Ancestry UK

New Borough Gaol and House of Correction, Liverpool, Lancashire

In 1784, a Grand Jury reported that Liverpool's existing borough gaol on Water Street was thoroughly unsuitable for its purpose. A site for a new prison was found on Great Howard Street (formerly Milk House Lane) and plans commissioned from William Blackburn for a building to hold 270 prisoners. Progress on construction was slow and was still in progress at the time of Blackburn's death in 1790.

During the wars with France in the 1790s, the prison was used to house French prisoners of war. Work to complete the buildings only resumed in 1810 and the inmates of the Water Street prison were finally transferred to the new premises in 1811.

Blackburn's design adopted a radial layout with its six cell blocks arranged, like the spokes of half a wheel, around but detached from a central block which contained the gaoler's quarters, the chapel and the infirmary. Unlike later prison designs, the corridors in the cell blocks were not open from floor to ceiling. The blocks directly to each side of the central building had dayrooms at each end, while the others had them only at their outer ends. The 1836 map below shows the layout of the prison.

New Borough Gaol and House of Correction site, Liverpool, c.1836.

In 1812, James Neild reported on the new prison, which also acted as a House of Correction, or Bridewell:

Gaoler, Thomas Amos. Salary, 300l. and four Turnkeys, 60l. each.
Fees, of every kind, very laudably prohibited.

Chaplain, Rev. George Monk. Salary, not fixed.
Duty, Prayers and Sermon every Sunday.

Surgeon, from the Dispensary; to whom a Salary is paid for attendance, and Medicines furnished by the Corporation.

Allowance. See the Borough Gaol.


This Gaol, built by Mr. Blackburn 1787, is in a fine situation, a little way out of the Town, on which the Corporation have spared no expence. It is formed upon a very large scale, with a proper separation of the different classes and sexes; and for security, health, reformation, and convenience, appears to be one of the best Gaols in the Kingdom. Unluckily, however, it was let to Government many years, and used as a place of confinement for French Prisoners; who wantonly and deliberately damaged the building, to so shameful a degree, that it was not repaired and fitted up for the reception of Prisoners before 1811.

It is surrounded by a boundary wall, 20 feet high. In the front is the Turnkey's lodge, with suitable apartments for his residence. A wash-house, and baths, and reception-rooms for Prisoners, until they are examined by the Surgeon, previous to their admission into the interior. A bell at the top serves equally for the Chapel, and in case of any alarm.

The Gaoler's house is detached from the six wings of the Prison, and 50 feet distant from the Turnkey's-lodge.

On the ground floor it has a convenient room for the Visiting Magistrates, and several others for the Keeper. At the back part is a very large room, nearly circular, and 23 feet in diameter, intended. as a General Inspection-Room; the windows having, very properly, a command of the several court-yards. The First floor has three rooms for the Gaoler, and a large Chapel, 23 feet in diameter; to which there is a communication by means of stone bridges, from the different Prisons, into their several divisions or classes.

On the Second, or Attick Story, is a large room, well calculated for a General Infirmary; and three other rooms, for the Surgeon's Dispensary, the nurse, and convalescents; with the leaden roof, prepared and set apart for their taking air and exercise.

The wing, No. 1, has, on the ground-floor, 17 single working-cells; of which two are dark, assigned for refractory Prisoners. The lobby or passage is 5 feet wide, with arcades in the middle, for Prisoners to take the air in wet weather; and at each end is a day, or work-room, 25 feet by 22, with fire-places, and glazed grated windows.

Every single work-room or sleeping-cell in this Prison is 8 feet by 6 feet 6, and 9 feet high, to the crown of the arch; lighted and ventilated by a grated and glazed window made to open, and also by a circular aperture, 12 inches in diameter, over the door; with this only exception, that the grated windows of the Male Felons or Criminals are not glazed, like those of the other Prisoners.

The first story contains twenty-two sleeping-cells, with a day-room at the end of the lobby, which is of the same size as those below; and the second or attick story is in every respect similar.

The wing No. 2, has on the ground-floor 14 single working-cells, and one large work or day-room. And of the first and second story of this wing, each contains eighteen sleeping-cells, and a large work-room.

The wing No. 3, is similar on the ground-floor to No. 2. The first story of it has seventeen sleeping-cells, and two large work-rooms, of 42 feet by 21, and 24 feet by 22; with two fire-places in each.

