Mt Cook Gaol a loathed landmark on Wellington's finest site - 150 years of news

Widened windows did not make Mt Cook's Alexandra military barracks look any less like a former prison in 1929.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: EP-3276-1/2-G

Widened windows did not make Mt Cook's Alexandra military barracks look any less like a former prison in 1929.

A menacing monolith on Mt Cook was destined to become one of the world's largest prisons, before horrified Wellingtonians put a stop to the project.

For 50 years Mt Cook Gaol stood like a fortress above Wellington, made of bricks fired on site - four million of them forming walls up to three metres thick.

"Built wondrous strong and ugly by prison labour, the Mt Cook gaol stood until last evening as Wellington's most unwanted building," The Evening Post said on its demolition in 1931.

Mt Cook Gaol loomed menacingly above its namesake suburb, and was loathed by Wellingtonians.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: 1/2-066816-G

Mt Cook Gaol loomed menacingly above its namesake suburb, and was loathed by Wellingtonians.

Mt Cook once lived up to its "mount" name, standing 20 metres higher than it does today but levelled over the years for building work and to extract brickmaking clay.

Such a commanding site was quickly occupied by the military in Wellington's early settler days, and a wooden fortress built to fend off Maori attacks. The onslaught never came, however, and by 1870 a plan was hatched to build the biggest prison in the English-speaking world.

"The government of past days looked ahead and determined that Wellington should have ample room for expansion, in gaol circles at least - not a compliment to its opinion of the rising and coming generations," the Post recalled in 1921.

Inside the former Mt Cook Gaol in 1930, the year before it was demolished.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: EP-3857-1/2-G

Inside the former Mt Cook Gaol in 1930, the year before it was demolished.

An imposing three-storey block rose over the following decade, built by Terrace Gaol prisoners marched through town every day. It was supposed to be just one wing of an eventual eight, joined at their centre by a dome-capped circular tower, 46 metres high.

Residents recoiled, however, calling the prison a "mammoth blunder" and the "curse of the colony". Foundations for two more blocks had been built by the time Prime Minister Richard Seddon put a stop to the scheme in the early 1880s.

"His government was in no way responsible for that excrescence - that absolute disgrace - which stood upon the best site in Wellington," the Post reported from a speech Seddon gave in Parliament.

The jail was in use from 1882 until 1900, but no prisoners were ever permanently housed there.

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By 1897 Wellingtonians were agitating for the prison to be demolished and replaced with a Victoria University campus or some other civilising project. But Seddon said the building had cost too much to simply knock down - £40,000, or $7.5 million in 2015 money.

From the Boer War onwards, the former jail was used as accommodation and office space for the armed forces. Renamed Alexandra Barracks, its triple-barred slit windows were widened, but there was no disguising its penal origins.

"It is Wellington's white elephant, too honestly built to shift, so grimly-planned that gaol is writ large upon its every feature," the Post said.

Until 1920 a brickworks remained on site, producing some of the finest bricks in New Zealand. They can still be seen in a wall along Tasman St, imprinted with prison arrows.

The bricks proved immune to demolition on March 26, 1931 when the jail was dynamited to make way for a new Dominion Museum. As 3000 Wellingtonians watched, 50 charges of explosives were fired simultaneously. When the dust cleared, however, only 4500 tonnes of rubble had fallen - just a quarter of the "brick castle".

"It says much for such bricklaying as was done by men with plenty of time before them," the Post said.

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 - Stuff

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