Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell, Durham, County Durham

In 1819, a new County Gaol and House of Correction was opened in Durham. It was located at the rear of the County Assizes at the south side of Old Elvet. It replaced the previous County Gaol on Saddler Street and County Bridewell on Elvet Bridge.

County Gaol and Bridewell, Durham, from the north c.1907. © Peter Higginbotham

In the new establishment, debtors were kept apart from other prisoners and male and female debtors were separated. Thirteen classes of criminal prisoners were kept separate:

In the Gaol

  1. Male felon convicts and transports.
  2. Female ditto.
  3. Male prisoners committed on charges of felony.
  4. Female ditto.
  5. Male prisoners convicted of, or committed for, misdemeanors.
  6. Female ditto.
  7. King's evidence.
  8. Male prisoners sick.
  9. Female ditto.

In the House of Correction

  1. Male prisoners committed on charges of felony, or convicted of theft or larceny, and committed for punishment by hard labour.
  2. Female ditto.
  3. Other male prisoners.
  4. Other female ditto.

A tread-mill or 'stepping-mill'was installed in the prison in April 1822. A report on the prison published the following year includes a description of its use:

The situation is excellent, and the prison stands very favourably for ventilation; a considerable space of ground is enclosed by the boundary walls. There is a handsome court-house and offices, governor's house, and buildings capable of receiving from seventy to eighty prisoners. The governor from his windows might inspect all the seven yards, which radiate as from one central point, but the iron railing in front of some of them is boarded up, which very improperly obstructs his view into them. The work carried on by the male prisoners is weaving, making mats, beating and preparing English flax, by a newly-invented machine requiring great labour; several of the prisoners committed for minor offences are employed in spade husbandry, in the large piece of ground, adjoining the prison, in which potatoes are cultivated for the use of the prison; these men are also occasionally employed in levelling the ground, and making and repairing the roads adjoining the prison. The female prisoners are well employed in washing, making and mending the gaol clothing, spinning, knitting, &c.; a great part of the goods manufactured by the prisoners, are made up into clothing for the prison use, the remainder is sold. The share of earnings to the prisoner is fixed at threepence per day, but they receive only a part of it at the time, to purchase sundry articles and tobacco; the remainder is paid to them on their discharge, and in many instances from £2 to £3 have been paid to a prisoner after a confinement of 18 months or upwards: the introduction of tobacco should be prohibited. If earnings be allowed, the fixed money-allowance should at least be altered to one proportioned to the actual proceeds of their labour and industry.

The reservation of a share of earnings, to be paid to the prisoner on his discharge, has been hitherto considered as a beneficial regulation, especially where regard is had to his good conduct, as well as industry in prison; but the outline of the following benevolent scheme, recently introduced at this gaol, points out an excellent mode for the distribution of any funds, disposable upon the expiration of a sentence of corrective punishment, after providing the discharged prisoner a sum necessary to pay his way home. If a prisoner conducts himself well during his confinement in this prison, he is furnished at his discharge with a certificate from the governor to that effect, which he takes as some recommendation for service; and if he conducts himself honestly and industriously at home, or in service, for the six successive months, and can then produce another certificate to the same effect from the minister and churchwardens of the parish where he resides (or, if in service, signed by his employer, and countersigned by the minister) he will be paid, out of a fund raised by the members of the Chapter of this diocese, the sum of two guineas; and if at the expiration of the next six months, he produces another similar certificate, he will be entitled to three guineas more. The fund is only of recent establishment, and one person has already produced the necessary certificate, and is about to receive the reward.

It is very satisfactory to report, that a stepping-mill is now erecting, and is in a state of great forwardness. It consists of four chambers, each containing a wheel capable of holding eight men: it will be applied to the grinding of corn for the public, and in case a sufficient supply should not at all times be procured, a fly wheel is attached to the mill, which will regulate any extra power, and allow the wheels to be kept in motion without injury to the machinery. It is hoped that this machine will also be applied to the pump at present in use in one of the yards.

The numbers committed are:

1820, for Felony86  Misdemeanours174
182161 198
1822, to 31st May 33 79

These returns include both Gaol and House of Correction. Juvenile offenders are, it is feared, increasing; they are separated from the other prisoners. A school-master is appointed, with a salary of £20 per annum from the county, and an additional donation of £20 per annum paid him by the Chapter of the diocese, whose laudable interest in the reformation of prisoners confers on its members the highest credit. A part of three days in the week is appropriated to the instruction of the prisoners, and the chaplain superintends. A Ladies' Committee visits the female prisoners with much assiduity; and a matron, with an adequate salary from the county, resides in the prison, who has the entire care of the women, the propriety of which appointment is becoming more generally acknowledged by the magistracy.