The wing No. 4, has on the ground-floor twenty single working-cells, and a day or work-room, 23 feet by 22, with two fire-places. On the first floor of this wing there are 30 cells, and a day or work-room; and the attick story has eighteen sleeping-cells, and two day or work-rooms, of 25 feet by 22, with two fire-places in each of them.

No. 5, the wing intended for Debtors, has on the ground-floor twenty working cells, and a day-room 25 feet by 22, with two fire-places. The second, or attick story, is exactly similar.

The wing No. 6 is also intended for Debtors; and has seventeen single working cells on the ground-floor, with a day-room at each end, of 25 feet by 22. The first story contains twenty-two sleeping-cells, and two large day-rooms. The second or attick story is similar.

In each of the above six wings, and of which two are appropriated for House of Correction Prisoners, here is a leaden sink, with conveniences for washing; and water is laid on by a pipe and cock, from cisterns at the top of the building, which are filled by a forcing pump, and thus supply the whole Prison.

The six court-yards appropriated to the wings are irregular polygons, enclosed with an open wood paling;,which, being distant about 36 feet from the boundary wall, affords a convenient garden for the growth of vegetables; and the sewers are judiciously placed.

In each wing there are two dark cells for the refractory. The sleeping-cells of the two wings intended for the Debtors, and that which is assigned for the Women Criminals, have boarded floors; but all the rest are of stone. Each wing has arcades, for the use and exercise of the respective Prisoners in wet weather.

All the day-rooms are fitted up with benches, tables, and utensils for frugal cookery. Coals are allowed by the Corporation, and cupboards to secure provisions. The Debtors' sleeping-cells are furnished with iron frame bedsteads, sacking bottoms, two blankets, two sheets, and a quilt: those for Felons, and other Criminal Prisoners, have wood plank bedsteads, a paillasse, two blankets, and a rug.

The following is a Summary of the various Apartments comprehended in the new Gaol of Liverpool:

Single Work-Rooms102
Very large ditto8
And of very spacious Day, or Work-Rooms18
Total, 377

In 1837. the recently created Inspectors of Prisons visited the gaol and made a damning report on what they found:

The borough of Liverpool having become a separate jurisdiction from the county, the maintenance of a sufficient gaol has therefore devolved upon the corporation. A considerable portion of the building had not been occupied since its appropriation as a place of detention for prisoners of war, and was found deficient in almost every requisite. This being at length discovered, workmen were employed in making the necessary repairs, and providing for the necessary security. The prisoners continued to accumulate, and were without the common supplies of bedding, clothing, or the means of cleanliness. It is quite impossible to describe the wretched condition of this prison and its inmates at the period of the inspector's visit. It is however due to the mayor, town-council, and magistrates to state, that on their attention being directed to it, the most praiseworthy activity was manifested in its amelioration. The insubordination of the prisoners was promptly checked, silence enforced, idleness superseded by employment, bedding and clothing provided, means of cleanliness afforded, a more convenient classification substituted, and arrangements entered into with the county magistrates for relieving the overcrowded gaol by sending a portion of the committals from the borough to Kirkdale. Measures are still in progress for supplying other deficiencies, which when carried into effect will place this establishment at least on a footing with others in the vicinity. The gaol contains sufficient accommodation for prisoners before trial, and those not sentenced to hard labour; but it docs not furnish the means of carrying the latter sentence into effect, if the treadmill only is to be considered as such; nor does the area of the prison afford either a sufficient or convenient site for its erection.

The following year, the Inspectors of Prisons issued a very extensive report on the prison:

The liberality of the town council, the attention of the magistrates, and the intelligence and activity of the keeper, have brought this prison to a state of order and discipline highly creditable to all parties. Many alterations and additions, rendered necessary for the security of the prisoners, have been made to the fabric since my last report, and others are still indispensably requisite, for a temporary occupation, should the building of a new prison be determined upon by the municipal authorities. A wash-house and laundry disinfecting apparatus for the clothing, baths, and infirmaries, apart from the main buildings, are those to which I allude. More convenient accommodation is also wanted for the female officers, and for the deposit of stores.

Diet.—The diet remains as before, with the exception that prisoners committed for three days have only a quart of gruel and one pound of bread daily. Fuel,—No limited allowance, but a sufficient supply.

