Ancestry UK

County Gaol, Chelmsford, Essex

In 1658, a County Gaol was established in Chelmsford in the former the Cross Keys inn at the south side of the River Can. In 1777, John Howard described it as:

A close Prison, frequently infected with the Gaol-Distemper. Inquiring in October 1775, for the Head-Turnkey, I was told he died of it.

In the Tap-room there hung a Paper on which, among other things, was written "Prisoners to pay Garnish or run the Gauntlet."

Debtors have a bushel of coals a day from about 12th November to Lady Day: and £5 : 0: 0 a year by a legacy of Elizabeth Herris from Lands in Brentwood, paid by the Rector or Minister of the parish of Chelmsford on the 24th of December. By a Memorial hung up in the Tap-room it appears the Bequest was acknowledged by the Testatrix 14th June 1746.—It was generous in the Justices to grant Debtors the same allowance as Felons; and very judicious to fix that allowance to a certain weight.

In 1768, the building was condemned as beyond repair and following a parliamentary Act was passed in 1770, a site a replacement was found on the west side of Moulsham Street, at the south side of the River Chelmer, next to Stone Bridge. The new building was erected in 1773-6 to a design by the Essex County Surveyor, William Hillyer. It included separate accommodated for debtors, felons and women in two square blocks at the rear of the site and in rooms arranged along the sides of the yard. There was a mixture of small cells and larger rooms plus a chapel, infirmary and brewhouse.

County Gaol, Moulsham Street, Chelmsford.

John Howard reported on the new premises in 1784:

The new gaol exceeds the old one in strength and convenience as much as in splendour. The county, to their honour, have spared no cost. The prison was finished and occupied at the time of my visit in 1779. The debtors rooms are 17 feet 10 inches by 15 feet 3, and 9 feet 10 high. At one end of their court is a work-room 37½ feet by 14½, and 12 feet 5 inches high, with a fire-place and four large windows: here many were weaving garters. Over this is their free ward. At the other end of the court is their hall or kitchen, in which clauses against Spirituous liquors painted on a board were hung up, and the memorial of Mrs. Herris's legacy, and a new table of fees. The felons rooms (15 feet 9 inches by 14:) are lofty, lined with stone and vaulted. Near their court are are two rooms in a small area for the condemned. The women-felons are separated; they have two rooms, a court and a pump. The courts are paved with fat stone. There is. a chapel. Only one close room for an infirmary, which, being unfurnished, has never been used, though at my last visit several were sick on the floors. No bath. The felons apartments being entirely out of sight from the gaoler's house, I beg leave to observe, that a window might be made in his kitchen, which would overlook the felons court. The window in the debtors apartment towards the street was highly improper, as an avenue for introducing at all times spirituous liquors, tools, &c. but it is now stopped up. The straw in the felons rooms (as also in the bridewell) is on the floors. Such cribs or cradles as are in the hospital at Plymouth would be much more conducive to health and cleanliness. The act for preserving the health of prisoners is not hung up: and this gaol has not been white washed since it was first occupied; a fault too common in new gaols.—The felons are too much crowded at night, when some of their rooms are empty.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler. Robert Purnell: now Thomas Archer. Salary, 345l. and for the conveyance of Convicts to the Hulks, 1s. per mile. Fees, for Debtors, See Table. Besides which the Under Sheriff demands 5s. 6d. for his Liberate. It would be an act worthy the humanity of a County so opulent and respectable, if Debtor's Fees were wholly done away. For Felons, no Fees but for Lodging. Garnish abolished.

Chaplain, Rev. Mr. Morgan, who, on common occasions, attends twice a week; and every day on Prisoners under sentence of death. Salary, 50l. the Act of Parliament not having granted more. But to this sum the Magistrates, about the year l802, added twenty pounds, as a remuneration of Mr. Morgan's attentions to the House of Correction, which, for many preceding years, he had visited gratuitously.

