Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

The gaol for the county of Buckinghamshire and the forest of Bernwood was located at Aylesbury from at least from 1180.

In 1276, the gaoler is recorded as having allowed women to escape upon payment of a shilling per head. Although repairs were made to the building in the early 1300s, the prison was still insecure in 1340, and inmates regularly escaped. By the early sixteenth century, the gaol and the adjacent gaol 'pit' were were located in the town's market place.

The Shire Hall Site

The Aylesbury County Gaol and Bridewell occupied part of the Shire Hall building, erected in the 1720s at the south-east end of the Market Square. The building, in red brick with stone dressings, is said to have been designed by Sir John Vanbrugh.

The Shire Hall, Aylesbury.

In 1784, John Howard described the County Gaol as comprising:

One court, 29 feet by 26½; now a pump, and water laid in to the yard. A hall for debtors; and sundry rooms for the matter's-side. Only one day-room for men and women felons: in this room is an oven for purifying the clothes. The women's two night-rooms are small ; one under the stairs, 6 feet 8 inches by 4 feet 10; the other 8 feet by 5½., and 6 feet high: no windows. Two condemned rooms. In the interval of my first and second visit, six or seven died of the gaol-distemper. At my visits in 1776, after the appointing Mr. Ludgate, all the prisoners were well. In 1779, two men sentenced for three years had continued here two years and a half; one of them was much emaciated by confinement without work. At my last visit five were fines, one for seven years, another for three. No infirmary. Divine service is performed in the shire-hall which joins to the prison. A table of fees is now painted on a board, and hung up in the debtors hall, but not confirmed by a judge. The act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. Mr. Smith contracted to supply the poor debtors and felons with two hot dinners a week; and to convey transports to London; for £70 a year. At summer assize, prisoners are moved from hence to Buckingham.

A lady at Welton left an annuity of 13s. 4d. which is paid by the church-wardens of Aylesbury, and distributed among debtors and felons.

Although occupying part of the same site, the Bridewell was described by Howard in a separate report:

The two work-rooms, and the lodging-rooms, are small : one of the latter 5½ feet by 4, and 6 feet high. A court in front only 8½ feet wide, lately enclosed from the spacious court of the keeper's behind the county gaol. Mr. Smith (the county gaoler) is keeper; salary, £30. Prisoners have from him one pound of bread a day. Fees, 4s. 6d. Clauses againft fpirituous liquors not hung up.

Over the course of five visits by Howard between 1774 and 1782, the number of Bridewell inmates varied from one to three.

A much lengthier description of the two departments was provided in 1812 by James Neild, by which date, a number of structural changes had been carried out. Neild also indicated the mode of execution used at the gaol — hanging, with a drop from a first-floor platform placed at the front of the Shire Hall.

This Gaol adjoins to the back part of the magnificent Shire-Hall. The original construction of the building was faulty in the extreme; but the Marquis of Buckingham, ever attentive to the interests of the County, having humanely interfered in its Prison concerns, the loathsome dungeon is now inaccessibly bricked up, and the Gaol has received many other and great improvements.

Here is but one court-yard for Debtors, 54 feet by 26, paved with flag-stones, and a sewer in one corner: two day-rooms, with fire-places, and glazed windows;, the largest room 20 feet by 14.

Above stairs are seven good bed-rooms, all Free Wards; furnished with wooden bedsteads, flock beds, a blanket, and coverlet, at the County's expence. One of the smallest rooms is set apart for Women Debtors.

Men Felons have a court-yard, of 32 feet by 24, paved with flag-stones, and the sewer is in one corner. They have three day-rooms, whose average size is 16 feet by 14 ; with cupboards for provisions, and benches to sit on, opening into the courtyard.

Their sleeping-cells, sixteen in number, are over the well-room and straw-room, and open into lobbies seven feet wide. Each cell is 6 feet 6 by 5 feet, furnished with a wooden bedstead, straw mattress, and one blanket ; and ventilated by an iron grating in the door, 9 inches square, and another in the roof, 42 inches by 18. Here is one solitary cell, of 6 feet 6 by 1 foot 9 inches, totally dark, and without ventilation; where the refractory prisoner sleeps on the floor upon loose straw, with a blanket.