The dietary of this prison is as follows: 1 lb. of bread every day. For breakfast, one quart of oatmeal pottage, made up with half a pint of milk; the same for supper every day. For dinner, oh Sundays and Thursdays, ¼ lb. dried fish, and 1 lb. of potatoes. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, one quart of oatmeal pottage; on Tuesdays and Fridays, two red herrings and 1 lb. of potatoes. When potatoes are not in season, ¼ lb. of rice is to be delivered to the prisoners in lieu of each pound of potatoes. This dietary is probably not exceeded in quantity by any other in the kingdom, unless by that of a neighbouring prison, North Allerton.

In 1838, the Inspectors of prisons reported:

The prison at Durham is used by the county at large, and, indeed, with the exception of lock-up houses, &c., is the only prison within the county. It was built about 20 years ago, and stands in the outskirts of the town, and on a gravelly foundation. It cost more than 100,000l.; but I am informed that there was much waste in the erection. Tho governor's house was first put up in one place and then pulled down and put up in another. Like almost every expensive prison that I have seen, it is so ill-constructed that, notwithstanding the great outlay of money, the very object of the building has been, to a great extent, lost. Nothing beyond a very partial separation of the prisoners can be effected; and, until the late governor provided for it, there was no means of inspection. On the debtors' side of the prison there are 2 halls or kitchens, 4 public rooms for sitting and sleeping, and 10 private rooms. For the male criminal prisoners there are 11 day-rooms, 1 receiving-room, 14 sleeping rooms, and 6 cells (4 of them being dark, and used only for refractory prisoners). The female prisoners have 5 day-rooms, 2 sleeping-rooms, 12 sleeping-cells, and 1 dark cell. Thus there are only 68 rooms and cells in the whole prison. There are 12 airing-yards.

The prison is dry, and I found most parts of it, though not all, clean. It is warmed, with exception of the sleeping-rooms, by open fires. The ventilation requires constant attention. The prison is moderately secure. As nearly as I could ascertain by referring to the records, there have been, altogether, 7 instances of escape. The last occurred about 4 months ago.

Prisoners.—There wore 176 at the time of my visit; viz., 146 criminals (including 30 vagrants) and 30 debtors. 143 of the prisoners were males, and 33 females. The average number of prisoners appears to have been, for some time, diminishing. During the last 4 or 5 years it has been about 145; immediately before that time it was about 170; and before that the number was yet higher. The greatest decrease has been among the debtors, whose average number is not now above 20. Many of the debtors at the time of my visit had come in a short time before, to take advantage of the Insolvent Debtors' Act. The total number of prisoners admitted last year was 1039; viz., 956 criminals and 83 debtors. The greatest number at any one time was about 180, and the least number about 120. The prisoners are in the habit of washing themselves daily, and I found them all clean.

Health.—Generally good. The prisoners appear to improve in health, commonly during short periods of confinement, but to fall off when the periods are long. The usual complaints are itch, venereal disorders, and catarrh. There is but little fever or other inflammatory complaints. The influenza appeared last year, and about 1 prisoner in 10 was affected. The average number of sick prisoners at any one time is about 5 in the whole, or 1 in 30. The total number of deaths during the last 10 years is 18, or something less than 2 per annum. Last year there was only one death.

Food.—The dietary is as follows:—Breakfast and Supper—Half a pound of broad and a pint and a half of oatmeal gruel (containing 3 ounces of oatmeal). Dinner—1 pint of beef stow or soup (containing 6 oz. of meat and bone, or about 4 oz. of meat), and 1 pound of potatoes with salt, on Monday and Wednesday. Half a pound of bread and 1 pound of potatoes with salt, on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Female prisoners are, in addition, allowed half a pint of milk each daily, and 1 oz. of tea and 4 oz. of sugar each, per week. (The extra allowance to females is on account of their labour in washing.)

The food is of good quality. Its daily cost, including cooking, is about 4d. per head. Additional supplies from without are allowed to the untried, but not to the convicted.

