Ancestry UK

Bristol Newgate Gaol, Bristol, Gloucestershire

Dating back to 1148, Newgate was Bristol's oldest prison It was located in the centre of the city, between Narrow Wine Street and Castle Mill Street, at about the present-day main entrance to the Galleries Car Park. The prison was rebuilt by public subscription in 1649.

In 1784, John Howard wrote of the prison:

This Newgate (as that in the metropolis) stands in the midst of the city. It is too small for the general number of prisoners. For debtors there are about fifteen rooms; yet no free ward. The poorest pay ten pence halfpenny a week: others, two shillings and six-pence. For women-felons, a day-room and several night-rooms. For men-felons, a day-room, which might be conveniently enlarged: a court adjacent 20 feet by 12, very close. Their dungeon, the Pit, down 18 steps, is 17 feet diameter, and 8; high: barrack-bedsteads: no bedding nor straw. It is close and offensive; only a small window. There is another yard, the Tennis-Court, larger than that of the felons: here (as in several other gaols) I have seen the debtors mix in diversions with the felons; by which, they become more daring and wicked than the felons. In this court is a convenient bath, but seldom used. Pumps out of order. Here is no proper separation of men and women, nor of fines, &c. A room or two at the top of the house for an infirmary. There are many narrow passages: the utmost attention is requisite to keep the prison healthy. I found it clean; considering it was so crowded and so close. It was scraped and white-washed once a year before the act for preserving the health of prisoners. That act is neatly painted on board hung up in the chapel, which is commodious and has a gallery: several texts of Scripture are painted in sundry parts of it. Clauses against spirituous liquors are not hung up. No table of gaoler's fees.

John Heydon left £100 to be lent to two merchants, each paying annually to the corporation for the prisoners as interest of his moiety, £1 : 13 : 4. Mrs. Aldsworth left about £5 a year, to be paid by the parish of All Saints; two thirds of it to debtors, who receive the money usually on Christmas eve; the other third part is generally laid out in coverlets or blankets for felons. No memorial in the gaol of any legacy.

In 1812, James Neild viewed conditions in Newgate as 'disgraceful'. He wrote::

Gaoler, William Humphries. Salary, 200l. and 2l. a year gown-money.

s.  d.
Fees for Debtors,first Action6  8
 second, and every subsequent Action3  4
 a London Action9  0
for Felons13  4
  Transports, 5l. each when delivered at Portsmouth. Garnish abolished.

Chaplain, Rev. Mr. Walcam; now Rev. Mr. Day. Duty, Sermon on every Sunday, and Prayers on Wednesday and Friday. Salary, 35l.

Surgeon, Mr. Safford. Salary, none; makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners, Debtors. Felons, &c. Deserters.
1801, Dec. 16th,18260.
1803, Oct. 4th,2426-2.
1806, Sept. 20th,33270.

Allowance, to Debtors, none.
Allowance to Felons, a threepenny loaf of standard wheaten bread. Its weight on the 16th Dec. 1801, was 1 lb. 5 oz.; on 20th Sept. 1S06, was l 1b. 3 oz.

This Gaol, called Newgate, is built on a declivity, and stands in the middle of the City. It is very antique, and by much too small for the general number of its inhabitants. The lower rooms are dark. For Debtors there are about fifteen large and airy rooms; two of which are termed free wards, for poor Debtors, who find their own beds.

Those rooms which are on the Master's Side pay 2s. 6d. per week each; and two Prisoners sleep in a bed. Here is not a proper separation of Men and Women. Only one court-yard, (called the Tennis-court) that is sufficiently large for air and exercise. Its dimensions are 13 yards by 6, into which debtors and felons are separately admitted, and at different hours of the day. When I was there, linen was hanging out to dry. In this court-yard there is a pump with good water; and also a convenient bath, but seldom used.

The Men-Felons have two day-rooms. Adjoining to the first, 15 feet by 13, and 7 feet 8 inches high, is a sleeping-room of about the same size; which has no air but what is admitted through an iron-grated window in the day-room. There is. a small but very close court adjacent, about 20 feet long and 12 feet wide. On one side of this court, is an ascent by twelve steps, to a sick room for felons, 18 feet by 12½, and 7 feet 6 inches high; which has iron-grated and glazed windows, a fireplace, a small aperture in the door, 14 inches by 11, and a ventilator.

