Ancestry UK

County Gaol and House of Correction, Morpeth, Northumberland

In 1828-9, a new combined County Gaol and House of Correction was opened at Castle Bank, Morpeth. It replaced two existing establishments: the County Gaol on Bridge Street and the County Bridewell at Southend, which stood on a site near to the new prison. The new building also included a court house in its entrance block.

A report in 1830 noted:

This new prison has been occupied during the last year, but some of the wards are not completely finished. The gaol department contains six day-rooms and six airing-yards; the house of correction also contains six day-rooms and airing-yards. There are about fifty sleeping cells for criminals, and twelve bed rooms for debtors. The male convicted prisoners have been generally employed as labourers, about the new buildings; there is a tread-wheel, which is used for raising water for the service of the prison: the prisoners work ten hours in summer, and eight hours in winter, daily. The chaplain reads prayers twice on Sundays, and preaches a sermon; he also occasionally visits the prisoners during the week. The old system is continued of allowing each prisoner fourpence a day, to purchase food, &c. which is paid every morning. An insane person is confined here.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

The prison of Morpeth is the chief prison in Northumberland, It was built, about 10 years ago, at a cost (exclusive of a court-house) of about 60,000l.; or more than 1,000l. per average prisoner. A much better prison might certainly have been built for 30,000l. or 40,000l. The Glasgow Bridewell, which is on an incomparably better construction, and which contains twice the accommodation, cost only 25,000l.; and, therefore, after making every allowance for the greater expense of building materials at Morpeth, I feel quite safe in declaring that a much better prison than the existing one might have been built for 30,000l. or 40,000l. In the construction of the Glasgow Bridewell, however, utility was kept constantly in view, and no sacrifice made to display. This cannot be said of the Morpeth prison. Indeed, tho principle of utility was departed from in the very choice of a situation; for Morpeth is in the middle of an agricultural district, where there must always be great difficulty in obtaining profitable employment for prisoners. The prison is,built entirely of stone and,most of the walls are very thick; there are, however, several slight cracks where the building has settled. The site is tolerably good, being on the outside of the town, and tolerably elevated and dry. Including airing yards and garden there are nearly 3 acres of land. There are altogether 18 day-rooms and. 59 small rooms and cells; also 13 airing-yards.

The surrounding wall of the prison is about 20 feet high in the lowest part. The building is constructed with a view to classification only. It is generally dry, but owing to the roofs being made flat, with surrounding parapets, there is sometimes an accumulation of snow, which, in melting, renders the upper part of the building rather damp. Strange to say also the infirmaries, where dryness is of course particularly required, are damp. For this reason they are seldom used. The day-rooms and all the debtors' rooms are warmed by open fires, but there is no provision for warming the cells, as they were intended only for sleeping. There is very little danger of the building catching fire, since not only the walls but the floors and ceilings are all of stone. The ventilation is, upon the whole, tolerably good, though there is an offensive smell in the night-cells, owing to the want of covers to the chamber-pots. The chimneys, too, of the prison are smoky, which of course tends to vitiate the air. I found most of the prison very clean, though there was scribbling on some of the walls, and one of the rooms was in a filthy state owing to a debtor having used it as a bird-cage. Some parts of the prison are not very secure, but there would apparently be little difficulty in rendering them so. There has as yet been no instance of escape.

Prisoners.—Both debtors and criminals are received here. The number of prisoners, at the time of my visit, was 50; namely, 34 criminals (27 males and. 7 females) and 16 debtors (13 males and 3 females). The average number of prisoners is about 45. The greatest number at any one time last year was about 60; the total number being 180, namely, 132 criminals (111 males and 21 females), 45 debtors (42 males and 3 females), and 3 revenue prisoners (2 males and 1 female). There was only one of the prisoners that looked dirty, though I found, by my private examination of them, that some occasionally pass the day without washing themselves. The keeper complained of the difficulty of making some of the debtors keep themselves clean. This difficulty is by no means peculiar to the Morpeth prison.

Health.—Generally very good. It appears indeed that most of the prisoners greatly improve in health during their stay. There has been no death for several years. The ordinary complaints are constipation of the bowels, itch, and venereal diseases; the bowel-complaints being generally brought on, the surgeon thinks, by want of exercise.

