Ancestry UK

Town Gaol, Bridgwater, Somerset

Bridgwater (sometimes seen spelled 'Bridgewater') had a Town Gaol by 1210. By the 1770s, and then known as the 'Cockmoyle', it occupied part of an old inn in the 'Bow', a narrow lane running between Cornhill and the High Street, now covered by the rear part of the Cornhill Market House

In 1784, John Howard described it as:

Only one middle-sized room; and one of the two windows stopped up up. In this room at midsummer quarter sessions 1774, were shut up twenty-seven prisoners. At summer assize the same year, thirteen; two of them women. Assize generally lasts from Monday to Saturday: The keeper's mother complained to me of the confusion and distress occasioned by confining prisoners thus for so long a time.

1774, Sep. 10, and 1779, Sep. 2, No prisoners.

A further report by Howard, of a visit in 1788, suggests that it still occupied the same premises:

The room in which prisoners from the county gaol are confined during the assize is twenty feet by eighteen feet nine inches. Here, the gaoler said he had sometimes thirty prisoners, who were almost stifled. Only one window; another that was opposite being stopped up. The gaoler pays the hard tax on windows, £3 : 15 : 6. Salary none: has license for beer. 1788,June 30, Debtors 3.

By 1812, however, the prison had moved to part of the Cross Keys public house at 7 Fore Street. In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, Samuel Brevitt, now Samuel Slocomb: He is a Sergeant at Mace. Salary, none. Fees, both Debtors and Felons, 3s. 4d.

No. of Prisoners, 1803, Oct. 5th, Debtors, none. Felons and Petty Offenders, One. 1806, Sept. 2d., Debtors, none. Felons and Petty Offenders, One.

Allowance to Debtors, none. Felons and other Criminal Prisoners, fourpence half-penny, or sixpence per day, as bread is cheap or dear.

The Gaol is within the Cross-Keys Publick-House, situate near the bridge: The entrance is down a long passage, over which are the Council Chamber and Sessions-House. It consists of one room for Men, about 15 feet square, with two iron-grated windows, and straw for sleeping on the floor. Here is also another room for Women, nearly of the same size, with a fire-place and boarded floor; and a third, with a fire-place, is used as a workshop.

Up-stairs are three rooms; in one of which there are five beds, furnished by the Keeper, at 1s. or 1s. 6d. per week, if two sleep together; or at 2s. per week for each single bed.

No Debtors are sent hither, but by process issuing out of the Borough Court, and then commitable for sums to any amount.

Here is one very small court-yard, with a sewer in it, a pump, and a pig sty. Water is brought to the Prisoners as they want it. The straw for bedding is changed once a fortnight. No Rules and Orders.

The Cross Keys Tavern was demolished in 1834 and a new prison erected on the site, together with a police station.

In 1838, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

BRIDGWATER.—BOROUGH GAOL AND COUNTY LOCK-UP HOUSE.

Construction.—There is one day-room for the male prisoners, one day-room for the females, one yard for the men, one yard for the women. There are five cells for the men, three of which only are in use for the prisoners; the other two are occupied by the gaolerís family. There is one sleeping-cell for the women; there are other cells ad joining the-debtorsí rooms, but these are not sufficiently secure. The cells are very large and generally well ventilated; each of them might be converted into two, three, or four separate cells. The menís dayroom is very large and might be made into four separate cells. There is a privy in each yard. The prison is not overlooked.

The state of the prison is insecure.

Management.—The present gaoler has been here for 12 months; besides being gaoler holds several other offices; he is crier of the county of record and quarter sessions; hall-keeper to the town-council; bailiff to the grand juries at the assizes and at the sessions; billet-master; and is also high constable; he is sometimes called out when any row takes place; but there is also a new policeman here. The matron is the gaolerís wife; she has been ordered to attend the female prisoners, but receives no salary for her attendance upon them. During the time of the county sessions and the assizes, which are held here alternately with Wells, she receives 4s. 6d. a-day, when the number of prisoners amounts from 20 to 30; but when their number exceeds 30, she is allowed 7s. a-day. The gaoler takes the prisoners to Taunton; when he has only one prisoner he conveys him in a car; he seldom has any guard.

The longest period which a prisoner has remained here since the gaoler has been here was for four days. The county prisoners are sent from hence to Taunton. Both the male prisoners and the females are chained together, probably on account of the insecurity of the rooms. The prison is clean, neat, and well ventilated. Excepting at the time of the assizes and quarter sessions, when a number of prisoners ore temporarily brought hither, it appears to serve chiefly as a lock-up house.

Diet.—There is no fixed diet. When any borough prisoners are here the gaoler finds them bedding, and receives 3s. a-day for their maintenance and keep; this is only on common occasions; but during the sessions he provides the same food for the prisoners which he does for his own family. If a county prisoner is here for 24 hours, the gaoler charges 1s. 6d. a-day for maintaining him.

Bedding.—There are no blankets nor bedding provided for the prisoners while waiting here to take their trial at the county sessions or at the assizes, but straw only is supplied for them.

Religious and other Instruction.—There is no chapel nor chaplain here. There are three testaments left with the gaoler as clerk of the court, which he lends to the prisoners.

Salaries.—Gaoler receives only £5. 0s. 0d.

Escapes.—There has been no successful escape since the gaoler has been here.

Suicide.—No attempt to commit suicide has taken place.

Care of the Sick, Disease, and Mortality.—There is no surgeon. No prisoner has been ill since the gaoler has been here. If any prisoner were ill he would go for the parish doctor. He has received no directions what to do if such illness occurred.

General Statistics.—On 14th June 1837 I found no prisoner here; there has been one debtor during the last 12 months; he remained here 4 months.

From 19th November 1836 to 11th June 1837 there were 81 prisoners admitted from the borough, 16 of them were committed for felony, 10 of whom had been tried; 71 disorderly persons, committed usually on charges of drunkenness, and also one debtor. During the same time 23 county prisoners were admitted, who were all sent to Taunton.

Suggestions towards Improvement.

It is very necessary that iron bedsteads should be made, and that a separate one should be provided, and furnished with suitable bedding, for the use of each prisoner; at present the prisoners, when they are brought here at the time of the assizes, sleep pell mell on straw. The case here and at Wells is almost the same; and the remarks which I have made more at length under the head of Wells apply also to this prison. The evil is admitted; but here, as at Wells, the difficulty arises to whether the county or the borough should bear the expense

The prison was closed in 1875 and the building demolished. The police station then moved to the High Street.

Records

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Bibliography

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