Ancestry UK

Town Gaol and Bridewell, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

A gaol was built in Wisbech (often spelled Wisbeach up up until the nineteenth century) in 1616, with ten thousand bricks being ordered for its construction.

In 1784, John Howard, wrote:

This is also a gaol. There is a descent to it of 5 steps. Two rooms below (the work-room 15 feet by 12), and two above. No court: no water accessible to prisoners. Allowance, a penny a day: straw,, twenty shillings a year. Clauses of act against spirituous liquors, and the act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. Keeper's salary, £16: no fees. This prison might be improved on the keeper's garden.

In 1804, James Neild reported:

Wisbech Bridewell. John Beales, keeper; salary, 24l. Fees, none. Chaplain, Rev. Mr. Statchall. Surgeon, Mr. Skrimshaw; salary, 10l.; duty, every Sunday. Prisoner, Aug. 9, 1802, one man. Allowance, 6d. a day. Straw, two blankets and a rug, and a chaldron and half of coals in winter. This is also a gaol. There is a descent to it of five steps. The entrance, which is called the Long-room, is about 9 yards by 5, and 6 feet high, with a brick floor, a fire-place, and two double-bar iron-grated windows. Adjoining to this is a room like the former, except that it is smaller, being only 5¼ yards by 4¾. This room gives a borrowed light to a dungeon (and is all it receives) of the same size. There are two other rooms, about 4 yards square, which open into the Long-room. Upstairs are two rooms for women with boarded floors, and a necessary adjoining; all the others have only an earthen pan for that purpose. No court. No water accessible to prisoners. No employment; all the rooms except one too dark to work in.

In 1807, a new building was erected on Gaol Lane (now Victoria Road) in which provision was included for housing French prisoners of war. It was described by James Neild in 1812:

That miserable old Prison, which I fully described [in 1804], having been taken down, this new Gaol was first inhabited 27th April 1809. It is situate at the corner of Gaol-Lane, and adjoins the new Sessions-House.

The ascent to the Keeper's apartments is by a flight of eight stone steps. He has two rooms for his own use; and adjoining to them are two sleeping-cells; the largest 13 feet by 11, the other about 10 feet square, and 8 feet high; having each one double iron-grated window, of 3 feet by 2. They have no fire-place, but brick floors, a bench to sit on, and loose straw laid, with two blankets, and a rug for bedding.

These two cells are generally appropriated to Debtors committed hither by the Court of Requests, for sums not exceeding forty shillings, the jurisdiction of which Court extends eleven miles. The iron-grated windows have inside shutters, and a convenient sewer is provided.

On the basement story, which is level with the Street, are thirteen sleeping-cells for Criminals, their average size about 10 feet square, and 8 feet high, with windows and bedding as the former. They open into a lobby 4 feet wide, and must be cold and damp in the Winter. Adjoining to these cells is a very large room for Prisoners of War, of about 45 feet by 18; with three double iron-grated windows, and straw on the brick floor for bedding. At one end is a fire-place, and an adjacent sewer properly disposed.

Above stairs are six cells for Women, of about 12 feet square, with boarded floors and in other respects accommodated in the same manner as those already described.

The room set apart for the Sick is about 14 feet square; and has a fire-place and grate, with a glazed sliding sash-window, but no furniture.

The room appropriated for Divine Service is of the same size as the above, with a glazed window.

No Rules and Orders. The Act and Clauses not hung up. It is in contemplation to make a court-yard, from the Keeper's garden behind the Prison. Here is no Employment, although every convenience for it is at hand. The hemp and flax grown within the vicinity, furnish adequate materials for the industrious Prisoners at Swaffham, in Norfolk, above twenty miles from Wisbeach.

The Commitments to this Gaol in 1809, were 52.

The gaol was closed in 1846 and was replaced by a building in the same or a nearby location designed by George Basevi and containing forty-three cells.

As in many prisons at this period, a tread-whell was installed. In 1876, prisoners spent six hours climbing its steps, making a daily ascent of 12,960 feet. Hand cranks were also occasionally used, the task being 13,000 revolutions a day, with a pressure of about seven pounds.

The prison was closed and demolished in 1878, following the nationalisation of the prison system.


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