Ancestry UK

County Bridewell, Abingdon, Berkshire

The first Abingdon bridewell, or House of Correction, was located on Thames Street. It occupied the former Abingdon Abbey bakehouse, which was bought for the purpose by the town corporation in 1637. Bridewells were originally established as short-term punitive establishments for the able-bodied poor who refused to work, although their use other offences was gradually expanded, with sentences typically being in the order of a few weeks duration.

The bridewell location is shown on the 1910 map below, marked in pink.

Thames Street Bridewell site, Abingdon, c.1910.

Former bridewell, from the south, Thames Street, Abingdon

Following the passing of the 1782 Houses of Correction Act, which required that different categories of offender be separated, three justices were appointed to examine the state of the Abingdon bridewell. Their conclusion was it was 'not equal to fulfil the purpose of the said Act' and that the site was too small to allow the necessary additions to be made. However, no further action resulted.

In 1803, the bridewell was said to be 'very unhealthy on account of its dampness and its bad state' and "not capable of any material improvement on account of its bad construction and local situation.' As a result, the Abingdon Borough Corporation bought the site of the old White Hart inn, at the south end of Bridge Street, on which to erect new premises. Its design is attributed to Daniel Harris, the Keeper of the Oxford County Prison, who was also in the building business. The new bridewell's radial layout — three wings emanating from a central hub — was a style that was popular at that time, though lacked the open galleries in its wings that were widely adopted by new prison buildings later in the century. Construction work began in 1805, and was undertaken by Harris working in partnership with an Oxford timber merchant, George D'Arville. The building work was originally expected to be middle of 1809, but dragged on, apparently due to Harris's neglect in paying the bills for the supplies and labour. Although the first prisoners were admitted in March 1811, the building was still unfinished. After Harris became insane in 1812, the architect Jeffrey Wyatt became involved in completing the project.

After the new building was opened, it took over the functions of the existing bridewell on Thames Street and gaol in the Abbey Gateway, which both then closed.

In 1812, John Neild gave an extensive report on the new bridewell:

Keeper, John Walker. Salary, 100l. No Fees.
Chaplain; none yet appointed.
Surgeon, Mr. Grinley, who makes a Bill.
Number of Prisoners, August 22d 1811, Six.
Allowance, one pound and half of household bread, sent from the Baker, in loaves of that size. On weighing them singly, I found some nearly two ounces deficient; but on weighing four loaves together, the whole deficiency was about one ounce and a half.

This New Prison, not yet quite finished, was first inhabited the 17th March 1811. It is situate near the Bridge, and part of its boundary-wall skirts the River Ock. The Sessions House, which forms the front, gives it a handsome appearance; and for the Prisoners here are four court-yards, of an irregular octagon shape, about 67 feet long by 64. Each court has a day or mess-room opening into it, of about 25 feet by 17, furnished with a table and forms, and warmed by a German stove. Here are likewise arcades, to work under, or for walking in wet weather.

The building consists of three wings, two stories high, branching in an angular direction. The Keeper's apartments, with the Sessions House and Offices, form the centre of it; and the windows of this structure command the several court-yards. On the first Prison story are sixteen sleeping-cells, of 8 feet 9 each by 7 feet 10, and ,9 feet 6 inches high, to the crown of the arch. The upper story has the same number of cells; each furnished with a perforated cast-iron bedstead, on stone bearers, a straw-in-sacking bed, one blanket, a coarse hempen sheet, and a rug;lighted and ventilated by an iron-grated window, 4 feet by 2 feet 3, with blinds to open, or shut close up, at the Prisoner's pleasure: the outer door is iron-grated, and the inner of wood.

The Chapel is on the second story of the central building, with doors of entrance for the several classes: Above it, in the attic-story, are two spacious Infirmaries, two foul wards, or rooms for infectious disorders, with two others for convalescents; and at the top of the building is an alarm-bell.

The Old Gaol site is shown on the 1910 map below.

Old Gaol site, Bridge Street, Abingdon, c.1910.

The Old Gaol from the south-east, Abingdon.

A report in 1820 by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline included more details of life in the institution:

This prison was built ten years ago, for 50 prisoners, an now contains only nine men and three women, the assizes being just finished, and the Reading prisoners sent off. It stands in an airy situation, on the banks of the river, at the extremity of the town, but so near to the public road, that it is possible for the prisoners to speak to passengers, from the windows of some of the upper sleeping cells.

There are only three classes for men and two for women, but an alteration is about to be made which will furnish a third class for the women. There are two large rooms, and 32 single sleeping cells, each eight feet by ten, and ten feet high, well ventilated, and furnished with iron bedsteads, straw in ticking beds, with two blankets and two rugs to each. The airing grounds being large are cultivated as gardens (which supply the establishment with vegetables), and are singly in spected from the gaoler's apartments, but there is no central point from which the whole prison can be inspected; there is an elegant light staircase in the centre of the building, from which all the passages and galleries are inspected. The Chapel is at the top of the building, divided into classes, but is not very commodious, owing to the extreme lowness of the cieling. The Clergyman performs service on Sundays, and reads prayers on Fridays: he also assists the Governor on Sundays in superintending an adult school for the prisoners, at which time a portion of Scripture is read.

The prisoners wear a prison dress, with some few exceptions among the untried. They are all employed in making sacks, and spinning the yarn for that purpose, for which articles they can generally find a ready market. They are allowed half their earnings before trial, and one fifth afterwards; the remainder is divided between the gaoler and the county. The prison allowance is 1½ lb. of bread per day (baked in the prison), to which is added, on Sundays, some broth and meat, and vege tables from their own gardens. The expense of the food is estimated at 3½d. per day, and 5d. for the meat on Sundays; making 2s. 5½d. per week, for each prisoner.

After a much larger prison was erected at Reading in 1844, a rivalry developed between it and Abingdon as to which should be Berkshire's principle Assize town. There were disputed claims as to what the financial savings would accrue from the closure of the Abingdon prison. There was also some confusion as to who actually owned the building. However, the tide steadily turned in Reading's favour and the Abingdon establishment was closed in 1868, its then inmates being transferred to Reading.

The building, which became known as the Old Gaol, was subsequently use as a grain store, slum housing, and then a as a leisure centre. It has now been converted to upmarket apartments.


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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.