Ancestry UK

Soke/Liberty Gaol, Peterborough, Northamptonshire

A Town Gaol for the Soke or Liberty of Peterborough occupied a site at Minster Yard, Peterborough.

In 1784, John Howard wrote that the gaol:

For the liberty called the Soke, which contains thirty-two towns, is the property of Lord Exeter. It is now also the prison of the dean and chapter of the cathedral church of the Borough of St. Peter otherwise Peterborough.

Two good rooms for debtors, and down 3 steps a room called the Gaol; near which is the condemned room: the court having power of life and death. The window in the gaol room being now stopped up, there is only an aperture in the door 13 inches by 7. No allowance. Clauses against spirituous liquors, and act for preserving the health of prisoners, not hung up. Keeper's salary, £12: licence for beer: fees, 7s. 8d. the table neither signed nor dated. He pays window-tax, £1 : 6 : 0.

1774, Oct. 28,Debtors 2.Deserters 0.
1776, Sep. 26,3.1.
1779, Sep. 21,1.0.
1782, May 3,1.3.

In 1812, James Neild detailed his visit to the establishment:

Gaoler, William Millwood; a Sheriff's Officer. Salary, 30l.

Fees, 6s. 8d. and to the Turnkey, 1s. The Table neither signed nor dated.

Transports, 8l. 8s. for one; but if more, 6l. 6s. each.

Chaplain. None regularly established; and, properly speaking, Peterborough Gaol has no regular attentions paid to matters of religion. But the Borough Court, having the power of Life and Death, when a Prisoner lies under Capital Sentence, the Vicar of St. John the Baptist, for the time being, is required to attend him. Salary, none.

Surgeon, Mr. Beetham; who makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners.

Debtors.Felons &c.
1802, Jan. 28th,10.
1802, Aug. 9th,02.

Allowance, to Debtors, none. To Felons, &c. 6d. a day.


This Gaol, for the liberty, called the Soke, which comprises thirty two Towns, is the property of the Marquis of Exeter. It is now also the Prison of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of the Borough of St. Peter, otherwise Peter borough.

Here is one court-yard only, for Debtors, Felons, and every description of offenders, in size 63 feet by 21, with a pump and sewer; and a day-room, 19 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 6.

The Master's-side Debtors have a spacious good room above stairs; for which, if the Keeper furnishes a bed, they pay 2s. 4d. a week each; if the Debtor finds his own bed, he pays 1s. per week.

Here are also three Dungeons, about 12 feet square each. Two of them are four steps below the ground; the third, two steps only; with stone floors, and no fire place; all built beneath the arches of the Old Minster.

One of these Dungeons is called "the Gaol Room;" and the window being stopped up, there is only an iron-grated aperture in the door, of 13 inches by 7, for the admission of light and air. The other two Dungeons have each an iron grating over the door. The boards on which Prisoners sleep, are raised two feet above the floor; which otherwise would be very damp, there being no fire-place. The Soke allows straw, two blankets, and a rug to each Prisoner. As there is but one court-yard, the two Prisoners, a Man and Woman, were together in it, when I made my visit.

No employment provided. The Gaol was very clean.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported on what was the referred to as the City Gaol:

Construction.—This Gaol is extremely small, and is surrounded by other buildings. All the Male Prisoners of every kind associate here in one yard, with one Day Room. For all the Female prisoners there is only the small yard belonging to the Gaoler. The dimensions of both these yards render them quite unsuitable for exercise. The Middle Cell has no access of air except from a grating in the door. The Cell in the lower part has no access of air except from a similar grating, and one over the door also; it is rather damp, and is just opposite to the privy. The Day Room has a grating in the door, and a small aperture in the wall, protected by bars, but not glazed. The privy in the Male Yard is a large box, within which is a tin case; this last is emptied occasionally by the prisoners, into a hole in the Gaoler's yard. The Female Yard immediately joins the Male Yard; they are only separated by a wooden railing. The open space between "these wooden railings is about two inches wide; consequently there is no limit to sight, conversation, and the transmission of articles from one side to the other. There is one privy in the Gaoler's and Female Yard, to which must resort not only the members of the Gaoler's family, but. also the Female prisoners of every kind, and the Debtors of both sexes. The. only Day Room for the Female prisoners is the Gaoler's own kitchen and washhouse. The Gaoler's wife provides a room for them from her own apartments, or in one of the Debtor's rooms, according to circumstances. Over the Gaoler's apartments are two rooms for Debtors, one on the first floor, the other oh the second. In one case a female debtor has hired a chamber of the Gaoler. The Debtors' windows command both the Male and Female Yards, and conversation may easily be carried on between all these parties. It is difficult to conceive any place which answers less to the usual ideas attached to a gaol; it is in every respect unfit for the purpose. Happily its defects are in some degree counteracted by the very small usual amount of its inmates. The Gaoler had a lodger at the time of my visit. There have been two successful escapes in the last seven years; since then a wall has been built. A new Gaol has been contemplated, but the erection has been deferred on economical grounds. There is no division of Males from Females in the room used as a chapel.