Food.—The criminal prisoners, and such of the debtors as are unable to maintain themselves, are allowed fourpence per day each for the purchase of food, besides coal to cook with. With this allowance they are able to live very comfortably, especially when three or four club together. A common dietary among them appears to be oatmeal porridge, with milk or treacle, for breakfast; potatoes and barley-cakes, with a herring, a slice of bacon, or part of a sheep's head or pluck, for dinner; and calico, with barley-cakes, for supper. Extra allowances are often given to the women who wash, and to any of the men who are set about what is considered a hard job. The Poor Debtors, as they are called, receive their allowance in the form of a direct payment in money, but the criminals are supplied upon a credit given to the baker to the amount of their allowance.

Bedding.—A mattress (filled with chaff or straw), a pair of sheets, a pair of blankets, and a rug. The debtors have the same as the criminals, except that their bedding is of better quality, and that they are allowed pillows. In cold weather, and in cases of sickness, an extra supply of bedding is often allowed. I found all the bedding clean. The blankets are scoured twice a-year.

Clothing.—Clothing is supplied only to such of the criminal prisoners as are in want. The male prisoner is allowed a coat, waistcoat, and trousers (made of strong grey cloth), a shirt, a pair of thick woollen stockings, a pair of shoes with wooden soles, a Scotch cap, and a pocket handkerchief, A female gets stockings, shoes, and handkerchief, like those of a male prisoner, and in addition a woollen gown and petticoat, a shift, a cap, and a bonnet.

Discipline.—Very lax, Classification even is not enforced among the females, and there is but very little work; those indeed who are specially sentenced to hard labour passing most of their time in idleness. There is a small tread-wheel which is used for pumping water, and each time that I went into the yard where the wheel stands a party of the prisoners sallied from the day-room and with great bustle began to turn the wheel; but no doubt they were equally prompt in returning to the day-room so soon as I had withdrawn. A similar farce was enacted in the room in which prisoners beat sand. There is a number of rules drawn up nearly two years ago, and sanctioned by the Secretary of State, directing, among other things, that provision be made for carrying sentences to hard labour into effect, and for providing employment in all cases. Most of these rules, however, appear to have slumbered, in the same inactivity as the prisoners themselves.

As respects the females, not only is classification disregarded, but opportunities exist for their conversing occasionally with the male prisoners, although they are unable to see them.—The males are divided into classes during the day, and most of those who are untried have a separate cell each at night. The convicted male prisoners, however, generally sleep three in a cell.

The only instruction afforded is that which one prisoner gives to another. The supply of Instruction. books to the prison is confined to Bibles and other religious works. There is a chaplain who Chaplain. attends twice on the Sunday to perform Divine service, and who occasionally visits the prison at other times. He keeps a journal, but the only entries in it are weekly records of his having read service and preached.

The general conduct of the prisoners is reported to be good. The most common offence appears to be quarrelling with one another; and the usual punishment (when any is awarded) is confinement in a separate cell.

The only complaint that I received respected the baker who supplies the prison; but this complaint was made by a single prisoner and was quite unsupported. The complaint came from a blind man who appeared to be very suspicious of all about him; and, who, a short time before, had laid violent hands upon a boy (who had been put into the same room to take care of him) on the supposition that the boy had robbed him of part of his food. It is not surprising that this blind man is suspicious of others, seeing that he is an artful rogue himself. The offence of which he has been convicted, and which he appears to have carried to a considerable extent, was (strange to say for a blind man) passing bad money. I was told that he employed a boy as an assistant; that he had already corrupted two boys in this way; and that one of these boys was then in prison for what he had done under his direction. The case of this blind man is one of the many which I have met with in which confinement for life appears to be very desirable. From the age of the offender scarcely any chance of reformation can exist, even if he were subjected to the best system of prison discipline. As it is, this man will soon leave prison, necessarily as bad as he entered it, and will probably return to his bad practices and train other children to crime.

There are three prisoners who, by the verdicts of juries, have been found insane. Their cases are as follows

—— ——, aged 69, confined for shooting his son. He has been in prison nearly nine years. Madness appears to be hereditary in his family. His father was once in a lunatic asylum, and one of his sons destroyed himself.

