Ancestry UK

Strangeways Prison, Manchester, Lancashire

In 1864-8, a new County Gaol was erected on Southall Street, in the Strangeways district of Salford, at the north side of Manchester. It replaced the existing New Bailey prison in Salford. The new gaol, which included sections for male and female prisoners, was designed by Alfred Waterhouse. The section for male prisoners had a typical radial layout of the period, based on the model design at Pentonville, with its five cell wings, all four-storeys in height, and a shorter administrative/chapel wing, radiating from a central hub. The separate women's prison had four wings in a cruciform layout, but was otherwise of a similar style. The prison contained 1,059 cells in total, of which 744 (70%) were for men. The prison was officially opened on 25 June 1868. An account of the establishment was given at the time in a local newspaper, reproduced (slightly abridged) below:


Without claiming the new prison in Strangeways as either a mark of civil progress, or as a striking addition to the architectural features of the town, it may be regarded as a matter of satisfaction that Manchester has been supplied with a gaol more adequate to the demands of the rapidly increasing division of the county in which it is situated, than the present building at the New Bailey. The old prison has been for some time insufficient for the proper accommodation and separation of prisoners, and the moral evils attending overcrowding everywhere being vastly increased, where the excess of population exists in a criminal community, it has been for some time desirable that this part of south Lancashire should be able to bestow its prisoners under more effective control in more commodious premises. The march of time has improved. prison arrangements to an extent which it was difficult to adapt to buildings of a previous generation, and the correlative march of opinion has rendered it impossible to dispense with such improvements. To crown all, the erection of the new Assize Courts for the Salford Hundred of South Lancashire in Strangeways, has made it desirable that the gaol should be in its immediate vicinity. It is one of the chief advantages of the new prison that it is so immediately contiguous to the courts that sentenced prisoners, after being placed in the dock, can be conveyed to their allotted cells without passing beyond the wells of the new buildings. A covered way leads from the cells under the courts to a gateway let into the west wall of the prison, by which prisoners are readily conducted from the police officers' to the prison governor's charge. From this observation it will be gathered that the prison is situated immediately behind the new Assize Courts. The frontage of the building, containing the main entrance, faces southwards to Southall-street, while Sherborne-street forms the northern boundary. From the guide-book point of view, it may be matter of congratulation, and regarding the immense population of the hundred, it is at least no matter of disgrace, that the new prison walls enclose an area of eight or nine acres. The gaol affords accommodation for in all between a thousand and twelve hundred prisoners, as compared with 600 or 700 in the existing New Bailey.

