Ancestry UK

Town Prison, Portsmouth, Hampshire

The charter granted to Portsmouth in 1627 granted the borough the right to have a prison or gaol. For many years, the town prison, also referred to as the borough gaol, adjoined the Crown Inn in the igh Street, and was known as the White House. It was separated from the pavement by an iron railing. As well as being used to confine petty offenders, and also to house felons prior to heir conveyance to the county gaol at Winchester. It was described as a "small and inconvenient" prison as prisoners had to be taken from it for trial to the old Town Hall in the market place.

In 1784, John Howard reported:

The ward or kitchen for debtors is towards the street, and up stairs there are five lodging-rooms with beds. In the court is a large room for felons, where I once found debtors lodged with them. This room and two over it for women are very black, having never been white-washed. Neither the act for preserving the health of prisoners, nor clauses against spirituous liquors, hung up. Gaoler is sergeant at mace: no salary: licence for beer and wine. Prisoners allowance, debtors none; felons four pence a day. No bedding nor straw.

A table of fees is hung up in this gaol: it is signed by the town-clerk George Huish 30th June 1738. He writes at the title, "Fees due to the sergeants at mace of the said borough, which I have known to be paid from the year 1693 and have been informed were antiently paid."

For every commitment 15s. 10d. out of which the town-clerk hath 3s. 6d. &c. &c. &c.

 Debtors.Felons &c. Debtors,Felons &c.
1774, Sep. 24,2,4.1779, Mar. 6,6,1.
1776, Feb. 26,2,1.1782, Nov. 5,6,4.

Following a further visit in 1788, Howard wrote:

No alteration, but cleaner than at my former visits. No convenience for the separation of the sexes in this close prison. Debtors' window towards the street. Allowance to felons, a twopenny loaf, and a penny in money. Clauses against spirituous liquors now hung up: the keeper no licence: salary £60. 1788,July 8, Debtors 3. Felons &c. 18.

In 1805, construction began of a new gaol, together with a sessions room and council chamber, fronting onto Penny Street and extending back to St Nicholas Street. The scheme was completed in 1809 at a cost of about £18,000. The old building was then sold and a hotel erected on its site.

In 1812, James Neild reported on his visit to the new prison:

Gaoler, George Luscombe; now Edward Hunt, Sergeant at Mace.
Salary, 200l. and 80l. per annum for a Turnkey.
Fees, Debtors, 9s.6d. Felons, &c. 15s. 10d. Out of both which 3s. 6d. is paid to the Town Clerk.

Chaplain, none. Surgeon, when wanted, is sent from the Parish.

Number of Prisoners,
In the Old Gaol.Debtors.Felons, &c.Misdemeaners.
1800, March 30th,51315.
1802, March 17th,52012.
1807, Sept. 18th,21223.
In the New Gaol. 
1810, May 27th,616 2.

Allowance, to every description, a threepenny loaf per day. Also every Wednesday, one pound of meat, and vegetables; and seven pence in money per week, called "Prize Money." Formerly the Keeper received from the Borough sixpence per day, for the support of each Prisoner. It is now raised to sevenpence per day, 4s. 1d. per week: And out of it he furnishes them with the above articles, and a fire to each day-room.

The wretched Old Gaol, which so long remained a disgrace to the Borough, and in which the unfortunate shared a common fate with the infamous, being pulled down, and the present New gaol previously got ready, the Prisoners were removed into it on the 15th of July,1808.

This modern structure is situate in Penny-street, and extends 160 feet in front. It has four court-yards, with a day-room in each. The entrance, which is in the centre, leads into a Hall, about 11 feet square; on the right of which is the Gaoler's office, and on the left, a room for the Turnkey.

From the Hall is a stair-case to the chamber-story, and common to all the upper apartments of the building. On each side of the Hall is a lobby, or passage, 3 feet wide, leading to the Men-Felons' court-yard, which is 60 feet by 27; also to the court-yard of the Men-Debtors, and of those committed for slight misdemeanors, which is 54 feet by 24. To each of the above court-yards belong ten sleeping-cells; five on the ground-floor, of 9 feet by 6, and 12 feet high to the crown of the arch, opening into the passages before mentioned; and five above, of the same dimensions. Each cell is lighted and ventilated by two iron-grated windows, and those that open to the court-yards are glazed.

Returning to the Hall of entrance, there is, by the side of the stair-case, a passage leading to the court-yards of the Female-Debtors and Female-Felons, and also to the Gaoler's sitting-rooms: And on each side of the passage is a room for the Prisoners before examination, with fire-places and glazed windows in each.

