Roeland Street’s Prison to Priceless Provincial Archive

Roeland Street’s Prison to Priceless Provincial Archive

On the eastern edge of Cape Town’s city centre, is the oldest archive in South Africa. Official Western Cape government records and donations of private material stretch from 1651 to the present. It is the memory of the region, starting just before the Dutch East India Company (VOC) landed here to start their refreshment and recuperation station in 1652.

Key dates in the development of the Archive

1876 the Cape Government established the Archives Commission for collecting, examining, classifying, and indexing the growing archive of the Cape Colony

1910 with the Union of South Africa the Archive was subsumed into the newly established national archival service

1994 with democracy the Cape Archive was transferred to the Western Cape Government

The Archive’s various homes were in important, albeit diverse, Cape Town institutions

Castle of Good Hope was where the VOC first had their offices

What is currently the Iziko Slave Lodge museum

Parliament and High Court

Centre for the Book in Queen Victoria Street from the 1930s

New building in Roeland Street on site of the old prison. In 1986 construction started and the new building opened in 1989 with 46 strong rooms, shelving stretching over 43km, fumigation room, bindery, delivery area and other specialist archive facilities

It is free to visit the Archive and use the Reading Room, no appointment is needed, but it is a good idea to make one nevertheless.

Tel number 021 483 0400, or email the wonderful

Mondays to Fridays 8:00 – 16:00 and the first Saturday of the month 8:00 – 14:00 (this might change in time)

Western Cape Archives and Records Service, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport, Western Cape Government, 72 Roeland Street, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa

Roeland Street Prison

The VOC didn’t build prisons as their punishments were usually public affairs, however gory.  The idea being they would be a deterrent. It also saved costs.

With the arrival of the British in 1806, a Board of Commissioners of Public Prisons was established and official prison systems instituted.

The prison was constructed way back – the cornerstone was laid in 1855.  Civil engineer Sir George Pilkington designed it. Convict labour helped build it (like the Breakwater Prison at the Waterfront). It was completed in 1858 at a cost of £18,167.  At the time it was the largest prison in the Cape Colony.

Life at the prison was harsh. Overcrowding and sickness were common. Floggings and beatings of prisoners were severe and frequent. In 1936 it was described as rat infested; rodents routinely scampering over sleeping inmates.

Originally intended to hold prisoners awaiting trial, the first execution here took place in 1923 and the last in 1932.

The prison typically had 800 inmates and 50 wardens.

During Apartheid, it was nicknamed Cape Town’s ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. Food was described as ‘unscientific’. There was racial segregation. Women and men had separate living quarters and exercise yards.

Political prisoners were detained here. After reading my latest newsletter, Albie Sachs got in touch. He was held a political prisoner here. (As you probably know Justice Sachs was the chief architect of the post-apartheid constitution of 1996.)

Roeland Street Prison was closed in 1977. Its 214 inmates were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, in Tokai (Cape Town’s southern suburbs). The building was handed over to the Department of Public Works.

Culture Connectors on our behind-the-scenes tours at the Archive remember when it was a prison. One remembers how they joked that their father was going to prison when he came to research his family history. Another Culture Connector fetched her gardener from after he had been caught drunk.

All that remains now of the old prison is the outer wall and main entrance. No pictures of former prisoners seem to exist, just the staff.


Big thanks for the info and old, archival images: Helen Joannides

CA2827 Cell Block for Women 1977

Main entrance to the Roeland Street Prison, Cape Town, 1977. CA 2762

AG 17611 Front Staff of the Roeland Street Prison 1929

CA2823 Women’s Exercise yard 1977

CA2811 Men’s Section 1977

Detail of a brass spy hole on the outside of a cell door