Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell, Ilchester, Somerset

Ilchester (also known as Ivelchester) was the county town of Somerset until 1832 and was home to the County Gaol from around 1166. It originally occupied a small building set back from the what is now the High Street, near the market place. Sometime after 1322, it moved to a small stone-built structure in the middle of Ilchester Bridge. In around 1614, a new building was erected on the north bank of the river in Northover. Two of its rooms were used as a Bridewell, or House of Correction.

After visiting the prison in 1788, John Howard wrote:

A new gaol at the back of the old one, is almost finished, containing twenty-six cells (eight feet eight inches by seven feet eight inches). There are four staples and rings fixed in the floor of each cell; surely not for chaining down prisoners in their solitary confinement. This gaol being near the river, I hope the gentlemen will not forget baths as the act directs. Debtors' court too small; may be enlarged (forty feet in front) at a small expense. Allowance to felons three pennyworth of bread. Convicts have the king's allowance of half a crown a week. Gaoler's salary £125 in lieu of the tap. Surgeon Mr. Poole; his salary £25. No rules hung up.

1788, July 2, Debtors 57. Felons&c. 17.

The building work referred to by Howard was the addition of 26 cells to the accommodation.

After a visit to the prison in 1801, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, Edward Scadding: now William Bridle. Salary, 125l.

Fees, for Debtors, Felons, and Bridewell, 14s. 4d. Besides which the Under Sheriff demands from every Debtor, 6s. 8d. for his liberate! Conveyance of Transports, one shilling each per mile. Garnish abolished.

Chaplain, Rev. Thomas Rees. Duty, Prayers and Sermon every Sunday. Salary, 50l.

Surgeon, Mr. Poole. Salary, none. Makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners,

Debtors.Felons &c.
1800, April 7th,2836.
1801, Dec. 27th,2934.

Allowance, Debtors and Felons, a sixpenny loaf each per day. Its weight, Dec. 1801, was two pounds seven ounces.


The Gaol of Ivelchester, now Ilchester, which is likewise the County Bridewell, stands near the river Ivel, whence the Town derives its name; and a great part of it is encircled by a boundary-wall, about 16 feet high, which, whilst it adds to its security, affords the Keeper a convenient garden for the growth of vegetables.

The Turnkey's lodge fronts the river, on the left side of the gate of entrance; and on the right are a warm and cold bath. Over these and the gateway are three sleeping-rooms.

A small garden leads to the Gaoler's house; which, although placed in the centre of the building, commands but a very small part of the Prison. It has a cupola on the top, with a bell, which serves either for the Chapel, or for alarm, if needful. The court-yards are five; of which the first, on the right-hand, is for those Prisoners who are committed for petty offences, or until they pay a fine; and through which all who enter must pass to the Debtor's apartments. The pump, which stands in a small adjoining area, and supplies the whole Prison with excellent water, is another means of intercourse.

On the ground-floor are arcades, for the accommodation of Prisoners in wet weather. Over these rise two stories, to which the ascent is by a stone stair-case; each story containing five cells, 9 feet by 6, and 8 feet 6 inches high, fitted up with perforated iron bedsteads, and straw, changed either monthly or oftener, as needful; a blanket, and a coverlet, or rug. Each cell has a double door; the outer iron-grated, the inner of wood, which opens into a passage 4 feet wide; the windows of it, which are four, looking into the court-yard. The cells have each a semicircular window, half glazed, half open, with sloping boards, and have a view into the Keeper's garden. Here is likewise an aperture in the wall, of 18 inches by 9, for light and ventilation in every cell, except two, which are dark, and destined for the refractory. In this part of the Prison Common-Side Debtors sleep, and pay as per Table: in the day-time they were allowed the use of the Master's-Side Debtors' court, as well as of the mess-room and fire.

