If you visit us you’ll be able to learn all about the history of the Old Prison first hand. We have information boards, a video tour in the court room and audio recordings in the cells. However, for those people who can’t come to see us just yet; or who can’t wait until they do, we’ve provided a written account of the history of the Old Prison below. This will take you through from the late 1700s and the fight for Prison Reform in England through to the eventual demolition of the main cell blocks and rebirth as a Police Station. Read on to find out more!
Before Prison Reform
The Old Prison was a model for prison reform in the late 1700s. Before it opened, the majority of crimes were punishable by deportation to the colonies or death! A person could be sentenced to death for stealing anything worth more than 12 pence. So in building this prison – and several others like it in Gloucestershire, the county’s prisons became a modal for prison reform across the country.
There were fewer prisons before the late 1700s, and those that existed were terrible places. County gaols (our nearest in Gloucester) and smaller Bridewells dated back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first and had been intended to house vagrants and idle persons, in order to make them work. Later they held all petty offenders as any “serious” offence was punished with death or deportation.
The dreadful conditions led to philanthropist John Howard writing a report on “The State of the Prisons” in 1777, condemning the system and calling for change. His report opened the eyes of the country on the state of the prison system in England:
- Keepers of prisons would demand fines from new arrivals, and refuse to release them at the end of their sentence until they paid the fine
- Debtors were not segregated from criminals and had to buy meals, drink and clothing from the Keeper (who made a profit)
- Debtors lived in rags and starved if family, friends or even criminal inmates didn’t help them to sruvive
- Women prisons were kept with men resulting in pregnancies and babies being born into awful conditions in prisons
- All prisoners wore fetters to stop them escaping the unsecured prison buildings
- Cells were overcrowded, filthy, damp and crawling with vermin
This lead to the Penetentiary Act of 1779, stimulating a movement for change and penal reform taken up in Gloucestershire by Sir George Onesiphorous Paul.
Sir George Onesiphorous Paul
As High Sheriff for Gloucester, Sir George was responsible for prisons in the county. He had read John Howard’s report and started a campaign for a new prison system in the county. He visited the County Gaol and local Bridewells and was shocked by what he saw. He decided that any attempt to rehabilitate prisoners was a waste of time until modern prisons could be built to replace the broken system in place.
On 6th October 1783, it was agreed that the county of Gloucestershire would build the new prisons with a 25 year mortgage secured by the county rate. To allow this to take place a new Act of Parliament was needed, and the Gloucestershire Act of 1785 was passed authorising prisons to provide meals and clothing at cost to the county rate, for prison officers to enforce decent behaviour, cleanliness, temperance and for prisoners to receive just and humane treatment.
All was now in place for the building work to begin.
Building the Prison
The House of Correction at Northleach was built in a significant location. Access to the scattered towns and villages of the North Cotswolds plus access to Oxford and London to the east and Gloucester to the west were key factors.
Sir George wrote a brief to architect William Blackburn who designed the county gaol and the House of Correction at Northleach – now known as The Old Prison. The 1779 Penitentiary Act brought William Blackburn to prominence, in 1782 he won first prize in a competition for prison design. He built prisons in Oxford and London as well as the new prison at Gloucester and the Old Prison in Northleach.
The brief was for a secure building – so inmates did not have to be fettered – with fresh air and running water to reduce prison diseases and ill health. Segregation by class of prisoner was also a key requirement in the brief. Blackburn’s design was for an enclosed prison and compound in an irregular hexagon shape surrounded by high prison walls. These security walls were originally over 7.5m tall.
The original building was designed to include a Keeper’s House, three storey centre blockhouse, two wings of two storeys connecting the centre block to further blockhouses and a north and south blockhouse. The cells were small – 1.8m wide and 2.4m wide and each prisoner would have a day and night cell on separate floors. The little River Leach was diverted a few yards to flow under the rear security wall of the prison and down the compound with pumps for prisoners to use in the exercise yards. The stream then flowed around the Keeper’s House and through a conduit under the Fosse Way to serve the Mill. In the exercise yard open wooden fencing was used to separate the yard by the class of inmates. All of the yard was visible from the Keeper’s House.
William Blackburn died in 1790 on his was to Glasgow to plan a prison there. So he never saw his Northleach prison plans materialise when the building was finally opened in 1792.
