The Construction of Kingston Penitentiary

1833-1835
Kingston Penitentiary circa 1906. Source: Library and Archives Canada.Pinterest
Kingston Penitentiary circa 1906. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

The Penitentiary has long been one of the defining institutions of Kingston. Motivated by a combination of contemporary moral engineering and local political gerrymandering and boosterism, the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada was approved in 1833, constructed by 1834, and accepted its first six prisoners in 1835. The site to the west of Kingston in the village of Portsmouth was chosen because of the availability of land, proximity to Hatter’s Bay for the reception of waterborne prisoners from across the province, and the availability of local limestone for construction. Rehabilitation was pursued by a combination of penitence, labour and severe punishment. As early as the 1840s, public access was allowed “for the purpose of indulging a prurient curiosity.” The institution at Portsmouth was the first of a series of penal institutions located in the Kingston area that made the city synonymous with “The Pen.”