Ancestry UK

Town Bridewell, Southampton, Hampshire

From 1707, Southampton had a Bridewell, or House of Correction, in the town's God's House Gate, at what is now the corner of Winkle Street and Town Quay. The inmates occupied the upper floor, over the gateway. Parts of the same building were subsequently used as a Felons' Gaol (by 1774) and a Debtors' Prison (from about 1785).

God's House Gate, Southampton, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1784, John Howard wrote:

Bridewell, joins to the gaol. Three rooms up stairs: no chimney: no court: no employment. Keeper, a junior sergeant at mace: salary, £ 2: fees, 3s. 4d. no table. Prisoners allowance, three-pennyworth of bread a day: ten shillings a year for bedding.

1774, Sep. 24,Prisoners 0.1779, March 3,Prisoner 1.
1776, Feb. 26,2.1782, Feb. 24,1.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Keeper, Joseph Payne. Salary, 2l. and 15l. as Sergeant at Mace. No Fees.

Surgeon, Mr. Keele: makes a Bill.

Prisoners, l802, March 19th, One. 1803, Oct. 23d, Two. 1807, Sept. 22d, One.

Allowance, sixpence a day, and a bushel of coals per week.

This Prison consists of a day-room about 15 feet square, and two sleeping-rooms 12 feet each by 9; to which the Borough allows a crib-bedstead, straw-in-sacking bed, two blankets and a rug each. There is one room in the Keeper's house, furnished, for those who can pay 4s. per week.

A report in 1823 found conditions in the bridewell to be unexpectedly improved:

This small and confined bridewell has, within the last two years, undergone considerable improvement. The situation is a very bad one, being at the water side, which exposes the prison to great dampness. A small airing-yard, the only one in the prison, has been added to the premises, from new made ground taken in from the river; the surface is very well flagged, and it has a good fall. Fowls were kept in this yard, which ought not to be permitted. In this yard is a hand-crank mill, calculated for four men; it works one pair of stones and a dressing machine, which are placed in an adjoining room: the mill cost £90. A fair supply of corn is sent in by the public. The men work six hours a day at this machine. Besides this source of labour; oakum-picking is also carried on, an article in good demand in the town. The men's day-room, which opens into the yard, is small; it has a fire-place, with benches and a table: it appeared in a good state, being very frequently whitewashed, as is the whole of the interior. There is but one class of male prisoners. Above stairs are two small sleeping-rooms for the men: these rooms, with the staircase, appeared very clean and neat; indeed, the state of the interior of the prison In this respect was striking. Before the addition of these rooms the male prisoners slept in a dungeon, which is now used as a refractory cell. The walls of this dungeon are seven feet thick, being in the basement of one of old towers: four steps descend into it: under the floor runs the town drain, which renders the place very damp. A vent-hole has been cut through the walls of this dungeon, and they are whitewashed once in a month or six weeks.

A small chapel is laid out in the second story; the chaplain performs service once a week; the men and women are seated in distinct rooms which open into each other, the pulpit being placed near the door.

The apartments for the females are convenient; they have a dayroom well fitted up,and a small laundry or washing-room adjoining; also, two sleeping-rooms, in a good state: the windows are glazed, and are very properly furnished with shade-screens. The women use the same yard as the men for exercise, alternately. The yard is capable of being inspected, through a small glazed aperture in the door of the keeper's house, a contrivance judiciously adopted. The bedding allowed consists of a straw mattress, two blankets, and a rug. The females are employed at needlework and washing; they are seldom in custody for more than a month. The governor, who is a married man, has no turnkey under him; his wife attends to the females; a wardsman, the most orderly prisoner, is appointed to attend to the male prisoners, and to the state of their department. There were seven male prisoners, and not one female in confinement at the time of this visit: the total number in the course of last year amounted to fifty. The allowance for food is sixpence per day, to pay for every thing. Irons are not used. The prison is well supplied with water.

On the whole, the state in which this small prison (a few years ago so very defective) was found, on a visit wholly unexpected, evinces a spirit of improvement highly praiseworthy.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

The House of Correction has two day rooms on the ground-floor, each 12 feet by 10 feet. There is also on this floor an irregular octangular cell, 10 feet in diameter, nearly dark, and very insufficiently ventilated. This place is used as a Punishment Cell. There are two floors above. On the first story are two sleeping Cells of the same dimensions as those below. On the second are also two Apartments, one of which is used as the Chapel. The Yards afford great facilities for escape. Through the Chapel, and over the gateway of the Building adjoining to which the prison stands, is the Apartment for female prisoners, consisting of two sleeping Cells 14 feet 6 inches by 6 feet 6 inches. There is also a Day-room and kitchen, the dimensions of each of which are but 14 feet by 8. This Apartment is exceedingly confined, and must at times be most injurious to the health. The access to this part of the Prison is difficult; the mode of communication being from the upper part of the keeper's house across the upper floor of the men's prison, and through the Chapel. There is no other Airing yard for the Women than the keeper's private yard; this is very insecure, the walls being low.

