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County gaols


Full-time, uniformed professional police began to appear in New Brunswick’s cities and towns in the 1840s and 1850s. In the rural parishes where most of the New Brunswick population lived, policing was the responsibility of part-time constables who, like magistrates, were paid by fees.

Constables tended to be innkeepers, artisans and farmers with some standing in their communities. They were obliged to take direction from magistrates, escort prisoners to court and jail, respond to citizen complaints and to preserve the "Queen’s peace."


The jury was an ancient institution of "British justice" that the Loyalists brought with them from the Thirteen colonies. In each county, men of property and "connections" were appointed Grand Jurors and met three or four times each year to vet all serious criminal prosecutions. Grand juries either dismissed cases for insufficient evidence or registered a "true bill", that would send the case on to trial.

The trial jury, in theory, was a jury of the defendant’s "peers", selected by the county sheriff. Until the 1950s, juries in New Brunswick consisted entirely of men, even when women were on trial. It is not clear when the first African Canadian sat on a jury.

If the accused pleaded guilty, the court would move to the sentencing stage. In the case of a not guilty plea, a trial ensued. In early murder trials, defence lawyers were not permitted to address the jury. Juries determined the final verdict; the judge’s role was to enforce the rules of legal process and to pronounce sentence.

One important role of trial juries was registering verdicts of manslaughter instead of murder in homicide cases. A murder conviction automatically meant a sentence of capital punishment. Such was the case of disbanded soldier David Nelson, convicted in 1786 of shooting a Maliseet man over a dispute over hogs. Nelson was hanged at Fredericton, partly because the government desired to reassure the agitated First Nations community. The sentence of his co-accused was commuted.


County gaols were used to hold prisoners awaiting trial and as places of punishment. In addition, gaols in the early 19th century contained debtors, who were maintained by themselves, their families or their creditors. In 1852 the provincial secretary reported that gaolers attempted to separate male and female prisoners, and criminals and debtors, but that there were no restrictions on visits, correspondence, food and clothing from family and friends.

There was little work provided for prisoners, management was at the discretion of the sheriffs and sanitary and other conditions were not ideal. Gaolers had recourse to handcuffs, leg irons, collars and chains in order to restrain prisoners. In some cases cells below ground level were used for solitary confinement.

Gaolers and their families often lived in the same building that housed the prisoners. One of the best accounts of a 19th-century rural gaol is found in "The Mysterious Stranger", a book originally written by King’s county sheriff Walter Bates in the early 1800s.

The provincial penitentiary was located on the outskirts of Saint John. In 1850 it admitted more than 900 prisoners, less than fifty of whom were women. Three-fifths of the prisoners were committed from the city and county of Saint John. The provincial secretary described it as "essentially a House of Correction" for serious offenders and vagrants, "loose, idle and disorderly" individuals who had been begging, engaged in prostitution or had no visible means of support. The penitentiary had sixty cells for men and twenty for women. Prisoners made bricks and brushes, worked on the prison farm and engaged in spinning and knitting.

Across North America in the late 1800s, specialized institutions developed for children, women and first offenders. In the late 19th century politicians and reformers became more concerned about "juvenile delinquents" and abused and dependent children. New Brunswick opened an Industrial Home for Boys in Simonds parish in 1893.