Ancestry UK

County Gaol, Durham, County Durham

The Durham County Gaol was the property of the Bishop of Durham and was rebuilt in Saddler Street in the early 15th century. It was enlarged in 1773 but was still very cramped.

In 1784, John Howard reported on his visits to the gaol:

GAOLER, Bainbridge Wagon, now Thomas Bungey, by patent from the bishop durante bene placito.

Fees,Debtors,£0 : 10 : 0.
 Felons, at Assize,  0 : 16 : 8.
 Quarter Sessions,   0 : 13 : 4.
Transports, about £10: 10: 0 each.
Licence,Beer and Wine.


Allowance,Debtors, none.
 Felons, two pence a day.
Garnish,Debtors, £0 : 5 : 6..
 Felons,     0 : 1 : 0.

Number,Debtors.Felons &c. DebtorsFelons &c.
1774, Mar. 20,21,1.1776, Oct. 25, 18,3,1.
1775, Jan. 6,9,20.1779, June 29,14,22. Deserter 1.
1776, Jan. 14,21,12.1782, Mar. 242019

Rev. Mr. Decent.
Duty, Sunday and Tuesday.
Salary, £40.

Mr. Bainbridge.
Salary, none: he makes a bill.

The high gaol is the property of the bishop. By patent from his lordship Sir Hedworth Williamson, Bart. is perpetual Sheriff. The court for matter's-side debtors is only 24 feet by to: they are permitted sometimes to walk on the leads. They have beds in the upper hall and in several other rooms. Their rooms should be celled, that they might be lime-whited, to prevent infectious disorders, and that great nuisance of bugs, of which the debtors complain much here and at other places.—Common-side debtors have no court; their free wards, the Low Gaol, are two damp unhealthy rooms 10 feet 4 inches square, by the gateway: they are never suffered to go out of these, unless to chapel, which is the matter's-side debtors hall; and not always to that: for on a Sunday when I was there, and missed them at chapel, they told me they were not permitted to go thither. No sewers: at more than one of my visits, I learned that the dirt, ashes, &c. had lain there many months. There is a double barrelled pump, which raises water about 70 feet.

Felons have no court; but they have a day-room and two small rooms for an infirmary. The men are put at night into dungeons: one 7 feet square for three prisoners: another, the great hole, 16½. feet by 12, has only a little window. In this I saw six prisoners (in 1776), most of them transports, chained to the floor. In that situation they had been many weeks; and were very sickly. Their straw on the stone floor almost worn to dust. Long confinement, and not having the king's allowance of 2s. 6d. a week, had urged them to attempt an escape: after which the gaoler chained them as above. There is another dungeon for women-felons 12 feet by 8; and up stairs a separate room or two.

The common-side debtors in the low gaol, whom I saw eating boiled bread and water, told me, that this was the only nourishment some had lived upon for near a twelvemonth. They have from a legacy one (billing and six-pence a week in winter, and one Chilling a week in summer for coals. No memorandum of it in the gaol; perhaps this may in time be lost, as the gaoler laid two others were, viz, one of bishop Crewe, and another of bishop Wood; from which, prisoners had received no benefit for Tonic years part. But now the bishop has humanely filed bills in chancery and recovered theft: legacies, by which several debtors have been discharged.—Half a crown a week is paid to a woman for supplying the debtors with water, in the two rooms on the side of the gateway.—The act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. The clauses against spirituous liquors are hung up. Gaol delivery once a year. At several of my visits there were boys between thirteen and fifteen years of age, confined with the most profligate and abandoned.

There was a vacant piece of ground adjacent, of little use but for the gaoler's occasional lumber. It extends to the river, and measures about 22 yards by 16. I once and again advised the enclosing this for a court: as it might be done with little expence, and it appears that formerly here was a door-way into the prison: but when I was there in January 1776, I had the mortification to hear that the surgeon, who was uncle to the gaoler, had obtained from the bishop, in October preceding, a lease of it for twenty-one years, at the rent of one shilling per annum. He had built a little table on it.

In 1812, James Neild wrote a more extensive report on the establishment:

Gaoler, John Wolfe; appointed by Patent from the Bishop, durante bene placito. In the Patent this Prison is called "The Outer Gate."

Salary, 200l.; also for the Bridewell, 40l.; and 19l. from the rents of four small houses adjoining. Out of this Salary of 259l. the Gaoler pays Thirty Pounds per annum to a Turnkey and Assistants, and likewise provides them a house to live in. For removing of Transports, he is allowed the expence attending it.
Fees and Garnish are abolished.

Chaplain, Rev. James Deason; now Rev. William Baverslock.
Duty, Prayers and Sermon every Sunday. Salary, 40l.

Surgeon, Mr. Green. Salary, 6l. 6s. and his Bill for Medicines.