In 1837, the management of the bridewell and felons' sections was unified and other changes made. In 1839,the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

Construction.—Some very judicious and important alterations have been made since my last visit. These two establishments, which were formerly separate, were united in the autumn of 1837, and now are more conveniently governed and arranged in every respect. The female prisoners occupy the Old Gaol, and are thus kept quite apart from the male prisoners, who are restricted to the part which was formerly the Bridewell.

The actual state of accommodation afforded since the union oft he Gaol and Bridewell is as follows:—

2yards for the men.

All are small; but the gaol is healthy.

There are two day-rooms for the men. (When much crowded, they have boards which they lay over the day-room floors, in order to use them as temporary sleeping-rooms.)

2day-rooms for women.
2dark cells for the men.
2dark cells for women.
4sleeping-rooms for men.
4sleeping-rooms for women.
3sleeping-rooms for boys.

There is one extra room in which they put a tub for a bath; if the prison is very full they also intend to place a prisoner to sleep in it with separate boards on the floor; but they have not hitherto had occasion to use it thus.

There is one male infirmary, one female infirmary, and a chapel.

Management.—An order is given to observe silence. The boys are here placed apart from the rest, and are to be instructed in useful pursuits. One boy the gaoler taught to make sail-cloths; and he is now working steadily with a master who is much pleased with him. This plan had hardly come into operation at my visit, some slight repairs being still on foot, but it is prepared, and will doubtless operate well.

Since January 1st, 1838, there have been placed here in solitary confinement by sentence of Court so many as 28. Of these all were for fourteen days, except two, who were for a month. At present they go out to exercise in the yard about every other day for a period not exceeding an hour; daily exercise would be better still. They do not go to chapel. Their diet is only bread (21b. loaf) and water and salt. The water is given warm in winter. They sleep in the cells in which they pass the day. They have books, but no work. I found one girl, aged fourteen, recommitted, in solitary confinement. She had books, and could read. She went out every day for an hour, sometimes for more, into the yard. She appeared in good health, and was sentenced for a year's imprisonment.

There are two dark cells for men, but one of them was only fit for a boy. There are two also for females. The diet in the dark cell is bread and water. The prisoners sleep in them, and have no exercise in the yard while thus placed in dark cells. I found no one in a dark cell.

A sort of wardsman is still in usage here. There is only one turnkey. The former turnkey was killed last year in the great fire, assisting on that occasion. The old keeper of the gaol died in June last: after his death the gaol (which was empty at that period) continued unoccupied till the beginning of this year, when the works were completed which rendered the union of the Gaol and Bridewell convenient. The turnkey is present during treadwheel labour, but not during the entire period. The women sleep two in a bed; but not the men: it would be very desirable to prevent this as far as regards even the women, and nothing will be effectual except small iron bedsteads, only big enough to hold one. They all sleep on the wooden floor, except in the infirmaries.

Religious and other Instruction.—The chaplain has a chapel a mile and a half off, where he performs divine service, and has the cure of souls.

He performs divine service here once on a Sunday; and on some one other day of the week, usually Wednesday or Thursday, he comes hither and reads prayers. There is no instruction in reading, except what is given by the keeper and by prisoners to each other.

The chapel is small but well contrived; it has a partition for women; and one for boys; one for the untried; and one for the convicted.

The chaplain does not visit the yards nor discourse with the prisoners.

Sick.—The surgeon has been here eighteen years. No death has occurred during that time in the Gaol or Bridewell. Only one or two lyings-in have occurred since he has been appointed.

The chief complaints are common catarrhal disorders. Itch is very common; venereal disease next, the two disorders are often complicated: perhaps eight, cases out of ten are one or both. Fever is rare. There is no complaint apparently connected with the locality of the prison.

The surgeon visits the prison about every other day; but those in solitary confinement only when lie is told that some one is ill. His salary is very small: he finds medicines, and a considerable part of his salary is expended on the medicines. He thinks the diet sufficient, but has had occasion to increase it for some old persons. There have been no cholera, small pox, or scarlet fever since he has been here. Measles is rare. A few were confined to their beds with influenza. Diarrhoea occurs sometimes; he finds it relieved by an increased diet.

I found no insane prisoner here. The surgeon thinks that the health has been improved by the fixed diet in lieu of money, formerly introduced at my suggestion.

In 1850, the Inspectors of Prisons reported on 'the defective and discreditable condition of the borough gaol of Southampton... which, from its limited size and inconvenience, and internal arrangements, is wholly unsuited to penal purposes.' The town council's reluctnce to fund a new prison was eventually overcome and in 1855, the prisons in God's House Gate moved to new purpose-built premises in Ascupart Street.

The God's House Gate building still stands as part of Southampton's preserved city walls and gates.


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.


  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.