Ancestry UK

Town Gaol, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire

A Town Gaol existed in Nottingham by the twelfth century. Nottingham's subsequent status as a "county corporate" led to the prison being formally known as the gaol for the "Town and County of Nottingham", but it should not be confused with the separate Nottinghamshire County Gaol, also situated on High Pavement. In 1479, the Town Gaol was enlarged at a site adjoining the Guildhall (later known as the Town Hall) on High Pavement, Nottingham.

Guildhall and Town Gaol, Nottingham, 1747.

The Assizes and Sessions took place in the section of the building with the largest gable — the west end. This hall was approached by a flight of covered steps which ran by the side of the building. The second gabled portion was designated "the Council House". This may have extended to the third part of the building. The gaol for debtors was under the next, or furthest, portion of the building, and the "ancient gaol for felons" under the Assize Hall, on the ground floor. The tanners stored their leather beneath the gaol for debtors — the east end of the building.

In 1784, John Howard wrote:

GAOLER, Richard Bonington, the county gaoler.

Salary, £8.

Fees, Debtors, £0 : 8 : 0 if under £10.

      £0 : 14 : 8 if from any court in London.

   Felons, £0 : 14 : 8.

Transports,  £7 : 17 : 6 each.


Allowance, Debtors, none. (See Remarks.)

     Felons, three-halfpence in bread, a day.

Garnish, prohibited.


Debtors.Felons &c.Debtors.Felons &c.
1773, Nov. 17,5,2.1776, Sep. 25,0,0.
1775, Jan. 4,3,0.1779, Sep. 19,2,0.
1775, Nov. 12,5,2.1782, Jan. 21,1,1.


SURGEON, none stated. The mayor orders one when wanted.


THIS gaol has been lately repaired and much improved. Three rooms on the ground-floor, two chambers, and two garrets: a dungeon down twenty-two steps, which I was informed has not been used for some years: a back court supplied with water. Debtors have from a legacy one shilling a week for coals. Collected in the town for prisoners about £4 a year. Clauses against spirituous liquors not hung up.


For the lodging and board of each prisoner, when he lodges and diets with the gaoler, per week, seven shillings.

For each prisoner when such prisoner hath a room and a bed of the gaoler and diets himself, by the week, two shillings.

For each prisoner when he hath a room of the gaoler,and a finds own bed and diets, by the week, six pence.

For the discharge of each prisoner, thirteen shillings and four pence.

For the turnkey for the same, one shilling and four pence.

In 1789, Howard added:

The building is too slight for a prison. Windows towards the street. In the room (called the bars) on the ground floor, the prisoners may take in what liquor they please. No rules are hung up. Debtors pay 2s. a week for a bed. The county gaoler is keeper.

1787, Oct. 23,Debtors 5.Petty Offender 1.
1788, Aug. 6,Debtors 5. 

The Guildhall and prison were rebuilt in 1791.

Guildhall and Town Gaol, Nottingham, 1791.

In 1812, James Neild reported on the prison:

Gaoler, Philip Bailey; a Peace Officer for the Town.

Salary, 70l. and 30l. per annum for a Turnkey.

Fees, for Debtors, 14s. 8d. Besides which the Under-Sheriff demands four shillings for his liberate! For Felons, 13s. 4d. paid by the County.

Conveyance of Transports, 10l. each, whether to Woolwich or to Portsmouth.

Garnish; one shilling is paid upon entrance to the Prison stock for coals.

Chaplain, none regularly assigned, but the Rev. Mr. Bryan, a Calvinist, frequently attends the Prisoners here gratuitously; and many religious books are sent them.

Surgeon, Mr. Basnett. Salary, for Gaol-Felons only, and the House of Correction, 10l. 10s.

Number of Prisoners,

Debtors.Felons &c.
1803, Aug. 24th, 512.
1805, Oct. 1st, 710.
1809, Aug. 26th,1214.