The court-yard for Female Felons is 46 feet by 20, in which is a store-room, and sixteen sleeping cells; eight on the ground-floor, of 9 feet by 6, lighted and ventilated by opposite windows, two feet in diameter; and eight above, of the same size, all opening into passages 4 feet wide.

The Female-Debtors' court-yard is 31 feet by 26, with a sleeping-room on the ground-floor; adjoining to which are two day-rooms, and two sleeping-cells, for the better sort of Criminal Prisoners, opening into a passage 4 feet wide, and common to both Sexes. For the last-mentioned class of Prisoners here is no court-yard; but the Female-Criminals are occasionally allowed the use of the Women-Debtors' court-yard, and the Male-Criminals, that of the Men-Debtors.

The Keeper's parlour and kitchen are at the back-part of the Prison, and open into a hall, or passage, which communicates with St. Nicholas-street. His sleeping-rooms are over the Turnkey's apartment, and the Men-Felons' day-room is in the front of the building. The above apartments of the Keeper afford scarcely any command either of the court-yards or of the Prison apartments. The plan, indeed, is not a good one; and care must be taken to keep the cells and court yards clean, for otherwise the Prison cannot be healthy.

The court-yards above mentioned are laid down with fine gravel. In each of them are a pump and sewer; and in the Men-Felons' is also a bath, with a copper for heating water.

On the chamber-story is the Sessions House, for the trial of Prisoners; and adjoining to it a room for the Grand Jury, an office for the Clerk of the Peace, and a Record-room: Also two sleeping-rooms for Men-Debtors, and two Infirmary-rooms for the sick; with boarded floors, fire-places, and glazed windows to each. All the cells, passages, and day-rooms, on the ground and chamber-floors, are boarded; and the cells are fitted up with a mat, blanket, and coverlet to each. As yet there is no Employment for the Prisoners in this New Gaol.

A Table of Fees, written on Paper, is stuck up in the Prison.

s. d.
Debtors, on Caption, 3s. 4d.; on Discharge, 6s. 2d.9   6
Felons and Misdemeaners, on Commitment
(Of which 3s. 6d. each is to go to the Town-Clerk.)
15 10
Stephen Barney, Town Clerk.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons referred to the gaol as also acting as a Bridewell, or House of Correction. They reported:

Construction.—This building stands in a street, and has no boundary wall. The Courthouse is contained within its precincts. It is dry and well ventilated so far as its position renders it possible. It is fire-proof.

There are four wards for the males; one is for debtors, misdemeanants not sentenced to hard labour, prisoners for fines, and smugglers not sentenced to hard labour; another is for misdemeanants sentenced to hard labour, and for soldiers; in the third are felons and untried prisoners; and in the fourth are felons, untried prisoners, and vagrants. In the third and fourth the inmates are distributed according to character. For the females there are three wards, one of which is for debtors and misdemeanants, the two others are for the same classes as wards three and four of the males. There are seven yards in all.

There are for the men, of single sleeping cells,37.
double or treble cells,   4.
There are for the women, of single sleeping cells,14.

At the time of my visit there were two more men in confinement than there were male cells, and seven more women than there were female cells.

There are three dark cells for the men, and one dark cell for the women. There is one bathing-tub.

Management.—This prison is under the jurisdiction of the mayor, and two visiting magistrates are chosen from the town council. The whole premises are neat and clean.

The gaoler, assistant, matron, and turnkey sleep in the house.

The discipline here is too lax; silence is not enforced; and the assistance of another turnkey is much wanted.

There are wardsmen here, but no wardswomen. They generally, however, arrange that one woman, older than the rest, shall exercise some sort of superintendance. A young person, who is a relation of the gaoler, and has lived several years in his family, takes charge of the prisoners in the absence of the matron, but this is done with the sanction of the magistrates.

There are two master debtors here, who have separate rooms, and they remunerate the gaoler for their superior accommodation. No other fees whatever are demanded from debtors. The keeper was absent with convicts on my first visit.

Whipping.—When ordered by sentence of court is inflicted by the town-crier.

Punishments.—Punishments are seldom inflicted here; when necessary the prisoner is locked up in a cell, which is darkened by a shutter being placed over the window; his diet is then only bread and water.

Fire.—There has been no alarm from fire for 32 years.

Diet.—The goal allowance for each of the prisoners is l½lb. of the best bread daily, and 1 pint of oatmeal gruel with ginger and sugar in it; on Fridays each has three quarters of a pound of beef, including the bones, and also 1½ pint of soup made from the beef, with cabbage and herbs cut up with it. The beef and gruel is dressed by a female prisoner in the gaol kitchen. The poor debtors have the gaol allowance of food. The untried prisoners may receive food from their friends.

