Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell, Carlisle, Cumberland

The first definite reference to the Cumberland County Gaol was in 1172, when the county Sheriff recorded the expenditure of 53s. 4d. on work on the building. It was located at Carlisle Castle and may have originally occupied existing dungeons at the site. The first purpose-built structure appears to have been the outer gateway, erected in 1378 by John Lewyn.

Over the following centuries, the condition of the castle buildings deteriorated. It was also proving to be too small for the increasing number of prisoners needing to be held there. In 1611, part of the city's Citadel — a fortress erected in 1541 on English Street was converted for use as the County Gaol.

By the onset of the English Civil war in 1649, conditions in the Citadel had also declined. From 1653, the situation was made worse by the steep rise in the number of prisoners convicted for their religious beliefs. One of the most notable of these was the Quaker, George Fox, who described the Citadel gaol as "a filthy nasty place... where, men and women were put together in a very uncivil manner... and the prisoners so lousy, that one woman was almost eaten to death with lice."

The situation was resolved in 1686 when the county purchased of a block of buildings, adjacent to the Citadel's west tower, and on the site of a former Blackfriars convent, which were converted into a prison and bridewell or House of Correction. A chapel was added to the prison in 1734.

Writing in 1792, John Howard described the state of prison:

The court spacious, S5 yards by 36: it was common to all prisoners; but now a part is appropriated to the felons, and separated by iron Wades. In the court is a chapel, built, as appears by the date, in 1734. Five rooms for master's-side debtors: and as many on the common-side. Four of these are 23 feet by 18½. They have windows now opening into the court, as well as the (reef. Where there are so many rooms, not to separate the men and women is certainly inexcusable.

The wards for felons are two rooms down a slop or two; dark and dirty. One of them, the day-room, had a window to the street; through which spirituous liquors and tools for mischief might be ear:1y conveyed: but it is now bricked up. The night-room is only r z feet by 9: at one of my visits, men and women were lodged together in it. Two rooms over the felons wards, which have been used as tap-rooms, Teem to be intended for the women only, but in one of these I alto found three men and four women lodged together. In the court, near the pump, there is the too common nuisance of a dunghill, which seems to have been accumulating for a year or two. Transports had not the king's allowance of 2s. 6d. a week. No infirmary: no bath. Act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. Prison not white-washed for three years. Gaol delivery once a year. Few gaols have so many convenient rooms for common-side debtors. It is the more remarkable here, because there is no table signed by the magistrates to particularize the free wards. Some gaolers avail themselves of such a circumstance, and demand rent for rooms which were undoubtedly designed for common-side prisoners.

The gaol-fever, which Come years ago carried off many of the prisoners, did not deter Mr. Farish from visiting the sick every day.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

The court or area of this Gaol is spacious, (85 yards by 36), and has a pump in it, with fine water. Formerly it was common to all Prisoners, but now one part, 15 yards by 8, is appropriated to the Felons, and separated by iron palisades; through which they can converse with the Debtors, or any Persons who visit there. The Gaoler's house is at one end of the court, and adjoining to it is the Chapel, built in 1734; where the Prisoners are indiscriminately mixed to hear Divine service.

The Master's-Side Debtors have five rooms in the Gaoler's house, for which they pay 2s. 6d. per week, and two sleep in a bed. Common-Side Debtors have four free wards, (so called,) 23 feet each by 18,and another small room. Here they must furnish their own bedding; but the rooms have a very dirty and ruinous appearance, with windows opening into the court-yard: formerly they looked into the street. The sexes are separated at night, but assemble together all the day.

The wards for Felons are two rooms going down a step or two, dark, damp, and dirty. One of them, 21 feet by 15, is their day room -, but serves likewise as a night-room. It once had a window opening towards the street, through which spirituous liquors, and tools, capable of great mischief, might easily be conveyed. But it is now bricked up. The condemned-room is only 11 feet by 9; which, should there be more than one or two Convicts, must be very close.

There are two rooms over these Felon wards, called The House of Correction, in which Women are lodged. Heretofore, straw only was allowed to those Prisoners who could not pay for a bed; but now (in 1809) both Felons and House of Correction Prisoners are supplied with a rug, in addition to the straw. At this, my third visit, I found a wooden paling raised at ten feet distance from the iron-palisades of the Felons' court-yard, which prevents their intercourse with the Debtors.