Cleanliness.—Linen weekly, and soap and towels are provided for the prisoners. The prison was extremely clean on the day of inspection. The want of a bath and disinfecting oven for the clothes is strongly marked by the following extract from the evidence of one of the female officers in charge of the vagrant class. "It is a great difficulty to get them clean, the women are actually creeping alive: there is no bath to pass them through. It would be very beneficial to cut the hair of some of them, they are so full of vermin."

Health.—The surgeon attends daily, and occasionally goes through the prison, and is present at corporal punishments. The ordinary ailments are colds, rheumatism, asthma, sore legs, syphilis, and gonorrhoea. The surgeon, in evidence, says, "There is no separate hospital, a room in one of the wings is made use of contiguous to the cells; if only of a temporary nature, one is absolutely required; cases continually occur which require separation. On my attendance in the prison, on the 27th of June, I found a note on the desk from a surgeon in the town, who was attending a debtor, stating there was a case of typhus fever in the prison. The prisoner had been attended by him for some days previously. In consequence of there being no detached hospital proper for the reception of such cases, I was under the immediate necessity of directing his removal from the prison to the fever hospital, attached to the workhouse, where he died within a week. A similar inconvenience resulted from a case of small-pox, in a female prisoner. I conceive the place where the women cook, from the exposure to cold, as likely to be prejudicial to their health. No disease in the prison attributable to the buildings or situation. The air, from from the north-east, brings the vapour from the manufactories of chemical substances;, and is very noxious. I observed the vegetables all destroyed in one night in the part of the garden most exposed to its influence. There is great difficulty in cleansing the female prisoners, it is impossible to do so in all cases effectually without cutting off the hair, which is always objected to by them, and not persisted in from doubt of its legality. I give the officers cough-pills, purging-pills, and cordial-pills, which they give the prisoners, upon complaining, before I see them; likewise castor-oil and salts to administer as wanted. I do not attend midwifery cases in the prison. The debtors occasionally send for me." I recommend that the surgeon should comply with the Act of Parliament, and see each prisoner, debtors included, twice a-week. A journal on a much more comprehensive scale, with the daily entries of his attendances, and reports of cases, would be an improvement on the present practice. I consider the placing medicine in the hands of the officers, to administer to the prisoners, as hazardous, and that it ought to be discontinued. I am also of opinion, that the mode in which the medicines are obtained, by sending for them to a chemist, some distance off in the town, is very inconvenient. An officer, who can very ill be spared from other duties, is sent away on this errand, which might be easily obviated by either having them dispensed in the prison, or commuting for the supply with the surgeon, by allowing him a certain annual sum to provide them. The yearly account for drugs, appears to average about 35l.

Moral and Religious' Instruction.—The chaplain performs two full services on Sundays, and visits the prisoners in the intervals between the services. On Tuesdays and Fridays prayers are also read by him in the chapel. He attends at the prison almost daily, and is generally engaged there from an hour to an hour and a half, seeing the prisoners under solitary confinement, and those under sentence of transportation. The chapel is too small to contain the whole number of prisoners at one time, and those not able to attend are placed under the charge of an officer, who keeps them engaged with their Bibles and religious books. The chaplain states, "I endeavoured to form a class, whom I might prepare for the sacrament; this did not at all answer my expectations: many of them said they were not sufficiently good or religious to take it. There were one or two Catholics, which I was not aware of at the time, I had only asked those who were the best behaved to form the class, with the ultimate view of administering the communion. It is the opinion of many criminals, that if they commit a sin after receiving the sacrament, they are irrecoverably lost. I have visited prisoners in solitary confinement, who were Catholics, and when I have asked them to repeat the Lord's Prayer, they have replied, "Oh, yes, willingly; but our Lord's Prayer is not yours." No provision has as yet been made for instructing the prisoners, and I cannot more strongly impress the necessity of its being done than by the annexed extract.

Extract from the Report of the officiating Minister of the Borough Gaol, Liverpool, presented to the Mayor and Magistrates in Sessions assembled, October 17, 1837.

