Kyra Lewis, Huron Historic Gaol outreach and engagement assistant, explores how the Gaol dodged demolition.
Construction of the Huron Gaol began in 1839 in the Town of Goderich making it Huron County’s first municipal building. This once essential government building served as both a prison and a courthouse once its construction was completed, with the first documented prisoner committed on Dec. 3, 1841. The Gaol held significant value to the people of Huron County, as it represented their newfound independence from London District. The Gaol served as a focal point of justice and was where the Huron District Council held its first meeting on Feb. 8, 1842.
As time went on, the Gaol’s role began to shift; when the new courthouse was constructed in the centre of Market Square Goderich, in 1856, the Gaol’s sole purpose became holding prisoners. However, not all residents of the Gaol were criminals. Many who stayed at the Gaol were homeless, or mentally or physically ill. Drunkards, thieves, debtors and murderers lived alongside the homeless, and children as young as nine years old before Huron County Council constructed a House of Refuge in 1895. As time went on, numbers began to dwindle in the Gaol.
In 1968, The Children’s Aid Society moved into the Governor’s house after the last Governor moved out in 1967. The organization had outgrown their previously occupied space in the basement of the Courthouse located downtown Goderich. During the Children’s Aid Society’s time in the Governor’s house, they witnessed the closure of the Gaol in 1972 after the final prisoner was transferred out. However, prior to the Gaol even being closed as a facility, there was a proposal presented to the Huron County Council in September, 1971, to remove two of the Gaol’s walls adjacent to Napier Street to build a parking lot to accommodate the expanding services of the Children’s Aid Society and the Gaol’s neighbour, the Huron-Perth Regional Assessment Office. On Nov. 26, 1971, County Council received a formal approval from the Provincial Department for the demolition of certain walls at the County Gaol.
This decision provoked a massive response from the community and press, especially from Goderich and the surrounding areas. Many articles began appearing in the local newspapers concerning the possible preservation of the facility, as well as public rejection of the decision to tear the Gaol walls down.
The papers referred to the old facility as an “underdeveloped historical attraction”, and “a real drawing card for a growing tourist industry”. However, Council at the time had no intention of utilizing the space as a Museum of Penology. Some councillors did not condone the county spending the money to restore the building, as it was projected the restoration would cost around $25,000. Other councillors believed that if they had that much money to spend, it should be allocated around the county, and not just in Goderich. Another drawback that was suggested was the glorification of previous inmates whose actions were heavily frowned upon. The potential of immortalizing the darker aspects of Huron County’s past was a genuine concern amongst officials.
The Property Committee eventually presented the County Council with another report on Dec. 8, 1972, which detailed the idea of the old Gaol becoming a “Museum of Penology”. However, in the same report they also put forth a recommendation to construct a parking lot and an extension for the Assessment Office, costing a projected $150,000. In January, 1973, Huron County Council approved the removal of three walls at the Gaol, after considering both the Children’s Aid office and the Assessment Office’s needs. The Gaol was unfortunately placed back on the chopping block, now set to lose another wall.
When citizens caught wind of the verdict, they were none too pleased with the potential defacement of such an iconic local building. More articles and letters to the editor began showing up in the papers and a small group of concerned citizens came together to fight to save the historic building. If the Gaol walls were to be torn down, it would completely ruin the integrity of the building’s design. As the Gaol’s architect, Toronto-born Thomas Young had been inspired by famed English philosopher and prison reformist Jeremy Bentham. Thus, the loss of the Gaol walls would compromise both the value and history of the structure, as they added an irreplaceable element to the significance of its layout and design. The goal of this growing group of local politicians, historians and volunteers was to pressure the Council into reassessing their decision to tear down the walls. Their arguments were intended to bring to light the necessity of the architectural, historical and cultural conservancy of the building. And so, the Save the Jail Society was born!
With their objectives set, the group of dedicated members wrote letters to the newspaper, educating the public on their cause. A brilliant letter addressed to the editor of the Goderich Signal-Star was written by Save the Jail Society activist Mrs. Joan Van den Broeck. She advocated for the preservation of the Gaol, stating the uniqueness of the architecture as being one-of-a-kind, as well as miraculously structurally sound despite being around 130 years old, predating confederation. She also spoke of the building’s national and international notoriety, which would only enhance the tourist experience in Huron County. Van den Broeck, along with Goderich Reeve Paul Carroll and their fellow Save the Jail Society members, sought to change the fate of the iconic building.