Adjoining to the arcades before mentioned is the Keeper's cellar; and over it are two stories, containing six cells, fitted up with semicircular windows, &c. like those before described. These are appropriated to Prisoners for fines and petty offences. The Master's-Side Debtors have a day-room and mess-room, of about 20 feet each by 12, with seventeen lodging-rooms above, capable of accommodating thirty persons, and for which they pay as per Table. Behind this part of the building is a spacious court-yard, where the Prisoners play at fives, skittles, tennis, &c.

On the left entrance from the Turnkey's lodge, is the Male Felons' court-yard, with iron palisades towards the small garden in front of the Keeper's house. On the ground-floor is a place for coals; and a large day-room, to which the County allows fuel in severe weather, having arcades to walk under when it is rainy. Over these are two stories, each containing eight cells, of the same size, and fitted up as counterparts, in the same manner as those on the right entrance already mentioned: and each cell is furnished with ter pounds of clean wheat-straw every week.

The Women Debtor's court is 18 yards by 6, and was originally intended for the use of sick Prisoners. It is separated from the Men Felons' court by a dwarf wall, and single iron palisade only, through which they can see and converse with each other. They have arcades also, under which they walk in wet weather; and over these are their two sleeping-rooms, and two Infirmaries.

On the upper-story are five cells, which, with six others over the Chapel, are appropriated to the most orderly of the Criminal Prisoners, and have boarded floors.

The Chapel, to which the access is through the Keeper's house, stands on the Felons'-Side of the Gaol, and the Women Convicts are placed out of sight of the other Prisoners. The Women Debtors, and Criminals, are seated in the gallery. The Men-Debtors sit underneath; and the rest of the ground-floor is occupied by Prisoners of all descriptions. On the whole, it seems not well partitioned off.

The Debtors, I found, were not obliged to go to Chapel; and only eight out of the twenty-nine attended Divine Service, when I was there in December 1801.

Women Felons. The court-yard appropriated for them is larger than that for the Men-Felons, and completely separated from it. There is a pump in it, but the water not being very good, it is seldom used. On the ground-floor are fourteen cells, of 10 feet by 7 feet 6, and 8 feet 6 inches high, together with a day-room.

On the upper-story is the same number of cells, and a lodge for a Woman Turnkey, who attends on the Female Felons, and is paid a weekly salary by the County. All the upper cells open into an iron-railed gallery, and have wooden bed steads, with straw and blanketing, according to the season.

In the garden is the engine-house, from which reservoirs are filled, and the whole Prison supplied with soft water, through pipes conveyed into the several courts.

Men-Prisoners are washed regularly, and shaved, and have a clean dowlas shirt every week. The County clothing is provided for them, with brown and yellow stripes; but, not being compelled to wear it, they contrive by every means to do without; and very few of them had it on when I made my visits.

The sewers are judiciously placed, and not offensive. The whole Prison is white-washed once a year, or twice, according as occasion requires, or the cells are occupied.

Six only have died during the last seven years, out of seventy-eight, the average number of Prisoners here confined. Convicts have the King's allowance of 2s.6d. per week.

The Act for the Preservation of Health, is duly hung up, as well as the Clauses against Spirituous Liquors.

Here is no employment provided for by the County; but at my visit there were three Debtors at work, who were of handicraft trades.

The fifty shillings, formerly paid from a Legacy of Mr. Kelson, of Norton, to the poorest Debtors at Midsummer,, has, from some unknown cause, been long discontinued. No Memorial of it being hung up in the Gaol, I could gain no better information concerning it.

SOMERSETSHIRE to wit. At the General Quarter Sessions held the 31st day of March, at Ivelchester, 1761, before Edward Phelips, Esq. &c.
A TABLE OF Rates and Fees,
Settled, established, and allowed to be taken by the Keeper of the Common Gaol, in and for the said County, by virtue of an Act of 32d Geo. II.
£. s. d.
For the Discharge of every Debtor0 13  4
To the Turnkey0  1  0
For every Debtor lodging singly, weekly, including the use of bed and bedding0  1  6
But, if two Debtors lodge together, both weekly
 The Gaoler is not to compel any Debtor to lodge single.
0  9  9
If a Debtor has a bed and bedding of his own, then0  1  0
If he lodges in the outside ward, then weekly only0  0  6
If a bed of his own, then nothing for it.
29th July 1761. We do hereby approve and ratify the Table of Fees above written, pursuant to the said Statute.