Management.—The Gaoler is appointed by the Marquis of Exeter, who also bears the expenses of the repairs of the Gaol, and receives all fines as a compensation; I am informed that he receives less than he has occasion to disburse. The Gaoler is a bailiff: on the day of my visit he was engaged in attendance in the sheriffs court, and his wife was the only person left in charge. I am far from mentioning this circumstance as a complaint against him: on the contrary, so low is his salary that it would be impossible for him to support a decent exterior unless he enjoyed some additional office. Prisoners who are to be tried for their lives are now sent to the Northampton County Gaol. The Female Prisoners placed here are usually Untried ones. As there is no corporation here, this Gaol is under the jurisdiction of the Magistrates of the Liberty and Soke of Peterborough. There is only one Prisoner here at, present: he had been here less than half a year; during that time, before he was tried, another man slept with him in the same bed for 12 weeks; after he was tried, another man slept with him for two nights. The Gaoler and his wife appear to maintain the Gaol in as clean and orderly a state as their limited means will permit.

Diet.—A half quartern loaf of bread is the only allowance here made daily. If the prisoner prefers to receive the actual value of this loaf instead, he May obtain it, and lay it out as lie pleases. Thus one contrives to get a little tea, another some coffee, others use potatoes as a change. Nothing else whatever is provided for them, except water; not even salt, unless the Gaoler himself bestows it. I believe that the Gaoler's family occasionally confer little acts of bounty on the prisoners, receiving some small services in return. The only prisoner at the time of my visit stated that he at present, could receive 2¾d. a day, instead of the loaf. The highest price of the loaf since he had been in prison was 3¼d. There is some difference of opinion among the gentlemen who have opportunities of observing, as to this allowance; some believe it to be sufficient. One remarks to me that prisoners appear to suffer somewhat at first, but subsequently to become habituated to the diet, and finally do well upon it. I have no hesitation in expressing my belief that the quantity and quality of the food are both in fault; and I conceive that no diversity of sentiment can exist as to the impropriety of substituting the value, at the prisoners' option, to be laid out as they please. Prisoners may also receive food from their friends outside, if they happen to possess any; a practice which, here as elsewhere, tends to establish an inequality in the condition of prisoners, in which the greatest criminal will often gain the prize.

Poor Debtors may obtain 6d. a day for their diet, on making application to the magistrates.

The Bedding allowed consists of three blankets, a rug, a straw bed, and a bolster.

There is no regular provision of Clothing, but application is made to the magistrates in a case of necessity.

Labour.—No labour is carried on here; but if any Female prisoners happen to be here, they wash; otherwise the washing is performed by the matron, who charges 3d. a head weekly for this task to the Liberty.

Religious and other Instruction.—The same Chaplain attends here and at the House of Correction; and the following remarks will apply equally to both establishments.

Besides his present scantily-requited office, the Chaplain has weekly duty for one week in the month at the Cathedral. He has also a Sunday duty at the Cathedral twice in the month.

There is no Chapel here; Divine service is performed in a room in the Gaoler's apartments, once every Sunday, provided that there are so many as three prisoners. This is a voluntary act on the part of the Chaplain; he is only obliged to perform Divine service at the House of Correction, and no one has done this before his time. The supply of books is adequate. he Chaplain has taught several individuals in the Gaol to read. He always attends when a prisoner solicits his aid; and if he perceives a prisoner desirous of amendment, he comes to see him on the week days. He finds the want of separation a great impediment to religious instruction.

Care of the Sick, Disease and Mortality.—The Surgeon's salary is inadequate. He attends and finds the medicines, both here and at the House of Correction, for 15 guineas a year. He informs me that during this year (1835) a case of low fever occurred at the House of Correction, which lasted between two and three months, requiring daily attendance and medicine. This single case swallowed up his little remuneration. He calls here occasionally, and comes whenever he is sent for. The sick list is very small here, only one case is reported for the last year. There has been only one death in seven years. No epidemic cholera existed here. There is no insane prisoner here.

 £.  s.  d.
Keeper (no coals nor candles)30  —  —
Chaplain (including the House of Correction)40  —  —
Surgeon (ditto, and medicines)15  15  —


The Diet of each prisoner costs daily 2¾d., at least such was the calculation in December 1835. No extra allowances have been made in the course of last year by the Surgeon; nor has any expense been incurred in the purchase of books and stationery. The expense of straw has been about 4s.

General Statistics

The total number of Prisoners confined here from the 1st of January 1835 to the 10th of December 1835, was 16, of whom only one was a female. Of this number 15 were above 17 years of age, and only one male below 17. The greatest number of prisoners at one time here in the course of the year has been eight males and one female. There has been one re-committal during the year. The daily average number of prisoners here appears to be two.

In 1844, the gaol and Peterborough's Town Bridewell were both replaced by a new combined gaol and bridewell on Thorpe Road, Peterborough.


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.

  • No individual records identified for this establishment — any information welcome.
  • 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.