Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The Cambridgeshire County Gaol was established in the 1340s in the gatehouse of the castle on Castle Hill, Cambridge. he Upper floor of the gatehouse was reserved for debtors, criminals were housed below. In 1784, John Howard described the gaol as follows:

The prison is the gate of the old castle. On the ground-floor, called the low-gaol, are three strong rooms; one for men-felons (3o feet by 6 feet 7 inches); another for women (16 feet by 9) with a chimney : the other was not finished. There is an ascent of 22 stone steps on the outside to the debtors apartments, called the high-gaol. On the first floor is a room for the turnkey; a large kitchen; and two or three other rooms. Above them are five rooms and a condemned room. All the rooms are sizeable. Clauses of act against spirituous liquors hung up, by a written order of Thomas Codkran, Esq. sheriff. The act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. Straw, 20s. a year. The castle-yard is spacious, but not safe; and prisoners have not the use of it. In it is the gallows.

Debtors have some relief from legacies and donations paid by several colleges : from Sidney college, each has a shirt every year, and a sack of coals : from St. John's, sixteen pennyworth of bread, every Saturday morning. A collection is made in the university and the town, by leave of the mayor, which amounts to about £7 a year: and 20s. a year, deducting land-tax, is paid from an estate at Croxton in this county. No memorial in the gaol.

The fees payable by those committed to the gaol were as follows:

£.  S.  D.
Gaoler's commitment fee0   5   4
Gaoler's discharge fee0   5   4
Sherrif's discharge fee0   2   0
Weekly rent of an entire chamber, with one bed only and clean linen0   2   0
Each bed and linen in a shared chamber0   1   6

In the late sixteenth century, a County Bridewell was established in the old castle barracks. It originally had a separate keeper, but was subsequently run by the couty gaoler. In 1792, Howard recorded that the Bridewell:

Is in the castle-yard; and joins to the gaoler's house. It consists of two work-rooms, and over them two rooms; one for men, with four cages 6½ feet by 4½; and the other for women, with two cages. No court: no water acceslible to prisoners: only one sewer, and that very offensive : no allowance: the prisoners have the profit of their work, which is beating hemp, and making mops. Mr. Saunders the county gaoler is keeper: salary, £2. He is attentive and humane.

Over five visits by Howard, between December 1774 and February 1782, the number of inmates ranged between one and six.

A shortage of solitary cells in the gaol, coupled with an increase in the number of Bridewell inmates eventually resulted in the decision to build a new gaol and bridewell on the castle site. The new building, designed by George Byfield, was constructed in 1801-5 and was an early example of a detached radial layout. Its four wings radiated around a detached octagonal central building, the governor's house. The house had a chapel on the first floor, which was linked by walkways to the wings. The gatehouse building contained rooms for the turnkey and for prisoners with infectious conditions.

In 1812, a detailed description of the new prison was provided by James Neild:

The boundary-wall, 20 feet high, encloses an acre and quarter of ground; and being, upon an average admeasurement of the circuit, about 30 feet from the Prison, it affords the Keeper a convenient garden for the growth of vegetables.

The Turnkey's lodge is in front of the building, and occupies a space of about eighteen feet; so that executions, which are to be performed on the flat-roof of the whole (about 38 feet by 15), may be rendered more public.

On the right-hand, at the entrance, are two reception-rooms, for the examination of the Prisoners, in point of health, previous to their being admitted to the interior : Also two sleeping-cells above, 8 feet by 6 each, lighted and ventilated by iron-grated windows, and an aperture of six inches in the opposite walls near the door.

These cells, (like all the others in this Gaol) are supplied with iron-bedsteads on stone bearers, straw-in-sacking beds, two blankets, and a rug; and to each of them is a small semicircular court-yard, of 18 feet diameter, with a water-closet.

On the left-hand of the entrance is a room, of 14 feet by 12 feet 9, with glazed windows; where Prisoners, upon their admission, are stripped, washed, and the County clothing is put on : also an oven, for purifying any thing offensive in their own apparel, together with a warm and cold bath. Over this are the Turnkey's sleeping room, and another, in which locks, irons, &c. are deposited. The Prisoners' clothes are then ticketed and hung up, to be given back to them at their discharge.

