Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Day Out: The Huron County Gaol


First - let me explain what I am talking about here. 
What the heck is a GAOL??
To clarify: 

Gaol vs. jail    (

Gaol is an obsolescent spelling of the word now usually spelled jail. Other than the spelling, there is no difference between the words. Gaol was common outside North American until fairly recently (it was stamped out of American English in the early 19th century, and dropped out of Canadian use about a century later), but it underwent a steady decline through the 20th century and now appears only rarely. Its most common use today is in the names of jails, but it is still possible to find a few scattered instances of gaol as a common noun in recent writing. For reasons mysterious to us, it appears to be most common in Ireland and Australia.

Huron County is the rural part of Ontario, Canada, that I grew up in.  I remember visiting the Gaol several times as a child, usually with my father and sisters, and I recall enjoying it each and every time.

So, on a recent trip "home" to visit my mother, I took my three kids to visit the "gaol" and hoped they would have  the same exciting experiences as I did as a child. 
Below  is an aerial view of the gaol. 

The courtroom is built on the top floor of the central rotunda.
Cells surround the inside of the rotunda and reach out in rows in the buildings attached to the rotunda. 

The house-like building to the left of the octagon is the home of the governor, in charge of the surrounding area. 
 The green spaces surrounding the gaol, inside the walls, were used for daily exercise for the inmates and as a place to grow fruits and vegetables used to feed the gaoler's family. 
The kids and I had some fun with the heavy cell doors throughout the facility.  I am sure the original prisoners didn't find the gates quite as amusing. 

These bars surround the spiral staircase that leads from the main floor up into the top-floor courtroom.  I'm guessing no one ever escaped on their way up or down!

These are not devices of "torture," as my 10-year old son hoped, but rather tools used to "subdue" unruly inmates. Ouch. 

The same 10-year old son found this instrument (located in the hospital room) quite interesting, too. My son has been through tumour surgery and couldn't fathom how this twisty screw could EVER have been helpful in his surgery.  I'm not sure how it could have helped anyone.....

The outside walls are 18 feet tall and if I remember correctly, they continue nearly 10 feet below ground, too. 

Most of the prison walls are at least 2 feet thick, but we found this one, linking the rotunda to a outer cell block, to be much thicker!!

In this room, the blankets and towels were cleaned and stored for the inmates.  I am guessing that comfort wasn't  a priority because these blankets were thin and scratchy and wouldn't have kept off the cold during a brisk Canadian winter!

The Huron Historic Gaol served as the County Jail from its opening in 1841 until 1972 when all inmates were transferred to regional facilities. Currently, the gaol is depicted as it would have been in the late 1800's.
So--  in the gaol, three "levels" of society dwelled.
One: The inmates - incarcerated for drunkenness, theft and murder.
Two: The Gaoler and his family - A middle-class man who was in charge of the inmates, the kitchens that fed them and the gaol workers who kept them in line. 
Three: The Governor (and his family) -  The higher-class gentleman who held the highest rank in the surrounding area, in charge of the government, safety and care of the people of Western Ontario 
This interesting piece of furniture was found in the section of the building where the gaoler lived with his family.  Pretty neat, eh?

The kids found this crokinole board in the home of the gaoler.  They had never played before. Luckily I had some past experience and I could show them how it was done!

Cosy bits of the gaoler's house that even make  a home within a jail feel pleasant.
After touring the gaol and goaler's house,  we ventured into the Governor's home and saw how the "other half" lived.

Quite a bit different than the inmates next door......
Quite an interesting place, wouldn't you say?  And I think the kids really enjoyed it too.
It was also very eye-opening for them.  They now have an understanding that, back then,  a person could end up in the jail simply because society didn't know what else to do with them. Sick, poor, "crazy," or drunk--- people from all walks of life ended up here. 
"Why weren't they taken to a hospital instead, Mommy?"
Good question.   That just wasn't how it was done. Luckily we know better now and we try to help people when they are down, not make things worse by throwing them in jail. 
I hope you enjoyed your visit to The Gaol!
Ta-ta for now,
PS.  I am linking up over at Packing My Suitcase for Allane's "Monday Escapes,"
 Bonnie's "Travel Tuesday" on  A Compass Rose. 



  1. A very interesting visit for us and for your children too! You might have heard of the poem by Oscar Wilde called The Ballad of Reading Gaol, that is the most famous use of the world Gaol that I know of! xx

  2. Yep a great place. I love it that so much social history about attitudes and other ways of life can come through visiting one type of place. My kids (& me!) would love to visit the gaol.

  3. No chance of scaling those walls! What an interesting visit. My son would be fascinated too, I think he would have found the cell doors lots of fun! The governor's house is palatial in comparison! Thanks for linking up with #MondayEscapes


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