Medical Attendants, Dr. William Bird, Mr. John Gilson, and Mr. George Asser Gepp, who attend alternately every third year. These Gentlemen consider themselves, now, as equally engaged: They attend all descriptions of Debtors, midwifery not excepted; and, at every Session and Assize, report the State of Health of them, as well as of the Felons, &c. Salary, 5l. to each, in the course of his attendance.

Number of Prisoners,Debtors.Men-Felons, &c.Women Ditto.Deserters, & Lunatics.
1800, Mar. 21,177440
1801, Oct. 11,134980
1803, July 31,223182 deserters
1805, Sept. 18,213340
1809, Aug. 4,223031 lunatic
1810, Sept. 26261131

Allowance, one pound and a half of bread each*;, and a quart of small beer daily. Also ten bushels of coals per week for the prison, from 1st November to 25th March; equally distributed to Debtors and Felons. Convicts under sentence of transportation have only 2s. 6d. per week allowed them by Government, and paid in money.

*The bread is made within the Prison, of the best wheaten flour. Weights, scales, and measures are provided at the County expence, and fixed in the several Courts or the Gaol, in wooden cases made for the purpose; so that each Prisoner may see the allowance delivered out.


This new and elegant County Gaol, erected upon a very liberal plan, at the expence of the County, was finished and inhabited in the year 1777. Its handsome appearance cannot fail to excite the admiration of every passenger. But the original design, as to some of the internal parts of the building, was found to be rather incommodious. It was deemed to be too much crowded, not only with a large Chapel, but with a needless Tap-room, a spacious kitchen, and several domestic offices, which were thought to impede that free circulation of air, so necessary for the Preservation of Health in all Places of Confinement.

These defects, or redundancies, however, have been since very judiciously remedied, by the removal of the Chapel to a more eligible situation, &c. and many single cells have also been added to the plan, without the least interruption to a free currency of air.

Debtors and Felons are here happily and entirely separated from each other; their Prisons being divided by a spacious gravel walk, with a flagged foot path. The Debtors have a common court-yard for men and women, of 99 feet by 19, containing eight sleeping-rooms, 18 feet each by 14; four at bottom, and four above, with boarded floors, fire-places, a table, seats, and sash windows in each; for which they pay, as per ensuing Table. Those who furnish their own beds are not charged for room-rent, and when they work, receive all their earnings. But the cast-iron sewers, injudiciously placed near the Debtors' rooms, are at times extremely offensive. At the upper end of the court-yard is a large day-room, 43 feet by l6, with three sash windows, boarded floor, a fire-place, large oak table, with benches to sit on, and cupboards to secure provisions: And here the Gaol Rides and Regulations are conspicuously hung up.

The last-mentioned room is moreover appropriated to such handicraft tradesmen, as can procure work from without the Prison; and likewise as the sleeping-apartment of those poorer Debtors, who, being unable to pay for, or provide themselves with bedding, rest here, upon straw laid on the floor. The sloping blinds before the windows of this spacious room greatly obstruct both light and ventilation.

No room is yet set apart as an Infirmary for Debtors.

Here is also a large apartment, to which the approach is through the Keeper's dwelling house. It was formerly called The Smugglers Room, and is 42 feet long, by l6 wide. It is not used at present; but with little expence might be converted into lodging apartments for such Debtors, as may wish to be accommodated in a superior manner, within the dwelling house.

The Felons have twenty-seven cells, ten feet each by five, and seven feet high, (of which eight are solitary;) and two large condemned rooms, containing seven sleeping-cells, each of which is seven feet by six and a half, and eleven feet high. Every common and solitary cell has a crib bedstead, furnished with a straw mat, flock bed, bolster, blanket, and rug; but the condemned cells have their crib bedsteads supplied with straw and blankets only.

Attached to these cells is a small flag-paved court, into which the Convicts are admitted for two or three hours in the day.