Approaching the prison by Southall-street, the visitor, passing a long space of dead wall, reaches the main gateway by turning the corner of the governor's residence. On the opposite side of the entrance gate are the porter's house, the chief warder's house, two large store-rooms, and the prison matron's house, all built on the front wall, which extends for several' hundred yards beyond, in the same direction, along Southall street. Passing through the gateway, he reaches an open space fronting the prison building, right and left of which are situated the reception cells, bath rooms, &c., and a block of four houses appropriated to a number of officers, whose duties require that they should be resident within the prison walls. For convenience it may be desirable in our survey to follow the ordinary course imposed upon prisoners commit ted to the gaol. First of all after passing the prison gates, he or she, as the case may be, must submit to a wholesome lesson of cleanliness, which, however unwelcome at the moment, is In many instances a source of great benefit to prisoners. A prison cell is not a luxurious, and designedly not comfortable, abiding place; but absolute purity of skin and clothing is an indispensable qualification for admission to what poor unsought-for shelter it affords. Preserving a proportion which is maintained in all the arrangements of the prison, the reception-rooms for males contain seven baths, while those for female prisoners contain only five. Through these baths every prisoner admitted to the gaol must pass. Having been previously stripped of the clothes of every-day wear, he is attired in prison garb, and his discarded raiment, after being carefully washed and fumigated; is pigeon-holed and ticketed in one of a series of immense racks which occupy what are called the store-rooms. The prison itself, built like the outside walls, in plain brick, is approached by a flight of steps, leading under a Norman archway. This leads to the main corridor which, in a low, gloomy form of architecture, is vaulted in the same style. The corridor is 130 feet long, and leads right to the nave or central hall of the building. From this centre there radiate six wings or wards, five of which are occupied as cells, which constitute the men's prison. Nothing can better convey an idea of this building than to imagine a huge windmill, somewhat lopsided, for the wings are not of quite equal dimensions, of which the nave should be the axis, and the wings the six spokes. This variation in the length of the wings may be best judged of when we mention that while the shortest, measuring from the central hall to its extremity, is 195, the longest is about 290 feet. The longest vista obtainable in the building embracing the two longest wings is that running north-west and south-east, being across the nave, upwards of 5OOft, or about a twelfth of a mile long. Each of the five wings appropriated to prisoners contains four storeys or rows of cells, the basement storey being beneath the level of the main corridor, most of the cells in the basement rows are occupied as shops for carrying on the various trades in which the prisoners are employed, such as carpentering and mat weaving, and in some of the cells on the second storey looms for calico and gingham weaving have been placed. The cells are sparely, but, as prison comforts go, comfortably fitted up. The men's prison contains between 700 and 800 cells, measuring thirteen feet by seven, and nine feet high. Each cell is fitted up with a stool and bedstead, a small cupboard in which may be contained books or newspapers lent to the prisoners, and washing apparatus. Water is supplied at the rate of six gallons per day to each prisoner, and gas is also freely supplied, but is entirely beyond the control of those in confinement, being regulated by the wardens from the outside. Although otherwise completely isolated from the company of his fellow-inmates — it may be mentioned that very effective arrangements have been made in the new gaol to prevent the communication of prisoners in adjoining cells, even by the most secret sand ingenious contrivances known to old gaol birds — yet the occupant of a solitary cell is not entirely out off from the outside world. Each cell is fitted with a bell-pull, by which the warder of the wing in which it is contained may be signalled in case of emergency by any distressed prisoner. To indicate the source of the signal, and at the same tine prevent undue or