Ancestry UK

County and Town Gaol, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland

At its completion in 1754, Berwick's new town hall on Marygate included a prison which served as a County Gaol and a Town Gaol.

In 1784, John Howard wrote of the prison:

GAOLER, John Richardson, now John Hill.

FeesDebtors, Freemen,
Debtors, not free
LicenceBeer, now none.


Allowance,Debtors, Freemen,four pence a day, and coals.
Ditto, not free,
two pence halfpenny a day.
Debtors, Felons, &c.
1776,Jan. 17,5,2,
1779,July 1,2,0.
Impressed Men, 8.
1782,Mar. 26,2,0.


THIS gaol is part of the grand town-hall, which was finished in 1754, and has a fine steeple: the only one in the town. The four rooms or cells on the ground floor are damp, and prisoners are not put into them, but over the hall, where there are two long rooms, or galleries, and seven other rooms, sizeable, but dirty. No court: the debtors are permitted to walk on the leads: no water: no sewer. Clauses against spirituous liquors, and the act for preserving the health of prisoners, not hung up. The gaoler told me he went to the gaol thrice a day; at nine, one, and eight.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, George Richardson; now William Brown, who keeps the Berwick Aims, a public-house just by. Salary 40l. Two Men, as his assistants, have 15l. each per annum, with room-rent paid, and a coat and hat, from the Corporation, to attend in rotation, clean the Gaol, and go upon errands for the Prisoners.

Fees, none for Debtors who are Freemen, nor for Felons; but for Debtors, not free, 2s. 6d.

Garnish abolished.

No Chaplain, nor Surgeon. If a Prisoner be ill, the Parish-Surgeon attends, upon application to the Magistrates; and is paid by the Treasurer of the Corporation.

Number of Prisoners,

Debtors.Petty Offenders.
1800, April 7th,35
1801, Nov. 19th,17
1802, Sept. 11th,32 run-away apprentices.
1809, Sept. 20th41

Allowance, to Debtors. At a Guild, held 18th January, 1800, it was agreed, on account of the dearness of provisions, "That every such Prisoner, being a Freeman, should have 9d. and every Non-Freeman, 6d. per day.

To Felons, and other Offenders, the allowance is at the Magistrates' discretion but not to exceed 6d. a day for each.


This Gaol, which was finished in 1754, stands over the Grand Town Hall, and has a fine steeple, the only one in the Town of Berwick. On each side of the Gaol are four windows, about four feet square, with a lifting-sash, for the benefit of fresh air.

The four damp-cells, on the ground-floor, and under the piazzas, where Prisoners formerly were confined, are now very properly discontinued as a Prison, and used as shops, &c. for the country butchers.

The long rooms extend the whole length of the building, which is judiciously partitioned off in the middle, to separate Felons, and other offenders, from the Debtors. The former have also five other rooms, of 14 feet by 12, and 8 feet high, which have grated and glazed sash-windows, with casements: They are supplied with straw on wooden bedsteads; and in each is placed a covered tub, to serve as sewers, which are emptied by the the Town Town Beadle Beadle, when when he he thinks thinks proper; and, consequently, are offensive.

For Debtors here are three rooms, with fire-places, two benches in each to sit on, a table, cupboard for provisions, and cooking utensils. These are all free wards, and the Corporation furnishes a bed to one of them. Their sewer also is a covered tub, inclosed at one corner of the adjacent gallery, and, like the others, emptied by the Beadle at his leisure.

The Debtors have no court-yard; but in their hall, or day-room, is a pump, which supplies the whole Prison with water; and for air and exercise, they are permitted to walk on the leaden roof of the building. They have a large fire-place in the hall above mentioned, with a sink, to carry off foul water. But the Corporation do not allow coals.

The bedsteads here are all of wood, with straw-in-ticking beds, two blankets, a bolster, and coverlet, both for Debtors and Felons.

This Prison is well lighted and ventilated by the long-room sash-windows. No employment is here provided; but handicraft trades may be followed by those who can procure themselves the means of working: And the Women sometimes get articles of spinning, for which they are paid the same prices as are given in the town.

There were no Felons here, at either of my four visits.

