Ancestry UK

Soke Liberty Gaol and House of Correction, Peterborough, Northamptonshire

Note: although now part of Cambridgeshire, prior to 1965 Peterborough was located in in Northamptonshire.

In 1839, an Act of Parliament was passed for the construction of a new Gaol in Peterborough to replace the town's existing Cumbergate Bridewell and Minster Yard Bridewell which were deemed to be too small and inconveniently situated. The new building was erected on Thorpe Road at a cost of £10,000. It was designed by William Hull and contained 69 cells. It was first occupied at the beginning of January, 1844, when ten male prisoners and one female were transferred from the old prisons.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons gave a detailed description of the new premises:

A spacious and well-constructed court for the trial of offenders, forms the front of the building, having convenient jury rooms attached to it, and communicating with the prison by a subterranean passage, through which prisoners are conveyed to undergo their trials

The prison contains 25 cells for males, and 10 for females, besides two reception cells, one of which is used as a surgery. The cells are of uniform size, and are placed on the sides of a light corridor, in two floors. They are somewhat less than those of Pentonville Prison, being 12 feet in length by 7 in width, and having a mean height of 8 feet 6 inches. Each cell is provided with a water-closet and washing-trough, which are supplied with water from a large cistern on the roof of the building. Unfortunately it has been so arranged that the pipe in each cell conies directly from that main reservoir, without the intervention of a smaller cistern peculiar to each, as at Pentonville, Shrewsbury, Bath, and many other prisons, which makes it impossible to limit the quantity of water to be used by each prisoner. But this is not the worst consequence that may be expected to arise from the construction I am describing, for if any prisoner were mischievously inclined, he might waste the whole contents of the cistern through his water-closet, and thus deprive the whole prison of water, and that too without any, or with very little chance of detection. Instances of wanton mischief are by no means of unfrequent occurrence in establishments of this description.

No refractory cells, dark or otherwise, have been provided, an omission which might he supplied without difficulty by converting one or two of the other cells to the purposes of punishment.

Each cell is furnished very much after the manner of those at Pentonville Prison, with a table, a wooden stool, a shelf and drawer to enable the prisoner to keep his plate, mug, &c., ill an orderly manner, and also for the preservation of the letters he may receive from his friends. It has also a hammock, rolled up by day with the bedding, consisting of a mattrass stuffed with hair, two blankets, a rug and pillow. Sheets are allowed to such only of the prisoners as ask for them, an arrangement by no means to be commended, since it is not advisable that habits conducive to health and cleanliness, and therefore calculated indirectly to advance the moral improvement of the criminal, should be allowed to depend for their adoption upon his taste. If, on the other hand, the allowance of sheets be regarded only in the light of an indulgence, it is not just that it should be withhold from those only who have not sufficient confidence to ask for it.

No provision has been made for enabling prisoners to communicate from their cells with an officer of the prison, in case of sudden illness. This defect having boon discovered soon after the first occupation of the prison, by experience of its inconvenience, it has been attempted to remedy it by placing in each cell a small hand-bell. This substitute is obviously open to the objection, that although the bell will answer the purpose of calling the turnkeys, by whom it is said to be distinctly heard, especially at night, it does not enable them to distinguish the precise locality of the person ringing it. Hence it is by he means uncommon for an officer to open several cells before he finds the prisoner by whom he has been summoned, a process which, besides the loss of the officer's time which it involves, leads also to much inconvenient disturbance of the quiet of the prison. In each cell is suspended a printed address to the prisoner, of which the following is a copy:—


You have been brought to this place either by your crimes or your misfortunes.

If by your crimes, implore the mercy of God, that he may give you grace to repent of them.

If by your misfortunes, remember, that afflictions do not happen without the permission of God, who will turn them into merciful visitations for your good, if you humbly trust in him.

Whatever be your condition, seek to improve this season of retirement to the best advantage of your soul:

Read your Bible, and other good books; accompanied with daily prayer, that the truths they utter, you may understand, believe, and practise.

Think of that blessed Saviour, who died upon a cross to save sinners.

Look unto him for all you stand in need of; but never forget that if He saves you from punishment in the next world. He must first have delivered you from sinful habits in this uncertain life.

Thus will you take the right road to that heavenly kingdom, where the weary shall be at rest for ever; where sorrow and sighing can never enter; and where the prisoner who believes and repents, shall enjoy the glorious and eternal liberty of the children of God.

This is followed by a well chosen collection of prayers and collects, adapted for his use both morning and evening, and concludes with the following:—

Portions of the Word of God most suitable to your present condition.