Allowance, for all descriptions, a threepenny loaf per day each, which in October 1805, weighed 1 lb. and 1 oz. When a Debtor has obtained his sixpences, he continues also to receive the County Bread. If a Debtor be very poor, and petition the Magistrates, he is allowed half a loaf in addition. Debtors likewise receive, as the benefit of a Legacy, one shilling per week for coals. Colonel Elliott gives annually, at Christmas, one pound of beef, a threepenny loaf, and a pint of ale, to each Prisoner; and the Mayor of Nottingham, for the time being, sends 1 cwt, of coals to every Prisoner at the same season.


This Gaol is partly under the Guild-hall. The Keeper's house fronts the Street; and his windows, as well as those of the Turnkey's lodge, command a view both of the Debtors' and Criminals' court-yards.

For Debtors here are two court-yards; the upper one of which, 33 feet long by 23, has a flagged floor, and is over what they call "The Felons' Pit," which receives its light and ventilation from a circular iron grating, of 11 feet diameter, placed in the centre of this court-yard: the lower one is 38 feet 6 inches by 23 feet, and has a dust-hole and a sewer at the upper end. The Debtors have also nine good-sized sleeping-rooms, with fire-places, and glazed windows, all furnished by the Gaoler; for which, if two sleep in one bed, they pay 2s. per week; or if the Debtor have a bed to himself, 3s. weekly.

The Felons, before Trial, have a court-yard of 60 feet by 31, with a sewer, dust hole, and water laid on; a day-room 11 feet by 10, with a fire-place, and a small workshop.

After conviction they are confined in what is called "The Felons' Pit," which is sixteen steps down, a circular court, of 21 feet by 18, with a flagged floor; and derives its light from the circular iron-grating, of 11 feet diameter, in the floor the Debtors' yard before-mentioned. Three sleeping-cells open into this court, each 10 feet by 6, and 8 feet high, the doors of which are only 5 feet high, and 22½ inches wide. Here is also a passage 32 feet long and 4 feet wide, which has on each side of it three cells. One of then, damp and useless, is now suitably converted into a coal-hole; the other two have iron-grated windows, with inside shutters, and a grating over each door, 16 inches square. The other three cells, or dungeons, on the opposite side, have no other light or ventilation than the small grating above-described. All of them are fitted up with wooden bedsteads, to provide straw for which the Keeper was allowed four guineas a year. At my last visit in 1809, the Town supplied a straw-in-ticking bed, with three blankets, and a rug.

The Debtors here are indeed locally and occasionally separated from the Felons; but the sexes, in each class and division of so scanty a space, must necessarily be together in the day-time,

The Employment here consists in weaving, making shoes, cutting pegs, &c. and the Debtors thus usefully occupied, enjoy the whole of their earnings. Both they and the Felons are allowed to send for one quart of ale in the four-and-twenty hours.

A Collection is charitably made every year throughout the Town, at Christmas, for the benefit of the Prisoners in general. In 1804 it amounted to nine Pounds, six Shillings; out of which, after paying the Collector 14s. for four days trouble, the remainder was distributed to the Prisoners, at 10s.9d. each.

The Christmas annual collection, up to the time of my visit in August 1809, amounted to between eight and ten pounds, and was distributed to all classes of Prisoners equally.

This whole Gaol is well supplied with river water; and in the Street adjoining is a pump, from which excellent spring water is daily fetched by the Keeper for the use of his Prisoners.

The Prison is whitewashed. The Clauses against Spirituous Liquors are hung up; but not the Act for the Preservation of Health.

On the whole this is a wretched Prison; and it gave me great pleasure to be informed, that the Grand Jury had presented it at the Assizes in 1809, and that a new one was to be built.

It is unclear what form was taken by the new prison referred to by Neild. However, the Town Hall section at the west end of the building was subsequently remodelled and Venetian windows being installed.

The Guildhall and prison were rebuilt in 1791.

