Ancestry UK

Town Gaol, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

In 1224, Henry II granted the burgesses of Cambridge possession of a house belonging to a Jew named Benjamin for use as a town gaol. The 'Jew's House', as it was referred to, stood on what is now the Guildhall site, in the Market Square.

In 1601, Queen Elizabeth gave ownership of the gaol to the University but, in 1607, after a legal battle, a court decided in favour of the town's ownership.

In 1784, John Howard reported that:

Below is a room for criminals, the hole; about 21 feet by 7. The prisoner, whom I saw there in 1776, was a miserable object : he had been confined some weeks: no allowance. The prisoners receive relief from several of the colleges, viz. St. John's, Trinity, Christ's, &c.

Above are rooms for debtors and criminals, one of which is called the cage. No court : no water accessible to prisoners. Clauses against spirituous liquor:, and the act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. Gaoler no salary. Licence for beer.

On Howard's five visits between 1774 and 1782, the number of felons in the gaol ranged for none to three, and the number of debtors from one to two. The commitment fee for debtors was 6s. 8d; the discharge fee, paid to the mayor, was 1s.; and the weekly charge for the care of the prisoner and chamber was 2s. 6d.

In 1788, the Market Place gaol, which had fallen into ruin, was replaced by a new building on Downing Place, at the rear of the Spinning House. In 1812, James Neild noted that :

The present Gaol, erected in 1788, has a small court-yard, about 18 feet square, with a pump and sewer in it, for Prisoners of every description. There are five cells below for Criminals, each about 9 feet by 6, and 7 feet 6 inches high. Above are two rooms for Men and Women Debtors, and a day-room, 24 feet by 15. They pay weekly two shillings for a single bed each; and if two sleep together, each pays one shilling and three-pence. The Town allows straw and blankets to Criminals.

The cells are ventilated by an iron-grating over each door, in which is made an aperture, about 6 inches square. There is one dark, solitary cell, with a double door : the inner one of wood; the outer, iron-grated, and ventilated by an iron grating above it : also one cell in the garden, of 9 feet by 5.

No employment is furnished by the Town; but Prisoners are allowed to work, on their own account, if they can procure the means.

Debtors receive broken bread from several of the Colleges every Friday, which a Woman is paid fourpence a time for collecting. The Mayor of Cambridge sends yearly three sacks of coals for both Debtors and Criminals, which are occasionally used, either to cook their victuals in the house, or to warm themselves by, there being no common room for them accommodated with a fire-place.

Water is now accessible to all the Prisoners. I found the Gaol clean, though more than two years since its having been white-washed : But it appears to be insecure; for, about a month previous to my visit in l802, a house-breaker had made his escape through a breach in the brick-work.

Neither the Act for preserving Health, nor the Clauses against Spirituous Liquors, were hung up.

The Downing Place gaol closed in 1829, following the opening of the new Borough Gaol and Bridewell on Parker's Piece.


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