Parramatta Gaol has a history dating back to 1798, when the first building was described as, ‘a strong, logged gaol of 100 feet in length, with separate cells for the prisoners…and paled around with very high fences.’

By the early twentieth century it looked very different.

Parramatta Gaol.
PARRAMATTA GAOL (Nic Holme Photography)

James Quaine had served within New South Wales Corrective Services for many years, working his way up from ‘the ranks’. He had worked at Maitland, Bathurst and Darlinghurst prisons. He became Deputy Governor at Parramatta, then Governor at Goulburn. In 1914 he was moved back to Parramatta as Governor. He surely had some bad memories when he arrived, because he had almost died there in November 1906.

Prisoner George Harris had struck him in the face during an unprovoked attack at midday muster. Quaine calmly continued with the roll call. At first no-one realized that he had also been stabbed. A bootmaker’s knife pierced his chest and punctured a lung. Soon he was fighting for his life;

Dr Kearney states that Mr Quaine, the Deputy Governor of the Parramatta Gaol. who was stabbed on Friday by one of the prisoners, passed a very fair night. The hemorrhage has stopped, but the sufferer is still very weak….The knife curved a little as the result of contact with one of the ribs. A piece about a sixteenth of an inch long is missing from the top of the blade, and is supposed to be embedded in the rib bone. The prisoner was noticed sharpening a knife shortly before the dinner hour on Friday. (Evening News November 17 1906)

Fortunately Quaine completely recovered. George Harris was still at the gaol when his victim returned. The now reformed prisoner said his attack had not been due to a personal grievance, and that he acted while virtually insane. He had endured a terrible childhood and claimed he had been unfairly convicted. All this turned out to be true, but that’s another story.

Professionally all was going well for the new Governor, but at the end of 1916 there was great personal loss when his 24 year old daughter died after a lengthy illness;

On Saturday evening, December 23rd, there passed to her eternal reward Miss Agnes Quaine, eldest daughter of Mr. J. Quaine, Governor of the Parramatta Gaol, one much loved and respected, for she was possessed of a kind, genial, and retiring disposition…The deceased young lady was a daughter of a highly respected family, as the Quaines are known in many country towns of this State, and some two years ago removed to Parramatta from Goulburn, where Mr Quaine was governor of the local gaol.

It was particularly sad that the funeral, at Rookwood Cemetery, was held on Christmas Day. Four years earlier the Quaines had lost their daughter Annie, aged 21.


Governor's House at Parramatta Gaol.

Four months later the Governor’s name appeared under newspaper headlines when he suddenly disappeared. He had finished his evening meal on April 29 and gone for a walk, from which he failed to return. It was discovered that he had taken only two suits of clothing and his razor. The governor’s house was across the road from the main prison gates in Clifford Street (now O’Connell Street). Had he left home in a fog of grief and depression? Given the mention of a razor, would he be found alive?

Governor's House at Parramatta Gaol.

The report of the Governor’s disappearance in the local Argus newspaper hinted strongly that there was more to story than met the eye. I did smile at the quip about safe-breaking inmates;

It is unfortunate that Mr. Quaine is away at the present time (wherever he may have got to) because there are a number of matters connected with the accounts on which perhaps he alone can give certain information the department wishes to obtain….At first it was said outside gaol circles that the safe was found locked by the Deputy-Governor, and that it had been impossible since then to get it open. That story can hardly have much to it, for there are experts up in that part of Parramatta North who would soon get over trifling difficulties of that sort…for a consideration! (Argus, May 5 1917)

The same article also mentioned that Mr Quaine had been to the races the previous Saturday, and had lost a lot of money.

The odd thing is that his disappearance then vanished from the papers as mysteriously as he had done himself. There was absolutely nothing about the absent Governor being located, or in what circumstances. It led to some wild conjecture;

Newspaper extract of James Quaine, missing governor of Parramatta Gaol.
The Newsletter May 12 1917

However, on May 16 a notice appeared in the NSW Police Gazette.

SYDNEY – A warrant has been issued by the Water Police Bench for the arrest of James Quaine, charged with stealing, as a public servant, the sum of £138 19s. 4d., the property of His Majesty at Parramatta, between the 1st and the 20th April, 1917. Offender is 58 years of age, 5 feet 9 inches high, thin to medium build, fair ruddy complexion, face slightly blotched, iron-grey hair, thin on top of head, grey moustache, slight impediment in speech, twists mouth as if nervous when talking; dressed in a heavy grey sac suit and black hard hat; an Irishman, lately employed as Governor of Parramatta Gaol. Last seen at Parramatta Railway Station about 7 p.m. the 29th ultimo. (NSW Police Gazette Wednesday, 16 May 1917)

There was never any mention of an arrest, or a subsequent court appearance. However, on June 17 The Argus published the following;

His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor. with the advice of the Executive Council, has approved of the services of Mr. James Quaine, Governor Parramatta Gaol, being dispensed with, in terms of section 65 of the Public Service Act, 1902, his last day of service to be 30th April, 1917. (The Argus, June 16 1917)

The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Two years later (March 14 1919) there was another small notice in the NSW Government Gazette. Quaine had been stripped of his position of Justice of the Peace.

His Excellency the Governor, with the advice of the Executive Council, has approved of the name of James Quaine, late of the Prisons Department, being removed from the Commission of the Peace for the State of New South Wales. – GEORGE W. FULLER.

Had it all been hushed up? And if Quaine served time, which gaol would he have been sent to? Serving time with other, often hardened criminals, would not have been easy for a former Governor, even one as fair and popular as Mr Quaine had been. It’s worth looking at a report in the Australian Town and Country Journal when the Governor went missing;

‘….He took over the governorship at Parramatta about three years ago. Mr Quaine was attacked by a prisoner in Parramatta Gaol, and stabbed about two years ago. Mr Quaine’s assailant, however, subsequently came to regard the governor as his best friend. Mr Quaine is one of the most popular men in Parramatta.

His downfall was a loss to so many.

I can find nothing more about James and Annie Quaine except that their remaining two daughters both died in 1923; Lucy, aged 29 and Dorothy, aged 26. It sounds as though a disease such as tuberculosis ravaged the family.

1 Comment
  1. What a sad story, but so many questions unanswered, especially concerning the strange behaviour of the former prison Governor.

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