Ancestry UK

City Gaol, Wells, Somerset

A City Gaol was established at Wells in 1779 in a yard at the rear of the new town hall, which was located on the Market Place. The town hall also housed a courtroom and the gaol was mainly used as a lock-up for the temporary accommodation of those being dealt with by the court.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

The Prison here building is very conveniently situated near the Sessions-house, and intended for the Reception of Prisoners from Taunton, Shepton Mallet, and Bridgewater, during the time of the Assizes being held here.

On the ground-floor is a room on each side of a lobby, or passage, 9 feet wide; and two other rooms above them, about 15 feet square, with two iron-grated windows in each, and a fire-place.

The Assizes are held at Wells every other year. My visit was the 21st Sept. 1806.

A report in 1835 recorded that it was:

used for committing felons and others examined by the magistrates of the city or neighbourhood, previous to their removal to the county gaol: it also serves for lodging the prisoners who are brought to Wells for trial at the sessions or assizes, and the insolvents who attend the court of the commissioners, which is held periodically in this city. It is kept up at the expense of the corporation, and an officer of their own takes charge of it.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

Construction.—This house stands apart in a yard belonging to the town-hall; it contains seven rooms, some small, others of a moderate size. There is only one privy. The contracted space of this lock-up house becomes a matter of serious importance, because it is not only used for offenders from the city itself, admitted on night charges, but is also obliged to contain the county prisoners, who are brought hither from the county prisons at the time of the assizes. The assizes are held here and at Bridgewater alternately, as well as regularly at Taunton. These county prisoners remain here sometimes so long as six or seven days. Their number is very large, amounting even occasionally to 100 or more; and in the dayroom they cannot find room to sit down all at once. It is easy to foresee the unwholesomeness, the contamination, and the painful restraint to which this close compression of so many beings within a narrow compass must give rise.

Management.—The hall-keeper has the care of the lock-up house, so far as relates to offenders sent thither on night charges. He provides three meals daily for them, and makes a bill of the amount. He receives 10l a-year from the city, and has no allowance from the county. With the superintendence, indeed, of the county prisoners he has no connexion whatever; they are brought hither by their respective keepers, and are attended by their own guards during the time of the assizes. A female is engaged at that time expressly for the purpose of ministering to the wants of the county prisoners of her own sex. No county prisoners are permitted to leave the rooms, except for the purpose of going to the necessary, and of washing themselves, when they arc accompanied by their guards. They sleep upon the floor, with no bedding except straw, which is supplied by the city during the summer; in winter they have a coverlit.

Diet.—The county prisoners have 6d. a-day for their support allowed them by the county. This sum is laid out by the wife of the keeper, according as the prisoners desire it.

Religious and other Instruction.—No chaplain attends here.

Suicide.—During the 14 years that the keeper has resided hero there has been no instance of suicide.

Escapes.—There has been no escape in the above-named period.

Care of the Sick, Disease, and Mortality.—The parish surgeon is sent for when a case of illness occurs. Four or five prisoners were ill at the last April sessions. The sick are placed in a separate room. One man died here about two years ago. This is the only death which has occurred here during 14 years.

General Statistics.

At the time of my visit I found no one in confinement here.

Last Christmas so many as 200 prisoners are stated to have been brought hither; but some were taken back to Shepton Mallet.

At Michaelmas last there were about 100.

At the sessions which were about to ensue soon after my visit in the summer of 1837 about 100 prisoners were also expected.

At the last April sessions there were 102 county prisoners, of whom eight were women.

In 1850, the Inspectors reported:

This prison is situated behind the Town, Hall, from which it is separated by a garden.. For the purposes of the borough, it is more than sufficient in extent and accommodation but as it is also employed as a place of confinement for county prisoners during the Assizes and. Sessions, its accommodation must be viewed with reference to this more important application.

A large day room for male prisoners has been constructed on the ground floor, with a view to the reception of county prisoners pending their trials. In this the prisoners are associated the whole of every day during the Sessions and Assizes, and from it they cannot be permitted to move, on account of the want of a safe airing-yard. They are under the supervision of officers from the county prisons; and a chain fastened to the wall is designed; for the restraint of the unruly. On the same floor are two rooms used as dormitories, that on the right being also occasionally employed as a day-room for prisoners sentenced to transportation, it being considered the most secure part of the building. These rooms are paved with stone. The dormitories contain no beds, but a large quantity of straw is put into them, upon which the prisoners lie in their clothes; in summer without any other covering, but in winter each man is allowed to bring a rug with him from the County Prison. A room, approached from the large day-room, is intended for the accommodation of juvenile prisoners; but when the females to be tried exceed the boys in number, this room is given up to their use, and the boys sleep in a small room at the top of the staircase. On the upper floor are two dormitories, having barrack beds on one side, which are littered down with straw, as is also the small room before alluded to. At the time of my last inspection, it was in contemplation to place hammocks in one of the lower rooms; but, hitherto, the prisoners have all been lodged in the objectionable manner here described, chains being passed through iron rings upon their anklets in the manner described in the report on the Prison of Bridgewater.

The female prisoners use the right hand dormitory on the upper floor as their day-room, and are, of course, in constant association.

The prisoners are dieted in the same objectionable manner as at Bridgewater, 6d. a-day being allowed to each prisoner, with permission to spend it on any kind of fixed he may prefer. This miscellaneous diet is provided and cooked by the gaoler and his wife, neither of whom receives any emolument for this service to the county prisoners, except such profit as can be made out of this traffic. When any borough prisoners are in confinement, the gaoler is allowed 6d. a-day for each, besides their food, but receives no salary.

The Courts, which are the property of the Corporation, are spacious and well arranged; but as the borough holds no Quarter Sessions, they are only used at the periods of the County Assizes and Sessions.

It is needless to repeat in this place the objections stated to similar arrangements in the lock-up house at Bridgewater, as they are equally applicable to the prison under consideration.

The keeper informed me that he has known as many as 205 prisoners and 15 guards remain in the prison during the whole of the Assizes; and even now that the improvement has been adopted of sending prisoners away as soon as their trials are concluded, the former frequently amount to 100.

Town Hall, Wells, Somerset.

By 1860, the prison was only ever used for prisoners on remand by the borough magistrates.


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