There being no stated Chapel, divine service is performed in the Shire-Hall. The Felons ascend to it from the lobby, into which their cells open, by a ladder of 25 steps, and three inches broad, to a trap-door made in the floor of the Sessions House, 2 feet 6 inches long, by 2 feet 3 broad, opening into the Prisoners' bar, which is about 10 feet by 9 ; and here they sit to hear divine service.

The Bridewell Prisoners are seated on benches within the bar : Debtors, on a row of benches, called The Attornies' Seats ; and the women are placed in a pew, on the left baud of the chair.

When I attended divine service on the 13th January, 1805, thirteen criminals and four debtors received the sacrament, which is administered four times a year. Many persons also from the town are accustomed to attend upon this occasion ; and the money collected is distributed amongst the criminals. All prisoners are required to attend divine service.

A Chapel within the Prison, properly partitioned off, so as to exclude the classes from the sight of each other, is an accommodation much wanted. It would afford their exemplary Chaplain an opportunity of selecting occasionally, and of applying particular passages from scripture, the most appropriate to each description of the prisoners.

The Well-Room, which is assigned for Prisoners under sentence of death, is 28 feet long by 13 feet 3, and 9 feet 5 inches high ; with a brick floor, and small fire place. There are in it five well-ventilated cells, of 6 feet 7 by 5 feet and an inch; fitted up with a wooden bedstead, a straw-in-sacking bed, and two blankets each.

The Straw Room for deserters, of 20 feet 6 inches by 15 feet 4, has a barrack-bed, the whole length of the room, and raised two feet from the floor, with loose straw, and a blanket for bedding. It opens into a lobby, 20 feet by 1 1 ; in which there is a cell for one Prisones, of 6½ feet by 5 feet; and adjoins to the Well-Room.

Female Felons are confined in the Women's Bridewell, and have a court-yard, of 28 feet by 24; in which there is a sewer; a day-room, 20 feet by 10 ; a washhouse, 17 feet by 12, with a cistern, copper, and fire-place; and a sleeping-room, 13 feet by 12 ; all which have boarded floors. There are also five sleeping cells, of 7 feet by 6 feet 6, with a wooden bedstead, straw, and one blanket each.

The Men's Bridewell has a court-yard, 47 feet by 29, with a sewer; a large work-room, on the ground-floor, of 43 feet by 12 ; and a day-room, of 19 feet 9 inches by 15 feet 6. On the first floor are five sleeping cells, each 7 feet by 6 feet; with iron-grated windows, and inside shutters ; a bedstead for two persons, loose straw and a blanket. The second story has eleven cells, of the same dimensions, and furnished in the same manner as the former ; also one dark cell for the refractory, of 7 feet by 3 feet G inches, ventilated by an aperture of 6 inches by 5.

The Infirmary is a neat building, detached from the Gaol, and consists of two large rooms on the ground floor, 24 feet by 18, and paved with brick. In one of them is an excellent mill, with a pair of n)ill-stones for grinding corn, and the apparatus for dressing the flour. Above are two rooms for the sick, of the same size as the former, with boarded floors and large glazed windows: A kitchen, 16" feet by 12 feet 9 ; a room for the nurse, nearly of the same size, with suitable conveniences for invalids.

A liberal supply of coals is allowed to the day-rooms, from the 16th of October to the 16th of April : But if the weather be very severe, the time is extended by the considerate Magistrates.