mischievous use of this apparatus, each bell-pull is fitted with a dial corresponding to the number of the cell, which projects every time the bell is rung, and points out the particular cell from which the call for the warder has been made. This contrivance, which, we believe, is entirely modern, is simple as it is effective, and might with advantage be considered by the directors of those old-fashioned railway companies on whose lines communication between passengers and guards has not yet been established. The cells are well ventilate and lighted. The security of prisoners has been thoroughly attended to in the arrangements of the new gaol. Enclosed in his narrow cell, walled in by two feet brick, unplastered and unpleasant, but fire-proof and damp-proof, the convict finds himself at the back of a door, against whose massive strength any assault is vain. Characteristically of a prison, the door locks more easily than it opens, the simple act of closing it driving the bar into its socket which prevents ingress or egress save by the application of the warder's key, The door may be locked a second and a third time by the superior officers of the prison, each of whom possesses a key more powerful than his inferior, and finally the governor of the prison possesses a master key with which he may secure the cell of any prisoner he desires to be in special ward, independent of and beyond the control of any of his subordinate warders. Such are the general arrangements of the departments set apart for the ordinary occupants of the prison. Two special classes of prisoners remain to be noticed, whose treatment differs somewhat widely from that of the ordinary prisoners and more widely still from that of each other. On the basement of one of the wings is a series of cells, devoted to the treatment of refractory prisoners, in which a more than usually obstreperous species may be incarcerated on the order of a visiting justice, in lonely and pitchy darkness — a course of treatment, it may be observed, which seldom requires to be persevered in to is utmost legitimate limit in order to bring a man to his senses. Abutting from the refractory cells is another room devoted to disciplinary treatment of a more arduous but perhaps less painfully trying order. This is the treadmill, unhappily, is indicative of offences of a serious nature, a very extensive building. It is fitted up with ten "mills," on each of which eight prisoners may be set to work, thus affording "accommodation" for eighty prisoners at a time. The hard labour of the miserable wretches thus employed, though not perhaps most profitably utilised, is not utterly thrown away. Their ceaseless grind operates upon a large pumping apparatus in the north side of the prison, by which water is raised, in case of a failure of the town's supply, from a spring well, sunk to a depth of more than eighty yards. In another wing, a class of prisoners, who are treated with comparative leniency, are placed, these being the debtors or civil prisoners, who are confined to their cells only during the night, are never out off from communication with each other, and possess the privilege of a common day room. The debtors' wing, situated on the north side of the building, contains 36 cells. Only a few words remain to be said regarding the subsidiary arrangements of the gaol. The corridors in the centre of each wing, above the basement floor, are light and open, being each 5 feet wide, and lighted from the roof. The rows of cells on the third and fourth floors are approached by staircases abutting from the nave, which lead to double galleries running along each wing and terminating in corresponding stairs at the extremes. The protecting rails of these galleries subserve another important purpose outside their primary use. On the right and left of a long passage leading from the central court or nave are situated the kitchen and cooking rooms for the food supply of the entire prison. From this important department the meals of the prisoners are sent on a sort of, truck by a railway to the central hall, from which, as centre of all the machinery of the establishment, it is distributed to its various destinations. The protecting rails of the side galleries form a railway along which breakfasts or dinners, as the case may be, are conveyed in a light wagon, which stops at every cell door, time enough to admit of the warder supplying each prisoner's portion through trap for the purpose which every door contains.

