The Gaol Matron

The Gaol Matron

The Gaol Matron was a paid position held by the Gaoler’s wife, eldest daughter or other close female family member. The Matron’s role was to assist the Gaoler in the daily operations of the Gaol in regards to the needs of the female prisoners, children and babies.

From 1840s-1958 the Gaoler, Matron and their family resided at the Gaol alongside the inmates, initially in a small apartment located on the second floor of the Gaol and eventually in the Governor’s House that was constructed in 1901 as an addition to the Gaol.

Stated in the Official Rules and Regulations for the Officers and Employees of the Common and District Gaol 1922, the Matron had a list of practices and procedures that she would need to follow to be successful in her role. Both the Gaoler and the Matron were be appointed by the county sheriff under the advice of the Warden. However, no Matron was to be appointed if she were over 45 years of age and no Matron was to continue the role past the age of 70.

Excerpt from Rules and Regulations for the Officers and Employees of the Common and District Gaol 1922,

“Rule 46 – The Matron shall, under the direction of the Gaoler, have the care and superintendence of the women’s department of the Gaol, and the female prisoners. She shall be provided with two plain black serge or alpaca dresses each year, to be worn on duty and to be provided on the same in the same manner as uniforms for other male person enters the wards for women, or other place where female prisoners are at work, without being accompanied by her or another Matron; and she shall have the sole custody and care of the keys used in the women’s departments, and be responsible for their safe keeping.

Rule 47 – She shall not be absent from the Gaol at any time when female prisoners are in custody without the consent of the Gaoler, unless another Matron is approved by him to take her place”

All female inmates at the Huron Gaol were cared for by the Gaol Matron. If the inmate was brought to the Gaol with young children or infants, the Matron would tend to their needs as well. Between 1841-1911 9% of the Gaol’s population were women and 7% were children. It is unknown exactly how many additional children were committed with their parents, because infants born in jail were not recorded on the jail registry.

As part of her official role the Matron would complete a search upon the inmates admission, accompany inmates to appointments with the Gaol’s Surgeon, attend to them in the exercise yard and be present during all meals served. The regulations stated that the Matron would devote her whole livelihood to the performance of her duties and therefore could hold no other responsibilities or occupations.

Some of the Gaol’s Notable Matrons Included:

Margaret Dickson

Matron Margaret Dickson was the wife of Gaoler William Dickson who served as Gaoler from 1876-1895. Margaret and William had 5 children and lived in the small one room apartment located on the second floor of the Gaol. Gaoler Dickson and his wife Margaret were known to advocate on behalf of the Gaol’s inmates wellbeing. An excerpt from the 1894 Gaoler’s Report to Council reads:

“At present there are 22 prisoners in custody… Of the male vagrants 8 of them may be said to be totally unable to earn a living, their ages range from 62 to 90 years; one is blind and one paralytic; one bent almost double and the others as feeble, and may be said to be tottering on the edge of the grave. Three of these aged ones are in for short terms, namely; one for 2 months and two for 30 days each. What are they to do then? Go out on the public street and wait there till some good samaritan comes and takes them home? No; the season of the year will not permit their being turned out. I will lay the matter before the sheriff and be guided by him.

From this report, gentlemen, you will learn that at present your county jail is doing triple the work as an asylum, house of refuge and a hospital, and in working your jail as such the expense for the year will be largely increased.”

Mrs. Dickson successfully advocated for an increase in the Gaol Matron’s salary, increasing her wage from $12.50 per month to $16.66 per month. Her husband William earned $50 per month

Mary and Eleanor Griffin

Matron Mary Griffin (age 16) was the eldest daughter of Joseph C. Griffin who served as Gaoler from 1897-1923. Mary maintained the role of Gaol Matron until her father married his second wife, Eleanor in 1902. Gaoler Griffin advocated for the construction the Goveror’s House that was built in 1901 and the Griffin family became the homes first occupants.

Mary Jane Reynolds

Acting Matron Mary Jane Reynolds was the mother of James B. Reynolds who served as Gaoler from 1923-1950. Jane temporarily took over the position of Gaol Matron after the sudden death of Gaoler Reynold’s first wife Harriett in 1926 until he married his second wife Edna in 1927.