Ancestry UK

Town Gaol, Penzance, Cornwall

When Penzance gained borough status in 1615, it established a Town Gaol, which occupied a site on Corn Market.

In 1777, John Howard recorded that it had 'two close rooms: no court: no water". At his visit on 21 December 1775, there had been no prisoners there.

In 1804, James Neild wrote that:

Penzance Borough Gaol, (or as it is generally and more properly called, the "Black Hole,") is a dark room with a double door at the end of the corn market, a great part of which is not of sufficient height for the prisoner to stand upright in. Straw on the floor. The only light or ventilation it receives is from an aperture 12 inches by 5;, which opens to the staircase, and, being a borrowed light, serves just to make darkness visible. The annoyance of the rats in this place is terrible; so that the wretched prisoner, ever on the watch, may perhaps dose in feverish anxiety, but never knows the balm of peaceful sleep. A poor wretch, I was informed, died in it some years ago; and that another had suffered very much from the rats.

In around 1805, a new prison was erected, James Neild reported that:

This Prison has been built about seven years. It consists of two rooms, formerly the old School, at the end of the Oat-Market-House, 9 feet by 8, and 6 feet 5 inches high; with a grated and glazed window 2 feet square, and a small wicket, or pot-hole, in the door. Each room has an iron bedstead, with a straw mattress, and a covered sewer in one corner. No court yard. No water, but as brought in by the Constable, who is the Keeper. Oct. 4th, 1806, No Prisoners.

Another replacement building was erected in 1826 on St Clare Street, Penzance. It was financed from the local rates, with Penzance corporation contributing £100. It consisted of two divisions, having a yard and four cells attached to each. There was a small tread-wheel in one of the yards.

The prison closed in 1866.


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.


  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.