Nfld. & Labrador·Exclusive

See what gems are hidden outside the walls of Her Majesty's Penitentiary

There's a museum of crime, containing documents from the 1800's and pieces of history from sordid jailhouse antics, just outside of Newfoundland and Labrador's largest — and Canada's oldest — jail.

Retired HMP captain creates museum for Victorian-era jail

There's a museum of crime and punishment, containing documents from the 1800s and pieces of history from sordid jailhouse antics, just outside of Newfoundland and Labrador's largest — and Canada's oldest — jail.

In fact, very few know it exists, and it's not open to the public.

It sits in the basement of the Her Majesty's Penitentiary's administration building; a two-storey white house, just outside the walls of the Victorian-era jail. 

Contraband weapons, old ropes used for failed jail breaks and homemade tattoo machines are kept in glass cases, next to significant documentation of Newfoundland's justice system. 

And it's there because of one former prison guard and his curiosity for history. 

Big discovery

It began when now-retired Capt. David Harvey noticed stacks of ledgers and old cardboard boxes about two decades ago while he was working at HMP, which houses medium and maximum security male inmates. 

The items were stashed away in the corner of the basement of the jail's gymnasium. 

"I knew it was always down there, everyone knew it was down there but no one kinda did anything about it," Harvey recalled. 

So many people are concerned about losing our history, our identity and what we have here, in my opinion, is the beginning of our justice system here- Retired HMP Capt. David Harvey

As Harvey began combing through pages upon pages of names and ages, he started to realize just how precious these carelessly placed items were. 

"I knew [the documents] were old and it really didn't mean a whole lot to me until I started doing some investigations to find out when the prison was down on Duckworth Street, when they moved up to Signal Hill and when they finally moved here," Harvey said.

"Once I had that done, everything would come into place, a lot of the documents would fall in place, I could put dates and times together as to when and where the prison was."

'I guess it turned out OK'

The oldest document dates back to 1883, when the province's prison was just east of the Supreme Court on Duckworth Street in St. John's. 

HMP was constructed in 1859.

Harvey spent his lunch hours reading through the material, which outlined hangings, prison guards' daily diaries and death notices, all containing names and dates, never seen by anyone other than the person who wrote them.

"It was down in a dark, damp basement. I finally said to myself, 'We need to get this stuff out of here because the paper will rot.'"

Retired HMP Capt. David Harvey shows off one of five vintage tear gas billy's from 1925 that he has on display in the basement of HMP's administration building. (CBC)

With the help of then-superintendent of prisons Graham Rogerson, Harvey began moving all the items to the nearby administration building boardroom. 

Correctional officers constructed wooden showcases to display the new-found items, such as leg shackles from the early 1800s, a cannon ball and a musket ball. 

"I didn't know what to do, so I would jump between here and the provincial archives and see how they'd display some of their artifacts and some of their items, and I would come back here and I would try it on my own."

"I guess it turned out OK ...  it seems to be OK," Harvey chuckled. 

Historical value fading

The artifacts could last forever.

But the ledgers and papers from the 1800s and early 1900s have fading ink, broken bindings and crumbling pages. 

"So many people are concerned about losing our history, our identity — and what we have here, in my opinion, is the beginning of our justice system here," Harvey said, standing next to the museum and archives he created.

"I'm so concerned that in a few years, the paper is just going to disintegrate into nothing, the ink fades and you can't pick out the names. I would like to see that done and documented in the near future before it's all gone."

If saving more than two centuries worth of Newfoundland history isn't enough, Harvey said the documents could be a great help for those researching their family history. 

"If this could be added to the database that already exists in the provincial archives it could fill in some holes for people who are involved in doing their family tree or kinda looking back in their ancestry."

Ideally, Harvey, who published Inside the Walls: A History of Her Majesty's Penitentiary last November, would like a room in a proposed new penitentiary dedicated to its history that's open to the public.

But planning for a new prison is in the very early stages.

Harvey said he has reached out to the provincial archives in hopes they will take the documents and digitize them. 

Harvey retired in July 2014, after exactly 30 years on the job.

He still returns to that property on Forest Road in St. John's, but now just once-a-month to keep the past present at HMP. 


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit.


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