"I also most strongly recommend to you the immediate establishment of schools. There are at this time in the prison 74 boys, under the age of 19 years, and almost all of them, in common with a very great number of other prisoners, are in very great want of moral and religious instruction. In the printed calendar for the present session there are 133 prisoners for trial. Out of these only eight can read and write well; and several of them are in a higher rank of society than prisoners usually are. Fifty-two are not able to read or write at all; and all the rest can either read or write imperfectly, many of them, I believe, very imperfectly. I have frequently asked the buys, when I have visited them in solitary confinement, the simplest questions I could think of concerning religion, such as, 'Who is God?' 'Who is the Lord Jesus Christ?' 'And what has he done for man?' and I have generally found their religious knowledge is very limited; and that many have scarcely any knowledge at all on this subject, who have a good deal on other subjects. The children brought up in the corporation schools, or in any other good schools, will with great ease answer 100 questions, and answer them well, while the poor boys will scarcely answer one. Most of them, however, can repeat the Lord's Prayer, though many of them, I greatly fear, know but little of the meaning of it. Well regulated schools, established in the prison, will, I feel very confident, do a great deal of good. Regular employment, both physical, intellectual, moral, and religious, is, I am very much inclined to think, the very best cure for vice and immorality of all kinds."

In this prison, as well as in others in the vicinity, a considerable proportion of the prisoners are Roman Catholics, who generally conform, in the absence of any real religion, to the ceremonies of the Established Church. But this is only conformity; the attachment to the nominal or professed faith continues to operate as a bar and obstacle to their receiving moral and religious instruction from the clergyman of a different creed. It is true, the law provides, that upon a prisoner requesting it, a minister of his own persuasion may be admitted to him; but men, altogether ignorant of religion but in name, are but little likely to invite the approach of its ministers; in very few instances have I found such a wish expressed, nor can it be expected until they are first taught to appreciate its inestimable advantages. In the generality of cases the number of Roman Catholics in a prison is so trifling as to be lost sight of in the mass; but in the present instance, as will be shown by the annexed return, where they amount to nearly one half, the withholding so large a proportion from the offices and consolations of the religion they profess, and at the moment when they are most required, appears deserving of consideration, whether, by some means or other, the difficulties which stand in the way might be partially, if not wholly overcome.

Punishments.—Since the inspector's last visit, the practice of placing the convicts in irons on being sentenced to transportation has been wholly discontinued.

Labour.—The labour to which prisoners are subjected is the picking of oakum, shoemaking, tailoring, and needlework; they sit on benches in large rooms, at a sufficient distance apart from each other to prevent communication, and pursue their work in silence, under the superintendence of the officers. The old rope is bought at the rate of about 14l., and sold at 20l per ton. There is a loss of from a sixth to a seventh in the picking and storing. The prisoners' labour is estimated at a halfpenny a pound, out of which the taskmaster receives 8½ per cent., being about 23l yearly. Each prisoner picks from four to five pounds daily. The females pick it much finer than the males, and the price for oakum manufactured by them is from 1l. to 2l. a ton higher. The prisoners work for the officers at a lower rate than for the tradesmen. Several of the prisoners appear to have received considerable sums as tailors, and to have been extremely ill-conducted at the same time, H. B., a tailor, for a second offence sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment, was detected in purloining the cloth at a period when 3l, 14s, 2d. was due to him; G. J. was detected in a similar theft when 2l. 9s. 5d.; another 1l, and a fourth 2l. 9s. 5d. These sums were forfeited by their misconduct.

Debtors.—By a late Act of Parliament the borough court for the recovery of small debts has been re-constructed, and the power of imprisonment limited to seven days. This alteration has materially diminished the number of this class of prisoners, and permitted the appropriation of a further portion of the gaol to the accommodation of the criminals. The substitution of a regular prison diet for debtors unable to support themselves, and strictly confining them to it, instead of paying them the sum of 6d. each from the borough fund, the restriction of the quantity of ale and wine and the practice of smoking, the regulating of the periods of visiting, the locking up of the bed cells during the day, have had a most beneficial effect. Intoxication, which formerly prevailed to a considerable extent, may be said to be suppressed.