At my visit in December 1801, I paid the Fees of a poor Debtor, whose Plaintiff had forgiven him his debt. But there was another demand, of six shillings and eight-pence, by the Under-sheriff of the County of Somerset, for his liberate; which I was obliged to discharge, before the Prisoner could be set at liberty!

Sir Geo. Paul justly observes, that, "as no Man is the voluntary inhabitant of a Prison, and as Fees are no part of the sentence of the law, Fees, of all kinds, either from Debtors, or persons accused of crimes, are absurd in their institution, and oppressive in their practice."

Situate as Ilchester is, in a remote corner of the county, on the banks of the river Ivel, (anciently Yeovil,) this Prison subjects its inhabitants, and particularly Debtors, and those detained for fines, to many and great inconveniencies. Too far removed from their friends to receive occasional gratuities, and there being no manufactory in the town to afford them regular employment, they offer an abundant claim to pity. Mr. Gye, the humane printer of the Bath Paper, frequently represents their distressed situation, and receives casual benefactions for their relief.

The Assizes are never held at Ilchester. The Spring Assize is always at Taunton; the Summer Assize at Bridgewater and Wells alternately. At Taunton the Keepers lodge their Prisoners at separate inns. At Bridgewater the Prison is only one room, under the Town-Hall, with straw upon the floor; and where, as I was informed, fifty Prisoners had been confined for six days together!

This County Gaol of Ilchester is the only Prison in the County of Somerset, except Bristol, in which there is now (1801,) a Chaplain. Formerly there was one both at Taunton and Shepton-Mallet; and the County had generously gone to the limit of the Act, by assigning a Salary of Fifty Pounds to each Chaplain. But the Chaplains having neglected their duty, the Justices, first, re-limited the Act, by reducing the Salaries, and afterwards took off the whole.

A detached building north of the gaoler's house, containing a wash house and a bakehouse on the ground floor and a laundry on the first floor, was erected by 1810. The courtyards had been subdivided. Additions had been made to the debtors' prison and a two-storey factory had been erected west of the female prison.

In 1824, it was reported that the prison contains five separate divisions, which comprised twelve day-rooms and yards. Two divisions were used by the debtors. There were then 67 sleeping-rooms. The convicted prisoners were generally employed in the various repairs and alterations of the gaol. They worked 8½ hours daily, and were allowed 3½ hours for exercise. No portion of the earnings was allowed to convicted prisoners. The weekly dietary for each prisoner cost 2s. 10d. A gaol-dress was allowed, which is made in the prison, and costs about 30s. per head. The prisoners were supplied with Bibles and religious books. Daily instruction in reading was provided to those who required it. The chaplain read prayers on Wednesdays, and likewise on Sundays, when he preaches twice. The prison was stated to be remarkably healthy, and the prisoners in a quiet and orderly state.

In 1825, the prisoners were employed in various repairs and alterations,and in raising the level of their airing-courts, to prevent their being flooded, which had sometimes happened, the river running close to the walls of the prison. Two new infirmaries were completed. Those who had been confined for one month received 1s. on their discharge; if confined two months, 1s. 6d.; and so on in proportion; but this scale applied only to short imprisonments. The daily dietary was 1 lb. of bread, 1½ pints of gruel, and 1 lb. of potatoes; also every other day 6 oz. of boiled beef, boiled; and alternately 1½ pints of soup. Crime was thought to be increasing in this district. At the Spring assizes seven men were executed here.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

Construction.,—This prison stands apart from other buildings; it contains 5 classes, 12 wards with 12 day-rooms, and. 12 yards; two of these divisions belong to the debtors. It can contain 67 prisoners in separate cells. When more than one prisoner sleeps in a cell, the building will contain 180 prisoners. The greatest number of prisoners who were confined here at one time, during the year ending Michaelmas 1835, was 136. There are nine cells, which are called solitary, but none under ground. Separate confinement is not capable of being systematically adopted here at present. The prison is not dry at all seasons. In the poor debtors' lower sleeping floor there is a small room, containing four beds, which is very close and ill ventilated, and unlit for use. The whole prison, indeed, is not particularly well ventilated. Few of the cells are light enough to read or to work in.