The five rooms in the Keeper's House are occupied in this manner. Those Master's-Side Debtors, who sleep on chaff beds without curtains, have three blankets and a quilt; for the use of which each Debtor pays three shillings per week, though sometimes three sleep in one bed. Those who have feather-beds, with sheets, blankets, a quilt, and cotton furniture, pay each five shillings per week, and sleep two in abed.

Here is no infirmary, nor bath: No Rules and Orders. The Act for preserving Health, and Clauses against the use of Spirituous Liquors, are not hung up.

In short, this Prison is in a very ruinous, dilapidated condition; seldom visited by the Magistrates, and extremely dirty. But a new Gaol, with Courts of Justice adjoining to it, are now building, in an elevated and airy situation.

Over the following decades, several plans for a new gaol failed to come to fruition. In February 1822, however, a committee was appointed to select a site and a design for a new building. The chosen location on land at the west side of the Citadel, lying between English Street and Borough Street. Initially, a plan submitted by Newcastle architect John Dobson was adopted but, after it was criticised by the Governor of Bury Gaol, new plans were drawn up by the County Architect for Cumberland, William Nixon, which were based on the design of the gaol st Bury St Edmunds. After Nixon died at an early stage in the construction work, supervision of the project was taken over by Mr C. Hodgson who added a number of improvements to the design. In May 1825, the new building had progressed sufficiently for it to receive the existing prisoners from the old gaol, which was then demolished.

The new prison had a detached radial layout, with six cell blocks placed, like spokes of a wheel, around the central Governor's house. Two of the blocks were for those serving sentences with hard labour and were provided with a treadmill. The other blocks comprised two for women prisoners, one for 'Midemeanants' (men serving shorter sentences for lesser offences), and one for debtors. A description of the new prison was given by Samuel Jefferson in 1838:

The County Gaol and House of Correction occupy the site of the ancient monastery of the Black Friars, near the English gate. They were completed in 1827, at a cost of 42,534l. 18s. 10¾d . including the purchase of an acre and a half of land. The front of this building measures about 340 feet , it consists of a centre and two wings, finished with an embattled parapet, and relieved by a range of narrow Gothic windows, made to correspond with the court house, to which it is united. The entrance consists of a beautiful pointed arch, with massive iron-studded doors, and what appears to be a heavy portcullis; the gateway is surmounted by an excellent clock. The interior of the building consists of a governor's house, from which radiate six prison wings, affording accommodation for thirteen classes of prisoners, with separate airing grounds, so planned and divided by walls and lofty-wrought iron rails, that the governor and his assistants have, from their apartments, a complete view of the whole. The prison contains room for a hundred and fifty prisoners, and the space enclosed within its walls, affords the means of extension for a much greater number, should the increase of crime unhappily require it; there have hitherto been seldom more than ninety prisoners within its walls at one time. The whole is surrounded by a wall twenty-five feet high, constructed of red free-stone. The improved system of prison discipline and classification is adopted, and the chaplain performs duty in the prison chapel, as directed by the act 4 George IV., c.64., and all means are used for the moral and religious instruction of the prisoners. A tread-mill, consisting of four wheels, has been erected for the purpose of raising water into a capacious reservoir, which was in tended to supply the city.

The old County Gaol occupied the site and only the lodge and offices of the present building.

Following the 1865 Prison Act, which required that a separate cell be provided for each inmate, the prison had to be extensively altered, with a large, new single-cell block being erected at the south of the site in 1868.

1868 cell block (right of centre) at County Gaol, Carlisle

As part of policy to remove prisons from town centre locations, particularly when they were overlooked, s was the case at Carlisle, the prison was closed in 1922. The site was purchased by Cumberland County Council, with part of it then passing to to the City Council for road improvement schemes in the vicinity. Following the demolition of much of the gaol wall and other buildings in 1932-2, new premises for Woolworths and Montague Burton were erected on the site. The 1868 block was demolished in 1937 to be replaced by a bus garage. Some part of the prison wall still stand.


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