The second day-room is 24 feet by 18, and 8 feet high; with a fire-place, and two treble iron-grated windows, which, in consequence, nearly exclude the light. This room has two sleeping-cells, of 11 feet by 7, with arched roofs; and a very small court, with a sewer in it.

The "Condemned-room," as they term it, is 18 feet by 13, and 9 feet high, which has a double iron-grated window, that looks into the felons' yard. Their dungeon, (the Pit) to which you descend by eighteen steps, is 17 feet in diameter, and 8 feet 6 inches high. It has barrack bedsteads, with beds of straw in canvass; and some benevolent Gentlemen of the City occasionally send a few rugs. This dreary place is close and offensive; with only a very small window, whose light is merely sufficient to make darkness visible. In the year 1801 I remember it was chiefly appropriated to convicts under sentence of transportation. Seventeen Prisoners are said to have slept here every night! The Turnkey himself told me, "that in a morning, when he unlocked the door, he was so affected by the putrid steam issuing from the dungeon, that it was enough to strike him down." At my next visit, 4th Oct. 1?03, it so happened, that only one Man slept there.

When Turnkeys are thus affected, by only opening the doors, what must the pitiable wretches suffer, confined, through the whole night, in such fetid hot-beds of disease! There are many narrow passages about this Prison, so that the utmost attention seems requisite to keep it healthy; and yet, at my several visits, I found it comparatively clean, considering that the Felon-Side was so close and crowded. It is scraped and white-washed once a year.

The Female Felons' ward is a large room, 42 feet by 24, and 6i feet high, at the top of the house, which serves the purposes of a day-room and sleeping-room. It overlooks the Men-Felons' court, and had once four windows, but two of them are now stopped up. There is in it a sink, but no water supplied, except what is ordered by the Keeper from below. Near this ward are two rooms set apart for infirmaries.

Some time since Mr. John Heydon left one hundred pounds to be lent to two merchants, each paying annually to the Corporation, for the benefit of the debtors, 1l. 13s. 4d. as the interest of his moiety. This is paid to the Treasurer of the Society for Small Debts instituted here.

Mr. Freeman left Four Pounds Nine Shillings to be laid out in bread and beef, and distributed on Christmas-Eve to the Prisoners of all descriptions. To this legacy Mrs. Freeman liberally makes an annual addition of eleven Shillings.

The Churchwardens have, for many years past, paid four Pounds two Shillings for the use of the prisoners; two-thirds of which are given to the debtors, and one third to the Felons. This I apprehend to be the Legacy of Mrs. Aldsworth, who is mentioned by Mr. Howard, but no memorial appears in the Gaol of any legacy.

The Act for preservation of Health is hung up in the Chapel, which, though large, is not properly partitioned to separate the classes. The attendance of Debtors on Divine worship is optional, and I was sorry to observe only nine present, in 1806, out of thirty-three. Neither were the Criminal Prisoners so attentive as one might have expected from the devout and serious manner in which the duty was performed by their pious Chaplain. So little regard, indeed, was paid to the Chapel, as a place of worship, that I have repeatedly seen the prisoners drinking, smoking, and chewing tobacco in the gallery.

The Clauses against strong Liquors are hung up at the entrance of the Gaol. No employment: and such is the confined situation of the Prison, as to preclude the possibility of work! No Table of Gaoler's Fees.

Besides the clerical duty before noted, here are thirteen Sermons in a year; for which the Rector of the parish receives four pounds from a legacy.

I understand that a person arrested by an action from the Tolsey Court here, may, at the next Court, confess the debt; and at the first Court after (which occurs monthly) may be charged in execution, and become immediately entitled to his sixpences, or a supersedeas.

Several years since, an Act passed for the building of a new Gaol. That it has not been carried into execution by this rich commercial City, is much to be regretted; for, really the present Gaol is disgraceful.

How long shall young beginners and old offenders, both here and elsewhere, be suffered to associate promiscuously together!

In 1820, the prison was closed and replaced by the city's New Gaol on Cumberland Basin.


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.

  • Bristol Record Office, 'B' Bond Warehouse (in the 'Create Centre' section from 3-Dec-2013), Smeaton Road, Bristol BS1 6XN. Holdings include: various printed broadsheets concerning Newgate prisoners, the execution of John Nichols, and a gang of kidnappers.
  • 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.