Ancestry UK

City Gaol and Bridewell, Rochester, Kent

Rochester's Court House (also known as the Guildhall), erected on the High Street in 1687. To its rear stood the City Gaol. By 1812, the City's Bridewell, or House of Correction, was located in the basement of the Court House, having earlier occupied different premises. Although essentially a single establishment, the gaol and bridewell were sometimes treated separately for official purposes.

In 1784, John Howard wrote that the gaol was:

Under the court-room. One day-room to the street, and two inner or night rooms; all close and offensive. In the keeper's house is a room for such debtors as can pay for a bed; and another in which women-felons were kept when the assizes were held here. No court: no water accessible to prisoners. Allowance, two pence a day. Keeper a sergeant: no salary: fees, 6s. no table. At my visit in 1779, I found two debtors who had been locked up some weeks in the close offensive room next the street. — The court-room was built, as appears by the date, in 1687, and it is probable, there has been no alteration in the prison since that time.

Debtors.Felons &c.Debtors.Felons &c.
1774, April 14,1,0.1779, April 15,2,0.,
1776, May 25,0,0.1782, Dec. 3,0,0.

In 1791, Howard reported that, according to the gaoler, "the liberality of the public is so great, we cannot keep the prisoners sober. Persons have even desired to be confined, to have the liberty of the begging grate." The grate was a barred windows facing onto the street, through which passers-by could make donations to the inmates.

In 1809, the gaol was extended as mentioned by James Neild in his report published in 1812:

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, Edward Wright; now Edmund Baker.
Salary, none. But as Serjeant at Mace, 30l.
Fees, for Misdemeaners and Assaults, 138. 4d. No Table.

Chaplain, none, nor any religious attentions whatever.

Surgeon, Mr. Thompson: makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners, Debtors. Felons, &c.

Debtors.Felons &c.
1800, April 21st,12.
1801, Sept. 20th,03.
1804, Sept. 25th,15.
1808, Aug. 16th,13.
1809, July 10th,12.
1810, July 8th,29.

Allowance, Felons and Criminal Prisoners, sixpence a day in money. Debtors from the Court of Requests, 3d. from their Plaintiff per day.

This Prison is situated behind the Court-House, and there is a private passage, through which Prisoners are brought for Trial. The two cells below, now called "The Bridewell," seem to have been coeval with the court above, built, as appears by the date, A.D. 1687.

The City Bridewell was formerly two rooms down eight steps, in the basement story of a house appointed for the Reception of six poor Travellers. It has long been discontinued as a Prison; but the old barrack bedsteads still remain there. The design of this Charity may be seen from the following singular Inscription, placed over the door:

"Richard Watts, Esq. by his Will, dated 22d of August, 1579, founded this Charity, for six poor Travellers, who, (not being Rogues, or Proctors,) may receive gratis, for one night, Lodging, Entertainment, and four-pence each."

Application is made to the Mayor, who gives an order of admission. I have always found some of the rooms occupied, and they are kept clean.

In the City Gaol are two close offensive cells, on the ground floor, 15 feet long by 5 feet 6, with a bedstead in each, that almost fills up half the space. In front of these cells there is a small area, enclosed by iron palisades, about 11 feet by 6, where the Prisoners of each sex stand to receive their dole of provisions, and get a mouthful of air. Here are no sewers; buckets supply the purpose. No water, but what is brought in by the Keeper; who told me he has had six Men and three Women locked up there for two months together.

At my visit in 1804, I found a Woman Debtor in one cell, and three Felons in the other: a Woman with a Child at her breast, and a Boy, were confined in the Keeper's house; and in 1810 the Friends of one of the Debtors, a Woman, had engaged to pay the Gaoler for a bed in his house, to prevent her being associated with Felons, &c.

William Henry, convicted of keeping a disorderly house, and sentenced to three months imprisonment, and until he also paid a fine of 20l. was confined in one of these cells upwards of three years, before he paid the demand. These cells are called The Bridewell.

In 1809 an addition was made to this miserable place of confinement, and it is called The Gaol. The ground floor has two slips of day-rooms, about 15 feet 6 by 8 feet 6, and near 12 feet high; one for Men, the other for Women, with flagged floors, and cast-iron stoves; but no coals are allowed. To each there is a convenient enclosed water-closet, and a leaden sink, well supplied with water.

There is a door of communication from the Women's day-room, to that of the Men, and through which they must pass, to go to their sleeping-cell above. The grated windows of both day-rooms are 5 feet 6 by 5 feet; and look into a plot of ground, 34 feet by 26, with a pump in it; which it is intended to enclose as a court-yard: But at present (1810) they have not the use of it.

On the chamber story are three sleeping-cells, 13 feet by 6, with a small solitary cell of 6 feet by 5; and to these the Corporation have furnished two iron bedsteads, with sacking bottoms. Those who occupy the others, sleep on straw, laid upon the floor, with a blanket, or as they can. There being three Felons to each cell, besides the poor Man Debtor, from the Court of Requests, he must necessarily associate with them.

A report in 1818 noted the existence of a facility linked to the bridewell referred to as the Cage, used for safe custody of individuals prior to their being committed to the gaol. The report also recorded that there were two rooms in the Gaoler's House known as the Strong Rooms.

In 1819, mat-making was introduced as employment for the prisoners. Some worked at unpicking the old rope from which the mats were made, others in spinning, and four in weaving and thrumming the mats.

The establishment appears to have closed in about 1836. The Guildhall building is now home to a museum.


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.

  • Kent History and Library Centre, James Whatman Way, Maidstone, Kent ME14 1LQ Sole holding is a report of the Mayor and Justices of the Peace regarding the escape of three prisoners from the gaol and the alterations requiring to be made (1810).
  • 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.