Management.—The keeper is aged and in bad health; his son assists him. All the prisoners sleep in separate beds, but some of the rooms contain four, six, or eight beds. The one which contains eight beds is at present unoccupied. Noise is not permitted, but no order has yet been issued enjoining silence. In each ward a prisoner acts as wardsman. Tobacco is not allowed. The prisoners take their meals in their day-rooms. There are combs and towels in each ward. The keeper has been in office 17 years; during that time three prisoners have escaped, and have been retaken; but three others have escaped finally. It appears that no great dread of the prison at present exists in the neighbourhood. No suicide has occurred during the above-mentioned period, but one prisoner attempted to hang himself. On the whole the general discipline is not rigid. The prison is neat and clean.

Registration and Account-hooks.—Visiting Magistrates' Journal, Chaplain's, Surgeon's, Gaoler's Occurrence Book, Gaol Register, Debtors' Book, Account Book, Transport Book, Beef Book, Description Book, Attornies' Visiting Book, Visitors' Book. (The gaoler's son keeps the books and accounts for his father; he receives no salary.)

Diet.—The untried may receive food from their friends, if they can be entirely maintained by them; in that case they may receive a pint of ale or cider daily. The cooking is performed by a male prisoner, who is assisted by some of the other male prisoners.

The following is a literal copy of the printed dietary:—

Dietary in use at Ilchester Gaol, as ordered by the Court of Quarter Sessions, April 21st, 1834, and maintained at the expense of the county, and willing to work.

To prisoners above 14 years of age,—

For breakfast, one pound of bread per day, and one pint and half of oatmeal gruel made of one ounce of meal.

For dinner, one pound and half of potatoes, with sufficient salt.

For supper, one pint of gruel made of one ounce of meal. On Sundays for dinner, in lieu of the before-mentioned allowance for dinner, six ounces of meat without bone, and after cooking, and one pound of potatoes.

To prisoners under 14 years of age,— For breakfast, three-quarters of a pound of bread, and one pint of oatmeal gruel.

For dinner, one pound of potatoes, with sufficient salt.

On Sundays for dinner, in lieu of the before-mentioned allowance for dinner, four ounces of beef and three-quarters of a pound of potatoes.

And all prisoners refusing to work, or who shall forfeit the before-mentioned allowances by any misbehaviour, shall receive one pound of bread daily only.

Prisoners under the care of the surgeon shall be allowed such diet as he may direct.

Labour.—Prisoners are not committed here to hard labour, but occupations of an ordinary nature are occasionally assigned to them; the women work in the laundry; the earnings, of course, amount to nothing; six hours in the winter, and nine hours in the summer, is the nominal period set apart for labour.

When a prisoner is committed hither for hard labour, he is set to break stones; and boys sometimes are placed at that work at their own request.

Prison Offences and Punishments.—The ordinary offences are improper conduct at chapel, fighting, noise, and stealing. These are punished by solitary confinement, and by reduction of the diet to bread and water while placed in solitary confinement.

Whipping.—When inflicted by sentence of court usually amounts to 24 or 30 lashes. It is performed by the executioner in the presence of the surgeon, keeper, and turnkey.

Religious and other Instruction.—The chaplain performs divine service twice on Sundays, with two sermons. At half-past nine in the morning he daily reads a selection from the Liturgy; on Wednesdays and Fridays he reads the Litany in addition. He visits some part of the prison almost daily,converses with (he prisoners, hears them read, and explains passages to them. There is no such instruction for the women on his part; they are sometimes taught by each other. He keeps a public journal, and a private journal of character; in the former he records the absence and cause of absence of any turnkey or prisoner. About 51. annually are expended on religious books. There is a salaried schoolmaster, who comes every morning for one hour only. The chaplain is vicar of a very small parish, in which the gaol is partly situated.

