Chasing Ghosts During a Maitland Gaol Tour
“It was here in the C-Wing that notorious prisoners Ivan Milat and George Savvas plotted to escape in 1997. Their attempt was thwarted and the two, separated. George Savvas was found dead, twenty four hours after what would have been the day of their escape… in the very cell you stand in now.”
WHAT?!I looked around the cell block, nervously. I was alone in the C-Wing, the last cell block constructed at Maitland Gaol. Doors were routinely slamming behind me as I walked through the wing. Was it the wind? Or something else…?
I think it was fair to say I was officially freaked out. And as I was currently standing in Australia’s most notorious gaol, with the evidence of prisoner’s past still on display on every wall and around each corner, I had every right to feel this way.
Well, what can I tell you about Maitland Gaol? Apart from the fact that it is possibly/probably haunted, which can be rather thrilling if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s certainly a must-see in Maitland. If you’re spending any sort of time in the Lower Hunter, you should sign up for Maitland Gaol tour.
The Gaol is certainly a historical site of the local region of the Lower Hunter. It first opened its doors to unwilling occupants on the 31st of December, 1848 (making it pretty much ancient in Australian terms). At the time it consisted of merely what is now known as the “A Wing”.
Everything started off hunky dory, with the male prisoners being housed in the ground floor cells and women contained in the floor above them. They were grouped together at first, although the cells were soon turned into single units. This was done under the theory that criminals would repent and find salvation, if left alone with only their thoughts for company.Women were removed from the gaol in the 1950s, when it became male only territory. As the years went by, it got overcrowded, holding more prisoners than it could possibly cope with.
These tiny single cells could see three people housed in them at one time.Part of the reason that it closed in 1998, was because it was an 1840s gaol trying to meet 1990s conditions… a feat which would prove to be impossible.
Life in Maitland Gaol
You could get a better insight into what life was like in prison from visiting Maitland Gaol, than from let’s say, binge-watching Orange is the New Black.
There was a code of conduct between prisoners – you could be a murderer, a thief, or a thug and you’d probably find some sort of acceptance within the gaol. However those who hurt children or animals were considered to be completely intolerant to other criminals and often had to be kept in isolation, for fear of their safety.
Maitland Gaol was the setting for 16 executions, before Australia abolished capital punishment forever (federally in 1973, although Queensland kicked things off in 1922 and New South Wales, dragging their feet, didn’t completely abolish it until 1985). The last execution in Maitland took place on the 21st May 1897, when Charles Hines was hanged for raping his step daughter, despite protesting his innocence all the way to the gallows.Australia has been forward thinking in some ways, not so much in others. Homosexuality was illegal in the state of New South Wales until 1984 (and not such a fun fact – same sex marriages have not been legalised in Oz despite the fact that is is TWO THOUSAND AND SEVENTEEN), although the last prisoner flogged for homosexuality was in 1905.
Overall, it was not a fun place to be, as you might imagine. Prisoners were miserable. Wardens were miserable and quite a few escapes were made over the years.
Escapes at Maitland Gaol
Maitland Gaol achieved some notoriety for some of these escapes, particularly those plotted by high profile criminals.
In 1977, Raymond John Denning and 6 other prisoners made their escape through an air vent in the showers. How did they do this? They lured the supervising officer out of the block and cut off the grills of the vent, before climbing through. The group stood out like sore thumbs as they ran across Maitland and were seized and hurled back inside.Twenty years later, another attempt was made by the aforementioned Backpacker Killer Ivan Milat and George Savvas in May, 1997. The attempt was thwarted by staff and the two, separated.
Savvas was housed in C-Wing and found dead the day after he and Milat would have attempted their escape, with the coroner ruling his death a suicide. Milat was transferred out of Maitland, to continue serving out his life sentence in Goulbourn.
Maitland Gaol Tours
These days, the gaol exists as a museum, one that visitors to the area have the opportunity to tour for themselves.
Self guided tours are available every day of the week – 9am-4pm Monday to Friday and 10am-4pm on weekends (make sure you get in before 3pm). These cost $16 a pop. You’re given a map and your own guide and are free to wander around the gaol to your heart’s content.
You start at the visitor’s room and wander through the C, B, and A blocks, the kitchen, the hospital, the chapel and the industry centre. It’s an easy way to get a solid overview of the history and impact of Maitland Gaol on its inmates, staff and the surrounding community.
There are a bunch of other tours on offer, for those wanting to get a little more out of the experience.
Ex-Wardens offer tours (see times and availability here) by day, or night for people who are far less wimpy than I am. It’s a chance to hear first hand, the harrowing stories of those who experienced the worst aspects of the gaol. Tickets are $28 for adults and $22 for children for day tours – tack another $5 on the ticket price and BYO torch for a night time tour.There are a bunch of other specialised tours, including the Psychic Experience, where you’ll hear some ghost tales and possibly be lucky enough to get your palm read at the end. Fancy yourself a Ghostbuster? Maybe the Ghosthunting 101 Tour is for you. There have been spooky sightings at the gaol, so you may be lucky (or unlucky) enough to experience one yourself. Fancy spending the night in a gaol? You’re braver than me. If you gather a group of 25, for $75 each you’ll be locked into C-Wing overnight, experiencing exactly what it was like for the prisoners.
Groups can also book in to play laser skirmish in the prison. CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE WHAT THAT WOULD BE LIKE?! AMAZING. THAT’S WHAT.
Getting to Maitland Gaol
The Gaol is a highlight of the Hunter region, a perfect little detour for those who perhaps plan on visiting the nearby wine region. It’s a two hour drive from Sydney and only half an hour from Newcastle, so worth considered if you’re making a trip to Australia’s neatest coastal city.
Here are some other things to do in Maitland, while you’re there.
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All prices are in Australian dollars.