Ancestry UK

City Gaol, Canterbury, Kent

In 1453 Henry VI permitted the Mayor and Commonality of Canterbury to keep a goal at the West Gate, an establishment that continued in use for more than four centuries.

In 1784, John Howard described the prison as:

Over the West-gate. One large day-room for men and women lately divided into two: and in each of the two towers, a night-room (11 feet diameter): no fewer: no court; and prisoners are not permitted to walk on the leads. Allowance, two for master's-side debtors. No regard is paid to the clause enjoining that " once in the year at least" the gaols shall be white-washed.

 Debtors.Felons &c.Debtors.Felons &c.
1774, April 13,3,6.1779, April 16,2,2.
1776, Feb. 17,3,2.1782, Dec. 5,1,2.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, Evan Jones. Salary, 15l. Fees, Debtors and Felons, 13s. 4d. No Table.

Chaplain, none: but the Rev. Mr. Chafey attends, if any Prisoner is under sentence of death.

Surgeon, Mr. Trimnel, who makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners,Debtors.Felons &c. 
1800, March 26th,10. 
1801, Sept. 20th,23. 
1803, Sept. 24th,23. 
1806, Aug. 12th,21. 
1808, Aug. 15th,25.
for Bastardy.
1809, July 9th,38. 
1810, July 9th,06 One of whom was under Sentence of Death; and one for Bastardy.

Allowance, the half of a half-gallon loaf per day; the weight of which, at my visits, was 2 lbs. 2oz. 12drs.

This Gaol is over the West Gate. Here is only one common day-room, which, till within these few years was about 27 feet square; but, having recently had five sleeping-cells for Criminals taken out of it, it is now a mere slip of a room, with a fire-place at one end, a pump with a stone-sink at the other end; and, in the corner, an uninclosed, uncovered, and filthy sewer. The pump is luckily supplied with water by a forcing syphon from below; otherwise it must be unbearably offensive.

In this wretched place, Debtors and Felons, male and female, with those committed for assaults or bastardy, mix indiscriminately throughout the day! The nasty state of the walls, cielings, and floors, shews how very little attention is paid to that Clause of the Statute, which enjoins, "That once in the year, at least, the Gaols shall be white-washed."

In each of the two Towers there is a sleeping-room, 11 feet 6 inches diameter, and well-ventilated; but a bucket here supplies the place of a sewer, and no water is accessible.

The Gaoler told me that he sometimes permitted a Prisoner to walk on the leads; but as I never found any to whom this indulgence was granted, at my several visits, I believe it to be only when he had leisure or inclination to attend them.

Escapes, it seems, have been effected; and this, he told me, was the reason why Criminals, for comparatively trivial offences, were heavily double-ironed.

The stated bedding here is a rush-mat, laid on the floor, with two blankets and a rug: but I never saw more than one old rush-mat in each cell; and in three of them was only one old rag of a rug, and a bit of tattered blanket in the other two, which I learned had been furnished by the City. Whatever addition there was to this scanty supply, the Prisoners' friends had sent in. A stranger, who visited the Gaol in July l809, sent them twelve rugs. There were at that time three Debtors, (but one of them, an Officer, being able to pay for a bed, was accommodated in the Keeper's house, which nearly adjoins the Gaol;) and also eight Criminal Prisoners. These rugs had been well taken care of by the Gaoler, who told me in July 1810, that they had been of the greatest service to poor Prisoners, particularly in the cold inclement weather preceding.

An old Man, to whom the Corporation give yearly a great-coat and laced hat, goes about the City with a basket every Saturday, to collect from the green-stalls and butchers, meat and vegetables: For his trouble he receives one-third of the Collection, and the remainder is divided equally among all the Prisoners.

No court-yard: no Rules and Orders. The Act for preservation of Health, and Clauses against the use of Spirituous Liquors, are not hung up. A begging-box is fixed, indeed, in the wall of the gate; but so obscured now, by rust and dirt, as not easily to be seen.

The state in which this miserable Prison is suffered to remain, is certainly a discredit to this highly respectable City,—"a Metropolitan See!" But I would humbly submit. That whilst it is continued as a place of long confinement, the walls and cells be frequently washed with unslacked lime during its effervescence; the floors sprinkled, and the cells fumigated with vinegar. This would greatly freshen and relieve the air, tending to counteract the effects of so many pitiable creatures being congregated in so small a space. A dwarf partition also, placed before the detestable sewer, would separate the sexes when decency most requires it. There were two Women-Prisoners in this room at my visit in 1809.