—— ——, a young man whose name is not known and cannot be ascertained, as he is an idiot and a stranger (an Irishman). He was committed about six years ago for attempting to steal. He. becomes much excited, the keeper says, when he sees children; and the keeper believes that if he were left alone with a child he would kill it.

—— ——, aged 17, was committed 15 months ago for cutting with intent to kill. The keeper believes that insanity is in this case assumed.

The first of the three lunatics appears to be a man of education. He has a little library in the prison, and is allowed under the lax system in use to indulge in a whim for sitting up till three or four o'clock in the morning (another prisoner sitting up to take care or him) to read, and then lying in bed till the middle of the day. Among other matter which he had provided for perusal I observed a violent party newspaper, though how far such a publication is calculated to allay the irritable feelings of a lunatic may admit of question.

Female Prisoners.—The females are superintended in part, but not exclusively, by female officers. They are better employed than the male prisoners, but, as already mentioned, there is no separation among them; the unconvicted even associating with the convicted.

Debtors.—The average number last year was 11. There is one debtor who has been in confinement six years; and another who has been admitted 23 separate times. Few of the arrests, I was told, are made with a view of enforcing the payment of debts; the object of many being to enable the prisoner to take advantage of the Insolvent Debtors' Act. The keeper, too, believes that in several cases the debt is a mere fiction, which is not surprising considering the comfortable quarters to which it procures admission. Indeed, the only wonder is, that the place is not at all times crowded, seeing how many there must be whose wishes and tastes it is calculated to gratify; for, under ordinary circumstances, each debtor has a comfortable room and fire to himself, with access to a large public room and large piece of ground where he may gossip with his neighbour debtors; he is at liberty to receive visits from his friends in the outer world every day in the week except Sunday; and if he be unable to purchase his own food he has an allowance front the county; and all this without his being required to do a stroke of work. In fact, the place gives one the idea rather of a jovial kind of monastery than of a prison; and I could not but be struck with the waste of time and injury to society caused by an arrangement which placed so many able-bodied men in a state of idleness.

Miscellaneous.—Very little difference is made between tried and untried prisoners. By the rules of the prison the former are certainly required to work; but, as already seen, the rule is little more than a dead letter. Visits are allowed at the discretion or the keeper, and he examines letters. Smoking is not permitted to the criminals, but it is to the debtors. Assistance appears to be generally rendered in enabling prisoners to return to their places of abode after liberation.

Officers.—There are a keeper, a chaplain, a surgeon, two turnkeys (one of whom is called a taskmaster), a porter, and a female officer. The keeper appears to be intelligent, kindhearted, and trustworthy, but it is sufficient to state that he is now 80 years old, to show that he must be unable energetically to discharge the duties of his office. The keeper seems to have the greatest confidence in the peaceable demeanour of the prisoners towards him, which he attributes to his having always treated them with civility and kindness, and with regard to their feelings. He states that during the whole time he has been keeper (50 years) he has never, in a single instance, been attacked, or even insulted. The chaplain appears to be a kind man, but, like the keeper, to be too far advanced in age for much exertion. The surgeon is in the full vigour of life. He attends generally about three times a week, but oftener when sent for.

The keeper speaks highly of the female officer and. of the porter, but I do not know how far these officers are qualified to take part in an efficient system of discipline. The keeper states also that one of the turnkeys is trustworthy, but that he is dull and ill-tempered.

Fees.—None of any kind.

Accounts.—-A register of imprisonments kept in a current form and alphabetically; a journal of extraordinary occurrences; a record of the visits of the county magistrates; a sick list, and. an account of expenses.

Average number of prisoners during the year, 40¾.; namely, 29¼ criminals (26 males and 3¼ females), 11 debtors (10½ males and ½ female), ½ revenue prisoner.

Average cost of each prisoner during the year about 27l. Daily cost about 18d.

The prison site is shown on the 1859 map below.

County Gaol and House of Correction site, Morpeth, c.1859.

Court House / Gaol Entrance, Morpeth.

Following the nationalisation of the prison system, the establishment closed in 1881. The surviving buildings include the entrance block and the governor's house.


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