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Once a Local Prison, Now a Preschool and Pub

Gaol Block building ca. 1890. (CoV Archives, Out P10)

During a recent exploration of the Sapperton neighbourhood of New Westminster, a friend and I stumbled on this impressive building with castle-like turrets nestled amidst a residential development. On closer inspection, we discovered the building not only housed Sunny Hill Montessori Preschool & Daycare, but also a pub! What a curious combination of tenants. We decided that further investigation, accompanied by a pint of beer, of course, was called for.

A plaque inside the Castle Neighbourhood Grill gave us our first clue. It explained that this building was the former Gatehouse built in 1931 for the BC Penitentiary or “BC Pen” that once occupied the area.

Originally home to First Nations people, the strategic site high on a hillside overlooking the Fraser River was also the location of a large military camp (1859-1863), briefly home to the original Colonial Government House (before Victoria became BC’s capital city in 1866), the location of the BC Pen (as mentioned), and now the Fraserview housing development. The landmark has great significance in the shared histories of New Westminster and the province of BC.

Exterior of castle-like Gatehouse building

Located in the northeastern end of New Westminster, Sapperton was the site for the barracks and other housing for the Royal Engineers, Columbia Detachment. Consisting of 150 sappers and officers, the Royal Engineers, under the command of Colonel Richard Moody, built much of the infrastructure of the young colony on behalf of the British Empire. (Field engineer soldiers are known as “sappers”, thus the name for this area of New West.)

For 102 years the area was home to the British Columbia Penitentiary, the first federal penitentiary west of Manitoba. “BC Pen” opened in 1878 and was decommissioned in 1980. It was infamous for several riots and hostage-takings, most of which occurred in the 1970’s.

Goad’s Fire Insurance Plan from 1913 showing New Westminster and grounds of the BC Pen. (CoV Archives, MAP 342c-: 1972-472.11, Plate 124)

Most of the original buildings on the former BC Pen grounds have since been demolished and replaced by residential housing and parkland. Only four vestiges of the original prison remain: the Gatehouse (1931); the original Gaol Block Building (1878); the Coal House (on the Fraser River shoreline); and the cemetery known as Boot Hill. Today the cemetery is located in an unmarked area of Glenbrook Ravine Park. It contains the remains of those prisoners whose bodies were not claimed by their families.

A couple of street names in the area also reflect the penal past of the area, such as Governor’s Court and Miner Street, named after BC’s first train robber, Bill Miner, who was immortalised in the 1982 movie, The Grey Fox. He was an American-born stagecoach and train robber credited as the first thief to use the phrase “Hands up!”. Miner was also known for “his genteel manners and apologetic demeanour”. Coming to BC sometime in the early 1900s, he robbed at least two trains before he was caught in 1906 and then sentenced to 25 years in the BC Pen. He escaped in 1907.

A fine view of the mighty Fraser River basin and the exterior of the stately Gatehouse building can be had from the patio of the Castle Neighbourhood Grill, making it hard to imagine that this was likely the last “free” view experienced by the many men who made their way through the gates of the BC Pen. Beer in hand, it’s an ideal vantage point to reflect on this historic part of New West.

  • Reward poster for Bill Miner, 1907.
  • Beer on the patio of the Castle Neighbourhood Grill
  • Detail of image showing BC Pen grounds and original Gaol Building in background. (CoV Archives, Bo P5)
  • Gaol Block building ca. 1890. (CoV Archives, Out P10)
  • Goad’s Fire Insurance Plan from 1913 showing New Westminster and grounds of the BC Pen. (CoV Archives, MAP 342c-: 1972-472.11, Plate 124)
  • The oldest BC Pen building, the Gaol Block Building also known as the Main Hall, opened in 1878. It served as the prison and hospital until 1980 when the federal penitentiary was phased out and now houses physiotherapy and medical offices.
  • The exterior of the Gatehouse building showing the pub patio.
  • Exterior of castle-like Gatehouse building
  • 1936 Detail of image showing BC Pen site. (CoV Archives, CVA 260-574)

There are 5 comments

  1. I lived on the top floor of 112 Miner St..a half block from the Pen, and across the st from the cemetery, which was on Miner and Cumberland.

    Wow, my place was so haunted..some friends refused to come over.

    One of those friends’, George, was a security guard at the BC Pen, after it had been closed down.
    (One kid died trying to break “in” to the former prison)
    With George, we would wander the old jail.. glasses of wine in hand.

    If I knew then, what I know now..I’d have taken photos..and notes..

    However, I did leave with some memorabilia…but nothing that can enrich ones’ life..haha

  2. There are so many sad stories that came out of that place, so I am not surprised to hear of hauntings.

  3. I had walked around the prison during early stages of demolition and it obviously was not a place of happy days or joyous accommodation (especially with graffiti like “ABANDON ALL HOPE FOR ALL WHO ENTER” plus the height of gray perimeter walls was daunting ). Visiting the site was interesting yet No Desire To STAY. About that time of demolition, the prison was used in part for making the movie ‘First Blood’ starring Sylvester Stallone.

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