The women's prison is not nearly so large as that devoted to male prisoners. It is found that, though, in great towns the female sex is contributes a very large proportion of the police court committals, the preponderance of cases in which they are concerned, is for the lighter offences which do not require any Length and term of imprisonment. Thus, though the number of committals of women may in some instances be even greater than those of the other sex, it is invariably true that the average of male prisoners, in any given gaol, is nearly twice as great as that of female offenders. In the new gaol, the proportion adopted has been something like seven to three, the women's side containing only between 300 and 400 cells, as contrasted with 700 or 800 in the prison for males. The construction of the two gaols in nearly identical, with this important difference, that the women's contains only four wings, springing from the nave in the form of a cross, in place of six, and that these wings are much less in extent. For the rest, the arrangements of this prison are identical with those we have described: reception rooms, bath-rooms, cells (not forgetting the dark or refractory ward, on one of the basements), and work-rooms. The workroom is in one sense a specialty; in place of being employed in oakum picking or mat weaving, the women are employed in washing and dressing linen, their work-room being fitted up with a range of 20 tubs besides wringing and other necessary apparatus. Those women who can sew are employed, in mending clothes. None of the prisoners, male or female, are employed in cookery or kitchen work.

The women's prison in effectually shut out from the other side by a heavy curtain or wall, twenty feet high and two feet thick, and corresponding in other respects with the outside walls of the gaol, — as for example, in the heavy curtain of projecting yard-long spikes which protects the tops of the walls like a serried row of bayonets. The gaol officers, however, possess a ready though well-guarded means of communication. This is by a covered way, several hundred yards in length, which leads from the centre of the women's quarters to the prison chapel. The chapel is contained in the sixth or entrance wing of the building, which we have hitherto omitted to describe. The chapel is seated to accommodate about 600 prisoners — 400 men sad 200 women. Following the arrangement common in all such buildings, it is constructed that the women are not visible to the male prisoners, and vice versa, while all can easily see and be commanded by the officiating clergyman, the women being seated, on the ground floor, party covered by a protecting curtain, and the men in a gallery, nearly on a level with the preacher. The men's gallery, for the sake of preventing any concerted rush or attempt at disturbance is separated into six bays, surrounded by high spiked railings, in each of which, facing the congregation, there is sitting accommodation for one or more warders. In front of the men's gallery two long seats are set apart for civil prisoners. On the galleries right and left of the pulpit The governor's, deputy-governor's, and warders' pews are situated. Underneath the chapel, off the main corridor, are two suites of rooms containing board-room, offices, a room for prisoners consulting their solicitors, and another to which the friends of prisoners are admitted at stated intervals to visit their relatives. The infirmary accommodation in connection with the two gaols is extensive. The hospital for males contains two rooms, each fitted up with eight beds for sick patients, and underneath are two sets of cells numbering seven in all, for convalescents. The hospital for female prisoners which, it is proper to explain is entirely distinct and in a separate building from the first mentioned, contains also two sick wards, each fitted up with four beds, and six cells for the confinement of convalescents. To each hospital a small deadhouse is attached. Arrangements no less important than the cure of the diseased — viz., those for preserving the health of the prisoners — are equally complete. There are five large exercising grounds, four for male and one for female prisoners. These are formed according to the ordinary fashion in concentric rings, laid with flags, the outer ring in each measuring from 400 to 500 paces. A special indulgence allowed in the women's side is a series of covered galleries, in which they may exercise in wet weather.

Any notice of the new gaol would be incomplete which did not give some degree of prominence to what is at once a notable and a very useful specialty in it architectural feature. This is the ventilating tower, rising from the very centre of the building to the height of 110 feet, by about 26 in diameter. In the centre of this tower is an iron smoke stack, which takes away the smoke from all the multifarious works and furnaces contained within the precincts of the prison. The shaft itself draws off the exhausted air from the cells and buildings, and conveys it innocuous to regions elevated above even the smoke of Manchester.

The new Court House, built to supersede the New Bailey Court, is rapidly approaching completion. The new building consists of a court-room 50 feet by 40 feet, and 29 feet high, well lighted and ventilated, and having abundant accommodation in two large sloping galleries for the public. On one side of the court room are three rooms for the accommodation of the magistrates and officials of the court, and on the opposite, or Sherborne-street side, are three large rooms intended for the use of solicitors practising at its bar. The magistrates' and private entrance is from Cotham-street, — while the general public are admitted by a long gateway from Sherborne-street. Underneath the court room are three cells for the custody of prisoners awaiting trial or imprisonment.

The entire gaol premises, which were built from the plans of Mr. Waterhouse, under the direction of Mr. Littler, who it will be remembered, was also clerk of works at the Assize Court, by the late Mr. Samuel Bramall, and completed by his widow and executrix, Mrs. Bramall, have occupied nearly four years in erection.

Strangeways Prison, Manchester, 1930s.

Following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878, the establishmnet became known as Her Majesty's Prison, Strangeways.

Strangeways Prison kitchen, Manchester, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

Strangeways remained a mixed prison until 1963 when it became male-only. In 1980, it began to receive remand prisoners.

In April 1990, during over three weeks of sustained rioting and the occupation of the prison by the inmates, 147 staff and 47 prisoners were injured, with one officer and one prisoner losing their lives. Much of the old prison was damaged or destroyed, necessitating an almost complete rebuild at a cost of over £80 million. The prison re-opened in 1994 renamed Her Majesty's Prison, Manchester.

The prison is new a high-security 'Category A' prison for adult males, with over 1,200 places.


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.

  • Greater Manchester County Record Office (with Manchester Archives), Archives+, Manchester Central Library, St Peter's Square, Manchester M2 5PD. Holdings comprise: Female Registers (1868-75); Female Description Books (1867-1879); Male Registers (1869-79, with gaps); Male and Female Small Debts Register (1879-81). There is also a "Felony Register — Bolton and Salford Sessions & Manchester Assizes (Male)" (1863-72) thought to be for the New Bailey and Strangeways Prisons.
  • Manchester Prison Registers (1847-1881) can be viewed on Find My Past (subscription required).
  • 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.