Ancestry UK

Town/Borough Gaol, Northampton, Northamptonshire

Northampton had a Town Gaol from at least 1253. By the sixteenth century, it adjoined the town hall, in Abington Street. From 1584, some of the rooms under the town hall itself were used as prisons.

In 1776, John Howard found that the prisoners had no yard and no water supply. In 1784, he reported that the gaol comprised two rooms and a court for felons and petty offenders, and a room and a court for debtors. Both courts were towards the street. Felons were allowed twopence a day each. The gaoler was a bailiff and sheriff's officer. He had no licence for beer, and received no salary. In 1787, Howard found the prison to be damp and insecure, with the felons' courtyard being only four feet wide.

In 1792, a new gaol was erected by the town on Fish Lane (now Street), Northampton, on land given by the corporation. In 1812, when a bridewell also functioned at the site, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, Robert Roberts. A Sheriff's Officer, and Bellman of the Town. Salary, 10l.

Fees, for Debtors, 10s. 6d. on Commitment, and 13s. 4d. on Discharge. But if too poor to pay the Fees, they are humanely settled by the Corporation. For Felons, 13s. 4d.paid by the corporation. No table.

Chaplain, none.

Surgeon, Mr. Blissard; who makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners,

Debtors.Felons &c.Lunaticks.
1801, Aug. 18th,0.2.0.
1805, Sept. 26th,0.4.1.
1807, July 24th,0.3.0.
1808, July 29th,1.2.1.
1809, Aug. 17th,0.0.1.

Allowance, to Debtors, none. To Felons and Bridewell Prisoners, fourpence a day each.


This Prison is situate in Fish Lane, and was built in 1792. The Keeper is a Tobacco-Pipe Maker. His house fronts the Street, and his windows command a view of the two court-yards for Criminal Prisoners, which are both 21 feet by 18, with cisterns for pump water, and a sewer in each.

Debtors are sent hither by Process issuing out of the Borough Court. They have no court-yard, but are sometimes indulged by the Keeper with the use of his garden. The single Debtor was walking in it, when I came hither in 1808.

The Bridewell Room is 15 feet by 7; and the Keeper furnishes beds at one shilling per week each, two sleeping in a bed.

Debtors and Criminals are here very properly placed, so as to be kept separate. The former, deprived of a court-yard, have only one room above stairs, of 14 feet by 11, and 9 feet high, adjoining to the Bridewell part: these have both fire-places, two iron-grated windows in each, and a sewer in the corners.

Poor Debtors are allowed by the Town a wooden bedstead, with straw laid on it, and one blanket.

Each of the Felons' court-yards before mentioned has two cells attached to it, of 10 feet by 7, and 9 feet high; which are fitted up with wooden bedsteads, loose straw, and a blanket for each Prisoner. They are lighted and ventilated by an iron-grated window over the doors, 3 feet high, 18 inches wide; and by a grated aperture in each door, of 6 inches by 5.

The Bridewell Prisoners have but the one room above noticed; which is nearly of the same size with that for the Debtors, and fitted up in the same manner.

Here is no Infirmary, or Sick Room. The Gaol is white-washed once a year. As mops, brooms brooms,, or or pails are not allowed to keep it clean, it can be no wonder that the cells are extremely offensive, being in want of proper drains.

Divine Service, heretofore, was occasionally and gratuitously performed by the Rev. John Stoddart; but that Gentleman falling blind, no religious attentions whatever have been paid to the poor Prisoners for several years.

The Keeper does not remember that any Debtor here has ever received the Benefit of the Lords' Act (or Sixpences) during the nine or ten years of his being in Office.

No Employment is provided; but those Prisoners who are of handicraft trades may procure work for themselves, if they can. No water accessible to the Debtors or Bridewell Class: it must be brought to them.

Prisoners are discharged from hence at all hours, without money being given to carry them home.

Neither the Act for preserving Health, nor the Clauses against Spirituous Liquors are hung up.

In 1832, the prison comprised four day-rooms, four airing-yards, and twelve sleeping-cells. Two crank-handle mills had been introduced for grinding corn, at which the convicted prisoners were employed for about six hours in the day. Each prisoner was allowed sixpence daily, for the purchase of food, &c. Those at hard labour were allowed a small portion of their earnings. Proper bedding was provided, but no prison dress. The total number of commitments during the previous year was seventy-three, while the greatest number at any one time was twenty three.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported that the 'Borough Gaol, or Lock-up House' was: longer exists as such, and is only continued at present as a lock-up house for night charges. The prisoners from the borough are committed to the county gaol and house of correction, at a fixed contract of 1s. daily per head. An agreement to this effect has been entered into between the county magistrates and the borough magistrates; but it has been made for the term of one year only, in order that both parties may have an opportunity of testing the results, and of reconsidering the arrangement.

