiry was launched into apparent irregularities in prison management. The inquiry was prompted by ‘disorganisation and discord prevalent among the staff; habitual disobedience of the Prisons Act… [and] incessant complaints of officers and prisoners.’

The inquiry was conducted by Colonel Arthur Hume. In 1880 Hume was appointed to the new position of Inspector of Prisons. During his tenure, Hume’s principal achievement was to establish a national system of prison administration. This national regime was based on methods used in English gaols between 1863 and 1895, known as the ‘English System’. The system was based on classification of prisoners, where different types of offenders were held in different prisons, and each inmate was to have their own cell to avoid ‘contamination’. Advocating prisons as a deterrent, conditions were to be notably inferior to the lowest standard of living in the general populace. Hume’s endorsement of the ‘matured experience’ of England, although a typical colonial preference, ultimately inhibited New Zealand’s search for its own penal philosophy.

Hume’s attempts to implement the ‘system’, however, were frustrated by the need for economy and for many years the colony’s prisons remained overcrowded and dilapidated. It was not until the late 1880s that Hume was able to embark on a building programme which eventually led to an improvement in prison accommodation. In 1889 Hume reported that he had trialled the English separate cell system in the new Christchurch prison which had ‘effected great economy and reform’. New prisons were being built at Auckland and Wellington to give effect to the new system and, he reported, a new prison should be ‘at once erected at Dunedin’. Contemporaries also noted that increasing pressures on Dunedin’s prison accommodation made a new building essential.

Design and Architecture of the Dunedin Prison

Plans for the new Dunedin Prison were completed in 1892 by John Campbell, chief government architect from 1889, although the official title of Government Architect was not created until 1909. His projects included Government House, Parliament Buildings and the Dunedin Law Courts. Campbell also designed national models for buildings, for example post offices, which could be reproduced throughout the country. He became known for his Edwardian Baroque style of government buildings. It has been written that although Campbell ‘was a quiet and unassuming man; his buildings are by contrast so ostentatious that they command attention. Although many have been demolished, probably more examples of his work are known to New Zealanders, although anonymously, than buildings designed by any other architect’.

Campbell’s design for the new Dunedin Prison was to be ‘as unlike a gaol as possible, in view of its central position’. The design was based on the New Scotland Yard building in London, completed in 1890. Scotland Yard was designed by Norman Shaw (1831-1912), considered to be the father of the modern Queen Anne style, and the Dunedin Prison mimics a number of Shaw’s design elements. The Queen Anne style emerged as part of the Domestic Revival in English architecture, designed to be picturesque and a freer building form which supplanted the classicism and medievalism of Victorian gothic. It is oft quoted that the prison’s architecture ‘exactly demonstrates the then-current reaction in New Zealand against gross Victorian stylism’.

Both Shaw’s and Campbell’s designs are Queen Anne in style which includes a sweep of steps leading to a carved stone door frame; rows of painted sash windows in boxes set flush with the brickwork; and a central triangular pediment set against a hipped roof with dormers. Both Scotland Yard and the Dunedin Prison have cupola domes. Both designs include red brick with paler stone striped elevations, ‘dividing the height with a strongly marked line which gives a greater apparent width to the structure’. The designs also combine refined and elegant elements with a brick warehouse appearance. The elegant features include white mouldings on the gable, English Tudor windows, cupola domes and dormer windows in the roof. Delicately modelled brick facades also demonstrate Campbell’s competence in exquisite detailing. Although the Dunedin Prison is ‘somewhat smaller it is considerably more delicate and refined than its London counterpart’.

Campbell designed the prison in four blocks surrounding a central courtyard, although there was an adjunct to the north elevation containing a smaller courtyard for the gallows. This courtyard prison design was unusual at the time and is now thought to be unique. The administration block faced the railway station and the three prison wings were built in a U shape behind. The administration block was two storied, the prison wings were three high. Barred windows punctuated the exterior walls. Cells lay behind the windows and beyond them were corridors enabling circulation around three sides of the courtyard at each of the three floor levels. The prison was designed with 72 cells: 52 for men and 20 for women. The design was substantial and the prison was to be the fourth largest in New Zealand. Occupying an area of just 2661 square metres, however, over time it became one of the country’s smallest prisons.