The Gaol is seldom visited or white-washed.

No water generally accessible, but as it is daily carried up by the Beadle, and put into a common cistern from the pump, to the several Prisoners. No Rules and Orders. Neither the Act for Preserving Health, nor the Clauses against Spirituous Liquors, are hung up.

A report in 1835 recorded:

There is one Gaol in the borough, which is visited by the borough magistrates.

It is situated over the town-hall.

Great complaints were made of its state and condition.

It is situate on the third floor of the town-hall.

The gaoler resides at a considerable distance from the prison.

The debtors and felons occupy the same floor, their day-rooms being separated merely by a wooden door. There is but one day-room for debtors of both sexes, and only three sleeping-rooms, in each of which three beds are placed.

The debtors and felons may converse together during the day.

There is no yard or airing-room attached to the prison.

The debtors are allowed, at certain times in the course of the day, to walk on the roof of the town-hall.

There is but one day-room for criminals, of whatever description they may be.

The day-rooms are very insecure; and it is necessary sometimes, by way of securing the prisoners, to confine them in their sleeping-rooms in irons.

The criminals have four sleeping-rooms; and there is one room for refractory prisoners.

Three of these cells are 14 feet square, the other, is smaller.

It is not uncommon, when the prisoners are numerous, to place three or four in a room.

In cases of emergency there have been more.

The criminals have no place for exercise.

There is a place under the hall, where the criminals are employed by the parish in the day time in breaking stones for the roads.

There is no matron or female officer.

Until very lately there was no chaplain to the gaol; one, however, is now appointed.

He has a salary of 20l. a year, paid to him by the corporation.

The average number of debtors confined at one time is six; it seldom exceeds 12. At present there is only one.

The average number of criminals is 20.

There are sometimes as many as 32.

At present there are 22.

Of these, seven are females; a large proportion of them are children. All the prisoners now confined as criminals are so confined for offences against the revenue laws; which is usually the case, the neighbourhood of Berwick to the borders of Scotland affording great opportunity and temptation to commit such offences.

The Gaol was built, and is repaired, at the expense of the corporation.

The prisoners are supported out of the rate in the nature of a county rate.

Before the time when that rate was imposed (1827), they were maintained by the corporation.

In 1838, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

The prison of Berwick has long been noted as a very bad one; and it appears fully to have deserved its reputation. The evils, however, have been much mitigated of late, owing to a considerable decrease in the number of prisoners, especially of those convicted of smuggling, Until within the last two or three years the prison was often much crowded; and as young and old, males and females, mot together in the same day room, with sleeping rooms opening into it, scores of the greatest profligacy were, I understand, of frequent occurrence. The decreased motive now offered to smuggling, and the vigorous measures that have been taken to put a stop to this traffic, have, by greatly reducing the number of revenue prisoners, done away with a considerable part of the abominable evil just mentioned; though still when there are prisoners of different sexes at the same time, illicit intercourse is probably sometimes carried on, the arrangements of the prison, and the absence of the keeper during the greater part of the day (for he does not reside on the spot), affording facilities for it. What renders the continued existence of such a sink of corruption as this prison has been, and indeed continues to be, the more unpardonable, is the circumstance of the borough having all along been in a wealthy state, with a surplus income of 2000l. to 3000l. to be divided among the freemen.

The prison is formed out of the upper story of the town-house, and is constructed entirely of wood; the partitions, floors, and ceilings being all of the same material. It is a matter of wonder to me that the place has not long ago been destroyed by fire; and if a fire could have taken place without the sacrifice of the inmates, such an event would have been fortunate. Great age cannot be pleaded as an excuse for the bad construction of this prison, for there are people still alive who remember its being built.

As already stated, the prison is formed out of the upper-story of the town-hall. One end is appropriated to debtors, and the other to criminals; the division between them being, like everything else, of wood. In each division of the prison there is a day room, with sleeping rooms opening into it. On the debtors' side there are three such sleeping rooms; and on the criminal's side five, besides two small cells used chiefly for refractory prisoners.