Bedding.—A straw mattress, a blanket, and a rug, in summer, with an extra blanket in winter. The prisoners generally sleep two in a bed. The bed-clothes were moderately clean.

Clothing.—Clothing is supplied to the convicted only. The dress is comfortable, and the only thing to object to is the yellow stripes upon the stockings, by which the wearer is constantly marked as a criminal.

Discipline.—The silent system was introduced by the late governor; and, except as regards the females, it appears to have been generally carried into full effect; and to continue to be so now. As this is the only prison in my district in which the silent system is in operation, I made particular inquiries as to its results; and what I learnt went to confirm the opinion that I have long entertained, that the silent system is much inferior to the separate system, but, at the same time, greatly superior to a system of unrestrained intercourse. This opinion was agreed in by the late governor, as it is by the present governor; but the capabilities of the prison are not such as to admit of the separate system being introduced. Before the introduction of the silent system there appear to have been occasionally great disorders in the prison. In some instances robberies were planned, which were afterwards carried into execution. It is believed, however, of course, that nothing of the kind has taken place from the time that silence was enforced. The system is carried into execution in the usual way; namely, by means of wardsmen; the regular prison officers watching and superintending. The office of wardsman strange to say, is made compulsory; and in effect is equivalent to a punishment for being the best conducted prisoner in the ward. For the person selected—and selected on the ground of good conduct—receives no reward, nor favourable distinction of any kind; but is subjected to loss of food, &c., for neglecting to report offender's. In addition to this, the poor man has sometimes to bear the ill will of his fellow prisoners, and is occasionally threatened with ill usage, to be indicted after liberation. Under these circumstances it is surprising that the system works; yet it does appear to work tolerably well (always excepting the females), and that without much punishment. On an average, indeed, the punishments do not exceed one per day; though there are probably many offences committed which are not reported, or detected by the prison officers. The most common offences are talking, making noises, leaving places, quarrelling, striking one another, injuring the books, &c. The usual punishment for talking, or any other minor offence, is the stoppage of a meal; and for a serious offence, solitary confinement in the dark. Corporal punishment is never resorted to.

I was surprised, in my private examination of the prisoners, not to find their minds more soured by the constraint under which they are kept, and that they did not entertain angry feelings toward the officers. Such did not appear, in fact, to be the case; at least to any considerable extent. Some of the prisoners stated, that they felt the restriction to silence very severe during the first month or so, but that they then became accustomed to it, and did not so much mind it. Indeed some of them appeared to consider the long continued sitting lo which they are. constrained more irksome than the silence. One of them gravely called tho sitting, "hard work." The chief complaint that I received was from the prisoners in a ward where all the occupants had been punished in consequence of a noise having been made the evening before, and no one having been willing to inform against the offender.

As regards classification, little more is done than separating males from females, and the tried from the untried. There is but little work also, and that little is but slightly productive. The chief employment for the males is breaking stones, and, of late, picking oakum; and for the females, washing and cleaning. The sum received for the labour of the prisoners last year (in addition, to the value of the domestic services performed) was only 23l.; but it is hoped that more than this trifling sum will be received in future, in consequence of increased attention to the picking of oakum. The same difficulty, however, exists in this county as in Northumberland, in procuring profitable employment for prisoners.

Very little is done in the way of mental instruction. A turnkey acts as schoolmaster one hour in the day; and when teaching the boys, he has some assistance from the wardsmen. The prisoners are supplied with Bibles, but there is no library; a circumstance which must add greatly to the dulness and fatigue of the silent system. There is a chaplain to the prison, who reads part of the church service daily, and who preaches on the Sunday morning, and expounds the Scriptures on the Sunday afternoon. He also attends on. the Saturday afternoon to give religious instruction; and attends occasionally to admonish privately.

The prisoners get up at 6 in summer and at half-past 7 in winter; and they go to bed at 9 in summer and at 7 in winter. So that in summer they are allowed 9 hours for sleep, and in winter 12½ hours. Whether nature, however, consents to this arrangement, and is equally indulgent, is questionable.

Female prisoners.—The female prisoners are superintended entirely by female officers. As a class they do more work than the males, but a much lower degree of order is preserved among them.

