Children in the Huron Jail

May 18th is International Museum Day! Museums and historic sites across the world are opening their doors for free today. For those whom cannot visit the Huron Historic Gaol in person, Student Museum Assistant Jacob Smith delves into the building’s past to reveal how some of Huron’s youngest prisoners ended up behind bars. 

During its operation [1841-1972], hundreds of children were arrested and sent to the Huron Jail. Their crimes ranged from arson and theft to drunkenness and vagrancy. The most common crime that children committed was theft. In total, thefts made up over half of all youth charges between 1841 and 1911. In total, children under the age of 18 made up 7% of the gaol population during that time.*

Occasionally, young people were sent to gaol for serious crimes. In 1870, William Mercer, age 17, was brought to the Huron Gaol and charged with murder. He was sentenced to die and was to be hanged on December 29, 1870. Thankfully for Mercer, his sentence was reduced to life in prison and was sent to a penitentiary. This is an example of an extreme crime for a young offender.

On many occasions, children were sent to gaol because they were petty thieves. Many young people who were committed for these types of crimes would only spend a few days in gaol. If the crime was more severe, children would be transferred from the gaol to a reformatory, usually for three to five years.

The youngest inmates that were charged with a crime were both seven years old. The first, Thomas McGinn, was charged in 1888 for larceny. He was discharged five days later and was sentenced to five years in a reformatory. The second, John Scott, was charged in 1900 for truancy; he was discharged the next day.

First floor cell block at the Huron Historic Gaol.

Unfortunately, some children were brought into gaol with their families because they were homeless or destitute. An example of this was in 1858, when Margaret Bird, age 8, Marion Bird, 6, and Jane Bird, 2, spent 25 days in gaol with a woman committed for ‘destitution’ (presumably their mother). Some children were also brought to the Huron Jail because their parents committed a crime and they had nowhere else to go while their parents were incarcerated. Samuel Worms, age 7, was sent to gaol with his parents because they were charged with fraud in 1865. He spent one day in the Gaol.

When reading through the Gaol’s registry, it is clear that times have certainly changed for young offenders. Most of the crimes committed by the young prisoners of the past would not receive as serious punishments today.

Here are some examples of their crimes in newspapers from around Huron County:

Richard Cain, 16, spent two days in jail.
The Huron Signal, 1896-09-17, pg 5.







Philip Butler, 15, spent eleven days in the Huron Jail.
The Exeter Advocate, 1901-08-29, pg 4.

Sources came from the Gaol’s 1841-1911 registry and Huron County’s digitized newspapers.

*Dates for which the gaol registry is available & transcribed. There were young people in the Huron jail throughout its history, into the twentieth century. 

Unlocking Memories of the Huron Jail

The Huron Historic Gaol was an operational jail from 1841 until 1972. Many Huron County residents still remember the building when it housed inmates, as well as the governor or superintendent (jailer) and his family in the adjoining house; museum staff wanted to hear their stories to gather a more complete picture of day-to-day life living or working in jail. This summer, student museum assistant Mackenzie Bonnett met interview-partners with memories of the building prior to its 1972 closure at the gaol; he shares his first experiences with oral history.


001 - CopyFollowing the recent death of a former notable gaol employee, the Huron Historic Gaol and the archives at the Huron County Museum received a series of inquires into their life and time spent at the Gaol. Through these inquiries staff realised there is relatively little we know about the personal experiences of those that spent time at the Gaol while it was still in operation. We decided that the best way to learn more about these stories would be to get them directly from the source; this started my summer Gaol oral history project.

I sought out people with any connection to the Gaol whether they were inmates, guards, maintenance staff, volunteers or family of the governor (jailer). A press release was sent out in early June to various local newspapers asking anyone with these types of connections to contact the gaol. Before starting any interviews I had to prepare myself with questions to organize and keep focus during the interview. I also had to prepare for the logistics of an oral history project which requires consent and release forms which allow people to assign a future date for when the information from their interview can be used.

Over the summer I conducted three interviews that each had their own interesting stories that told a variety of things about the Gaol and its staff and inmates that were not known to our staff today. I heard stories from friends and family of past Gaol Governors that heard firsthand accounts of day to day operations of the Gaol including escape attempts and notable prisoners. I also heard from Gaol volunteers that gave important insight into how the Gaol and its inmates were viewed by the community it served.  I hope that the stories I heard and transcribed can be use in the future to aid with research and the creation of further exhibits.

Night Shift @ the Huron Historic Gaol

How do interpreters bring real stories from the past to life for visitors? Behind the Bars features costumed volunteers portraying real prisoners and staff members from the Huron Historic Gaol’s (181 Victoria St./Highway 21, Goderich, ON) past.  Summer Museum Assistant and Behind the Bars coordinator Madelaine Dunbar-HIggins offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the historical research and collaborative efforts between staff and volunteers that make the Huron Historic Gaol’s popular night tours an unforgettable experience for visitors. 

You can visit! Tuesday and Thursday nights in July and August 7pm-9pm. Entrance until 8pm. 

Constance Griffin

Sarah Cox, portraying gaoler’s daughter Constance Griffin, has been a volunteer actor with Behind the Bars for three summers.

“Behind the Bars” is an interactive evening tour that has been held at the Huron Historic Gaol for over a decade. The event started as a personalized tour by a summer student portraying a former gaoler, and has flourished into a self-guided tour with over 20 volunteers. The tours take place Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout the summer, and are the only chance to visit the gaol outside of regular daytime hours.

Planning for the event takes a lot of thought and organization. A call for volunteers to is put out in early May. Museum Staff conduct brief interviews with new volunteers to get a sense of their personality and interest in acting before they are assigned to a character. All of the prisoners and staff members portrayed in Behind the Bars are based on true stories, gathered from the gaol registry, archival materials, newspapers, and other gaol documents. Volunteers are given a character “story” rather than a script, which is basically a general biography of their character, including information about their crime and the gaol during their time period.

Henry (2)

Zach Chamas as Henry, a real teenaged prisoner from the jail’s past.

The way the volunteers portray their character and interact with visitors is entirely up to them, whether this is begging for sympathy from visitors and playing the innocent card, or revealing truths about their crimes. Character stories are sent out to actors in mid to late June, and short training sessions are held early in July; these short meetings involve discussion about the event itself, the “how-to” for playing a historic character, and some fun facts about the gaol (by the way: g-a-o-l and j-a-i-l are pronounced the same way!).

The dress rehearsal night is the volunteers’ first chance to practice their stories in front of real visitors. The free-invite to various community groups on dress rehearsal night in early July is a great kick-start to the event! Not surprisingly, the event’s most effective advertising method is word of mouth, but we also make use of social media, radio, newspapers, posters, and our road sign on highway 21 to promote the event.

The main goal of Behind the Bars is to portray the inmates and the history of the building as accurately as possible, in keeping with the period of its operation from 1841 to 1911 (closed in 1972). The gaol was built in 1841 and designed by Thomas Young. The layout is panopticon in style, meaning “all seeing”. In 2014, Behind the Bars brought over 1,100 visitors to the Huron Historic Gaol. So far in 2015, we have had over 800 visitors. Be sure to add our event to your summer schedule!


**Visit us on Tuesday and Thursday evenings all summer long, between 7 and 9 PM!