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Maitland Gaol tour: chasing ghosts in a notorious prison

Maitland Gaol closed in 1998, but is now open to the public as a museum. Read more about visiting and what you should expect to see or experience during a Maitland Gaol tour.

Looking back at one of the prison blocks while on a Maitland Gaol tour.
Welcome to Maitland Gaol.

“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?!

Looking down the hallway of C-Wing in Maitland Gaol, with bright green doors wide open.
The cell where Savvas took his own life.

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 prison, 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.


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What to expect on a Maitland Gaol tour

Writing on the wall reads: 'All art work by Shane Dawson: 4 years for robbery 'n' Tony Hoare
Gulp. Spotted in the visitor’s room.

Well, what can I tell you about Maitland gAOL? Apart from the fact that the building it is possibly/probably haunted, which can be rather thrilling if you’re into that sort of thing.

It’s certainly a top thing to do in Maitland. If you’re spending any sort of time in the Lower Hunter, you should sign up for Maitland Gaol tour.

Maitland Gaol history

The Gaol first opened its doors to unwilling occupants on 31 December, 1848 (making it pretty much ancient in colonial 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. Of course.

Looking up at two levels of the gaol during a Maitland gaol tour.
The original female and male quarters.

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.

Peering into a brightly coloured cell at Maitland Gaol which once upon a time would have housed three people. It's tiny.
Just a little bit snug in here.

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 at Maitland Gaol

You could get a better insight into what life was like in prison from taking a Maitland Gaol tour, 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.

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 21 May 1897, when Charles Hines was hanged for raping his step daughter, despite protesting his innocence all the way to the gallows.

Looking up at the chapel with its stained glass windows.
The chapel.

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, 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.

A red vent that Raymond John Denning and six other prisoners used to escape Maitland Gail in 1977.
The vent that Dennings and friends wriggled their way through.

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 six 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.

Just one of the many things you’ll hear about on a Maitland Gaol tour.

Inside the shower block at Maitland Gaol.
The shower block.

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 (a town known for its giant Merino Big Thing).

Looking up at a mirror next to a fence lined with barbed wire.
Barbed wire was installed in the gaol in the 70s, with razor wire added in the 1990s.

Taking a Maitland Gaol tour

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 $19 a pop, at the time of writing. 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 continue through the C, B, and A blocks, then onto 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.

Looking down at C-Wing from outside the gaol.
C-Wing, as seen from behind.

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 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.

A woman with a camera reflected in the glass at Maitland Gaol.
Not a ghost, just my own reflection.

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.

There’s plenty of other tours and experiences to choose from.

The kitchen block at Maitland Gaol.
The kitchen block, which was home to some of the more coveted cells.
A timestamp which was part of a chimney, which reads '1895'.
This is the only timestamp within the gaol, found on what once was chimney in one of the older buildings.

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.

Should you do a Maitland Gaol tour?

Maitland gaol is a top dark tourism destination in Australia and definitely worth visiting.

I’ve been through a few ex-gaols in Oz (as a visitor, not a ‘guest’!) and this is one of the best.

Definitely put it on your list of things to do in the Lower Hunter, whether you live here or are just passing through.

For more, check out this article on creepy Australian urban legends and discover the most haunted places to visit in Melbourne.

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Maitland Gaol was one of the most notorious prisons in Australia. Shut down in 1998, it's now open for tours, ghost hunting... and sleepovers. Australia / History / Spooky Travel / Ghost Hunting

All prices are in Australian dollars.

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27 Comments

  1. What an interesting blog! Sounds a little bit scary! Not sure if I would stay a night here! Lol. Keep up the great content! πŸ™‚

  2. An interesting place for a visit! We always travel with the kids and I’m wondering what they would think about this place??!!

    It would be a great way to introduce the legal system! We always read about things before we go so the kids will have a greater understanding of the things we see during an adventure!

    1. There are always stacks of kids at the gaol and it’s well catered to suit them (particularly the interactive tours). Kids are so fearless, I suppose because they don’t think, they just do!

  3. This sounds amazing. I’m kind of obsessed with serial killers (in a totally non-creepy way!) so staying here overnight would be like a dream come true for me.
    Can I also just take a moment to say that homosexuality has been legal in Old South Wales since 1967 AND you can get married these days. OSW 1 – 0 NSW πŸ˜‰

    1. The psychology of them is really interesting and there were some real creeps housed at Maitland. Yeah, we’re so far behind, in so many ways these days. Fun factoid – the Australian crest has an emu and kangaroo on it, because neither animal can move backwards and our federation fathers wanted it to be a country intent on “moving forwards”. I’m sure they’re turning in their graves.

  4. I’m from Adelaide & while i know of Ivan Milat and George Savvas of course, I didn’t know anything about Maitland Gaol. How fascinating & that’s interesting that you can visit on a tour as well or even stay for the night?! I will have to think about at least 1 of those options!

  5. Very spooky! I bet there are some serious conspiracy theories behind his death…? II’m probably on the East Coast (well, I am now… but further north I guess) in February.. I will have to check this out!…… but not for a night tour. No. No way. πŸ˜‰

    1. I’m sure there were – it’s all very suspect! It’s worth coming to Newcastle if you’re heading east side and the Gaol isn’t too far away from it.

  6. What a creepy experience it must have been! Sounds very interesting, though. I didn’t know that same sex marriage is still not legal in Australia…I hope they change that soon πŸ™‚

    1. Yeah me too, I’m really ashamed of that fact. That and our stupidly slow internet puts us very far behind other developed countries.

  7. I’ve never heard of this before, but it sounds so creepy! Like omg…you had me at the opening line. Cool to hear a bit of the history surrounding this site!

  8. I t looks so modern to say it was built in 1848!! I have visited a few prisons in the past so if I was in the area I would visit this one. It would be interesting to get a tour from an old prison guard, am sure they would have lots of stories to tell!!

    1. Ah, the first block was built in the 1840s and other blocks added after, but conditions were apparently pretty rough even in the 1990s… fantastic piece of local history. I’d love to go to one of those tours, too!

  9. This was in interesting read…I can read posts on jails…but I dont like to go on a tour that takes me there. It makes me feel depressed. I saw on in Bolivia, but again, only from the outside. Thanks for sharing the interesting stories here.

  10. I have never visited an ex prison before but I can see why the place was terrifying. If you choose to spend the night there do you actually sleep in the same cells? Alone? I guess it would be an interesting trip for a ghost hunting experience.

    1. You book as a group and sleep in an entire wing together. Had a chance to do it when I was 17, but didn’t… slight regret now!

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