According to art historian, Peter Entwisle, the prison’s form and age make it singular in New Zealand. Prison buildings, which only came into existence about 1800, are classified into four general architectural styles: radial, telephone poll, courtyard and campus. Dunedin Prison is now nationally unique in its representation of a courtyard prison. Lyttelton Gaol was the only other prison built in the courtyard style but it was closed in 1920 and has since been demolished. A comparison with the more prominent Australian prisons indicates that only two are of a courtyard design. Both of these prisons, however, are pre-Victorian and relatively small structures. Even a brief review of British and American prison designs indicates that courtyard architecture is rare. Entwisle’s research, then, indicates that the Dunedin Prison represents a rare type of courtyard design both nationally and internationally. He concludes that in New Zealand ‘it is the only surviving courtyard prison but in Australasia it is the only Victorian one and probably the only one of the sort ever built. In the greater English-speaking world it only seems more unusual. There may be parallels in the United States and Canada. There is one in Britain, but this is not like most New Zealand buildings whose types when sought internationally are usually numerous. Rarity of kind is only one merit in a building. But the Dunedin Prison has it in abundance’.

The prison building’s ornate architecture and imposing mass also became a key element in the surrounding area. With the police barracks and art gallery close by to the south, and the railway station, Otago Early Settler’s Museum, and the law courts soon added to the immediate area, the collection of civic buildings became ‘one of New Zealand’s most architecturally distinguished urban spaces.’ In this impressive heritage precinct ‘the prison building is an essential element...the prison, despite its purpose, adds a note of grace and surprisingly domestic charm’.


By 1893 there was still no sign of construction beginning on the prison. Hume’s report of that year hinted at the reason why.

I very much regret…that no determination has yet been arrived at in reference to Dunedin, and I can only add to what I have already said on this matter, that the present ancient and obsolete buildings will simply collapse before long, unless immediate and decided action is taken. It is believed that the opposition of the few who opposed building on the present site is now removed, and it is hoped in the cause of humanity alone, a new building will at once be sanctioned and commenced.

It seems that the Dunedin City Council had for many years been negotiating with the Government to reuse the gaol site as a market place. It was in the centre of the city and close to the railway station and the wharves. Deputations from Dunedin businessmen to the Minster of Justice concerning the site were made in 1892 and 1893. One submitter ‘did not suppose there were three persons in Dunedin who were in favour of erecting a gaol there’. By June 1894, however, the government was putting increasing pressure on the Council which eventually decided to withdraw its opposition to the new gaol.

The prison was to be erected on the ‘co-operative system’ at a cost of £10,000. This was a commonplace system during the 1890s for government works. It allowed for co-operative contracts to be let out to gangs of workmen. During the year ending 31 March 1896 six concreters, 28 stonemasons, 175 bricklayers, 125 bricklayers’ labourers and three general labourers were employed on co-operative work contracts. The labour cost for building Dunedin Prison was a little more than one shilling per man hour.

The specification was issued in November 1894. The concrete was to be approved Portland cement, 1 part cement, 6 parts hard bluestone and two parts sand. The government would supply 100,000 ordinary bricks and 50,000 pressed bricks. The remainder were to be supplied by the contractor and should be ‘hard, sound, square, of regular size and shape, and well burnt’. Pressed bricks were to be used on exterior except those facing the courtyard and the back of the buildings facing Gaol Street. All partitions, piers, foundations, and other brickwork were to be built in ‘English bond in the very best style of workmanship.’ All the exterior walls of the buildings were to be built hollow, with a 2.5 inch air space between. Other specifications dictated that ‘white stone shall be Oamaru stone, from the Totara Tree quarries, of the very best uniform quality and of equal colour, and carried by rail and not by sea. Bluestone shall be Port Chalmers stone, from the hardest and best quarries, of the very best uniform quality.’ The roof was to be Countess Westmoreland green slates. The mantelpieces to all fireplaces were to be wrought polished slate of plain design. The cell doors were to be 6 feet, 6 inches (2 metres) by 2 feet, 4 inches (66 centimetres). All external doors were heart totara; all internal doors were heart of red pine.

In January 1895 tenders were called for building materials. Walter and Charles Gore and another company C.A. & W.J. Shiel supplied the bricks. The total cost was £1699. The tender for timber, advertised nationally, was won by Charles M. Howison of the City Sawmilling Company. The contract was for £668 and the final delivery date was 2 August 1895. Ironwork was supplied by Cossens & Black.

Work began on 15 January 1895 with the ground being cleared. Two weeks later trenches were dug for the foundations. H. Norman of the Public Works Department supervised the work. Local architect, James Hislop, was given charge of the technical part of the work.

