If these walls could talk at the old Peterborough County Jail

Published in the Peterborough Examiner 02/20/2016

The County Jail has been in the news this week as its demolition and repurposing continues for the next six weeks or so. As well, for Heritage Week I spoke on the history of the two county jails that were built on this site. People comment how great it would be if these walls could talk.

The first jail was built as part of the arrangement that created the District of Colborne (which included the area that became the counties of Peterborough, Victoria and Haliburton). With the completion of the court house and jail in 1842, we had local government administered locally from Peterborough (rather than Cobourg). This is a big story in itself.

Remarkably though the court house and jail, the largest building in this area, was built for 7,000 pounds for local taxpayers before there were taxpayers. It depended on the support of the District of Newcastle allotting part of its revenue to the Jail Committee, as well as on significant borrowing from the families of local citizens, and from the bank in Cobourg. As well, contractors were partly paid with Jail Committee notes that could be cashed over the next few years.

Our courthouse is remarkable in countless ways. Joseph Scobell, who was credited with the winning design, seems to have worked from pattern books, or even possibly on designs done by John G. Howard, the earliest architect in Ontario. The building committee led by Thomas A. Stewart met every Friday and tackled countless problems with efficiency. They changed their budget to match the costs of construction, and they changed the plans from stucco to stone when two local contractors, Thomas Harper and Barnabas Bletcher, could deliver stone from what is now Hamilton Park and Jackson Park could deliver at a reasonable price. The windows tell the story of the vernacular touch; the Regency style is characterized by symmetry and the mason could not quite deliver that.

A second Regency style jail, the one currently being dismantled, was built in 1864-1865 using plans developed by the county engineer, T.F. Nicholls, working with the government’s prison architect, H.H. Horsey, who during the five-year period designed a half dozen county jails between Ottawa and the Niagara area.

The designs captured the spirit of the Auburn plan based on the prison built in Auburn, N.Y. The Auburn style was based on several principles. Prisoners should spend the nights in a cell, but during the day could mingle in wards, or outside in the jail yard. The facilities were designed to be sanitary and also secure. Prisoners were segregated according to categories related to the seriousness of their crimes. The overall architectural design was intended to overwhelm the offenders: it had to be impressive, controlled, and solid.

The local jails could be inspired by the larger prison design, but they would serve a limited clientele, and generally people whose crimes were minor, with sentences less than two years. On the other hand, there would be more dangerous offenders passing through from local officials or police on to provincial jails, asylums or other facilities.

The walls still speak, and the hope is that the walls in the new jail park design will continue to speak. Consider the skills of local builders, painters, masons, carpenters that built the original buildings. Consider the messages conveyed by the layout of the jail, the relationships between rooms, the connections between the imprisoned and those charged with caring for them.

The families of the jailer or governor lived nearby for more than 100 years, and the turnkey for about a generation less. The old jail was redesigned with the completion of the new jail, and both stood side by side until the 1920s. Both the jailer and the turnkey had apartments in the old jail, and the lower level was used as a ward for vagrants. The new jail allowed for classifications. The jail had as few as two or three prisoners; never more than 15 except in exceptional circumstances. There were 18 cells, mostly single and the rest double cells.

Let’s be clear: the walls can talk.

Of course, people when saying “if these walls could talk” usually mean more. There were five men hanged in the jailyard, the most recent in 1933. What are the stories that surround them, and their hanging? Peterborough had a penchant for rallying to support murderers from being hanged, so those who inspired no local sentiment had something to tell.

Sandford Fleming visited the jail on his first full day in town in 1845; his cousin and host was Dr. John Hutchison who was one of the magistrates overseeing the building of the jail.

The jailer and the turnkey and their families lived in the old jail, and earlier and later in the court house. Surprisingly, the same families were there for long periods. Henderson Nesbitt, for example, was resident at the jail from 1864 to 1928, when he was 88. Robert Rae, a turnkey, was there for 40 years, and so was Stanley Johnston, who rose to governor of the jail around 1950.

The jail was commonly known around downtown, which was within a few blocks, by the connection to the jailer: Castle McWilliams, Castle Nesbitt and Johnston’s Hotel were the subjects of many tales. One folk song about Johnston’s Hotel in the 1930s is still being performed locally.

While the jail was mainly for short stays, there were people who became frequent guests, and this was a source of camaraderie most certainly.

It is worth observing that the county jail in the 19th century was the most important institution of social welfare. Before there were hospitals, workhouses or a House of Providence there was the jail. Some people died here, as the jail was something of a hospice.

The walls are coming down and will be replaced by a jail park, and by a miniature jail at Lang Pioneer Village. The challenge will be whether these can effectively capture the stories of the jail.

The jail and its inmates defined the limits of what was acceptable or possible in the wider community. By reflection, we can also discern what was normal.

One model could help those designing the jail park as a perpetual museum exhibit. In Major’s Hill Park in Ottawa there are several exhibits and stone and tile interpretation panels. At the site of Colonel By’s cottage while he supervised the construction of the Rideau Canal, the remains after the archeological dig were protected. The walls of the cottage are visible for about one foot high, the doors are evident in the breaks. As well, the large fireplace had survived the fires of time, and it has been restored as a centrepiece to the exhibit. Several artifacts and documents are reproduced on ceramic tile and interpretation notes are built into the design. The choice of documents and the designs imposed on the site show a thoughtful historical mind at work. As with the emerging jail park, there is an amazing view from the height of land overlooking a large river valley.

However, the archives and institutions that support the interpretation of Colonel By are superior to what we have locally. It is possible to overcome some of the limitations, but there are huge gaps in what we can know in the absence of a county archives or even a jail archives. For example, so far I have not uncovered any architectural drawings of the court house and its jails.

While I have seen the imaginative design sketches by Lett’s Architects, I have not seen the interpretations that are anticipated for the jail. The walls can speak, but there are also stories to tell about the people who moved within its walls. More importantly, there are stories to tell about the surrounding community. Maybe really for the first time we can tell the full range of stories tied to the jail that was a central institution for such a long period of our history from the very first generation.