The Turnkey's sitting and sleeping-room windows command a view of four court-yards. The Gaoler's house stands in the middle of the area; and the approach to it is by a narrow slip, enclosed by posts and chains, extending 55 feet by l6, and bordered with flowers and shrubs.

On the ground-floor, which is elevated three feet above ground, are the Keeper's hall, parlour, and kitchen, together with the Visiting Magistrates' Committee Room, the windows of which also command all the court-yards of the Prison, except those appropriated to the Women-Debtors, and Women-Felons, which are under the eye of the Turnkey.

In the Gaoler's house, and on the same floor with the Chapel, are two rooms, furnished, for Master's Side Debtors, at 10*. 6d. per week; and both these rooms were inhabited at my visit in 1S07. But their respective tenants were absent from Divine service.

In the centre of the building is a circular stair-case, made of oak, leading up to the Chapel, which is on the first story, and has a door opening into it from each of the wings. The Prisoners are there seated, in eight divisions, appropriated to their several classes, and all in full view both of the Minister and the Gaoler.

Above the Chapel are three rooms, originally intended for the sick, about 15 feet square, and 9 feet high, with an apartment for a nurse; and to each is assigned a leaden sink and water-closet. I twice visited the Gaol in 1807, and plainly saw that these rooms, so designed, and so fitted up for the purpose of I/infirmaries, would soon be the Gaoler's rooms only; because, in each of the wings, I found (in August) that two cells were making into one, for the purpose now laid aside. My conjectures appear to have been just; for, in September 1810, Mr. Orridge told me they were then used as sleeping-rooms for his servants. To Him there could be no objection, whilst not wanted for the Prisoners. They certainly have many conveniences, which the cells cannot afford to Invalids.

Here is also a reservoir, with a warning-pipe, that supplies the whole Prison with water, and holds 36 barrels: and at the top of the building is a lead-flat, about 40 feet square, with a parapet wall, for convalescents to take air and exercise.

The Gaol itself consists of four wings, detached from the Keeper's house by an area of sixteen feet, and encircled by the ten different court-yards, whose average size is 55 feet by 40, with open fences at each end, so that a thorough air is transmitted. Each court-yard has in the centre a brass cock and stone sink, and is provided with a water-closet.

One wing is solely appropriated to the Debtors, and has two court-yards; the one of them (No. 8 and 9,) for Men, the other (No. 10,) for Women. Master's-Side Debtors have a Day-room, 16 feet by 14, and 9 feet 6 inches high, with a fire-place and two sleeping-rooms, 9 feet each by 7 feet 6, and of the same height. Over these are four other sleeping-rooms of the like dimensions; all of which have sashed glazed windows, with iron bedsteads on stone bearers, and are furnished with beds at 1s. 6d. per week, for such as can afford it. They are all single beds, and the rooms are arch-roofed.

Common-Side Debtors have a day or mess-room, 23 feet by 14, 9 feet 6 high; and ten sleeping-cells, of the same size as those on the Master's-Side; to which the County furnishes a straw-in-sacking bed, two blankets and a coverlet each.

Women-Debtors have their day-room on the ground-floor, 14 feet by 13 feet 6; and two sleeping-rooms above, fitted up in the same manner as the Men's. All the day-rooms have benches to sit upon, and fire-places.

The Male-Convicts' day-room is also 14 feet by 13 feet 6, with a work-room of the same size; and two sleeping-cells, each 9 feet 6 by 6 feet 2, and 9 feet 6 inches high. Above these are six other sleeping-cells, of like dimensions, with wooden shutters to keep out the weather, and a square of knobbed glass in one shutter; opposite to which is a grated aperture, of 9 inches, for ventilation. The passage to these is about 50 feet long, 3 feet 6 inches wide, with a window at each end; and three circular gratings opening into the roof for air. Each of the above cells is fitted up with a cast-iron bedstead, 6 feet long, by 2 feet 3 inches wide; a straw mattress, straw-in-sacking bed, two blankets, and a coverlet.