Construction did not progress as quickly as expected, however, and questions were asked in parliament in July and August 1895 about the delays. Discussion centred on the size of the workforce and problems with the co-operative system. In December 1895 Hume visited Dunedin to check progress and met with the gaoler Charles Phillips. Phillips suggested a number of improvements in a report he later sent to Hume. Phillips noted, for example, there were ‘only 2 baths in each of 2 cells or rooms for the male prison. (50 prisoners). It is suggested that two bathrooms be erected, one in the exercise yard, to contain 3 baths each…[there is also] no store room, no associated ward for D T cases or lunatics, or others requiring special observation and attention often ordered by surgeon; and no padded cell provided for. There are no punishment cells.’ Hume accepted the modifications.

The exterior was finished by April 1897. Varying completion dates appear in different sources. The confusion seems to have arisen with the erection of a plate above the central door indicating the prison was completed in 1896. This is incorrect. The sign was made in more recent times by a prisoner who did not check the date of opening. Although, the exterior was finished by April 1897, extra work and the fittings delayed its opening. On 19 May 1898 the District Engineer declared all building work completed and on 16 June 1898 the prison was occupied. The total cost of the prison on completion was £16000.

The same year the new prison building was begun, in 1895, the new police barracks were erected on the acute angle of the section of land which made up part of the old gaol. Contemporaries noted that the ‘new Police Station and the Gaol, now on the eve of completion, are also of a highly ornate character quite opposed to the sombreness of their functions’.

The remaining old gaol was dismantled in May 1899 by Sandilands and Co. The demolition did not proceed without incident. On 11 May the bodies of three executed prisoners were exhumed. The remains were left on the grounds pending an order for their removal.

In the interval, however, some person, presumably a collector, took a fancy to the skull of the late Captain William Jarvey, executed for the murder of his wife, and annexed it. The police hope that anyone offering for sale a skull “other than their own” will be made to account for it.

The subsequent search for the skull proved fruitless.

In 1902 the Dunedin Law Courts, also designed by John Campbell, opened on this site. An archaeological investigation in 2002 on part of this site found the old gaol’s foundations for one of the cell blocks running beneath and through the Law Court’s foundations. Excavations also revealed part of an old exercise yard and substantial structural timbers. Artefacts including glass, ceramics, a clay pipe, nails, button, spoons, bones and sawn greenstone were also recovered. As the archaeological investigation revealed excellent surviving evidence of the construction history of the old gaol from a relatively small survey area, it is likely that further remains of the old gaol lie beneath the current prison.


The new prison was presided over by Samuel Charles Phillips (c.1836-1909). Phillips residence was adjacent to the old gaol but when the building was vacated the house became uninhabitable. Rats thrived in the drains and in the disused gaol. The smell proved unbearable. After an inspection, arrangements were made to demolish both the house and the old gaol in mid 1899. The Phillips were unable to find suitable accommodation nearby and so changes were made to a portion of the administration block to house the couple. A separate gaoler’s residence never eventuated and until Phillips’ retirement in 1903, the couple slept with loaded pistols under their pillows.

By 1896 prison staff included the gaoler, a surgeon, a matron and assistant matron, a principal warder, four warders and three assistant warders. Conditions for prison wardens were almost as limiting as those for inmates. For example, until 1915 prison officers had to work at least two years before getting married and then had to apply for permission. Neither was there annual leave or sick leave. Single officers were required to live in the prison and had to obey a 10pm curfew on their days off.

Aside from the resident ghost (apparently a policeman killed by inmates), the prison has also been tenanted by serial murderer Minnie Dean and more recently by David Bain. Almost everyone who had been arrested or convicted of murder in the South Island would have spent some time at Dunedin Prison.


World War One created staffing problems in the prison service. Hume reported in 1916 that there was a shortage of officers throughout New Zealand. The solution in Dunedin was the relocation of police staff from the adjoining barracks to the prison’s administration block. It became the only building in the country to be shared by the Police and Justice Departments. The Defence Department also moved in at a later date and occupied part of the building until 1958.

Various repairs and alterations took place over the course of time. Certainly during the 1970s both the exterior and interior were partly compromised by alterations. A number of wooden windows, for example, were removed from cells and replaced with steel framed casement windows. Prison doors were replaced with lighter wooden doors. An inmates gym and recreation/dining room were added to the central courtyard. The small courtyard, housing the gallows, was converted to the laundry room and hotwater cylinder room. The original spiked fence was also removed.

