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Gaol Administration

Although the number of staff varied depending on the number of prisoners, there were several permanent resident officers. These included the Gaoler or Governor, a Turnkey, a Matron and a Gaol Surgeon. From time to time additional turnkeys, night watchmen and female assistants could be sanctioned by the Inspector of Prisons and Public Charities, if necessary.

The Gaoler was in charge of the Gaol and was responsible to the Sheriff of the County. In doing so he was to have, at all times, full charge of the prisoners to ensure for their safe custody and general care. In order to ensure that no prisoner escaped the Gaoler was required to inspect, at least once a week, all doors, windows, iron gratings, locks, chimneys, etc. He was also required to search every male prisoner before he was admitted to the Gaol, as well as all bedding and furnishings to ensure that no tool or weapon was within reach of a prisoner. In addition, the Gaoler was responsible for seeing that all food was fresh, properly cook, decently served, and in accordance with the Dietary Rules and Regulations. He was to notify the Gaol Surgeon of any illness amongst the male inmates and was to inform the Sheriff of any death that occurred within the jail.

One of the most well known Gaol Governors, was John Cameron, who was made famous by Reginald Birchall. Previous to his work at the Gaol, John Cameron served as a magistrate and reeve of East Nissouri Township. He was well liked by staff and prisoners alike. Not only for his powers of discipline, but for his kind heart and considerate nature. Birchall admiringly stated in his memoir that he was “the right man in the right place”. During his time at the Gaol (ca. 1867 – 1908), the building was affectionately known as “Castle Cameron”.

The Turnkey or “keeper of the keys” was responsible for guarding the prisoners. Under the direction of the Gaoler, he was to oversee the prisoners when at work and was to ensure that any punishment awarded was strictly carried out. His main duty was to watch the prisoners and this meant that he had to stand in front of the cells of the most dangerous criminals.

The Matron, often the wife of the Gaoler or Turnkey, was responsible for the care and superintendence of the female department of the Gaol. The Matron was to search all female prisoners on admission and made sure that no male prisoner entered the female department or went anywhere that a female might be working. It was her responsibility to monitor the mental and physical condition of the female prisoners and to notify the Gaol Surgeon of any illness. At the same time, it was her job to ensure that any punishment be awarded to the female inmates in cases of disobedience, insubordination or any other infraction laid out in the Rules and Regulations.

The role of the Gaol Surgeon was to ensure the general health of all prisoners. In doing so, he was required to inspect the means of drainage, ventilation, warming and water-supply every three months, as well as remark upon the cleanliness, the quality of food, the sufficiency of clothing and bedding or any other situation that may affect the health of the prisoners. As conditions were not always ideal in the Gaol, the surgeon often treated the inmates for such contagious or infectious diseases as bilious fever, typhoid and even syphilis. He would also closely observe the mental condition of so called “lunatics”, people with mental health concerns, committed and would examine any prisoner prior to any corporal punishment being inflicted. At the same time, the Gaol surgeon attended to all the resident officers and staff of the jail, including members of their families.

As the Gaoler, Turnkey and Matron were expected to live at the Gaol, residence was provided. The Governor’s House (which today houses the Oxford County Archives) was attached to the back of the Gaol wall facing the Court House, with a door leading from his house into the jail yard. Originally, the Turnkey had a two-room apartment on the second floor of the Gaol. However in 1897, at the persistence of his wife, permission was given to build a house for the Turnkey and his family on the property beside the jail. Later, when John B. Calder was appointed Gaol Governor (1955-1960), his wife preferred the house on Buller Street so they moved there. The former Turnkey’s house was eventually demolished in the 1960s, when the Oxford County Library was built as a centennial project.

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