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West Bank Prison

East London's first gaol

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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East London was created as a port in March 1847 yet it would take until February 1850 before its first gaol was built.

The procrastination had nothing to do with there being a lack of need. Indeed, the first magistrate at the port -- Lieutenant-Colonel George Mackinnon -- frequently reported difficulties in punishing even such minor offences as drunkenness because East London had no "lock-up".

Cells in the military barracks at Fort Glamorgan were sometimes used but the magistrate knew perfectly well that it was illegal to use a military establishment to incarcerate civilians.

At first Mackinnon was instructed to hire a building at East London to use as a gaol. When this proved impossible, permission was at last given in January 1849 to construct a gaol at a cost of £135  4s  9d. The building went into use in February 1850.

The gaol, however, was purely functional. It had only two very small cells. No distinction could therefore be made to separate prisoners other than a division according to sex -- and even this was sometimes impossible.

There were also no toilets which meant that the prisoners had to be taken into the bush to relieve themselves. A wash happened only on Saturdays when the prisoners were marched down to the Buffalo River to bathe.

Since very little maintenance was undertaken on the gaol, the condition of the building itself deteriorated rapidly. By 1854, the canvas roof had begun to fall to pieces and rain leaked in badly.

In December that year, permission was at last given to construct a cook-house and toilets but the work wasn't considered important enough to commence immediately -- and by now the gaol was far too small.

Extensions were eventually made in 1858 but even these proved inadequate for the needs of the prison.

Indeed, the District Surgeon reported that overcrowding was proving "most fatal" to the health of the prisoners. They were reduced, he said, from strong and robust men to a state of emaciation if confined for any length of time.

The problem was not caused by a lack of food as the working ration allowed was considered ample. It was rather the result of inhaling contaminated air because so many prisoners were confined in a single cell.

In December 1858, a prisoner had died in his cell and the post-mortem revealed the cause of death as "asphyxia from foul air". Furthermore, the shortage of rooms made it impossible to separate the sick from the rest of the prisoners.

Although in 1860 a sum of £1,500 had been placed on the estimates for building a new gaol at East London, nothing happened until the early 1880s when the Locke Street Gaol was built on the East Bank.

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