In 1845, a new town gaol holding 80 inmates was built on Upper Mounts. It was designed on the Pentonville model and could house up to 80 prisoners. The old gaol in Fish Lane then became a police station.

In 1848, the Inspectors of Prisons reported on the new prison:

This Prison, being a common gaol, house of correction, bridewell, and debtor's prison, containing 69 cells, which have been certified as fit for the reception of criminal prisoners in separate confinement, 20 airing yards for male, and 6 airing yards for female prisoners, with reception and punishment cells, stands upon nearly two acres of ground, within a boundary wall 18 feet high, on a piece of elevated land adjoining the town, and has all the indications of being well drained and healthy. The plan is of the same character as that of Pentonville Prison, and the cells, in two tiers, are similar in form and construction, being 13 ft. long, 7 ft. wide, and 10 ft. high, opening in the first tier upon a spacious corridor, and in the second tier upon a light iron gallery; they are lighted with gas, and otherwise fitted with all conveniences as in the Model Prison; the punishment cells, baths, reception cells, cells with cranks for raising water to the cisterns, kitchen, laundry, drying-room, and store-rooms, occupying the basement story. The ventilation is to all appearance good, and the warming apparatus effective. At the time of inspection, some of the bricks in the cells shelved a slight degree of damp, by throwing out saltpetre on the walls, but they were in course of removal, and being replaced with others. The chapel contains 80 sittings, and is fitted up as at the Model Prison.

When I visited the prison, it. contained the following male criminal prisoners: (no debtors were then in the gaol.)—

Tried.Untried.Number under 17 Years of Age.Number above 17 Years of Age.Total.
How Employed.
Teazing Oakum16
Cooking for the Prison1
Untried, not working4

The female prisoners, all convicted, 4 in number, were employed in knitting, mending, darning, and washing the prison linen. Their cells, eight of which are boarded, are fitted as at Pentonville; and are supplied each with hammock, coir mattress, bed, two blankets, and a rug, but no sheets. If ill the females are put into cells with wooden bedsteads, but there is no infirmary, either for the male or female prisoners, the sick being treated in their respective cells. There are three laundry cells, with troughs for washing, in the basement story; and here it must be remarked, that a conversation can be maintained between a female in the washing cell and a person in the kitchen, without much difficulty if the windows are open, though they cannot easily see each other; but this defect may be remedied by an inexpensive alteration in the arrangement of the kitchen window. There are two punishment cells for the females, one light and the other dark; though neither have as yet been made use of. No female warder sleeps in the prison, but as every,cell is fitted with a bell, which when rung is distinctly heard on the other side of the partition wall by the male warder, who can at once communicate by means of his bell with the matron, the presence of one is hardly necessary, especially as ten appears to have been the greatest number of female prisoners ever in confinement at one time. In the women's cells the thermometer stood at 53°.

I found the prison clean and orderly, and in a state creditable to the Visiting Justices and to the Governor.

The Surgeon visits the prison daily; he had but one prisoner on the sick list at the time of my inspection,—a man, untried, laid up with a sore leg. The clothing of the prisoners was sufficient, and the provisions were good. The diet is that recommended from the Home Office.

The Governor stated that the health of the prisoners usually improves as they get regular and wholesome food, and are kept from drinking,—the cause of most of the offences for which I found the prisoners here, both male and female, were confined.

Subsequently to my inspection, the Borough hare entered into an arrangement to place at the disposal of the Government 20 cells, furnished, for the accommodation of prisoners under sentence of transportation; and to augment the staff of the prison, to meet the circumstances of the increased numbers. The basis of the arrangement is the same as that agreed upon with respect to the prison at Reading: viz., a rent of £6 per annum for each furnished cell, the Borough bearing such expenses as might be deemed analogous to those which in ordinary circumstances would be borne by an individual letting furnished lodgings; and the Government paying in addition, an equitable share, in respect of the whole number of prisoners confined, of the cost of the transports' maintenance and management; the prison officers being named by the Magistrates, with the approbation of the Secretary of State, and the Visiting Justices exercising control equally over all prisoners. The Prison staff has therefore been raised to the following strength,—a Governor; a Chaplain, who shall devote one half of every day to the duties of the gaol; a Trades-Instructor; a School-master; 3 Warders; and a Night Watchman; and this staff it may be hoped, will be found sufficient; if not the Magistrates are prepared to augment it still further. They have also commenced making alterations in the gaol, which will give additional accommodation to the extent of about 20 cells, for transports; and as these alterations will be soon perfected, 35 cells in all will very shortly be placed at the disposal of the Government.