Number of Prisoners,Debtors.Felons, &c.Bridewell.
1801, Nov. 8th,151811
1802, Sept. 5th,18811,
1 Lunatick!
1809, Sept. 15th,121436

Allowance; If certified as Paupers, the Debtors have four-pence a day. Felons three-pence a day. Those in the Bridewell have the same as the Felons.

The High Gaol is the property of the Bishop of Durham. By patent from Bishop Talbot in 1723, Sir Hedworth Williamson, Bart. was appointed Sheriff; with a Salary of 10l per annum; and it continued in the family till 1810, when the present Bishop, Dr. Shute Barrington, appointed Adam Askew, Esquire.

There is a small room over the North front of the gateway, 12 feet 6 inches by 9 feet 10 inches, and 9 feet 9 inches high. This formerly was the Felons' day-room, but the active and intelligent Keeper has converted it into a Soup-Kitchen; the establishment and support of which arises as follows. There are twelve Prebendaries of the Diocese, and a Dean. Of the Prebendaries, three have dispensations, and do not keep any residence, nor contribute to the soup-establishment. The Prebendaries, who, for many years past, had sent an abundant dinner to the Prisoners in the Gaol, at the time they severally kept their residence, have, for the four or five last years, given in lieu of such dinners, five Guineas, which is paid to Mr. Wolfe, the Gaoler, who supplies both the Gaol and Bridewell with a good dinner, twice every week throughout the year.

The benevolent Bishop of Durham also gives ten Guineas yearly at Christmas, and the same at Lammas, for the like purpose; and the Dean of Durham, (Bishop of Lichfield,) ten Guineas annually. At the time of my last visit, in 1809, there was a surplus in Mr. Wolfe's hands of 28l. It gave me great pleasure to be informed that this admirable Fund has so increased, as to enable the Gaoler not only to furnish his Prisoners with dinners, as before mentioned, but occasionally to release Persons imprisonedfor Small Debts, and assist them often in obtaining their sixpences.

Here is a court-yard, of 62 feet by 59, the only one for Prisoners of every description. It is open all day for the accommodation of Debtors, except whilst the Felons are in it; which is for an hour or two in the day, when thought fit: and then the door is locked, to prevent any communication between them.

The Low-Gaol, as it is called, consists of two rooms, 10 feet 4 inches square; by the gateway under which, out of a door, are now conveyed the dirt, ashes, &c. which formerly lay undisturbed for many months. Both these rooms are Free-Wards. There are likewise three others at the top of the Gaol; the largest of which contains seven beds, the others one bed each; and to all of them the County furnishes iron bedsteads and straw matresses gratis. These rooms are now ceiled and lime-whited: But the Debtors complained of a great nuisance from the bugs, which the straw matresses harbour, so as to preclude a possibility of riddance.

Two rooms, formerly set apart for Infirmaries, are now appropriated to Women Debtors. The Masters-Side Debtors have six separate rooms, furnished by the Keeper at 3s. 6d. a week; or, if two sleep together, at 1s. 6d. each. Two of these rooms look towards the street, and open into the Chapel, which, formerly, was the Debtors' Hall.

The High-Gaol is supplied with water by a double-barrelled pump, which raises it about seventy feet. Half a crown per quarter is paid to a Woman, for supplying with water the Debtors in the Low-Gaol.

The County, hitherto, has provided no work for the Prisoners: but their humane Guardian, the Keeper, told me, "that he constantly procures employment for such as are not of handicraft trades, in spinning, picking of oakum, beating flax, &c. And that every Prisoner, however employed, receives the whole of his or her earnings."

Having described the Debtors' side of thegaol, Neild went on to that of the Felons. This section included a lightless subterranean 'oubliette', intended for the confinement pf those who had been condemned to perpetual imprisonment. While visiting this dungeon, he almost suffered a fatal accident.

I. The Men Felons' day-room, large and commodious, is situate at the top of the Prison, 28 feet in length, 18 in breadth, and 9 feet 7 inches high. It has two large windows fronting the South-east, which look also on the River; and one smaller window on the South-west side, by which means a thorough air is admitted. No other place is assigned for all descriptions of Male Prisoners.

II. The Women Felons' day-room is immediately under that appropriated to the Men: It has the same aspect, from two large windows looking to the South-east, and is 26 feet 6 inches long, 18 feet wide, and 8 feet 3 inches high. This, likewise is the only day-room, both for the Women Felons, and all other Female Offenders.

III. I come now to the five cells, in which the Felons sleep. They are surely to be numbered amongst the very worst in the kingdom; and the descent to them is by a flight of forty-one steps from the Men's day-room.

The lowest and largest of these live cells, called "The Great Hole" is l5, feet 2 inches by 11 feet 8 inches, and 7 feet 9 inches high. It has a flagged stone-floor, with straw and rugs furnished by the Comity. In this dungeon five of the Felons slept every night, when I was here in l802; but none are kept there now (1809), being removed to the room where the Women Felons used to sleep in l802.

