Ancestry UK

City and County Gaol, South Gate, Exeter, Devon

Exeter's City and County Gaol was established in the 16th century in the city's South Gate, hence its alternative name of the South Gate (or Southgate) prison.

During the reign of Charles II, Dissenters and their Pastors were imprisoned in the South Gate for their refusal to conform to the established Church.

In 1777, John Howard wrote:

This gaol, called the Southgate Prison, has in the keeper's house, two rooms (the long-room, and shoe) and seven lodging-rooms, for debtors.—The three wards on the other side of the gateway, for felons, are very close, dirty and offensive: no chimney: no court: no water. In 1779, I found a woman sick, who had been confined three years on the felons side. The act for preserving the health of prisoners, and clauses against spirituous liquors, not hung up.

Here are sent 51 penny loaves (weight, July, 1782, 8oz.) every week to the debtors; if only one, he has the whole; if more, they are equally divided amongst them: from what legacies they come is not known in the gaol, as no other account is hung up than two painted boards, which contain memorials of sundry bequests. They are not dated; one of them seems ancient. — The tailor's company send them is. 4d. on Easter-eve; and at the same time they receive from the chamber 36 penny loaves.

Fees of the Gaoler or Keeper of the Gaol called the Compter at the South-Gate settled at theGeneral Quarter Sessions held at the Guild-Hall 10th of April 11th George II 1738 in pursuance of an Act for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors &c.
£. S. D.
For the commitment fee of every prisoner for debt, damages, and contempts though it be on several actions or processes only0 13  4
To the turnkey0  1  0
For every liberate0  2  0
For the use of a bed in a single room for one person per week0  3  0
For the use of a room wherein are two or more beds, and two lodge in each bed, then for each bed0  2  6
For the use of the common room the prisoner finding the bed0  0  6
But the keeper finding the bed then per week0  1  0
KEEPER,Sarah Strong:, now John Herbart.
Fees,Debtors, £0 : 16 : 4.
 Felons, £0 : 14 : 4.
Transports, the expence.
Allowance,Debtors, none.
 Felons, three-halfpennyworth of bread a day each.
Garnish,Debtors, £0 : 3 : 6.
Number, Debtors.Felons &c.  DebtorsFelons &c.
1774,Feb. 20,11,1.1782,July 28,3,1.
1775,Dec. 15,7,2.1783,Feb. 2,4,3. Deserter 1.
1779,Jan, 31.2,2.    
SURGEON,none. But ordered for felons by the chamber upon occasion.

Conditions in South Gate prison were also described by Alexander Jenkins in 1808:

It has from time immemorial, been the common prison, and Sheriff's compter, for this City and County, and a worse one can hardly be imagined; the felons' prison is on the western side, consisting of three separate ground rooms, two of them appropriated for the men, and one for women; these rooms from their damp situation, and darkness, may not improperly be termed dungeons, and to add to their miserable state, the common sewer and drain from Southernhay, runs directly under them, into which an opening being made for their own conveniences, a very noisome smell commonly arises. The Debtors' side, though not so bad as the Felons', is gloomy and unwholesome, and confinement in it is too severe a punishment for those unhappy objects, whose crimes are, too often, only misfortunes and poverty: over the Felons' cells is a large room called the shoe, from the poor Debtors begging the charity of passengers from the barred window, and to receive which, they let down an old shoe by a cord: this room served formerly for a Chapel, as appears by part of the decalogue lately remaining, painted on the wall, but at present no clergyman administers spiritual comfort to the afflicted inhabitants. On the tops of the towers are battlemented leads, which command a fine prospect, here the Debtors are sometimes permitted by the Gaoler to recreate themselves and enjoy the blessings of wholesome and free air.

City and County Gaol, South Gate, Exeter, 1803.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

This Prison is within the South Gate, from which, popularly, it takes its name; and consists, amongst others, of two rooms in the Keeper's house, called the Long Room, and the Shoe. The latter, it seems, was so first denominated, from a Shoe that was formerly suspended by a string from the iron-grated window towards the street, to solicit the charity of passengers; but the practice is now discontinued by order of the Magistrates. This room is set apart for such Debtors as bring their own beds, and pay sixpence per week.