From what I saw in this prison, I was more than usually struck with the power of drink as a cause of crime. Almost every prisoner, male and female, acknowledged that to drinking their being confined in the gaol could be traced. I found the following strong case:—A.—B. charged with embezzling leather from his employer, and imprisoned previously for the like offence, said that he could make 9 pairs of shoes in a week, earning from 3s. to 4s. per day, but though he had a wife and three children (in the workhouse during the time he was in gaol), he could not refrain from drinking, and that he had frequently paid to his employer 4s. and 5s. in the week, to prevent him from "pulling him up" for the leather which he had taken. He had often sold or pawned for 4s. leather of the value of 10s., and he was in the habit of doing this when he had begun a course of drinking. He was not addicted to "tippling," generally, but at times he would break into uncontrollable excesses, and on those occasions he never became perfectly sober until after he had converted into spirituous liquor every article within his reach upon which money could be raised; and the last time he was brought to prison, he had upon him neither coat, shirt, nor shoes, and was more like a madman than a reasonable being. This prisoner said that it was the same way with many of the workmen, who were seldom out of employment except for their own faults, earned wages which would keep them well, and spent most of their money in the beer shops.

The following is an instance of what little effect a short imprisonment has upon a youth:— C.—D. aged 18, confined at the time of inspection for leaving the Union Workhouse, having been imprisoned five times before. The first offence was running away from his master, for which he was imprisoned three days; the second was absconding with his union clothing, for which he was imprisoned three weeks; the third was stealing apples, six weeks imprisonment; fourth, also stealing apples, two months imprisonment; fifth, stealing tobacco, sentence, seven years transportation, but commuted to six months imprisonment, spent at Parkhurst. He was now in gaol for the sixth time. For his earlier offences a sound whipping would have probably proved a better corrective than a short imprisonment. To the latter sort of punishment he had now become accustomed and it had lost its terrors.

The following report made by the Chaplain is very interesting:—

Report of the State of Education:—Attendance at schools and knowledge of the Lord's Prayer,the Creed and Ten Commandments, in the Borough Gaol, Northampton, Michaelmas, 1846, to Michaelmas 1847.

Number of prisoners reported 172:—of these 25 can neither read nor write, apparently very ignorant indeed. 46 spell and read little words. 84 read and write imperfectly. 11 read and write well, making up the whole number 172. Of these 18 could do some arithmetic, 7 having had superior education.

I found all had attended some kind of school, except. 10, either day school, Sunday, National or other Charity Schools. So abundant are the means of instruction, especially in the town, for all classes. Almost all, with a little help and drawing out could say the Lord's prayer. though in some cases, especially with the aged, from a natural aversion to such things, and from timidity from being asked to say it to me, the prayer was but poorly said. Of the 172, 54 could not say any of the creed, and 113 could not say the ten commandments.

Remarks:—I do not think any dependence can he placed upon the prisoners' answers to stated questions, such as, can you read? Can you say the Lord's prayer? They prefer saying no at once, rather than be put to the proof; but from my having been accustomed for many years to instruct children of all classes; I find I can draw out, by degrees, a great deal more from them than at first they professed; for instance, if a prisoner be brought into my room to be examined, and he sees on the table my extra large Report book and a large Bible, and is asked, can you read? he looks at the extra large books, then at me, and then at the Warder, and thinks it best to say no, as much from alarm at the preparation to hear him read, and thus gets over every difficulty well, he then would be put down in the Report Book under the column, "neither read nor write." Now, when that same man has been in his cell a few days, with books in it, and I make my call upon him, I sometimes find him with a book in hand, and if not I can gently draw him out to do something in that way. In fact, I have known a prisoner say on first examination, that he could:neither read nor write, and yet in a few days he is found reading pretty well, and even asking for paper to write to his friends, so that very little dependence, as I before observed, can be placed upon the prisoners' bare answer.

They often make use of apparent ignorance as an excuse for their crime, and use it as oftentimes they do religion, as a tool only to work upon others. I find among the shoe-makers, (the usual class of prisoners here), more aptitude and quickness in acquiring various knowledge than in any other class of prisoners. I really have seldom had occasion to lament over extreme ignorance, it was hypocrisy, duplicity and infidelity and not ignorance, which called forth regret:—And I have come to the conclusion that the prisoners neither fall into sin, nor break the laws from lack of knowledge, but from want of good principles and solid plain teaching, in the necessary and substantial social duties of a good life.

CHARLES WEST, A. M., Chaplain.

Following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878, the borough gaol was designated as the Upper Prison, while the county gaol on George Row became the Lower Prison. After the Lower Prison was closed at the end of 1879, the Upper Mounts site became Northampton's only prison. After it, too, closed in 1922, HMP Bedford was used for Northampton's male prisoners and HMP Birmingham for females.

A police station, fire station and swimming baths were subsequently erected on the Upper Mounts site.


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.

  • Northamptonshire Record Office, Wootton Hall Park, Northampton, Northants, NN4 8BQ. Holdings include: Remissions (1815-1878); Reprieves (1829-1855); Nominal registers — male (1884-1901); Nominal registers — female (1893-1905);
  • 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.