Every cell in this Prison is flagged and well ventilated; the court-yards airy; and all, except the solitary and condemned cells, have a day-room attached to them respectively, with a fire-place to which fuel is allowed, at the County's expence, during the Winterly half year. For those criminals who choose to pay as per Table, extra bedding is provided by the Keeper.

In several of the Felons' sleeping-cells are placed cast-iron sewers, without covers. to them, which must render them very offensive.

With respect to the Women-Felons an excellent alteration has taken place; a large and useless room having been converted into a comfortable ward, with boarded floor, fire-place, large sash window, table, benches to sit upon; and containing eight crib bedsteads, furnished in the same manner as for the Men Felons. To this room are likewise attached a cooking and washing kitchen for their use, and a small court-yard for air and exercise.

I have always observed the Prisoners in this Gaol to be very heavily ironed. In four of the Felons' wards, which contain barrack-beds for 36 Prisoners of this class, a ponderous chain is every night passed through the main link of their fetters, and made fast at each end, so that the Prisoner cannot turn himself on the bed. Of this description there were eight Felons in one ward, six in another, and two in a third. The fourth ward was unoccupied. It is but justice to add, that the present Gaoler, upon my representing the cruelty of this addition to the daily misery of a Prisoner, ordered this chain to be taken away, and promised to discontinue the practice of his predecessor; so that it is to be hoped Prisoners are no longer threaded together by a heavy chain, during those hours which are destined by Nature to repose.

"If the Gaoler keep the Prisoner more strictly than he ought of right, whereof the Prisoner dieth, this is Felony in the Gaoler by the Common Law." 3 Inst. 91. Fost. 321, 322.

Here are two separate Infirmaries, for men and women: the former is flagged, and the latter has a boarded floor. That assigned for the men is 20 feet by 15. The women's somewhat smaller, with glazed windows, fire-places, crib bedsteads, and forms. Both, however, of these apartments for the Sick, are at present placed on the ground floor; which I humbly presume to be wrong; and would respectfully recommend some other apartments, in a higher situation, to be adopted as Infirmaries. They certainly would be less subject to damps, and have better ventilation, from a larger quantity of fresh air.

At the North end of this Gaol there is exhibited a very humane and excellent idea, for the execution of capital convicts. Hooks and eyes of iron are firmly fixed in the wall: the scaffolding is thus easily adjusted; and, by a simple contrivance, the platform falls back, and the wretched criminals cease to mourn their hopeless existence among the living!

On the North side of the Gaol, is The Chapel, upon an amended construction, and to which the apartments called "Condemned Cells" closely adjoin. Its area is occupied by the Keeper's own family, the Debtors, and Women Felons. At the end opposite the Communion Table, are seated the Men Felons, classed according to the nature of their offences, and separated by a wainscot partition, and an iron railing placed before their seats. The respectable Chaplain, Mr. Morgan, is exemplary in his whole deportment; and the Prisoners, at my several visits, evinced their esteem for him, by being very attentive to their duty. Those of every description are required to attend the sacred duties of the place: and here I cannot help expressing the pleasure I received from the worthy Minister's selecting in his discourse those passages of Scripture, which struck me as most suitable to the class he was immediately addressing. He firmly admonished the profligate, exhorted with gentleness the unthinking, and comforted the afflicted hearer: In a word, as if not content with a formal and stipendiary discharge of prescribed duty, he appeared to be, in heart and principle, A Christian.

In the County Gaol of Chelmsford, every criminal, at his entrance, is stripped and washed. His own clothes are taken from him; and, being purified in a bath or oven, the County cloathing is put on, which has either a sleeve or collar so coloured, as to discriminate the nature of his offence. Caps, also, like the forage caps of soldiers, are worn by them.

