Ancestry UK

Borough Gaol and House of Correction, South Molton, Devon

South Molton had a Borough Gaol by the seventeenth century. New premises were erected in 1828-9 at what is now 22-23 East Street, South Molton, perhaps on the same site as the earlier building.

In 1835, it was reported:

The Gaol was built five years ago at the expense of the corporation; it cost about £2,000. The gaol contains four cells and two large day rooms, and two strong cells. A good yard is attached to the gaol. It is a very convenient and good gaol. The old gaol was described as a wretched place; it contained but three apartments, and was very insecure.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons visited the gaol, which they referred to as also acting as a House of Correction, or Bridewell. Their report recorded:

This prison, which from its small size does not admit of the classification of prisoners required by law, is nevertheless used as a place of detention both before and after trial, none being sent to Exeter except such cases as are only triable at Assizes. It consists of a very small building, containing on the ground-floor four cells for men, opening directly into two airing-yards, and rooms above for females. The yards are separated by a low wall, and communications between prisoners confined in either may be reciprocally exchanged without difficulty. The cells are floored with lime-ash, and each has an iron bedstead and bedding. One of them is provided with a fireplace, but the rest are destitute of all means of artificial warmth or ventilation. In the cell with the fireplace there is also a bell, but the other cells are unprovided with the means of communication with the governor. The upper floor, which, as has been observed, is devoted to female prisoners, consists of a small dayroom and dormitory on one side, and three sleeping cells on the other, the latter being sometimes used for men when the prison is full, to avoid the necessity of placing two in a cell. One only of the females' rooms is furnished with a bell and a fireplace. There are no special airing-yards for the women, who take exercise therefore in one of those already described, from which cause, as well as from the relative position of several parts of the prison, it is quite impossible to prevent the females from conversing with the male prisoners. There are two small sheds connected with the airing-yards; these, which are very damp and cold, are used by prisoners employed in crushing bones, the only description of labour performed in the prison, 28 lbs. being considered a fair average quantity for a prisoner to crush daily. The produce of this labour is about 5l. per annum. The only prisoner in confinement on the last day of inspection was R. L., aged 46, convicted of sheep-stealing at the last July sessions, and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour. This man was suffering from a severe attack of catarrh, caught in pursuing his labour in the sheds before described. The prisoners wear their own clothes, and the bedding is defective in not comprising sheets, the use of which is found to be very conducive to health, cleanliness, and economy. The weekly allowance of food, which is the same to all male prisoners, whatever may be the length of their imprisonment:—

Bread124 oz.
Milk25 oz.
Bacon1 lb.
Potatoes7 lb.

To which is added the broth in which the bacon is boiled, thickened with a little flour. Female prisoners and children under 12 years of age have 14 oz. of bread deducted from the above; vagrants of both sexes have a daily allowance of 1½ lb. of bread and ¾ of a pint of milk with water, bacon and potatoes not being allowed to this class of prisoners.

The surgeon visits the prison about three times a week, but he is not sent for to examine prisoners on admission.

There is no chaplain engaged in conformity with the 4th Geo. IV., cap. 64, sec. 28, neither is there any schoolmaster appointed, so that prisoners even for the longest term are entirely destitute of moral and religious instruction, the only attempt at which is the reading of prayers by the gaoler on Sunday morning.

Debtors of all classes are sent from this borough to Exeter. The magistrates visit this prison frequently, their attendances being recorded at least once a month.

The total number of prisoners committed for trial in the last two years has been eight, of whom two were women; the summary convictions in the same period having amounted to only ten, of whom four were males. The largest number in confinement at one time within the same period has been five.

A later report by the Inspectors noted that the male prisoners were employed in crushing bones for agricultural purposes, and the females in washing and needlework.

By around 1866, the gaol had become a short-term lock-up, taking over that role from the adjacent Lock-up House.

The former gaol building is now a private residence.


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.