The Save the Jail Society was extremely vocal and visible within the community, organizing campaigns at Goderich District Collegiate Institute and compiling a petition, as well as fundraising and rallies. There was a song written to commemorate the Gaol, which was written by Wingham entertainer Earl Heywood. The song was sung to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic, and was sung at events and rallies. They presented a petition to Huron County Council, as well as an architect’s revised plan for the parking lot to be built on the north side of the building. The group also threatened to pursue legal action if the demolition was to move forward.
One of the group’s most engaging events was an open house held at the Gaol on Feb. 19, 1973, which was initiated to motivate and engage the community in the cause to save the building. This event amassed a crowd of over 2,000 people who were all curious to explore the historic building and to find out what the big deal was about the Gaol. This event is what Save the Jail Society members would later reflect upon as a tide turner in terms of popular support. This event also made a massive impression from County Council’s perspective, as they were now aware of the appreciation the community held for the building.
Goderich Town Council met on April 12, 1973, in response to a letter issued from the County. This letter was a revision of the previous parking lot proposal designed by Nick Hill, which would allow for the Gaol walls to remain untouched. Finally, on April 26, 1973, Huron County Council agreed to the proposal by Goderich Town Council. This acceptance meant that the Save the Jail Society’s goal of saving the Gaol had been realized!
Once the safety of the Gaol had been ensured, the Save the Jail Society began to create an administration to govern the historic building. On May 1, 1974, the “Huron Historic Jail Board” was created. The Jail Board leased the building from the County for $1 per year for it to be incorporated as a Museum and Cultural Centre; it was opened to the public on June 29, 1974. The Jail board was finally legally incorporated on Oct. 13 of the same year. The Gaol was finally a Museum of Penology!
This great victory for the Save the Jail Society (now the Jail Board), was only the beginning for the Huron Gaol. On July 5, 1975, a massive celebration was held at the Gaol in Goderich to acknowledge the Gaol becoming designated a National Historic Site. The ribbon was cut to officially acknowledge the opening of the Huron Historic Gaol by Huron County Warden Mr. A. McKinley. The plaque detailing the Gaol’s historical significance was unveiled by none other than dedicated member Joan Van den Broeck.
The reason the Huron Historic Gaol stands to this day is not simply because of its historical value. This building is a symbol of the strength and dedication of the people of Huron County. Despite being sentenced to be destroyed, the Gaol was saved by the efforts of ordinary Huron County citizens who fought to preserve their history. The Gaol is not only a building which represents law and order within the County, but a reminder of how the County was incorporated and achieved its own independent settler municipal government and identity. Huron County was created by strength and unity, it seems only fitting its history was also saved by it.
Explore these sources through the online collection of Huron Historic Newspaper.
- “Jail an Attraction?”, The Exeter Times-Advocate, Nov. 25, 1971, pg 4.
- “Save Jail Wall”, The Brussels Post, Jan. 31, 1973.
- “And the Walls Came Down…Maybe”, The Exeter Times-Advocate, Feb. 8, 1972, pg 4.
- “Huron Council Clears Removal of Jail Wall”, The Huron Expositor, March 1, 1973, pg 1.
- “Letters to the Editor by Mrs. D. W. Collier Komoka”, Clinton News Record, March 15, 1973, pg 7.
- The Huron Expositor, April 12, 1973, pg 19.
- “Huron Reeves Vote to Save”, The Brussels Post, May 2, 1973, pg 9.
- “At County Council: Reeves Vote to Preserve Huron’s Historic Jail”, The Huron Expositor, May 3, 1973. Pg 1.
- “Jail House Blues Still Bother County”, Clinton News Record, June 7, 1973, pg 3.
- “Reeves Reject Bid for Use of Huron County Jail”, The Brussels Post, July 4, 1973, pg 13.
- “Tenders Let for Office”, The Blyth Standard, July 18, 1973, pg 1.
- “The Huron Gaol”, The Huron Expositor, June 1, 1978, pg 13.
- “Commemoration of Huron County Gaol”, July 5, 1975, pg 1-2.