The Long Room is for the Debtors to walk in, here being no court-yard. There are also nine other rooms, to which the Gaoler furnishes beds and bedding, at from 3s. to 10s. 6d.per week, according to the ability of his Prisoners.

It is a singular circumstance, but every week sixty penny loaves,(weighing, 6th Oct. 1803, nine ounces and a half each) are sent to the Debtors of this Gaol. If there be only one Debtor, he has the whole batch; if more, it is equally divided amongst them. From what source they come was not known in the Gaol, but the Keeper gave me the following account: "Mr. and Mrs. Seldon's legacy, 2s.6d. Mrs. Pengelly, 1s. Mrs. Reed, 6d. and the Chamber of Exeter, 1s. Total, 5s."

On the side of the gateway opposite to the Gaoler's apartments, are the three wards appropriated to the Felons, dark, dirty, and offensive. We went into them with lighted candles. They have no chimney for ventilation. No court-yard be longing to them, nor water, except what was brought by the Keeper, at his pleasure or convenience. Nothing could exceed the squalid wretchedness of the Prisoners.

At my visit in 1803, I found the old Gaoler had been dismissed, a new one appointed, and windows were now made through the wall, which gave sufficient light, without the assistance of candles.

The cell for women (No. 1,) is 16 feet 9 inches by 9 feet 6, and only 6 feet high. It has barrack bedsteads, with two straw-in-sacking beds, and three rugs each; and is lighted by a window, of 3 feet and an inch by 2 feet 8 inches.

Cell No. 2, for men, is 9 feet 6 by 8 feet 9, and 12 feet 6 inches high; fitted up with two wooden bedsteads, straw-in-sacking beds, and rugs. The window of this cell is 2 feet 6 inches by 2 feet.

No. 3 is also a cell for men, 18 feet 6 by 11, and 12 feet high; fitted up as the former, and lighted by a window, of 3 feet by 2 feet and an inch.

Over these miserable night-cells are two day rooms; the one 17 feet 6 inches by 14 feet 9, and 13 feet 6 inches high, with a window, 2 feet 5 by 2 feet; the other 16 feet 3 by 9feet, and only 6 feet 3 inches high, with a window of 3 feet 3 inches by 2 feet 10. Both these day-rooms have fire-places, and coals are allowed for them by the Chamber of Exeter, during the six Winter months. When Prisoners are indulged the use of these day rooms, a trap door is opened in the floor, and they ascend through it by a ladder from the cell below.

Besides the foregoing weekly allowance of bread to the Debtors, the Taylors' Company give 1s. 4d. on every Easter Eve. At the same time they also receive from the Chamber thirty-six penny loaves; and as many more at Christmas.

Transports in this Gaol have not the King's allowance of 2s. 6d. per week. Here is no bath nor oven: The Gaol is but seldom visited. The Act for Preservation of Health is not exhibited; but the prohibitory Clauses against Spirituous Liquors are written on paper, and stuck up. No Rules and Orders. It is not in the power of repairing to make this a good Prison; but it is to be hoped that so opulent a City will ere long follow the example of the County, and build a new one in its stead.

Gaoler,Thomas Dodge, now Richard Tarbart. Salary, 30l. 10s.
Fees, for Debtors, 16s. 8d. (No Table.) Besides which, the Under Sheriff demands 3s. for his Liberate! No Fees for Felons. For the conveyance of Transports, 1s. per mile.
Garnish, for Debtors, not yet abolished; 2s.

Chaplain, none.

Surgeon, Mr. Walker, for Felons only.
Salary, none. Makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners.Debtors,Felons, &c.
1802, Feb. 1st,96
1803, Oct. 6th,36
1806, Sept. 26th,49.

Allowance, to Debtors, See the remarks above. To Felons, and Criminal Prisoners, one pound and half of bread per day, sent from the Bakers, and which I have always found of full weight.

The South Gate was demolished in 1819 and its gaol replaced by the new City Gaol and Bridewell, located at the corner of Queen Street and Northernhay Street, Exeter.


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