The second cell, in which three Felons sleep, adjoins to the former; it is 11 feet 3 inches by 7 feet 4, and 7 feet 9 inches high. This too has a flagged floor, the same as the Great Hole. Both of them are totally dark, and, I may say, without ventilation, although each cell has a wooden tube, 8 inches by 5, which communicates, in a zig-zag direction, with the top of the building. But, as it is impossible to clean them, while in that form, I imagine they must long ago have been stopped up; for, on applying my candle to the mouth of the tube, not a breath of air was discernible. Both were damp and offensive.

The great attention of Mr. Wolfe to his Prisoners is manifest here, as well as in the Soup-Kitchen, by his frequently having them white-washed, and the doors kept open during the day. They would otherwise be fatal to many.

The two other Dungeons, in which the Women Felons sleep, are equally dark with those of the Men; but rendered somewhat less uncomfortable, by having boarded floors. They are immediately over those which I have already described. The largest of them is 16 feet 9 inches by 12 feet, and 11 feet 9 inches high: the other 11 feet 9 inches by 7 feet 10, and of the same height. Straw and rugs are allowed, as before; and here is the same obstructed ventilation.

There is a part of this Prison, which seems to have either escaped the vigilance of our excellent Howard, or to have been cautiously concealed from his acute inspection. This is a third Dungeon, on the same level with, but, by a passage, divided from the Great Hole. Having heard of it, I expressed a desire to see it, and the Turnkey fetched his keys.

This Dungeon, totally dark, is 7 feet by 6 feet 7, and 7 feet 9 inches high. In the middle of the flooring is a large, massy, wooden-grated trap door, strongly clouted with iron, and perforated with apertures 4 inches square. The Reader may guess my surprize, when upon this door's being lifted up, another dungeon presented itself!

I went down four stone steps: To the bottom one I found a ladder fixed; but not liking to trust myself upon it, turned back, and desired the Turnkey, with his candle, to go first. I followed down the ladder, which consisted of eleven rounds, or staves, and brought me into a vaulted or arched landing-place. Here I was most miraculously preserved from instant death; for, retreating at the bottom of the ladder two paces, I fell backwards: my coat pocket caught hold of something, which, with my weight, tore through the strong tape binding, and during the momentary suspension, I fortunately caught hold of the Turnkey; otherwise I must have precipitated to the bottom, and been dashed in pieces.

When I had recovered from the fright, and lighted my candle, I descended, by eleven stone steps, into the lowest Dungeon of all, which is 10 feet by 9, and 7 feet high to the crown of the arch. There is in the stone wall a niche, or narrow passage, with a privy, and a round hole cut in the seat.

Though there was no ventilation whatever in this dark Cimmerian Cavern, I found it perfectly dry, and even less disagreeable than the arched landing-place above it. The air was warm, but not oppressively so, nor loaded with vapours. My candle, which I letdown the sewer several feet, to ascertain if there had been any Prisoners there lately, shewed no signs of a feculent, excrementitious, or corrupted atmosphere.

When the Prison was built, in times now long since past, this place of extreme durance must have been intended as an Oubliette. The ruins of some I have seen, in what is called a "Castle-Keep;" and there is one in excellent preservation at Alnwick Castle, which, by the roof, appeared to be of Saxon architecture. They are subterraneous caverns, in which such unhappy persons as had incurred the displeasure of a powerful Baron or Chieftain, in feudal times, were, to gratify his malice, let down, with a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine; and the ladder being then drawn up, were never more heard of, or enquired after, but suffered to perish in solitude, famine, and darkness!

The Rev. Mr. Nesfield, an active Magistrate of this County, told me that he remembered a Man's being confined in this Dungeon; but no sooner did he receive the information, than repairing to the Prison, he ordered him to be immediately taken out. This, probably, was done by that unfeeling wretch, of whom Mr. Howard speaks, as torturing his Prisoners with thumb-screws!

It is a fortunate circumstance for humanity, where so much power is lodged, that the present Gaoler, Mr. Wolfe, never treats his Prisoners with that rigorous severity, which so often hardens the Gaoler's heart; and that the ear of the learned Prelate, who adorns the Diocese, is ever open to the cries of distress.

I have often wished that a new Gaol were built at this place. There is a plot of ground behind the Sessions House, seemingly but of little use; and not only well adapted for the purpose of both Prisons, but abundantly supplied by a spring of water, and with stone and lime almost upon the spot.

On my visit here in September l802, I observed, that out of the 18 Debtors, 11 only were at Divine Service, but that of the 8 Felons, all attended, except one. Their general behaviour was orderly; and attentive to a very appropriate discourse from the Chaplain.

In 1819, the prison moved to the new County Gaol and Bridewell located, as Neild had suggested, on land at the rear of the Assize Courts on Old Elvet.


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.

  • No individual records identified for this establishment — any information welcome.
  • 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.