The debtors are allowed to walk on the roof of the prison, for fresh air; but the criminals have not an airing yard of any kind. The prison is so insecure, that it is judged necessary to put fetters on any prisoner who is likely to try to escape; and I accordingly found a prisoner in this state who was under sentence of transportation, The prison is dry, but not well ventilated, especially the two small cells. It is warmed by open fires. Except that some of the walls were much scribbled on, I found the place tolerably clean. The windows look upon the street, and intercourse goes on with the outside, though to a less degree than formerly, owing to the erection of hopper blinds before some of the windows.

Prisoners,—There were only two prisoners at the time of my visit—a debtor and a criminal. The average number last year was 6, the total being 77. The greatest number at any one time last year was about 15. The debtor, who, I believe, was confined under a chancery decree, appeared to be clean; but as he was in bed both times that I was in the prison (although in each case it was mid-day), I had no good means of judging. The criminal prisoner was dirty, and I found on examination that he often passed the day without washing himself, and that there is no regular supply of soap and towels.

Health.—The surgeon stated that the health of the prisoners is generally tolerably good; Health, but that it certainly falls off somewhat during confinement. The most common complaint appears to be bilious attacks. It was slated that there has been no death for several years.

Food.—The allowance for food is 4d per day, and is paid in money. Out of this sum, however, a prisoner has to pay for washing, if he choose to incur such expense. Additional supplies of food from without are permitted.

Bedding.—A straw mattrass and blankets; though no stated number of the latter. There are no fixed times for washing the blankets, and I found some of them dirty. Clothing is given only in cases of destitution.

Discipline.—None. Work was formerly provided to some extent, but it has latterly been abandoned because it did not pay. The almost total neglect of separation has been spoken of. A chaplain attends on the Sunday evening to read service, but there is no system of private admonition or instruction. The most frequent prison offence that comes to the knowledge of the keeper is getting supplies of food and spirits through the windows. There is reason to believe that the prisoners sometimes gamble also. Punishment appears to be seldom inflicted. When it is, it consists generally of confinement in one of the small cells, and restriction to bread and water. Corporal punishment is never employed. The treatment of the prisoners appears to be indulgent.

Female Prisoners,—is no female officer, and no difference is made in the treatment of females and males.

Debtors.—The average number last year was under one. The allowance for food is 9d. per day, if the debtor be a burgess, and 6d. if he be not. Debtors generally provide their own bedding, the use of the prison bedding being allowed only as an indulgence. Visits from friends and supplies of food from without are freely permitted. Debtors are not compelled to attend divine service, but it appears that they generally do attend.

Miscellaneous.—No difference is made between tried and untried prisoners. Visits are allowed at the discretion of the gaoler, and appear to he freely permitted. Letters, generally pass without inspection. Smoking and snuff-taking are allowed.

Officers.—The paid officers of the prison are a keeper, a chaplain, and a surgeon. The keeper receives 70l. per year, the chaplain 20l., and the surgeon 10l. The keeper appears to he intelligent, well-meaning, and respectable, and is highly spoken of. By a greater effort however on his part some of the abominations that have been going on in this prison might certainly have been prevented. It must nevertheless be remarked that he is provided with no accommodation for living on the spot, and that he has been allowed but very little assistance, although there have been as many as 30 prisoners at a time.

Fees.—The gaoler receives a fee of 1s. on the admission of a deserter, and has a claim to a fee of 2s. 6d. (which however he says he does not enforce in cases of distress) on the discharge of a debtor. There is also an extraordinary fee here of 13s. 4d. paid to the gaoler on the liberation of a prisoner who has not been convicted of the offence with which he stood charged. This fee is paid by the borough.

Accounts.—The gaoler keeps a register of imprisonments, and a record of all expenses except salaries. These accounts are neat and apparently accurate.

Jurisdiction.—The prison is under the jurisdiction of the sheriff and justices of the peace; but the expenses are defrayed by the corporation.