Shortage of female accommodation in 1958 saw plans produced for altering part of Dunedin Prison for use as a women’s prison. The police continued to utilise the administration block. The Secretary for Justice was unsure about the wisdom of the decision.

Many of the women transferred to Dunedin will be serving long sentences and I have been hesitant about transferring them to this old-fashioned and depressing building. However, now that the decision has been made I wish to do everything possible to mitigate its cheerlessness by the use of adequate heating, colour and other aids which will improve the surroundings. Would you please ask your Architects to keep this in mind.

Male prisoners and the Defence Department were accommodated elsewhere and the first five female inmates arrived on 4 August 1959.

Christchurch Women’s Prison opened in 1974. Thereafter Dunedin became a male remand and short sentence prison and remained so until 2007. In 1994 the police removed to new premises on Great King Street. Dunedin Prison was vacated early in 2007 with the opening of the new Otago Corrections Facility in Milton. So ended 151 years of continuous prison accommodation on this site.

The Dunedin Prison is now being offered for sale. Although the Dunedin City Council does not have an interest in owning the building, there has been very strong community support for finding a suitable commercial adaptive reuse for the Prison. Articles have appeared in the local media; heritage advocates and members of the public have united to promote the Prison’s cause. A Dunedin Prison Charitable Trust has been formed to undertake feasibility investigations into options and future uses.

Physical Description


On either side of the busy one way Castle Street, is the Anzac Square/Railway Station Heritage precinct. The exquisitely designed railway station lies to the east, in front of which a carefully tended formal flower garden blooms brightly. The Otago Settlers Museum, including Dunedin’s first Art Gallery, lies to the south. To the east are three impressive heritage buildings; the Dunedin Law Courts, the Police Barracks and, standing between the two, the striking Dunedin Prison. Through an asphalt car park area, formal entry to the Dunedin Prison is centrally located in the highly decorative two storey administration block. The basic form of the building is a hollow square with the administration block abutted to the more austerely decorated, three story wings forming a U shape behind. The administration block features a Port Chalmers Breccia base and red brick walls relieved with Oamaru stone bands. The central portion also includes capping, keystones and architraves to the ground floor windows, lattice patterned arch top Tudor style windows, a heavy timbered front entry door, a central gable with an oriel window, a grey slate roof with corner turrets, oriel window dormers and central spire all of which are capped with cupola domes. The domes feature decorative wrought iron weathervanes and turned timber finials. The east elevation also originally featured large chimneys for the office fireplaces, all with moulded banding and capped with ceramic chimney pots.

Either side of the central portion of the east elevation is stepped back and forms gable ends to the cell block wings. These are treated in a less detailed manner with single lattice patterned oriel windows fitted to the gables, as well as white Oamaru stone bandings, capping and key stones. Windows are the same as the central façade and architraves are rendered in plaster and red brick.

Alterations to the main administration block seem minimal. There have been some small changes including white paint to the Oamaru stone, the addition of a small ground floor room to the north side wall, and the removal of the chimney tops. Alterations to the roof appear restricted to the addition and alteration of ventilators. Changes to the stepped back portion of the administration block appear to be confined largely to the possible removal of the barrel arch pediments, the painting of the Oamaru stone, and the installation of a steel fire escape.

The south, east and north elevations of the cell block are austere, with decoration of the red brick walls confined to the regular pattern of arch top lattice pattern cell windows, with grey plaster architraves set between regularly spaced brick pilasters. The south side gutter stones are Ogee shaped Oamaru stone while the north and rear side are stepped brick. All roofs are grey slate, with numerous ventilators.

Changes to the cell block elevation appear to be the replacement of a number of original lattice pattern windows with similar pattern steel windows featuring security grills. A door has also been fitted to the south elevation. Oamaru stone has been painted white.


While the exterior is architecturally impressive, the interior is impressive only for the grim atmosphere it evokes. It is cold, dingy and depressing. The cells feel claustrophobic with only a little light entering the small windows, which are barred and wire meshed. The beds are concrete blocks or insubstantial wire bunks. The courtyard is covered with wire mesh overhead and also feels claustrophobic. The small amounts of graffiti are black; they depict skulls and similar dark imagery. The atmosphere in the Prison is bleak and harsh.

