Darlinghurst Gaol, on the hill at the top of Oxford Street, is one of the largest standing colonial projects left in Sydney, and yet, many Sydneysiders barely notice it anymore.
Construction of the gaol started with convict labour in 1822, the position of the gaol on the high ridge overlooking the town meant to be a reminder to those labouring below of the power of the state. A lack of funds however saw it sit idle, with no prisoners inside its massive walls for the next nineteen years.
Building restarted in 1836, with a new model prison design: a central round observation building, with seven radiating arms and the Governor’s office in the shape of a panopticon. Although built using convict labour, by the time it was ready for use in 1841 the convict system had finished.
Located at Taylor Square at the top of Oxford Street, the transfer of male and female prisoners from the old gaol near Circular Quay was done by parading them through the town and up to the new gaol, one of the first parades on a street that would become world famous for parades.
The new gaol was to house all classes of prisoners, from debtors and drunks, through hardened old lags and murders, to the condemned waiting to be executed inside its walls – 76 in total. Men and women shared the gaol; their prison blocks separated from each other by high walls, although notes were thrown over them as well as between floors in the segregated chapel. One love letter was found, still wrapped around a piece of slate in the rafters of the chapel during restoration in the 1980s.
In 1912 the gaol was replaced by the new Long Bay penitentiary and the prisoners were transferred leaving the site empty. During World War I it was used by the military and as an internment camp for enemy aliens, but once the conflict was over, new uses were sought. It was proposed that it be demolished to make way for a large high school for girls, but the presence of the Darlinghurst Courthouse saw this dropped. Instead the gaol was handed over to the Sydney Technical College for classrooms.
Technical education was then undergoing a boom period, with returned soldiers being offered places to retrain. Art classes were part of the East Sydney Tech’s offerings, along with wool classing, fashion design, food preparation and more, and from 1924 all art taught by Sydney Tech was offered at the former gaol site.
The National Art School, then also part of East Sydney Technical College, was also given room on the site in 1922, effectively concentrating Sydney’s art education into one precinct. Margaret Olley, Max Dupain, Ken Done, Wendy Sharpe, John Olsen, Rayner Hoff, Elioth Gruner, Tom Bass and Bertram Mackennal are just some of the artists who have taught or been taught there.
In 1996 the National Art School achieved stand-alone independence after a long fight, and became the sole occupant of the site in 2005, which they continue to this day.
Head to the Dictionary to read more about Darlinghurst Gaol https://dictionaryofsydney.org/place/darlinghurst_gaol
and the National Art School https://dictionaryofsydney.org/organisation/national_art_school
Dr Mark Dunn is the author of ‘The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier’ (2020), the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here and follow him on Twitter @markdhistory here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!