Photo: Hi Ottawa Jail Facebook Page (

As Ottawa (then known as Bytown) grew, the County of Carleton determined that a new gaol was needed and the Nicholas Street Gaol opened in 1861. It held men, women and children whatever their offence for the next 110 years. Built of solid limestone and fashioned with arches and columns, the Gaol was considered to be a model of its kind: roomy, well ventilated, and heated.

Photo: Hi Ottawa Jail Facebook Page (

Despite it’s reputation – one author even describing it as “ornamental to the city” (Boldwen Davies, Ottawa, n.d., p. 85) prisoners were kept in small cells (3 feet by nine feet) and the glassless windows meant that there was nothing but bars separating them from the outside elements.

City of Ottawa Archives, Carleton County Gaol Inspection Register 1874-1907. 64 D 91. Box A2013-449.

We know much about the lives of inmates in the late 1870s and 1880s because of a surviving Gaol Inspection Register. The inspectors’ reports provide insights into the inner workings of the gaol and the lives of some of the prisoners.

On these pages we read (bottom right p. 27 to top left p. 28): “Reference has again to be made to the case of Margaret Dogherty who, owing to outrageous conduct / has constantly to be kept under punishment, being at this time tied to the cell door. Although properly speaking the woman may not be insane there can be no doubt she is a fit subject for an asylum.”

In this entry of 7 May 1881, an extract of which you read on our installation, the inspector reported that there were 33 prisoners in the jail (12 men and 21 women) sentenced for crimes such as larceny, misdemeanour, vagrancy, causing bodily harm (“cutting and wounding”), and prostitution. One woman was “waiting trial for concealment of Birth” and another was noted as a “harmless lunatic awaiting a vacancy in the Kingston Asylum”.

Photo: Hi Ottawa Jail Facebook Page (

The Gaol was closed in 1972 because the conditions were considered to be inhumane. It became the Hi-Ottawa Jail Hostel and prisoners deemed to be non-violent restored the building. It now features in the crime and punishment walk offered by Haunted Walks of Ottawa.


This story was researched and developed by Sarah Chelchowski as a contribution to the Workers’ History Museum’s Capital History Kiosk’s project for Ottawa 2017. It formed part of her course work for Professor David Dean’s graduate seminar on museums, national identity, and public memory (Department of History, Carleton University). She would like to thank Ross Rheaume whose painting adorns the installation, Jeff Delgado of the Hi-Ottawa Jail Hostel, Claire Sutton of the City of Ottawa Archives, and Monica Ferguson of Carleton University’s Ottawa Resource Room in the MacOdrum Library.

We are grateful to the City of Ottawa Archives for permission to use images from the Gaol Inspection Register and acknowledge our use of the images from the Hi-Ottawa Jail Hostel’s facebook page. Thanks to Megan Michie of the City of Ottawa and Marie-Soleil Bergeron of Ottawa 2017 for their assistance, and to councillor David Chernushenko and the Glebe BIA for their support.

Capital History kiosks’ stories were funded by the Ottawa 2017’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Program (stewarded by AOE Arts Council, Ottawa Arts Council and Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa).

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