Skip to main content

William Baker Ashton

1800 – 1854

William Baker Ashton (1800-1854) was the first governor of Adelaide Gaol. Ashton was born in Somerset and is thought to have attended a military school before serving a period of time in the army. Aged nineteen, Ashton moved to London and is believed to have worked for four years as a member of the famous Bow Street patrol: London's first police service. He was among the first to commence duty with Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Service, established in 1829, and eventually attained the rank of sergeant. In 1838, the Colonisation Commissioners for South Australia appointed Ashton to the role of Sub-Inspector of Police - one of two such officers tasked with establishing the new colony's police service. Ashton arrived in Adelaide in November 1838 and the following January was appointed governor of Adelaide Gaol, despite the prison population at this time being accommodated in a temporary stockade from which escapes were commonplace. In 1840, governor George Gawler instigated the construction of a secure, sandstone building; Ashton and his family moved into the new gaol along with its 48 inaugural inmates when the first half of construction was completed in April 1841. Ashton remained in the position of prison governor for the next fourteen years and was assisted in his work by his wife, the prison matron. The gaol was known during the period of his tenure as 'Ashton's Hotel', perhaps as a result of his well-documented generosity to inmates. It was his practice, for example, to provide Christmas dinner for the prisoners each year at his own expense. Ashton was also known as a judicious manager and was commended in the press for the 'efficient manner' in which he performed his duties. He was nevertheless the target of allegations of misconduct and in early 1854 was accused of various transgressions including drunkenness, misuse of government property, trafficking with prisoners, stealing rations and withholding prison earnings. It was in the midst of these misconduct proceedings that Ashton died, as a result of cardiac failure, in April 1854. He was remembered in one report of his passing as 'a man who had faithfully and humanely occupied an office of public trust for a considerable number of years.' Adelaide Gaol is still held by some to be haunted by his ghost.

Updated 2018