Clothing and Bedding.—There is no clothing provided here unless the prisoner is destitute. The bedding consists of two blankets, one rug, a straw mattrass, sheets for the sick prisoners. Towels and combs are also found. A razor is supplied to the prisoner who is called the captain of the gaol, for the general use.

Letters.—All letters are inspected either by the keeper or a turnkey.

Visits.—No visits are permitted to those prisoners sentenced to hard labour, unless by the order of a magistrate. The other convicted prisoners are allowed to receive visits from their Friends on Wednesdays, from the hour of 10 to 11. The female prisoners are allowed to have their visitors on the same day, from the hour of 3 to 4 in the afternoon.

Labour.—There is a tread-wheel, which holds 10 prisoners at one time; 10 are on and 10 are off. It is applied to raising water, and to no other purpose.

The women work at picking oakum.

Six hours daily are allotted to labour.

Escapes.—During 32 years that the turnkey has been in office, only two successful attempts have taken place, which happened in the case of two debtors, nearly 30 years ago. There have been many attempts subsequently, but all such have failed.

Religious and other Instruction.—There is no chapel at present, nor is there any chaplain. Adjoining to the prison, however, there is a piece of ground belonging to the establishment, on which the town council propose to erect a chapel, and also some new cells, whenever they shall have received the assent of the Home Office to commence building. To remedy the existing want of religious instruction, I have suggested to them the propriety of converting the lumber room or the visitors' room into a temporary chapel, in which Divine service might. be performed in the morning for the male prisoners, and in the evening for the females. Such a measure of course supposes the appointment of a chaplain, to which the town council entertain no objection.

Suicides.—Two successful attempts have been made since 1831. On the 26th August 1831, a nonconvicted felon committed suicide by hanging himself. Verdict of coroner's inquest, "Hung himself in a fit of temporary insanity." On the 13th January 1835, another committed for a breach of the peace, committed suicide by hanging himself. Verdict of coroner's inquest, "Hung himself in a fit of temporary insanity." The body was interred by his family.

Care of the Sick, Disease and Mortality.—The surgeon finds the medicines himself. During the last 12 months there has been only one case sent into the infirmary—a man. The slighter cases during the same period have amounted to 103. In 1836 there were two women delivered here; a delivery usually happens once or twice yearly. The surgeon has been in office about 14 years. He generally visits every day. The chief disorders seen here are imported by the prisoners; they are itch, gonorrhoea, syphilitic affections, and disorders of the bowels. The health is very good. Fever is very rare. Some cases of supposed malignant cholera occurred here during its epidemic progress, but no death ensued. There were some slight cases of influenza this spring. Sugar and ginger were mixed in the gruel at the time of the cholera, but I have suggested to the surgeon, who had judiciously introduced it at that season, that it may be proper to discontinue it at present as a luxury no longer demanded. Soldiers have frequently been confined here in solitary cells during several months, even for a whole year, and the surgeon has found it necessary to order a larger portion of exercise for them.

There has been one death since January 1837; and only one male prisoner has been placed in the infirmary since 1st January.

There have been only two deaths from natural causes since the year 1832. On the 13th January 1832, a female convict died. Verdict of the coroner's inquest, "Died by the visitation of God." The body was interred by her family. On the 4th March 1837, another, a convicted felon, died. Verdict of coroner's inquest, "Died by the visitation of God."

General Statistics.

Number and Description of Prisoners in the Prison on the date of my visit, 6th June 1837.

Number of debtors8 
Number of misdemeanors132
Number of felons1717

Average number of prisoners— 50

Account of prisoners committed from the 1st day of January 1836, to the 1st day of January 1837:

Soldiers under sentence of courts' martial67   
Male debtors16   
Female ditto5   
Male felons107
Female ditto45
Male misdemeanants217
Female ditto98

Re-committals re here very numerous. One woman was imprisoned here last year for the 22d time, and one man for the 18th time.

Suggestions towards Improvement.

1. To make a temporary chapel until an opportunity occurs of carrying more complete arrangements into effect, and to appoint a chaplain.

2. To remove from the bedsteads of the men the fixed canvass covering, which promotes the accumulation of filth.

3. To appoint another turnkey, in order to strengthen the general discipline, as well as materially to assist in the preservation of silence.

4. To enjoin silence as a general rule.

5. Additional cells are necessary, in order that every prisoner may sleep in a separate cell at night.

As intimated by the report, the prison was enlarged in 1838 by the construction of a chapel and additional yards, erected on the site of some old almshouses purchased for £700.

The prison was closed in 1878, as part of the nationalisation of the prison system. Its role was taken over by a new prison opened in the same year in the city's suburb of Kingston. The Penny Street site is now occupied by Portsmouth Grammar School.


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