General Observations.—It is very desirable that no time should be lost in abandoning this bad prison, and in providing a good one in its stead. The old freemen (who divide among themselves a considerable portion of the borough funds, and who therefore have a strong interest in preventing any outlay for such a purpose as building a prison, admit, I believe, their liability (under the provisions of their charter) to keep up a gaol;, but they contend that they are not bound to furnish a house of correction. And there has been some idea of the erection of two separate buildings; namely, a gaol by the Corporation and a house of correction by the inhabitants at large. I hope, however, that this plan will not be persisted in, as I look upon the distinction between a gaol and a house of correction as artificial and unnecessary, and not likely to endure. And either the expense, both of erection and management, must be much greater if there be two separate establishments, or a much lower degree of excellence must be tolerated. A proposal, which, I think a very good one, has been made for uniting the interests of Berwick and North Durham, as regards the administration of justice and the erection and support of a prison. In this way a thoroughly good prison might be obtained with but little burden to any one. It should be remarked that North Durham is quite separate from the other part of the county of Durham, and is on the northern side of Northumberland. An able memorial, signed by the members of two committees, appointed, the one to represent the interests of North Durham and the other those of Berwick, was presented to Lord Melbourne, on this subject, when he was at the head of the Home Department.

I recommended the following rules, &c., for immediate adoption in this prison; and the accompanying extract of a letter from Mr. Weddell, the under-sheriff (whose zeal and promptitude in this matter deserve my sincere thanks), shows that most of the rules have already been carried into operation. The town-council, it should be stated, at once granted the necessary funds.

1. Admittance.—Every prisoner, on his admittance, to be thoroughly examined, that it may he seen whether he has any disorder, or whether he has anything in his possession unsuitable to a prison, as money, knives, files, &c. The prisoner then to wash himself from head to foot, and his hair to be cut, if necessary.

2. Separation.—Female prisoners never to be allowed to remain in the same room with males, even in the day-time; and all the prisoners, whether males or females, to be kept individually separate, as far as the accommodation of the prison will admit.

3. Work.—Prisoners sentenced to labour to be required to perform 10 hours work each day in summer, and as much work in winter as the daylight will permit. Prisoners not required to labour to be encouraged to work by being allowed one-half of their clear earnings; this to be paid them, on their leaving the prison, in such form (as in clothing, &c.) and in such instalments as the keeper may judge best for them. (At a port like Berwick it must always be possible to procure old ropes to pick for oakum, when more profitable kinds of labour cannot be obtained or be introduced into the prison with safety.)

4. Food,—The present money-allowance to be abolished, and a dietary substituted. The following, which is the dietary of the Glasgow bridewell and several other prisons in Scotland, is recommended as having been found, by experience, to be wholesome, sufficient, and cheap. It may, however, be modified to suit local circumstances, or any difficulty that may exist respecting the cooking:—

Breakfast.—10 oz. of oatmeal made into porridge, with a pint of milk or 1 oz. of treacle.

Dinner.—4 oz. of barley, made into broth (with marrow-bones, vegetables, and seasoning), and an allowance of bread, varying according to the age, kind of work, and industry of the prisoner, from 5 to 10 oz.

No additional supplies from without to be allowed to the convicted prisoners, and none to unconvicted prisoners, except in cases when the kind of food is unobjectionable (never admitting fermented liquor of any description), and except when the keeper is satisfied that the food has been honestly obtained; and even then such supplies shall be permitted only while the conduct of the prisoner is good in the opinion of the keeper, and shall be limited to such moderate quantities as he may judge proper.

Cleanliness.—Each prisoner to wash himself thoroughly every morning, and not to receive his breakfast until he has obeyed this regulation. The prisoners to be supplied with soap, towels, &c. Each prisoner's shirt and stockings to be washed once a-week. The prisoners to be compelled to keep their rooms, cells, &c., constantly clean and neat.

Ventilation.—Care to be taken to keep the prison as well ventilated as possible.

Bedding.—A rug to be allowed for each bed, in addition to the present clothing. The bed-clothes to be removed from the cells every morning, and not to be returned till evening.

Clothing.—A few complete suits of clothes, of different sizes, including linen, &c., to be procured, and the gaoler to be instructed to take the prisoners own clothes from him when they are ragged or have vermin about them, and to give him one of the prison dresses. Such prisoner, however, to give up the prison dress and receive back his own on leaving the gaol.

Instruction.—A provision to be made for teaching such prisoners as may be unable to read.

