Ancestry UK

County Bridewell, Durham, County Durham

A Bridewell, or House of Correction for the County of Durham was erected in 1634 'on the side of a hill'. The location in question was at the western end of Elvet Bridge, formerly the site of the Chapel of St James.

John Howard, writing in 1784, reported that the prison:

Was built, as appears by the date over the door, in 1634. Being on the side of a hill, the rooms are airy. No court: now a pump in the prison with good water: the late keeper Watson had a garden which he let for a guinea a year. He lived at the high gaol; and put in a woman to take care of this prison. But the justices since very properly put in a keeper to reside in the prison: he is now dead and his widow is keeper. At my visit in 1779 the house was clean, the prisoners were at work, and their looks bespoke the attention of a good keeper. At my last visit too, the house was very clean. Salary, £30, and £9 : 2 : 0 from the rents of the adjoining houses. Clauses against spirituous liquors not hung up.

1775, Jan. 6,Prisoners 5.1779, June 29,Prisoners 9, and three lunatics.
1776, Jan. 14,7.1782, Mar. 248, and one lunatic.
1776, Oct. 25,6.

In 1789, Howard added:

Two rooms under the street are added to this prison, which are damp and close; one of them is the lodging-room for men. The magistrates have now, very properly, their own keeper. 1787, Aug. 21, Prisoners 10.

In 1812, James Neild described the same establishment:

The County Bridewell at Durham was built, as appears by the date over the door, in l634. It is situate on the side of a hill near the Bridge.

On the ground-floor next the street, which is the upper part of the Prison, is a convenient room for the Magistrates, who meet here to do business. The Turnkey's rooms are on the same level, and have a command of the whole Prison. The old Gaol consists of two good day-rooms, and several sleeping-apartments. The first day-room, now occupied by Women, is three stories from the ground; and has two windows, which look to the River, 26 feet by 12, and 7 feet high, with a boarded floor, and good fire-place.

Underneath are two rooms, which are used as sleeping-rooms for the Women. The first is 17 feet by 12, and 8 feet 6 inches high; the other 12 feet 6 inches by 11 feet, and 6 feet 6 inches high. They have each a window, which has the same aspect as the day-room above. They have boarded floors, wooden bedsteads, with straw, and coverlets, and are dry good rooms. Immediately underneath these two rooms, on the ground-floor, are two others, exactly of the same dimensions; but which have not been in use, except for lumber, for some years, being very damp and unhealthy.

The second day-room, also occupied by Women, is on the second story, in the adjoining wing of the Bridewell. It is 19 feet by 15, and 7 feet high, and has three windows, that look to the North-east, with a boarded floor and a fire-place. Under this are two other rooms on the ground-floor. The first, 13 feet by 9, and 7 feet high; the second, 9 feet by 7, and 8 feet high: Both of them very damp and unhealthy; but I was informed, that they had not been used since the building of the new apartments.

From the second day-room there is a passage communicating with an arch of the Bridge, which lies at the back or West side of the Old Prison. Under this Arch was an access to two large cells, where, till lately, Prisoners convicted of capital offences were used to sleep. The first cell is 19 feet 5 inches by 13 feet 9, and 9 feet high; the other is 14 feet 3 inches by 13 feet 3, and 14 feet high, with flagged floors; both of them totally dark, and fitter for a deposit of coals, than the reception of any human being. I am now happy to add, that at my last visit, in 1809, the Keeper informed me that these detestable Cells, "under the Arch of a Bridge," had not been used for the preceding twelve months, as the bottom part of the straw upon which the Prisoners slept, was found to have rotted into dung!

The new building consists of seven rooms. The upper story, the third from the ground, is divided into three apartments: The first, 13 feet by 9, and 8 feet high; the second and third nearly of the same dimensions. Each has a good window fronting the North-east, with a fire-place, a wooden bedstead, with straw and coverlets, and is occupied generally by such Prisoners as can work at any business, Tailors, Shoemakers, Weavers, &c. These are all dry good rooms, and have no communication with each other.

The second story immediately underneath is the Men's day-room, in which the principal part of the Male Prisoners are kept. It is a very large and good room, 31 feet 3 inches by 16 feet 5, and 9 feet high; and has four large windows fronting the North-east, a good fire-place, a boarded floor, and ceiled roof, which make it a very comfortable apartment.

The story on the ground-floor is divided into three rooms, of the same dimensions as the upper, or third story. One of them is appropriated to beating of hemp, for which purpose blocks are fixed; and here the Prisoners from the day-room are alternately taken to their work.

This Prison is well supplied with water. Each Prisoner has not only the County allowance of 3d. per day, but receives also the whole profit of his or her earnings. People of the Town attend daily with victuals, and each Prisoner purchases for himself what he thinks proper.

No Chaplain, nor any religious attentions.

There is an useless piece of ground adjoining the Bridewell, and desirably calculated for a court-yard and workshop, which, as being immediately in view of the Turnkey, would be perfectly secure. I was sorry to observe a very large dung-hill at one end of this ground, just under the Prison windows, so that it is worse than useless, by becoming a nuisance, which might easily be removed.

A new Gaol, with Courts of Justice adjacent, is now building in a good situation, and a little way out of the Town.

The prison closed in 1819 and its operation taken over by the new County Gaol and House of Correction at Old Elvet.

Jimmy Allen's Bar now incorporates part of the old prison.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.


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