Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell, Colchester, Essex

A County Gaol was in operation at Colchester Castle by at least 1226. Those held there in medieval times included the vicar of Coggeshall, imprisoned in 1296 for fishing in Coggeshall Abbey fishponds, and the master of St. Leonard's Hospital, Newport, and the parson of Theydon Bois, imprisoned in 1331 and 1334 for forest offences. There were Jews in the gaol in 1253, pirates in 1326, and heretics in 1428. Later inmates included prisoners of war in 1547, 1603, and 1653, Protestants in 1557, Roman Catholic recusants in 1596 and 1625, royalists in 1642, and Quakers in the 1650s and 1660s. In the mid 17th century the gaol was used only for felons and rogues and not for debtors or others involved in civil actions such as trespass.

By 1631, the building was so run-down that the inmates were exposed to the elements, the gaoler was cruel, and the food inadequate. In 1633, the dungeon roof was leaking badly, an in 1646 the prisoners once had to stand up to their knees in water all night. By 1658, the county gaol had been moved to Chelmsford.

For most of the period from 1691 to 1835, part of the castle was used as a county prison for prisoners from the Colchester area. Initially, the prison was sited in the dungeon at the west of the chapel vaults, then in 1727 it was moved to the chapel undercroft. The gaoler occupied a house in the north-east corner of the keep.

When John Howard reported on the site in 1784, part of it had become a County Bridewell, or House of Correction

The castle, the property of the late Charles Gray, Esq. was formerly the county gaol. That part of it which is now the bridewell, has — first, a room with a fire-place: on one side a room with a window; On another side two rooms at right angle with the former; a window in the farthermost. The rooms are about 13 feet square. The partitions are iron-grates for light and air, from the window at each end, and there is no decent separation of the sexes. Court little used by prisoners. No water: here was a well of fine water, but it has been lately arched over. Little or no employment; the wards are dark, and are never white-washed. Allowance, three pence a day: straw, £2 a year: firing, £2 a year. Keeper's salary, £30: no fees.

1774, Feb. 14,Prisoners 1.1779, April 7,Prisoners 1.
1776, Nov. 19,3.1782, July 11,3.

The gaol was enlarged in 1787-8 by enclosing the south end of the eastern courtyard (formed by the east wall of the castle and the surviving partition wall) to form a prison of two storeys and an attic, the upper storey and attic containing two rooms for women, and the lower storey a day room and three cells for men.

In 1812, James Neild reported on the prison:

Gaoler, John Smith. Salary, 30l. He is also allowed 3l. per annum, to furnish straw, and other 3l. per annum, to provide firing for the Prisoners. Fees, none.

Surgeon, Mr. Newell, who makes a Bill for Medicines; and has also Two Guineas a year, for reporting, quarterly, the state of the Prison.

Prisoners, 1801, Oct. 12th,One Man for Bastardy.
1805, Sept. 18th,Three disorderly Women.
1810, Sept. 24th,Three Men; one of them for Bastardy; the other two sick in bed.

Allowance, one pound and half of bread daily, and a quart of small beer.

The Castle of Colchester was formerly the County Gaol. That part of it which is now the Bridewell, has one large room, 20 feet by 14, and 12 feet high, with a fire-place. On one side of this room is another, with a window; and on the other side are two more rooms, at a right-angle with the former, and in the farthermost of them a window. These last three are lofty, and about 13 feet square: the partitions to them are iron gratings, to admit light and air from the grated window at each end. Here are also glazed windows, ready prepared to be put up in cold weather.

In the court-yard, about 17 feet square, excellent water is introduced by a pipe and cock: But of this area the Prisoners never have the use, though it is immediately under command of the Keeper's window.

In the chamber-story are two rooms appropriated to the Women-Prisoners: one of them, about 28 feet square, and 10 feet high, has a fire-place, and is used as a day-room; the other, which is over it, is 20 feet by 10, and 10 feet high. This is employed as their sleeping-room, and, as well as the rooms below, supplied with crib-bedsteads, straw-in-sacking beds, and two blankets each.

At my visit in October 1801, the only Prisoner was a Man for bastardy. It was very cold weather; but he had no fire, neither were the glass windows put up. He was not permitted to come into the court-yard for exercise; water was brought to him by the Keeper; and of both these objects he had a confined and tantalizing view, through the gratings of his window. As he had no soul to converse with, employment might have beguiled the hours of captivity, and must have proved an evidence of humane attention. The Keeper was from home; but at my subsequent visits he appeared rough, rude, and ignorant. He kept a Fox in the court, just under the Prisoner s window, the smell of which could not be very grateful.

A Gaoler should never be permitted to furnish his Prisoners with either food, fuel, or bedding. The Prison had just been white-washed, and I found it clean: But here was no religious attention: no employment. Neither the Act nor Clauses hung up.

The prison was closed in 1835 following the opening of a new County House of Correction on Ipswich Road.


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  • Essex Record Office, Wharf Road Chelmsford CM2 6YT. Holdings include: return of the number of criminal lunatics in Gaol and five Houses of Correction, with original returns from Gaol etc. (1808); Copy of lists of lunatics in the Gaol and Houses of Correction in the previous 10 years, with names, ages, crimes, and observations (1819).
  • 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.