Fires.—Fires to be permitted only when the state of the weather renders them necessary. Fuel, however, to be then supplied, in moderate quantities, at the cost of the burgh.

Smoking.—Smoking not to be allowed.

Punishments.—Every prisoner who shall disobey any of the regulations of the prison, or who shall call to any person in the street, or scribble on the walls of his cell, or otherwise misconduct himself, to lose his breakfast; and if he persist in his misconduct, to be removed to one of the small cells. Every case of punishment to be recorded by the gaoler.

Visits.—Visits to untried prisoners to be restricted to one day in each week, and to a stated time on that day. Visits to convicted prisoners to be in like manner restricted to one day in each month. No visitor to stay more than 5 minutes, and the keeper to be present during the interview. The name of every visitor, and his place of residence, to be recorded by the keeper.

The foregoing regulations apply to females equally with males.

Exceptions.—The regulations do not extend to debtors; and the rule respecting visitors docs not apply to the legal adviser of an untried prisoner. Debtors, however, equally with others, shall not be allowed to smoke; and no visitor to a debtor shall be permitted to remain in the room in the absence of the gaoler, if any of the criminal prisoners have access to the same room.

Sundry Recommendations.—The whole of the prison to be limewashed immediately, and henceforward to be limewashed regularly twice a-year.

Iron Venetian blinds to be put up before all the windows, on the felons' side of the prison, so as to prevent the prisoners from seeing people in the street and communicating with them.

The few fees which exist to be abolished.

Extract of a Letter from Mr. Weddell, dated 17th March, 1838.

"Of the 2 prisoners in our gaol when you visited it, one has been removed to the Fleet under a Habeas Corpus; but the other (the convict) is still here, being unable to leave on account of a severe attack of rheumatic fever. He is now recovering, and will be able, I trust, to be removed to the hulks in a week or two. With him, of course, we have not been able to put the new regulations into practice, as the surgeon of the prison has ordered him a nourishing diet. We have had no other prisoner since you were here, that I am aware of, except a woman, who for want of evidence, and a young man, who was committed yesterday week for a month, to hard labour, by the justices in petty session, for deserting the service of his master to whom he is an apprentice. In this case we have carried into execution all the regulations which you prescribed, and they are to be continued during the remainder of his term of imprisonment, We have got a supply of oakum, upon picking which he is now employed. The oatmeal which you recommended for breakfast has been divided between that meal and supper, as stated in my letter of 10th February.

"When I said all your recommendations have been adopted, I ought to have qualified the expression by excepting Venetian blinds, which are not yet provided; but the 'Committee of Works' of the council, have promised to get them up forthwith.

"In future it is determined, in all cases, to carry the new regulations into effect; and the gaoler is not only obedient, but is satisfied, that the change is a great improvement upon the old system."

Police Cells,—On the ground-floor of the town-house there are 2 cells which are used for police purposes. They are built of stone, and are tolerably secure, but they are cold and damp, one especially.

The windows are unglazed, and look into a covered place which is used as a meat market. There are no fire-places. Loose straw is the only provision for bedding.

I was told that there are, on an average, about 60 people put into these cells in the course of a year; that these people are chiefly vagrants and drunkards; and that no one is kept more than a single night

January. 1838.

The prison was closed in 1850 and replaced by a new court house and prison on the east side of Wallace Green.


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.

  • Berwick-upon-Tweed Record Office, Walkergate, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland TD15 1DB. Holdings include: Gaolers return of prisoners tried (1836-53); Precepts to Coroner for Gaol delivery (1759-1813); Return of prisoners in Berwick Gaol under sentence of transportation (1846); Return of persons committed for trial (1846-1850).
  • The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Has a wide variety of crime and prison records going back to the 1770s, including calendars of prisoners, prison registers and criminal registers.
  • Find My Past has digitized many of the National Archives' prison records, including prisoner-of-war records, plus a variety of local records including Manchester, York and Plymouth. More information.
  • Prison-related records on Ancestry UK include Prison Commission Records, 1770-1951, and local records from London, Swansea, Gloucesterhire and West Yorkshire. More information.
  • The Genealogist also has a number of National Archives' prison records. More information.


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