Statistics of Education.—The chaplain has himself ascertained (a far more correct medium than the ordinary one of merely questioning the prisoner) that, of the 40 female prisoners admitted since the 1st of January 1837 (8 sentenced to transportation, 29 time prisoners, 3 prisoners for trial), 9 read and write well, 10 read only, 21 neither.

Care of the Sick, Disease, and Mortality.—I found no prisoner in the infirmary. The surgeon visits the prisoners every other day, but, if requisite, he attends them daily. He lives at Yeovil, about five miles off. There are two good infirmaries for both the male and female prisoners, having a yard and day-rooms to each of them.

No prisoner died of epidemic cholera or influenza. The surgeon has attended Ilchester Gaol 16 years. About 13 years since dysentery prevailed in this neighbourhood as an epidemic disease, and a great number of prisoners in the gaol suffered from it. The disease was of a very severe character, and from 9 to 13 patients were in the different infirmary rooms for some weeks, but no death occurred from it in the gaol. This, with the exception of the influenza of last year, is the only epidemic that has prevailed in the prison. The dysentery made its appearance just after a severe and long continued frost, and in the opinion of the surgeon was occasioned by unwholesome vegetable diet, as nearly all the potatoes in this neighbourhood were frozen, excepting those that were secured in underground cellars.

In the Yeovil workhouse, which, the surgeon also attended at the same time, he had 62 cases of the disease. He does not think that the situation or locality of the gaol have ever been productive of disorder since he has attended.

About three years since a material alteration took place in the gaol diet (a diminution, I believe), and the surgeon certainly has observed that diarrhoea and glandular swellings of the neck have since occurred more frequently than they did prior to that time.

He thinks that one in four of the prisoners when received into the gaol suffer from syphilis, psora, or gonorrhoea.

Suggestions towards Improvement.

1. It is very desirable that the schoolmaster should be engaged to come daily for a much longer time than one hour. Since hard labour is not practised here, the prisoners remain idle during a considerable part of the day; and on this account a particular facility exists here for imparting and receiving instruction.

2. There are several separate cells for women which are not in use, while at the same time they are sleeping three or four in the same room,

3. To enforce silence.

4. The women's bath is at present kept in the store-room, and is consequently out of the way when wanted for use; it would be more convenient to place it in the female infirmary.

5. To abandon the use of the small room on the poor debtors' sleeping-floor, as unwholesome.

6. To set apart a suitable room, in which the chaplain may converse with the prisoners.

The prison closed in March 1843.The buildings were subsequently demolished although the former wash house and laundry survived as 'Gaol Cottages'.


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.

  • Somerset Heritage Centre, Brunel Way, Langford Mead, Norton Fitzwarren, Taunton TA2 6SF. Extensive records survive. Holdings include: Description books (1821-44); Felon's register (includes prisoners committed, with age, charge, sentence etc. 1808-44); Gaol returns (felons and debtors committed and discharged, with age, abode, charge etc. 1809-15); General register (includes prisoners sentenced to hard labour (1808-23), transportation (1808-22), imprisonment (1808-22), and execution (1809-25, recording some last words); List of debtors and felons who died in the gaol (1809-24) and of deserters committed (1808-25); Register of sick prisoners (includes felons and debtors, with name, disorder, dates of admission and discharge from sick list etc. 1811-21); Registers of debtors (1808-44); Returns of felons and debtors (1833-39); Ground plans of the gaol (1808-1821). There is also a variety of material relating to Henry Hunt, the radical politician who was incarcerated in the gaol (1820-22) after being convicted of seditious conspiracy after speaking at a rally in Manchester on 16 August 1819, which turned into the Peterloo massacre.
  • 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.