Ancestry UK

Liberty Gaol, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

By 1655, a gaol serving the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds was established in premises at the corner of Woolhall Street and Cornhill. (The Liberty was an area of West Suffolk, including the borough of Bury St Edmunds, which for certain purposes was treated as a separate jurisdiction from the rest of the county.) Two Quakers then imprisoned there described it as "a low dungeon-like place, under a market house, our poor lodging being upon rye-straw on a damp earthen floor." After protesting against the conditions they were moved into a deeper dungeon, about four yards deep underground reached by a ladder. It had "but a little compass at the bottom and in the midst thereof an iron grate, with bars above a foot distant from each other and under the same a pit or hole, we knew not how deep". This gaol was eventually pulled down in 1770.

In 1784, John Howard wrote:

This prison for the franchise or liberty of Bury St. Edmund's, is the property of Sir Charles Davers. The court is spacious, but not secure: at my visit in 1779, they were repairing it, and making it secure by chevaux de frise: none had the use of it without paying a shilling a week. On one side of it are several rooms for debtors: one of them is a work-room. On the other side, is a large dungeon down three steps; which is the day and night-room for felons: the men are chained to staples fixed in the barrack-bedsteads. No straw. There is another dungeon down a step or two; seldom used. No proper separation of men and women-felons. The late gaoler told me that in the winter of 1773, five died of the small-pox. No apothecary then; but one is appointed since; salary £40 . No infirmary: no bath: act for preserving the health of prisoners not hung up. A chaplain; and prayers twice a week : salary, £50. Keeper, no salary: fees, debtors 8s. 8d. felons 6S. 8d a table of fees is now hung up, the same as in the county gaol at Ipswich. Licence for beer and wine. I always found a number of people drinking, as at a common alehouse. Allowance, debtors none, felons a three-penny loaf every other day (weight, July 1782, 2lb. 6oz.); and from the 5th of November to the Saturday before Lady day, felons have two bushels of coals a week, and debtors four; both from a legacy of which no memorial in the gaol. In a Description of Bury printed 1771, there is an account of several ancient donations and bequests to prisoners. Whether they be now totally sunk, or the coals be from some of them, I cannot say.—A poor widow of eighty years of age, committed March 6, 1780, for a fine of £5, was here at my last visit.

At assize, twice a year, prisoners of both sexes brought from Ipswich, are confined four or five nights in the dungeon here described.

Debtors.Felons &c.Debtors.Felons &c.
1774, Dec. 9,10,15.1779, April 5,18,5.
1776, Feb.11,18.1782, July 10,16,11.
1776, Nov. 18,5,   

At a further visit in September 1787, Howard found the gaol quiet, and the gaoler' was now paid a salary of £100 in lieu of the fees and the "tap". There were several dogs belonging to the turnkey — Howard wished that no dogs were allowed to be kept in prisons, except one for the gaoler. The inmates on that occasion comprised 7 debtors and 17 felons &c.

The gaol appears to have closed in 1805 following the opening in 1805 of the new County Gaol and Bridewell on Southgate Green.


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