General Discipline.—The interior of this prison will bear a comparison with the best regulated on the points of cleanliness and neatness of arrangement. Stale and distribution of prisoners on the day of inspection:—


Prisoners confined therein.Males.Females.Total.
Under sentence of transportation,271542
   "   of imprisonment from sessions8667153
Summarily convicted7762159
Committed for want of sureties18220
  "  for trial at the sessions
  "  for further examination


Class. Number of Prisoners.Number of Cells.
1First convictions after trial1713
2Committed for trial, and bail for sessions514
3Old offenders and transports6535
4Vagrants and misdemeanants6336
5Committed for trial416
6Adult vagrants4531
7Juvenile vagrants2416
9Old offenders and transports4739
101st, convicted adults4353
11  "   juvenile3715
12Poor debtors, male1827
13Other "2939
14Female debtors26
 Total 412343

Silence is enforced among the convicted prisoners, and order at meals generally, but not to the full extent. The situation of the day-rooms, and the difficulty of inspecting them, render this task no easy one when the prisoners are divided into classes. The magistrates have established a scale of payment to prisoners for certain work done in the prison, while others engaged in picking of oakum and serving receive no remuneration. I object most strongly to all payments to convicted prisoners; such employments are decided reliefs from the monotony and rigidity of the discipline, and pay the prisoners quite sufficiently in their agreeable relaxation from severer labours. Exemplary conduct may, if thought necessary, be compensated and rewarded by the magistrates upon discharge, and this being understood will operate sufficiently as a premium to the really deserving. The number of prisoners employed, I think, may he very advantageously curtailed, and I particularly allude to those about the exterior gate.

The discipline and management of the classes of boys has been much improved. In the intervals from labour they are regularly drilled by a competent person, and have been taught to move with case and precision. I regard the introduction of such intermittents to the discipline as particularly valuable for boys. They appear to take an interest in it: they acquire better habits and carriage, and the exercise itself is beneficial. The turnkey in charge says, The boys are drilled by a prisoner who has been long in the service, who was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for embezzlement. The boys like it. In the short days it occupies about 20 minutes between meals; in the summer it is prolonged in the evenings after work. I used to have a great deal of trouble with the boys; they are much improved. The prisoner who is wardsmen over them takes a great deal of pains. I am sure many of them would accept of a refuge, who are without parents or neglected by them. The convicted boys are divided into two classes for short and long terms. I have known them received by their associates at the gate and carried off to their old haunts. There are people in Liverpool who keep houses for the reception of these boys and girls, where they live together in promiscuous intercourse. There was a little boy, who went out of here a few days ago, only 13 years of age now, and he has been in and out of prison these three years. He has most excellent parents, was taken home to them last Saturday evening, but he will not stop. I have no doubt some of these boys might be weaned from their bad practices. They get into good order, and work uncommonly well at anything they are set to. I recollect one instance of a boy who had been serving three months. His mother came to the gate for him, and he ran away from her very grasp. He is very good and tractable, and works well in prison, but is the very worst of characters out of it." The matron states, "Two of the female prisoners act as servants to myself and the other officers." A great number of the prisoners are Roman Catholics; who occasionally, when sick, ask for a clergyman. The greater number are unacquainted with the most simple qualifications for domestic servants, such as sewing or washing. The discipline of the prison has, I think, an effect upon them; they are decidedly more orderly than formerly. Drink is the cause generally ascribed by themselves of their coming here. They do not express any wish to be taught to read or write. Those that can read, particularly the elderly, make use of their Bibles. Many of them say they would rather pick oakum than be idle. The number of prisoners has much increased since the passing of the local Act, enabling the magistrates to commit drunkards for three days."

The female vagrant class is much too numerous for the preservation of order; there were 69 on the morning of inspection. If the means of their further separation cannot be attained in the Borough Gaol it would be desirable that a portion of these females were sent to Kirkdale, where they are scarcely in sufficient numbers to carry on the ordinary duties. With the advantage of a contract for the maintenance of a portion of the borough prisoners at Kirkdale, and a little attention, the borough gaol should, on no occasion, be inconveniently crowded; indeed, I see no reason why a separate sleeping cell should not be provided for each prisoner. The value of such a provision would far exceed the increased pecuniary amount of sending a few more to the county house of correction. I consider it would be better if the small space round the walls were discontinued as a garden, and gravelled, which would facilitate the discovery of articles thrown over, and supersede the necessity of employing prisoners in the cultivation. I also think that swine should not be permitted to be kept within the inclosure.

The establishment was closed following the opening of a new gaol at Walton Hill in 1855.


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