Psalms, li. cxxx. xxv. xx. xviii. xxxii. lxxxiii. ciii. cxliii. Isaiah, i. xii. liii. lv. Lamentations, iii. Ezekiel, xviii.


Luke, iv. vii. xv. xxii. xxiii. xxiv. John, iii. Romans, v. viii. xii. xiii. 1 Corinthians, vi. from verse 9. 2 Corinthians, iv. v. vi. vii. Galatians, vi. Ephesians, iv. from verse 22, v. vi. 2 Thessalonians, i. 1 Timothy, i. Titus, ii. iii. Philemon. Hebrews, xi. xii. James, i. iii. 1 Peter, iv. 2 Peter, iii. 1 John, i. ii.

There are several small but not inconvenient airing-yards, both for men and women, which are overlooked from the apartments of the governor and matron, with the intention, no doubt, of saving the expense of officers to watch the prisoners during exercise. This plan, however, is very objectionable, as it enables the friends who may visit the governor and matron, no less than their servants and family, to see and even to hold communication with prisoners. The airing-yards should be partially roofed over as at Pentonville prison, to enable prisoners to take exercise during rain. In one of the men's airing-yards, is a powerful pump, at which they work by turns, for supplying the prison with water. The labour of this pump appeared to me to be somewhat severe, especially as however prisoners may differ from each other in strength, the separate mode of discipline would not admit of two being ever employed at it together.

The cells are provided with nearly all the appliances for separate confinement, and it will be seen hereafter that it was always contemplated that that form of discipline should be carried out in the prison: it is serious matter of regret, therefore, that a defect should exist in its construction, which renders it impossible to certify it as fit for that discipline, according to the terms of the Act of the 2nd and 3rd Vict., c. 56, The defect to which I allude is the want of ventilation. The cells are warmed by means of flues, passing along both sides of the corridors, and opening into each cell by means of a grating, placed just within the door, and measuring 8 in. by 4. Although sufficient warmth results from this contrivance, the cells are very close, as no means are employed for extracting their deteriorated atmosphere. When the prison was first occupied, many prisoners who had enjoyed good health in the old prisons, became affected with headache and disorders of the bowels, which the surgeon very properly ascribed to the contaminated state of the air of the cells, and a perforated zinc plate was put into each window, in the room of one of the panes of glass, for the purpose of admitting air from without. This remedy has been partly successful in relieving the complaints of tho prisoners, who being out of their cells during the greatest part of the day, are not seriously affected by that degree of closeness, which would be enough to render the cells quite unfit for their more continued confinement.

As long ago as the 1st May, 1841, when the plans for the new prison were under consideration, two designs for ventilation were laid before the magistrates. Both these methods being considered too costly, a modified design was inserted into the plans submitted to the Secretary of State, the magistrates stating at the same time their inability to incur the expense of more perfect ventilation.

The magistrates were shortly afterwards informed, that the ventilation proposed to be effected could not be considered sufficiently complete for the cells to be certified, under the 2nd and 3rd Vic., cap. 56, for the separate confinement of prisoners, in the event of the magistrates hereafter contemplating the introduction of that system into the prison. Upon this, the magistrates requested Earl Fitzwilliam to inform the Secretary of State that the gaol at Peterborough was expressly built, and all the arrangements made, for the separate confinement of prisoners, and that, unless it could be certified accordingly, it would be useless. It does not appear that any further steps were taken towards the adoption of an improved plan of ventilation; and when the prison was completed, and inspected for the purpose of ascertaining its fitness for separate confinement, according to the provisions of the Act above referred to, it was found impossible to furnish the certificate required by the Act.

After what has been said it seems unnecessary to insist upon the importance of applying, even now, to the prison some adequate system of forced ventilation; inasmuch as, unless that be done, none of the objects contemplated by the magistrates, and for the attainment of which so large an expense has been incurred, can be accomplished.

But, even although there should exist among the magistrates any difference of opinion upon this question, there is another point of view in which the adoption of the measure I have suggested seems to be still more imperiously called for, namely, that as the prison, having been designed for separate confinement, possesses no day-rooms,—none being required by that form of discipline,—there is no place where prisoners can with propriety be confined during wet weather, when whole days are, of course, often passed by them within doors. By the present arrangement the prisoners, on such occasions, are confined in their cells without intermission; and these are not, and cannot be, certified by an inspector of prisons, for reasons already explained, the detention of prisoners in them for so long a time is improper, and even illegal.