Old Town Hall, Nottingham, c.1904.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

This prison is attached to the Town Hall; the keeper's residence, consisting of five rooms, being in the basement; the debtor's apartments, seven in number, are irregularly and inconveniently placed in the first and second floors, and to reach them, the debtors have to pass the female ward, the door of which is of open iron-work; the windows also look directly into the, airing-yards appropriated to females. The cells for the male criminals, below ground, are dark and damp. As a partial obviation of this latter inconvenience, chafing-dishes are occasionally put into them in the day-time. There is. only one airing-yard for the male prisoners, with two day-rooms, so situated as to defy inspection. The chapel, contrary to law, is made use of as a sleeping-room for the debtors. There is no infirmary. The prison is secure from escape, but not entirely detached from other buildings. The airing-yards are paved. It is not fire-proof.

Diet.—1½ lbs. of best wheaten broad daily, and 1 pint of milk; 1 lb. of oatmeal weekly, with salt. Meat puddings and vegetables are allowed to be brought in to the untried, daily, from 12 till half past, and such of this class as are wholly destitute of means have an additional allowance of three pints of milk weekly. Debtors are permitted to purchase one quart of beer daily, a pint at a time. They all receive 1½ lb. of bread daily. A prisoner under sentence of transportation was allowed to receive food beyond the gaol allowance.

Clothing.—None allowed, except in cases of actual necessity.

Bedding.—Iron bedsteads, palliasse, bolster, three blankets, and a rug.

Fuel.—Coals allowed throughout the year, the quantity regulated by the weather.

Cleanliness.—The prison clean. The prisoners are made to wash themselves night and morning. Clean body linen once a-week.

Health.—The prisoners healthy. The venereal and eruptive diseases the most common. Rheumatic complaints were very prevalent in the prison last year. The surgeon visits the prison regularly twice a-week, and oftener when required. Considers the diet sufficient, but could not advise its being reduced. Speaking generally, he considers it equal to that of the agricultural labourer in the county; has experienced very great inconvenience from the want of an infirmary in the gaol; keeps two books arranged under the following heads: Name—age—sex—nature of disease—days when attended M | T | W | T | F | S | S—wine and necessaries—Observations. The above journal is exhibited before the magistrates, at the police office, every week.

No. 2 Journal. No.—age—sex—occupation—disease or casualty—known or supposed disease or casualty—date of commitment, and whether in prison before commitment—treatment—day of termination—event—observations—number of sick.

Moral and Religious Instruction.—The chaplain performs one service on a Sunday, and prayers twice a-week. He used to read prayers daily, but the corporation reduced his salary in 1826, and at the same time curtailed his duty from a daily service to what it is at present. No attempt is made to instruct either youths or adults. The chaplain says, "I have not had a sufficient supply of prayer-books for the last 10 years. I have no control over the introduction of books and tracts in the prison; many come in of which I know nothing until in the hands of the prisoners. Prisoners have applied to me for books; they have occasionally been supplied, but not in all cases. I have mentioned the deficiency of books so often in my reports, that I have been led to regard it with indifference. I have observed in the prisoners a desire to be instructed. The keeper does not always attend chapel, the matron never does; the female prisoners come to chapel under the superintendence of the keeper or turnkey. The debtors very rarely attend Divine service, they used to do so; they give me great cause of complaint in consequence of their misconduct. The noise made by them is sometimes so great, that I can scarcely hear myself read. It is some months since I have read to any of the prisoners." Keeps no private character book. The matron states, "she hears the female prisoners read four or five times a-week, and several who were unable have been taught."

Benefactions.—Able Collier bequeathed by Will, 4th February 1704, one shilling a-week, for ever, to be distributed among the poor debtors; this money is received by the keeper and applied only in the most urgent of casus of distress. No box is kept in the prison. Accounts, Expenditure, Books.—The provisions are contracted for quarterly by public advertisement. The bills are sent in to the keeper, examined by the justices, laid before the town council for approval, and paid by the, treasurer.