Administration block

The administration block is entered through impressive wooden double doors and into a narrow foyer which opens up into the reception area. Original design features of this block include the central main stairway to the first floor as well as the first and second floor transecting corridors which giver access to the offices on both sides and cell blocks on each end. A particular design feature of the stairwell is the mid flight landing with a door out to an iron platform from which the closed prison courtyard could be viewed. The administration block was designed on the conventional hierarchy of primary corridors and rooms fitted with heavy moulded plaster cornices and decorative dado panelling to walls and fireplaces as appropriates. Lesser rooms have square stopped cornices and dado panelling, and typically no fireplace. Doors throughout (aside from the entrance doors and those to the cells) are a four panel colonial pattern. Door and window architraves are heavily moulded profile timber. Floors throughout are timber and ceilings are lath and plaster. Walls are typically plaster on brick.


The central enclosed courtyard space is surrounded by the administration wing, with an observation balcony, on the east side; open cloisters and galleries over the space on the south and west sides; and a lightly fenestrated elevation on the north side. The space is no longer as open as it originally was, due to the addition of an inmates gym and recreation/dining room jutting out from the eastern elevation. A row of toilets with no doors are between the wall of the gym and the eastern elevation of the courtyard. The remaining outside space is covered overhead by wire mesh. The ground is asphalted.

The small enclosed courtyard, which was once used for executions, ran along the north elevation. Steel windows lined the south elevation of the yard. This space now houses the laundry room and hotwater cylinder room.

Cell Blocks

The three storey cells blocks are arranged around the central courtyard. The ground floor cell wings to the south and east are linked to the open courtyard via a corridor featuring open brick arches to the yard so as to form cloisters. The first and second floor south and east cell wings are similarly open to the central courtyard via open sided galleries. These feature arched openings fitted with wrought iron spear topped balustrades. The north elevation cell wing features enclosed corridors, probably functioning as visiting areas, and is thus isolated from the central courtyard. On the north elevation of the north cell block is a further enclosed yard bounded by a high brick wall, in which it is presumed high risk prisoners were exercised and in which the gallows and it first floor level gallery stood.

Floors throughout the cell block are concrete, with timber floors overlaid to the cells. Ceilings to the ground and first floors are concrete. Ceilings to the second floor are baby or sparrow iron, fixed to the ceiling joists. Walls throughout the cell block are flush mortared brick with no finish render. Doors to cells are generally heavy timber framed with vertical and diagonal layers of boards, and fitted with shuttered spy holes and heavy locking bolts. All cells were fitted with steel lattice grated windows. The south and east side cell blocks have a light and open air aspect in contrast to the dark and closed aspect of the north cell block. Any changes to the interior have been in the form of infill additions, subdividing of larger spaces, and the removal of only limited sections of original walls. A considerable number of the original cell doors have been replaced. The prison, however, retains a high level of authenticity.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1895 - 1897

1916 -
Police staff move into the prison.

1958 -
Becomes a Women’s Prison.

1974 -
Becomes a male remand and short sentence prison.

2007 -
Prison closed.

Construction Details

Concrete; Stone - Bluestone, Oamaru stone; Timber - totara, rimu, kauri.

Public NZAA Number


Completion Date

15th October 2010

Report Written By

Susan Irvine

Information Sources

Burnett, 1995

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

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Crawford, J. A. B. 'Hume, Arthur 1838-1841? - 1918', accessed 13 September 2010; Richardson, Peter, ‘Campbell, John 1857-1942’, accessed 2 Jun 2009.

Pratt, 1992

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

Stacpoole, 1972

John Stacpoole and Peter Beaven, 'Architecture 1820-1970', Wellington, 1972

University of Otago

University of Otago

Reinsborg, Niels C., The Dunedin gaol and the administration of justice in Otago,1840-1865 : thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree B.A. (Hons) in history at the University of Otago, Dunedin, University of Otago, 1987.

Porter, 1983

Frances Porter (ed), Historic Buildings of Dunedin, South Island, Methuen, Auckland, 1983.

Martin, 1998 (2)

Martin, Bill, Dunedin Gaol: A community prison since 1851, [Bill Martin, Dunedin 1998]

Matthews, 1923

C. Matthews, Evolution of the Prison System, Wellington, Government Printer, 1923.

Newbold, 2007

G. Newbold, The problem of prisons: corrections reform in New Zealand since 1840, Wellington, Dunmore Publishing Ltd., 2007.

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the Otago / Southland Office of the NZHPT.

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