The present mode of warming the cells, even though it were capable of effecting the object of ventilation, would be very objectionable on another ground. Such is the freedom of communication between the cells, afforded by the gratings in their floors, that the governor informs me that conversation often takes place through the flues between prisoners on the same side of the corridors, and that, for this purpose, prisoners are not required to speak in a voice much above a whisper. In proof of this he states, that he has frequently detected men lying on the ground and conversing with their fellow-prisoners through the gratings. This facility, so destructive of the fundamental principle of separation, points out the necessity of the flues of the several cells being made to run separately in their whole course from the main chamber.

Before leaving the subject of the cells it may be well to mention, that the security of their doors against attempts at escape would have been greater if they had been made to open inwards, as the jambs would then have furnished resistance to the forcing of them from within.

The hinges of the small traps in the middle of the doors, being of cast-iron, are often accidentally, and sometimes maliciously, broken. It would much facilitate inspection if the inspection-holes were covered with wire-gauze, by which the prisoner might be seen without knowing that he was an object of observation. With reference to the safe custody of prisoners it must be mentioned, that the window over, the passage, between the airing-yards of the men and women, might assist escape, by enabling a man to climb upon the roof of the Sessions' Court.

The position of the Male Infirmary is very inconvenient, inasmuch as its windows overlook the airing yards of the women, and are exactly opposite to the windows of the women's cells: it has never yet been required for the reception of the sick; but should it be so used it will be Difficult to remedy these objections, as no kind of blind, which would not be so close as to exclude air, would suffice to prevent communications from passing between the male and female prisoners.

It is very important that a new code of rules, accommodated to the circumstances of the new prison, should be submitted by the magistrates, pursuant to the provisions of the 5th and 6th Will. IV., cap. 38, to the Secretary of State, as early as possible, for his sanction, as the officers at present regulate their conduct, in a great measure, by their own judgment of what is right to be done, rather than by the instructions of the magistrates, or the provisions of the Gaol Acts. While the old prisons existed, no regular system could be carried out, but the improved construction of the present building, although far from perfect, will admit of more regularity and method.

There is a good bath for washing prisoners on reception, and, in the adjoining room, a copper has been put up for washing the clothes of prisoners. The washing is done by a woman hired from the town for the purpose, who is assisted in the work by prisoners.

It was intended at one time to have erected a treadmill, in a sort of vault on one side of the corridor, but this having been found too close, the design has been abandoned. At the time of one of my visits two male prisoners were confined there at work in cleaning some objects of household furniture for the governor: the vault is also used for keeping turf.

An improved dietary was adopted upon the occupation of the new prison, which is exactly copied from that of the official regulations, except in one particular, that coffee is substituted for cocoa.

The punishments inflicted upon prisoners, on account of prison offences, consist in confining them to their cells on a diet of bread and water, for terms not exceeding three days, except in very few cases, when the term has been extended by order of a magistrate. There docs not appear to have been any punishment inflicted from the 14th June, 1844, to the 24th January, 1845, and the total number in about 17 months from the opening of the new prison was only 85. It would not be safe to infer from the rarity of punishments that the discipline is of a superior character, as many offences, no doubt, escape punishment from the want of a sufficient number of officers to maintain effective supervision over the prisoners.

The number of prisoners in confinement has rarely exceeded that of the cells. On the 9th of January, 1845, however, there were in the prison 29 male and 2 female prisoners; on this occasion room was obtained by placing some boys two in a cell, by which means all the adult males slept separately. Of the 29 male prisoners on the day referred to, six had been tried for stealing a single pair of skates.

On the day of my last inspection, in May last, the prison contained six male and three female prisoners. Of the men, two were under sentence of two years' imprisonment, one was sentenced for four, and two for three months, and one was awaiting his trial for felony. Of the women, one was sentenced for 12 months, one for two months, and the other awaited her trial. The smallest number in confinement since the occupation of the gaol was on the 18th February, 1844, when two male prisoners only were in custody.

The chaplain and the surgeon attend at the prison two or three times a-week. Prisoners have no instruction in reading; but such as were previously able to read are allowed a Bible and Prayer-book, and some religious tracts selected by the chaplain from the catalogue of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Former Peterborough prison site, 1920s.

The prison closed in 1878 following the nationalisation of the prison system.

Only the Sessions House at the front of the site survives, now housing a pub and restaurant.

In 2005, a new privately operated prison, HMP Peterborough, was opened on Saville Road, Peterborough.


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