Rock College: An unofficial history of Mount Eden Prison

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INSIDE THE FORBIDDING STONE WALLS OF NEW ZEALAND’S MOST INFAMOUS GAOL

Mount Eden Prison is New Zealand’s most notorious gaol. Prisoners called it The Rock or Rock College, and it was they who hewed its forbidding basalt walls from the nearby quarry.

The gloomy Victorian structure has housed some of our nation’s most renowned criminals, including George Wilder. It has also accommodated conscientious objectors and political prisoners, including Rua Kenana, Tim Shadbolt and briefly, Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, the French agents responsible for blowing up the Rainbow Warrior.

Now a vivid new book by historian Mark Derby, published in August by Massey University Press, goes inside the prison walls to tell the Mount Eden story.

Throughout its colourful, more than 150-year history, Mount Eden Prison has  been the site of tension and conflict as it morphed from a squalid military stockade into a modern prison. It’s often been a political and social hot potato. Controversially, ‘disorderly’ women, debtors, drunkards, the mentally ill, petty thieves (some children) and hardened criminals were once thrown in together in what was both an all-purpose lockup and the country’s toughest gaol. Ironically, the problems of Mount Eden also drove prison reform.

There have been daring escapes, riots, hunger strikes, floggings and suicides. Hangings, some of them botched, took place in the prison yard right up until 1957. Many prisoners are buried there. The bodies of five Māori men, hung in May 1866 and buried in the exercise yard, were exhumed and reclaimed by their elders in 1989.

The Rock’s last prisoners moved out to a new building in 2011, leaving the former buildings abandoned and eerily quiet. But their power to shock and disturb lingers on. Now the debate is about their future. Historic site? Museum? A decision needs to be made.

Mark Derby is a well-known writer and historian. He wrote for the New Zealand online encyclopaedia Te Ara for six years and is the author of several books, including on New Zealanders who fought in the Spanish Civil War, the Waihi miners’ strike and, recently, a graphic history of the Treaty of Waitangi. He lives on Wellington’s south coast with three generations of his family.

PUBLISHED BY MASSEY UNIVERSITY PRESS 13 AUGUST 2020 HARDBACK, RRP $45

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