Manitoba History: Oral History: Life in the Brandon Gaol
by Ms. Jo Ann Tymchak
My Grandfather, George Mathieson, was in the army in the early part of World War I. He joined the 45th Battalion, 1st Canadian Military Reserve which took him overseas. During a battle in 1916 he was wounded which caused his capture. After two years as a prisoner of war in Switzerland, he returned home to Brandon. His status as veteran brought him the privilege of getting a civil servant’s job as a guard at the Brandon Gaol. By my Grandfather’s time the Gaol was a detention centre for persons sentenced to two years less a day, although from time to time more hardened criminals were housed for several days en route to Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. He married in 1921, had three daughters, and by 1928 was promoted to Governor of the Gaol.
In May of 1928 George, wife Joan, daughters Charlotte (6), Alice (5) and Georgina (2) moved into the residence. Until 1936 these three little girls grew up in Brandon Gaol where they lived in the ground floor apartment. My mother was Charlotte (Fraser), and in talks I have had with her and my aunt Georgina (Wolfe), I’ve learned a good deal about their unusual early life.
The residence, as it was called, was huge in comparison to what the family had known before. There were four bedrooms, a kitchen/ pantry, a dining room, a parlor with a fireplace, and indoor plumbing. From the front door to the entranceway that led to the guard room offices was a hall which was about 40 feet long. Outside there was a summer house to play in when it rained. The lawns were great for playing ball in the summer and the steps in winter became a slide. The gardens were large with many varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees. Charlotte says
The most typical question put to the girls by school chums was “Aren’t you afraid living in that strange place?”
The Mathieson sisters enjoyed a prestige that no other children in their city had.
After a thorough screening some inmates became trustees. These trustees were like the Mathiesons’ servants. These men ended up spoiling the sisters. They carried wood and coal in for the stoves, carried out the ashes and other garbage and washed and polished all the floors including the long hallway. The polisher was a brick placed inside a wooden box covered with carpet and pushed by an attached wooden handle.
Grandmother called the women prisoners “the girls” rather than mention any names. These girls would beg for things to do and so she had them do our ironing and mending. Says Charlotte
The girls received from the prisoners, both male and female, much attention and some love ... Smoking was not allowed except on holidays but quite often prisoners attempted to get tobacco.
There was another incident of attempted tobacco smuggling.
This prisoner spent a day and a night in what the girls came to know as the black hole. Grandfather put him in there for involving his youngest daughter in a scheme, not for wanting tobacco.
On the day of a prisoner’s release a guard would bring them to the kitchen. Here grandmother would give them her good-bye lecture. Then she would hand them one or two dollars from her own pocket, and wish them well, hoping all the while she would not see them return, unless it was for a visit.
In May 1936, four prisoners escaped from the jail.
Following the escape and recovery of the prisoners George Mathieson was replaced as Governor. The family moved from the residence to a house on 1st Street.
Grandfather continued to work at the gaol as a guard until he retired in 1951.