1792 – 1823
During this time the prison ran according to Sir George’s vision. The prisoners were given meaningful work, were segregated, fed, clothed and although life was not easy it was a huge improvement to conditions in Bridewells and prisons that preceded it.
All prisoners were received in the reception area, ordered to bathe and given clean clothes in the form of the prison uniform.
Prisoners received two hot meals a day with a varied diet; those that did harder work were given extra rations and class 2 and 3 prisoners were even paid for their work if the prison was able to sell the good they had made.
After 1808, a Class 5 was introduced; “vagrants in foul and filthy state”. Their clothes were burnt, heads and beard shaved, they were deloused, had a hot bath and were given clothing. They were in prison for having no means of supporting themselves. After their spell in prison they were sent back to their own parish and their cells fumigated.
Crimes and Convictions
When the House of Correction opened in 1792 and until the formation of Petty Sessions Courts in 1836, magistrates could send offenders brought to them by the gamekeeper or local voluntary parish constable straight to the House of Correction with a note to the Keeper saying how long they should be imprisoned and for what offence. Convicted offenders were marched to the House of Correction in Northleach. Once the Petty Sessions Courts were opened, offenders were marched to the House of Correction in groups after a court session.
The prison was designed to hold 37 prisoners. Records show that the average number of prisoners in a year between 1792 and 1816 was 46. By far the most common crimes were petty theft, breach of contract and then vagrancy – although this is only in the top three because of the impact of the Napoleonic wars and final defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
After 1840, transportation of convicts was phased out and the county gaols were full. Meaning many that “should” have been in the county gaol would be sent to the House of Correction instead. This explains how by 1850, the numbers in prison in Northleach rose considerably.
From Rehabilitation to Punishment
Following the death of Sir George Onesiphorous Paul in 1823, the treatment of prisoners in the House of Correction changed drastically. Only three months after his death, magistrates began to introduce a form of hard labour. A hand winch came first, with men turning the handle to grind corn on a millstone. A few short years later in 1827, a treadmill replaced the hand winch. Hard labour on the treadmill was dreadful. The steps on the wheel were 8 inches deep and the prisoners would walk the treadmill for sixteen minutes at a time, then return to the yard for eight minutes walking round the yard, then come back to the mill for a further sixteen minutes of endless climbing. This was repeated for the whole work session each and every day.
Change in the Treatment of Children: The Factory Act of 1833
This Act made it illegal to engage children under 9 years old in work, and required all children between 9 and 13 to be given two hours of schooling per day. It also meant that magistrates could not imprison children under the age of 9 as they had to be at school. So, in 1844, the upper floor of the central block was turned into a schoolroom for children between the ages of 9 and 13.
Change in the Treatment of Single Mothers: The Poor Law of 1834
In an attempt to deal with the “problem” of single women having children, a law was passed that meant a single mother could not claim poor relief from her parish. Fathers were absolved of all financial responsibility for their children in an act that the government of the day hoped would result in single women no longer conceiving children outside of marriage. In the eyes of the law therefore, a single mother without support became a vagabond and would be imprisoned by magistrates. The Order Book in the Apothecary’s journal at the House of Correction gives regular reference to women and children and the women’s wards became nurseries to poor, single mothers. Some women turned to “Childminders” while they went to work. The system was heavily abused as it was unregulated and because domestic work was every hour of day and night, mothers would have no idea how their child was being brought up, what sort of life they were living and how healthy they were.
The Building of the Mill House in the south corner: 1840
The magistrates were not happy that the treadmill was working well enough, and so in 1840 they built a Mill House – this was later used as a Police Station. Originally its purpose was to house the mill machinery drive by a shaft through the north wall rotated by a tread wheel. You can still see where the treadmill was from our cafe at the Old Prison from the arch of the stonework.
The Building of the north corner House: 1844
In 1842, the magistrates faced a government enquiry into conditions at the Old Prison following the death of a prisoner who died very shortly after discharge from the prison. The enquiry concluded that a lack of ventilation in some parts of the prison (the block houses), the cold conditions, quality of medical care and female accommodation was lacking. As a result the north corner House was built – this cell block still stands today and you can look around if you visit us.