For Prisoners under sentence of death, — the mournful inhabitants of the "Well-Room," already described, — time, and the just reflections of reason, have at length given their lot a favourable turn: They are not, as heretofore, exposed to pitiless curiosity. There was a time, when the people of Aylesbury were greatly averse to having the place of execution fixed at the Gaol, "because it was within the town." During my sheriffalty, I represented to the Marquis of Buckingham what an excellent place we had for the purpose ; and, after getting several models made in London, the one fixed upon is, I think, the completest piece of mechanism in this kingdom, and was used, for the first time, this year, 1810. 'Tis an incident that seems to interest humanity ; and I therefore wish some notice to be taken of it, that other counties may "do likewise." In this particular, my endeavours to that end have been very successful ; and I hope that the remaining towns (few in comparison), will join to root out the old custom upon such distressful occasions. Here, now, in Aylesbury, the poor condemned wretch no longer passes his dreariest days in a loathsome dungeon, to be thence dragged through the town in a cart to execution, at some distance, to gratify the cruel insensibility of the multitude, and disgrace the character of civilized society : But an occasional platform, for the awful business, is fixed in front of the County-Hall ; and the last comforts are calmly administered to the sufferer, previous to his public exposure and punishment.

Some years ago the Prisoners were employed by the Gaoler, (and shops were erected by him for the purpose) in sawing stone and timber, sifting of sand, &c. But this has been discontinued; and now a trifling quantity of hemp, beat once or twice in a month, is the only employment.

At the Summer Assize, Prisoners are removed from hence to Buckingham.

The Earl of Chesterfield has, for several years, given at every Christmas, two pounds of beef, and one shilling in money, to each Prisoner. It is distributed by Mr. Curry, his Lordship's Steward, at Eythorp, in the County of Bucks.

The Rev. Mr. Hopkins, for the thirty years of his officiating as Chaplain to the County Gaol, has given to the Prisoners every Christmas, One Guinea; which is equally distributed amongst them by the Gaoler.

Frequently have I attended Divine service at Aylesbury Gaol, and witnessed the pious and energetic spirit with which the above exemplary Chaplain has addressed the Prisoners; but, particularly, on Sunday the 5th of August, 1810, (the day previous to their removal to Buckingham for trial) when he admonished the profligate, aroused the thoughtless, and comforted the afflicted, in a manner so pointedly impressive, that it not only drew tears from the Criminals, but visibly affected the numerous and silent congregation that usually attends the service with them in the Shire-Hall.

It is a circumstance peculiarly fortunate, when a Prison, ill-constructed for every humane purpose, attracts the notice of power, and the warm attentions of benevolence, as is really the case with the one which I have here described. Not only Fees and Garnish are abolished, but a well-behaved Debtor is indulged with "the Rules" (or range of space for air and exercise) which extend along the Pavement in front of the County-Hall. Comfortable bedding also is here gratuitously furnished. No one is discharged from hence, without receiving the price of a day's labour, to convey him home: And thus, that punishment which the law ordains equally to vice, to folly or misfortune, is here meted out in mercy : an example worthy of imitation throughout the kingdom.

The Gaol is supplied with religious books; and poor Prisoners, when discharged, have money given them, according to their distance from home; not merely for immediate sustenance, but to remove the great temptation of committing a crime for that purpose.

Books are kept in the Prison, in which the Visiting Magistrates, Chaplain and Surgeon, enter their several Reports.

Water is well supplied from a rivulet at the bottom of the Keeper's Garden, by means of a forcing pump worked by the Prisoners.

The Act for Preservation of Health, and Clauses against the Use of Spirituous Liquors, are here conspicuously hung up.

In 1847, the prison moved to a new site on Bierton Hill, Aylesbury.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • No individual records identified for this establishment — any information welcome.
  • The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Has a wide variety of crime and prison records going back to the 1770s, including calendars of prisoners, prison registers and criminal registers.
  • Find My Past has digitized many of the National Archives' prison records, including prisoner-of-war records, plus a variety of local records including Manchester, York and Plymouth. More information.
  • Prison-related records on Ancestry UK include Prison Commission Records, 1770-1951, and local records from London, Swansea, Gloucesterhire and West Yorkshire. More information.
  • The Genealogist also has a number of National Archives' prison records. More information.


  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.