Ancestry UK

County Gaol, Chester, Cheshire

The Cheshire County Gaol was established at Chester Castle by 1241, when it was used to house Welsh hostages.

By the sixteenth century, the gaol was located in the outer gatehouse and and adjacent former exchequer. In the 1580s and 1590s, it was used to detain Catholic recusants

During the English Civil War, it was refurbished and held royalist prisoners, with a large number being detained there after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

In the 1680s, the decaying building was renovated by the Crown but it was then left to the county to maintain it.

In 1729, the commitment fee for every prisoner was set at 8s. 2d.. The chamber rent for a prisoner providing his own bedding was 1s. A charge of 1s. a week was made for bedding provided by the constable.

By the 1770s, the gaol occupied the north-east corner of the castle. It was visited on several occasions by John Howard, who, in 1792, reported:

This castle is the property of the King. The first room is a hall : there are two staircases leading up from it to four rooms for master's-side debtors. Down 18 steps is a small court, which was common to debtors and felons. It is lately divided, but the high close pales which separate the two courts, now so very small, deprive both debtors and felons of the benefit of fresh air, and the keeper has no view of the felons court or day-room, in which men and women are together: the debtors, in the pope's kitchen (improperly called their free ward, as they pay one shilling a week each); the felons, in their day-room, the king's kitchen. Both these are 6 steps below the court: each of them about 35 feet by 22. Near the former is the condemned room. Under the king's kitchen is the king's cellar; quite useless. Under the pope's kitchen is a dark passage 24 feet by 9: the descent to it, is by 21 steps from the court. No window : not a breath of fresh air : only two apertures (lately made) with grates in the ceiling into the pope's kitchen above. On one side of it are six cells (stalls) each about 7½ feet by 3, with a barrack-bedstead, and an aperture over the door about 8 inches by 4. In each of these are locked up at night, sometimes three or four felons. They pitch these dungeons two or three times a year: when I was in one of them, I ordered the door to be shut; and my situation brought to mind what I had heard of the black hole at Calcutta.

The felons day-room is not secure. They escaped in 1775, by breaking through the slight floor into the king's cellar below; and through the decayed walls of that they made their way down the hill. The keeper, who is careful and humane, was not blameable.

Transports had not the king's allowance of 2s. 6d. a week. Of the debtors whom I saw in 1776, five were imprisoned by exchequer writs; and five also in 1782. The costs of some were equal to the debts.

The county has lately built two good rooms for the gaoler, and fitted up one room for a chapel. But there is no infirmary or bath, which are peculiarly necessary in so close a prison. The act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up.

The prison rules, were as follows:

1. All prisoners to behave respectfully to keeper — whoever strike or assault any to be punished by a justice at discretion.

2. No cursing or swearing. No gaming in the hall nor in private.

3. Prisoners to retire to their respective rooms from Lady-day to Michaelmas at nine, from Michaelmas to Lady-day at eight — to be let out in the morning from Lady-day to Michaelmas at six and from Michaelmas to Lady-day at eight.

4. Friends or relations to bring necessaries, being searched for instruments if required. Not to stay long without leave, except in sickness nor after the hours of locking up.

5. Felons &c. to he in the lower court except leave &c.

6. Whereas it is usual for the prisoners to go into the cattle-yard an hour morning and afternoon for air except in time of assize sessions &c. None to go to the castle-gate or over the pavement leading &c. nor out of the limits nor intermix with the soldiers on guard.

7. No prisoner to remove the keeper's beds &c nor his own bed without gaoler's consent.

8. Prisoners may bring their own beds, and take them away. If they choose the keeper's bed pay a shilling at the end of every week. Upon non-payment the gaoler may take the bed, and put the prisoner to lie in the pope's kitchen or any other free ward.

9. The public hall to be swept and cleaned by the prisoners daily.

In 1785 the Cheshire magistracy ordered the rebuilding of the gaol. The new prison, opened in 1793, was designed by Thomas Harrison and was an example of a polygonal plan. The long front block of the complex, facing to the north-west, contained a new County Hall and Assize Court. Debtors were house at the rear of this block, males to the left of the centre and females to the right, with the gaoler's house at the centre. The felons' cell blocks at the rear of the site, formed five of the sides of an octagon, with arcades, day-rooms and exercise yards on the ground floor, and cells on the upper two floors, accessed by a staircase in each of the five sections. The inmates' yards could be viewed by a vantage point at the rear of the gaoler's house — a variation on the panopticon idea, being promoted at that time by Jeremy Bentham.

County Gaol, Chester, Cheshire, c.1810.

County Gaol from a cell windowl, Chester, Cheshire, c.1835.

In 1812, a lengthy description of the buildings was given by James Neild, who was clearly impressed by his inspection of the establishment. An abridged version is given below:

The grandeur of the design, the elegance of its appearance, (being all of while stone,) and the convenience with which every part of Chester Castle is constructed, render it equal, at least, to any Gaol in England.

Its front extends about 100 yards, and in the centre of it stands the County Hall; before which is a colonnade composed of twelve solid pillars.

The Court itself describes a semi-circle; round which there are twelve other solid pillars. The Court of Justice is well calculated for seeing and hearing; the audience being raised one above another, upon steps 18 inches broad, in the manner of the Greek and Roman Theatres.