Debtors.—As already mentioned, the number of debtors is much less than it used to be. Such of the debtors as are unable to maintain themselves are allowed the prison dietary, and are supplied with bedding, fuel, &c. Visits to debtors, and supplies of food from without, are freely permitted. Indeed there appears to be no lack of comfort, or even of luxury, among them. One of their pastimes, I observed, is playing at cards, though I do not happen to know what amount of their creditors' property they generally stake in each rubber. One of the debtors (confined under a Chancery decree) has been an inmate of the prison 27 years! Some time ago his portrait was published; his fat and sleek appearance being, I suppose, regarded as a proud testimony to the excellence of his quarters. Weight of flesh, however, and ruddiness of complexion, cannot last for ever, even in a prison; and the worthy debtor has at length begun to show signs of advancing age; though the falling off may in some degree be accounted for by his apprehension of the abolition of imprisonment for debt; which, I was informed, causes him no little anxiety.

Miscellaneous.—Untried prisoners are allowed to receive visits from their friends during two hours of each day, except Sunday; the governor using his discretion as to the admission of particular individuals. No visits, are allowed to convicted prisoners during the first six months of confinement, except on a special order from a justice of the peace, which is not often obtained. Letters are put on the same footing as visits; all letters, however, are examined. Smoking, is allowed to debtors, but not to criminals. There is at present no insane prisoner. Assistance is occasionally given in enabling prisoners, on their liberation, to return to their parishes

Officers.—A governor, a chaplain, a surgeon, a matron, with a female assistant, a taskmaster, a clerk, 6 turnkeys, and a searcher. The present governor has been recently appointed, the late governor having died last summer. His manners are kind and conciliatory, yet accompanied, I hope, with a tolerable degree of firmness. He expresses himself very desirous to promote the moral improvement of the prisoners. Considering the strictness of part of the discipline of the prison, it is very creditable to him and to the officers generally, that there should be so few complaints from the prisoners.—The chaplain has held his appointment for a considerable time. He is kind-hearted, and evidently takes an interest in the performance of his duties.—The surgeon has been but recently appointed. He attends daily when necessary, and never less frequently than once in two days.—Among the subordinate officers, the governor speaks highly of the matron and her assistant, the taskmaster, five of the turnkeys, and the searcher.

Fees.—The governor has a fee of 3s. per week for each bed occupied by "Master debtors;" 1s. 6d. for a copy of the warrant for the imprisonment of a debtor; and 1s. 6d. for attending the Insolvent Debtors' Court.

Average cost of each prisoner during the year about 20l.—Daily cost, about 1s. 2d.

Jurisdiction.—The prison is under the general jurisdiction of the high sheriff and the justices of the peace for the county of Durham. The appointment of the governor, however, is not in their hands. Until lately, this appointment rested with the bishop of the diocese, as prince palatine; but it now lies with the Crown.

As one immediate and ready improvement in this prison, I have recommended the appointment of an efficient schoolmaster; but the county magistrates have declined adopting the recommendation.

February, 1838

The prison site in 1861 is shown on the map below.

County Gaol and Bridewell site, Durham, c.1861.

The prison was enlarged several times, mainly at the south of the site. A new wing, later known as 'C' wing, was added in 1850, with another erected in 1866-7. In 1876, it was reported that an addition of 167 cells for male prisoners had been completed and the chapel was being enlarged.

From its opening in 1819, executions were carried out at the prison. The last to take place in public was on 16 March 1865, when Matthew Atkinson was hanged by Thomas Askern for the murder of his wife. At the first attempt, the rope broke and Atkinson had to be hanged again ten minutes later. The last execution at the prison, on 17 December 1958, was that of Brian Chandler, a 20-year-old soldier for battering to death 83-year-old Martha Dodd.

In 1878, following the nationalisation of the prison system, the gaol became known as Her Majesty's Prison Durham.

Notable former inmates of Durham prison include husband and child poisoner Mary Ann Cotton, the 'Moors Murderer' Myra Hindley, and serial murderer Rose West.

Serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton, 1872. © Peter Higginbotham

H.M.P. Durham is still in operation as a men's prison, primarily serving courts in the north of England.


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.

  • Durham County Record Office, County Hall, Durham DH1 5UL. Holdings include: Nominal registers of prisoners (1908-64); Index to prisoners' names (1926-63); Register of deaths (1879-1963); Prisoners tried at Quarter Sessions and Assizes (1857-8); Register of habitual criminals and of persons sentenced to penal servitude liberated between 1 January and 31 December 1895 (1895); Register of officers (1897-1956); Rules of Durham Gaol and House of Correction (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.