Books.—-General account-book. Yearly average stock-book. Visiting-book. Debtors' register. Visiting magistrates' book. The general register is arranged under the following heads:—Names—height, ft. | in.—complexion and outline of face—colour, eyes—hair—marks—trade and residence—single or married—settlement—how obtained—parent's name—trade and residence—character and disposition—if in a prison, or convicted before—read and write—by whom and when committed—further examination for trial—offence and result of commitment.

General Discipline.—There is nothing meriting the name in this establishment. The separation even of the sexes is incomplete; communication is constantly taking place between the females and the debtors, which the construction of the building makes it quite impossible to prevent. A most improper practice is resorted to as some check to it, that of permitting the female prisoners to remain in their day-rooms until after the male debtors are locked up at night, the women, to get to their sleeping-cells, having to go through a part of the prison occupied by the former. On the day of inspection a convicted woman was in the same room with a female debtor. The keeper says, "There is no possibility of keeping the debtors entirely apart from the females; I have detected them in communication with the women under sentence of transportation." The females are allowed to have candles at night, if able to purchase them. They do all the washing, and are paid at the rate of one penny a shirt, and a halfpenny a pair of stockings. They also wash for the officers, and are paid by them for it, and have occasionally done so for the debtors. They are paid the money every Saturday; it has amounted to 2s. 6d. weekly, and is laid out for them in tea, sugar, and like articles, by the turnkey. A female prisoner is brought into the keeper's house to work for him, and is remunerated by extra food. The chaplain states, "that the noise of the debtors causes him considerable interruption in his duties and the turnkey says they are frequently playing at cards, and that they expect garnish. The matron does not attend the chapel, and the females are there without a female officer. I recommend the incorporation of the town gaol of Nottingham, a building wholly unfit for its purposes, with the house of correction, which is quite sufficient for both. Should this not be legally practicable, the removal of all convicted prisoners there immediately after trial, particularly the transports, would at least be a relief. The washing for both prisons might, with facility and with more convenience, be done at the house of correction. As a proof of the total want of discipline, and the mischief of unchecked association, I annex a copy of a paper taken from a most notorious character lying there under sentence of transportation; it was composed by himself, another prisoner acting as his amanuensis, and it is said to contain a real account of his life and depredations.

My name is Isaac Holden, you very well do know,
And when I was ten years of age a robbing I did go;
It was out of my mother's box,"as you the truth shall hear.
Seven spade-ace guineas I did take, I solemnly declare.

Then to the brick-yards I did go all for to earn my bread,
I had not been their many months before a thought came in my head,
James Gregg he had two ducks, as I very well did know,
Resolved I was to steal them, and have a glorious doo.

The next to Sison I did go in company with three more,
To Sir John Thurrold's orchard, where there was apples galore;
Seven strike of these apples we stole I do declare.
And for to bring these apples home we stole Abraham Clark's black mare.

It was not long after when a thought came in my head
That we could rob Bill Barneses shop, so to my pall said,
Theyres a great deal of money all in that shop I know,
I've got a key that will it fit, so come and let us go.

Then when we got into that shop, O how he did but stare
To see so many halfpence, a bag full I declare;
The amount of them was £50, and the weight was great you know.
We carried them unto the Whitham and in we did them throw.

Besides ten pounds in silver my boys we took away.
Which lasted us to spend my boys for many a good day;
And when it was all gone my lads we went unto our store.
For we knew when that was gone my lads we had got plenty more.

It was about three months after we went into his barn.
There we stole sixteen fine fouls, and 'thought it was no harm;
One couple of these fouls we eat, the rest we gave away.
And we thought God would reward us all in a future day.

To Buckminster the next I went apprentice to be bound.
And before I had been there six months I began to look around;
It was all at the publick house where I ofttimes used to go, '
The landlord he had three fine geese, as you the truth shall know.

These geese I did condemn to die without the least fear.
And the very first opportunity I shifted them from there;
Me and my master cooked them, and of them we all did share.
And my master said I was the best lad that ever had been there.

O then unto the butcher's shop my master did me send
To fetch a leg of mutton to dine him and a friend;
And when that I had brought it he sent me back again
With the bill and the money to pay all for the same.