Men Felons, before trial, (Class I.) have a lobby, or passage, the same as that above noticed; which leads to their day-room, work-room, and eight sleeping-cells, all of the like size, and fitted up in the same manner as those for the Men-Convicts.

Men Felons, of Class II. have their day and working-room in one, of 20 feet by 14; with five sleeping-cells the same as already described. And above are three condemned-cells for Convicts under sentence of death, with a day-room, 14 feet square, which has a fire-place, benches to sit on, and a water-closet. The Women-Felons have, on the ground- floor, a day-room, 14 feet by 13 feet 6; and three sleeping-cells above it, exactly like those assigned for the Male-Felons.

The Men-Prisoners of the House of Correction, or Bridewell, (Class I.) have both a day and work-room, each of the same size as the last-mentioned; also two cells on the ground-floor, and six above, with a passage, and fitted up like the preceding. Those of Class II. have the same number of cells, and the like accommodations.

Women Bridewell Prisoners have their day-room and work-room below, and over them six sleeping-cells, the same as the Men.

All the sleeping-cells throughout this Gaol and Bridewell are alike in size; but those of the Debtors have glazed windows. Every door has a small wicket in it, about six inches square, through which the Keeper inspects the cell, without going into it.

The communication from the different wings to the Chapel is by four stone bridges, with iron-rails over the area, of l6 feet, round the Keeper's house. These bridges serve, not only for a passage-way in different directions to the Chapel, but likewise for the Keeper to visit the various districts at night, as he may find occasion.

In his garden is an engine-house, where the pump, worked by two Men-Prisoners, one at each handle, fills the reservoir, before noticed, in about two hours. When full, the warning-pipe, which is in the cistern, or reservoir, at the Keeper's house, gives notice to leave off. The well, from whence the water is thus drawn, must be a happy resource. I was assured it is no less than 140 feet deep, and 8 feet in diameter; and that the water, with which nature supplies it, constantly rises, after pumping, to within 6 feet of the surface.

Debtors in this Prison have occasional relief, though very scantily, from legacies and donations, paid by several Colleges in the University of Cambridge.

Prisoners belonging to this Gaol are tried at the Town Hall, which is half a mile distant; and they walk thither, — digito prætereuntium monstrari, et dicier Hic est! [passers-by point their fingers and identify them]

Here is no employment yet furnished by the County. The Visiting-Magistrates, Chaplain, and Surgeon, regularly enter their Reports in books kept for that purpose : But neither the Act for preserving the Health of Prisoners, nor the Clauses against their use of Spirituous Liquors, are hung up.

The Rules and Orders for the Government of the Gaol, were confirmed by the Judges at the Summer-Assizes in l808.

On my visit to the old Gaol, in August l802, the Prisoners stated, that Divine service had not been performed there for some months, nor any religious attention paid to them. For this suspension of duty, the reason, afterwards assigned, turned out to be, "That a Felon had made his escape on the way to Chapel, in going across the Old Castle Yard." It was, indeed, not only spacious, but insecure; and, in consequence, no Prisoners thenceforward were indulged the use of it; such only excepted, as were confined for small sums, and in whom the Keeper (then Gregory) could place confidence.

The complaint above-mentioned, however, was at length removed. On the 25th of August, 1805, I found twelve out of the fourteen Debtors, and all the Criminal Prisoners, attending Divine service as formerly. On the 30th of August, 1807, only five Debtors out of the eleven were present; but, on the 2d of September, 1810, all the Debtors, except one, and all but one of the Criminals, attended Chapel both morning and afternoon; when their behaviour was orderly, and attentive to a very appropriate discourse.

An allowance of coals is made to Felons, and House of Correction Prisoners, yearly, from Michaelmas to Lady-Day; but Debtors are obliged to provide fuel for themselves. Mops, brooms, pails, soap, and other articles for cleanliness, are granted by the County. The Gaoler appears to be humane and attentive to his charge, and the Prison is very clean

Following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878, the site became Her Majesty's Prison, Cambridge.

The prison was closed in 1915, after which county prisoners were sent to Bedford or Holloway. The prison building was demolished in 1928-9, and a new Shire Hall was then erected on the site and incorporated bricks from the old prison in its walls.


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