From the Prisoners' Bar there is a private passage into the Gaol, for bringing them into Court. On the left hand of the Hall are the entrance to the Gaol, and the Turnkey's Lodge. After passing the vestibule is the Debtors' Yard, which is both spacious and airy, and overlooks a large tract of Country.

Above the Turnkey's Lodge is a day-room, with a cistern of water, a stone sink, and stone shelves to set the provisions upon. Also a sleeping-room, well lighted and ventilated.

On the right side of the Yard is another day-room, which likewise has a water-cistern, stone sink, a pantry, with stone shelves for provisions; and above this is a sleeping-room, well ventilated. The four rooms here noticed are for Common-Side Debtors, who are allowed by the County a straw bed, two blankets, and a coverlet lined with flannel. At the top of the stairs is a large cistern of water, used for cleansing the sewers in this part of the Prison.

On the left side of the Yard are two stories of small sleeping-rooms, twelve in number. Two pleasant day-rooms also adjoin to each, with two windows in each room. These are for the Master's-Side Debtors. They have no water-cisterns in these apartments, but are accommodated by a pump, well supplied with spring-water, which stands in the centre of the yard. Each sleeping-room contains one bed; for which, if provided by the Keeper, the Prisoner pays 2s. per week; if, by the Prisoner, he is charged per week one shilling. Debtors have no access to their sleeping-rooms during the day : their bedsteads consist of two iron tressels, with boards painted and varnished.

At the extremity of the yard, on the right-hand, is a passage leading into another yard, on the farther side of which is the infirmary. At the end of the yard is a large cistern of water, supplied from the River Deva, or Dee.

Opposite to these are the apartments for the Women-Debtors; of which description, at present, there are but two; a sitting-room, and a sleeping-room, both airy and well-ventilated. Here also is a large cistern, with water to cleanse the sewer; and, in the middle of the court-yard, a pump, well supplied with spring water.

In the centre of the lobby, is the great stair-case; down which, by a descent of fifty steps (the ground being on different levels,) are the Felons' court-yards.

Round the stair-case are the Constable's apartments. The front parlour projects about four yards beyond the lower parts of the house; and is surrounded by a stone terrace, with open iron palisades, from which the Keeper has a full view of the Felons' yards, inclosed by a boundary-wall, 25 feet high. They are respectively numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and divided by partition-walls, 10 feet 9 inches high, each of which is furnished with its own distinct apartments.

Yards, Nos. 2, 3, 4, consist each of a spacious court, 75 feet by 57, and a pump, well supplied with good spring-water, in the centre of each, having an arcade and two day-rooms to each yard: Above which are two stories of sleeping-cells, six cells in each story, and all of them 8 feet 6 by 6 feet 4.

The end-yards, Nos. 1, and 5, are 36 feet by 29, with a day-room to each, and arcades. These have only six sleeping;-rooms, three in each story. Each cell is provided with a cast-iron bedstead, 27 inches wide, perforated with small round holes, on which is a straw-mattress, bed stuffed with straw, two blankets, and a coverlet lined with flannel.

The Felons' apartments are all of stone and iron; and the roofs also, which are on the same level with the Debtors' yard, are of stone, painted, to prevent the weather from making the cells damp.

The Female-Felons are separated from the Males. Round the apartments and court-yards of both is an area of l2 feet broad, flagged with stone, 4 feet wide, and the other part gravelled; which the Prisoners cross in going to Chapel.

The Chapel, which stands directly under the front-room and terrace of the Keeper's house, is a very neat little building. There is a gallery erected for the Debtors, under which the Felons are placed in five seats, or boxes, each 12 feet by 6 feet 8 inches, corresponding with their respective court-yards. The Keeper's pew is behind the Clergyman, and the Communion Table below, where the Sacrament is administered four times a year.

On each side of the Chapel, in a straight line, are 13 solitary cells. Each has a small anti-room; three of which anti-rooms are now made into work-shops, and, of the rest, seven may be heated by a stove for that purpose. Over these cells, on each side, are work-rooms for Debtors, the roofs of which being of flagged stone, form the terraces in the Debtors' and Infirmary-courts : and in front of them are two rows of iron-railing, placed a little distant from each other, in order to prevent the Debtors or their friends from seeing or conversing with the Felons below.

Here is a warm and cold bath, with a stove to purify the Prisoners' offensive or infected clothes; which are taken from them on coming into Prison, and the Gaol uniform put on.

Such Debtors as work, have two-thirds of their earnings; but, as Chester is not a manufacturing city, there are few of them, except taylors and shoe-makers, that can get employed.

Felons have half their earnings, from which, when working, they receive three shillings per week, besides the Gaol-allowance : The remainder is paid to them, or remitted for the assistance of their families, if any, or, on producing a certificate of their good behaviour, at the end of three months after their being discharged.

Following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878, the control of the gaol passed to the Crown. It ceased receiving civil prisoners in 1884 but a small military prison continued to operate in the castle until 1893. The gaol buildings were purchased by Cheshire County Council in 1894 and demolished in 1900-2, the site subsequently being used for construction of a new county hall.


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