After the new cell block was built, women prisoners were treated differently. The cells were considerably larger than the original cells and each had a toilet in the right hand corner and washbasins. A heating system was installed in this new building and this was used for other parts of the building too.
The End of the House of Correction: 1859
By the 1850s, the railways had spread across the Cotswolds linking the towns and villages in the county. It became easy to travel across the county from one court to another, and to the county gaol in Gloucester. In 1857, the County Council decided that keeping prisoners in Northleach was an unnecessary expense and the prison was closed. Meanwhile it prepared for a new role in life; the venue for the Northleach Petty Sessions Court.
The Petty Sessions Court: 1859 – 1974
In 1828 the government had formalised the work of the magistrates. This involved the setting up of formal Petty Sessional Courts. Three were established in the district; Northleach, Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton in Marsh. The Northeach Court was established in 1836, and it moved to the Keeper’s reception room in 1859 when the House of Correction closed as a prison. The court today still contains the fixtures and fittings of the court house. Any accused would be brought before the local Justice of the Peace. After an initial interview, the magistrate had to approve the sending of the offender to a Petty Sessions Court to receive summary justice. The maximum length of sentence that could be imposed by a magistrate was 2 years. The Court would normally be presided over by three Magistrates, assisted by a clerk. For more serious crimes the interviewing Magistrate would send the accused to the Quarter Sessions where they would face a magistrate and jury and sentences included death and deportation.
The County Police Station at the Old Prison: 1859 – 1973
As well as housing the Magistrates’ court, the Old Prison also became a county police station for the Gloucestershire County Constabulary. The County Police Act of 1839 authorised the creation of a paid police force for rural areas. Gloucestershire was one of the first to create such a force. They began their work in 1840 based from Stow on the Wold. Police numbers grew and when the Old Prison became available, the Police Force moved in as their main police station for the North Cotswolds. The Superintendent of Police was also the Keeper of the House of Correction, and the women’s cell block became remand cells.
The police force made some changes to the Old Prison to make it fit for its new purpose. Extensions were built (which have now been demolished) and two apartments were created for the Superintendent and his family and for the Superintendent of Tramps and family. The Mill House was converted into a Police Station complete with accommodation for the policeman and his family.
After the Second World War, Northleach gradually became less of a commercial centre and the need for a Superintendent of Police diminished. The station was reduced to a sergeant in charge, and finally closed in 1973.
The Casual Ward: 1859 – 1934
At the same time that the prison closed and the building became a Police Station, much of the former prison cells were converted into a Casual Ward. After the Napoleonic wars and famines of the 1830s, the parish relief system for the poor broke down. The poor and hungry took to the roads to seek work. They asked the Local Overseers of the Poor for help wherever they went, but they didn’t have the resources to do much. All tramping travellers were viewed by law to be rogues and vagabonds and should be in prison, and so they were sent to the magistrates.
The Vagrancy Act of 1824 made the distinction between vagrants and tramps. As so many people were tramping – and their only crime was being out of work – tramping people looking for work could now legitimately ask for poor relief. However, local resources could not cope. The next Poor Act of 1834 allowed local authorities to build a workhouse. These offered food and a bed for work. The work was hard and monotonous and the workhouses intended to give accommodation to local residents not tramping strangers who were not really welcome. Many workhouses built an annexe for tramps and appointed a Tramp Master to deal with them. However, the accommodation for tramps was not always in the newly built workhouses. A number of Old Prisons were brought into the system of Casual Wards – a workhouse for tramps. Northleach Old Prison was a tramp station from 1859 – 1934. After 1848 a new system of poor relief was introduced involving supervision by the police. Naturally, when the Old Prison became a Police Station it also became the local Tramp Station.
In 1929 the management of workhouses passed from the Board of Guardians to local government. In 1930, Public Assistance was introduced for all elderly people. Only the sick and incapable elderly made their way to the workhouse. By the mid-1930s, the workhouses had either closed or become geriatric hospitals. And so the Casual Ward of the Old Prison closed its doors in 1934.
Demolition and Disposal: 1936 – 1937
The County Council demolished much of the Old Prison as it was no longer being used. The three blockhouses and cell wings which formed all of the original accommodation to prisoners were demolished. All that remained was the Old Mill House (later the Old Police Station), the Keeper’s House (where the courtroom and internal rooms are today) and the North House containing the female cell block built in 1844.