She put it in the cupboard where there was plenty more,
O then thinks I unto myself that will add to my store;
So when she went a milking I was on the look out,
And slyly went into the shop and fetched the booty out.

I rob'd my master of two pounds and then I ran away,
To Leicester town I did set off without any more delay,
Twas there I saw a mariene and with him I did list,
I thought I would a soldgier bee, for fear they should me twist.

And when that I was swore in my boys twas on that very day
I rob'd Mrs. Shipman of five pounds, that was a glorious day;
We stopt there and spent it and then we marched away,
It was to Woolwich that we went, for there the regiment lay.

I had not joind the regiment long before I was on the look out.
Then I spied a drunken sarjent whith his pocket book half out,
I made free for to take it and thought it was no harm.
And it contained 7l. l0s. and he made a great alarm.

Me and my palls to Greenwich went, being as it was the fair.
There we pick'd up a sailor bold that was a sporting there.
We robd him of his bit of blunt, the truth I will declare.
It was but 1l. 5s., but it helpt to keep the fair.

T now had left the regiment twelve months or rather more,
Then we robd lady Morgan, as you have heard before.
Of fifty pounds in money, and fifty more in plate.
It was enough I'm sure to buy a small estate.

William Longland he got hanged, and G. Hurst he went for life.
And I have remained a robber all the days of my life;
Jack Whittaker and Will Fielding from Yorkshire they came,
And whith me and Tom Kirkham did carry on the game.

O then to Grantham Church we went where there was blunt galore,
Three hundred pounds in money we got, and plate value of two more;
O what a row the next morning when the parson found it out,
O yes there was a pretty row, how the parson run about.

Then next we robd a horse-dealer, from Buckminster he came.
He was a swaggering horse-dealer, Bob Bartrum was his name.
We robd him of 100 pounds as from a fair he came.
And put a ball right through his hat when going down the lane.

O then to Cotgrave town I went without any more delay,
I am sure this is a roving blade the natives they did say;
From William Hill of Cotgrave two game fouls I did steal,
And fought the cock all for 5 pounds in a pair of silver heels.

This cock he fought at Sniston, an excellent battle to,
He was as black as jet, which a many people knew;
This cock had not fought long my boys before he won the prize,
But then I fought this cock again and he lost both his eyes.

Then I went to Cotgrave back again without either fear or doubt.
And when sitting in a publick house the constable fetched me out;
They said you have stole two fouls my man we very well do know.
And for the same offence six months to Southwell I did go.

So then I thought unto myself here I will not stay,
Then I steerd my course to Nottingham on an unhappy day;
I now had been in Nottingham about nine months, or rather more.
When I went to the horse and trumpet for to pay of a score.

Then as I was a sitting, there getting a can of ale.
Who should come in but William Ward and offer two shirts for sale;
He asked me for to buy one, I said it was to good.
He sayd if it will not suit you, you perhaps know who it would.

It was on the forest these shirts were hung to dry.
Some scamping blade there came that way and on them cast his eye;
One of these shirts I sold Raph Brough as you do know.
And they belonged to Mr. Mills that lived on the Long Row.

It was a short time after Raph Brough he pawned the shirt.
And through that very action we both got in the dirt;
William Ward he got transported for seven long years,
And I went to the house of correction, that put away my fears.

Then about five years after for murder I got tried.
For murdering William Greendale the people they did say
Some base man and woman tried to swear my life away.
And since they have, not prosperd up to the present day.

When I was ranged at the bar along with Adam Wagg,
Some sayd they will get hanged, and some they will get lagd;
But after all this, my boys, nothing they could doo.
There was a flaw in the inditement, and they had to let us go.

And now I am tried again for a trifling thing you know.
But for it across the erren pond for seven years must go;
It is for an old jacket that is nearly worn out.
But if ever I come back again I will that devil clout.

By the early 1840s, the prison was only used for debtors. In was finally closed in 1846 and its function absorbed by the Town House of Correction. The Nottingham Contemporary art gallery bow occupies the site.


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