The pitiable Man whom I found here under sentence of death in July 1810, was a Roman Catholick, and wished to be attended by one of his persuasion, rather than by Mr. Chafey, who offered his spiritual services. He seemed truly penitent, and burst into tears when I addressed him.

It were needless, surely, to add, that this opprobrious Gaol is seldom, if ever, visited by the Magistrates. It cannot be:—Having remarked on the wretched bedding, or rather no-bedding, at my previous visits, without any suitable effect, (for the rugs then found, as a Wanderer's Gift, had not produced a single blanket of comfort,) it is evident that very little attention is paid to the hapless Prison, or its concerns; and I can even doubt, whether the Mayor, or his Brethren, either know or remember if they have known, any thing about them.

West Gate, Canterbury, c.1900.

In about 1830, the prison was substantially enlarged by an extension connected to the West Gate, as noted by a report published in 1835:

The principal part of the present Gaol was built three or four years ago. The tower, forming one of the gates of the city, constituted the old gaol: the new building adjoins that, and the rooms in the tower are still used, some of them as cells for female prisoners, and others for males, when solitary confinement is required, or when additional room is wanted. Tim building was clean and is well supplied with water, but the yard is too small, and there is no area for female prisoners. There is no way of obviating this, on account of the buildings which surround the gaol. It is to be regretted that the new gaol was not built at the skirts of the city, instead of being added to the old one, in one of the most densely peopled parts of it. When there are not many prisoners in confinement, a separation may be made, by placing some in rooms in the tower; but there are scarcely any other means of classification. The only employment given to the prisoners is that of pumping water into the cisterns upon the buildings. There are two rooms above the gaoler's apartments for debtors. The mayor usually visits the gaol once or twice in the week.

In 1837, the Inspectors of Prisons also reported on the establishment:

The prisoners committed within this borough were formerly confined in the Tower of the western gate at the entrance of the City. In 1826 an Addition was made to the Tower, to which the new Buildings are slightly connected by a Bridge.

The old Tower contains a room about 24 feet square, appropriated as a Chapel. Adjoining arc two rooms, 12 feet square. They are nearly dark, having only an aperture of about 6 inches in length, and one inch in width. These are used as night apartments.

Over this Story is the lead flat of the Tower, on which are two rooms about 15 feet square and 10 feet high. One of these apartments is used for Male Debtors, and the other for Female Criminals.

The Prisoners occupying these Apartments walk on the lead flat of the Tower for Air and Exercise, the men and women alternately. Of course, communication between the Sexes is unavoidable.

The modern part of the Prison consists of Apartments for the Gaoler, two day-rooms for untried and convicted Prisoners, with Yards, an Infirmary 16 feet by 14 feet, and 10 feet high; two rooms for superior classes of debtors 15 feet by 10 feet, and 10 feet high; and eight Cells, each 9 feet by 6 feet, 8 feet 6 inches high.

All descriptions of Prisoners are sent to this Gaol, except prisoners summarily convicted, who are sent to the City Bridewell, a place of confinement attached to and within the walls of the Workhouse.

The whole of this prison is extremely unfavourable to inspection and separation, especially the part situated in the old Tower. The prisoners, when walking on the flats, can communicate, not only with other Prisoners (to which we were ourselves witness), but also with passengers below; and instances were mentioned to us of parties having been detected conveying into the prison prohibited articles from the Street. The Tried are separated from the Untried.

The Prisoners in the modern part of the Gaol associate freely; and the Money expended for the enlargement of the Prison appears to have been most injudiciously applied.

The difficulty of amending this Prison is much increased by the confined nature of its situation. The Site does not admit of enlargement, and the only means of improving the construction of the gaol is by a more advantageous division and appropriation of the space on which it stands. We are of opinion that the Tower over the West Gate should be abandoned; that the City should be required to re-construct, on the separate system, the modern part of the Prison, and to contract with the County for the maintenance of those Prisoners for whom accommodation cannot be provided in the Borough Gaol. It is but justice to the Magistrates to add, that they are aware of the defects of the prison, and that they would willingly consent to the erection of a new Gaol, if the finances of the corporation admitted of such q measure. The Magistrates are, however, desirous of doing whatever may lay in power to effect improvements.

The prison was eventually closed in 1869.


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.

  • Canterbury Cathedral Archives, The Precincts, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2EH. ; Holdings include: Informations, recognisances, and convictions (1815); List of prisoners (July 1815); Commitments(1821-40); Commitments for debt (1824-1838); Records relating to individual prisoners (statements by officials, payment of fees) (1821-56).
  • 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.