The Felons here are employed in a manufactory of ropes, and other cordage. Old junk, from the King's Yards, is purchased and plucked in pieces. The best of it is knotted together by them, and made into what is called twice-laid rope; the refuse of the junk is then sent to the several Houses of Correction, and picked into oakum. New rope is also spun and made up; and the articles so fabricated are disposed of at reduced prices, for various purposes in the shipping and farming lines, &c. I am informed that the nett profit of this work to the County Stock, from 1st April, 1800, to 1st January, 1803, was 223l. 8s. 9d. and has produced, upon an average of the years 1805-6-7-8, 130l. per annum.

Every part of this Gaol is well supplied with excellent water. It is white-washed once a year. The Act for Preservation of Health, and Clauses against Spirituous Liquors are hung up in it: And the very judicious Rules and Orders established for its good government, confer great honour upon their authors.

In 1823, the gaol was merged with the adjacent County Bridewell. Following the opening in 1825 of the new Springfield Gaol, the Moulsham Street site was used to house debtors and female prisoners.

In 1837, twenty-five years after Neild's account was published, the Inspectors of Prisons mad a less than favourable report on the prison:

1. Site, Construction, &c.

This prison is the sheriff's gaol for debtors, and also a gaol and house of correction for female prisoners. It fronts the street of the town of Chelmsford, and one side is bounded by the river Chelmar. It is an old building on an irregular plan, having been erected upwards of 60 years since, and no material alteration having been made in it for 30 years. It was formerly used also as a county gaol and house of correction for male prisoners, but in 1825 they were transferred to the new prison at Springfield. This gaol is capable of containing 85 prisoners in separate sleeping apartments, and about 300 with more than one sleeping in the same room. In addition to which there are the apartments in the keeper's house, which, by permission of the magistrates, he lets, at certain fixed rates, to such debtors as can afford to pay for them. The accommodation, such as it is, would be more than sufficient for the separation by night of all prisoners committed, the greatest number in custody at any one time in the last three years having been 74.

The sleeping cells are, however, not all used, being mostly damp, and being built like ovens, without any ventilation, except a small aperture above the door, There are 12 wards, including the infirmary, each having a day-room and airing-yard. The access to several of the wards is very inconvenient, as they can only be entered by going through other wards, and there are no means whatever of private inspection. The prison is out of repair in many parts, and the gravel in the yards out of order. It is not fire-proof. The prison is insecure. On one occasion a prisoner escaped by pulling the bricks out of the roof of his cell, by which means he got into a room above the cell, and out of a window in the roof of the building. Another prisoner escaped from his cell by the same means, and got into a room above, and attempted to break through the roof, but was detected. The brick foundation has been rendered so soft by damp, that prisoners have worked their way through it, and could do so now. Two of the yards. Nos. 10 and 11, are overlooked by the windows of adjoining houses, with which communication is perfectly easy; and the boundary wall being only of the height of 14 feet, there is every facility for escape. The prisoners have been detected in throwing stones against these windows. The circumstance of the windows of the rooms in the keeper's house inhabited by the master-debtors, fronting the street, also tends to insecurity, for baskets have been lowered from them to the street, and it was lately found necessary to remove a male debtor to another part of the prison, in consequence of his exposing himself improperly at one of these windows. The drainage is imperfect, and the privies in a bad state. A privy in ward No. 10 was particularly offensive, and tainted the air in the bed-room in which five female vagrants and three children were sleeping to a degree perfectly noxious and destructive of health. This privy has been in the same state for some years, and we desired the keeper to call the immediate attention of the Visiting Justices to the impropriety of allowing any prisoner, and much more young children, to sleep in so noisome a place. Some of the rooms are so damp as to be unfit for habitation, and the walls and floors are more or less affected by damp throughout the building. The prison is liable to inundation from the river. On one occasion the overflow of the river was so great, that the water rose to the height of 22 inches in the cells in ward No. 8 — of 24 inches in ward No. 9 — and of three feet in the women's infirmary; and the prisoners were obliged to be removed up stairs. A similar flood may be anticipated again at any heavy fall of rain; considering which, as well as the publicity of the situation, fronting a street of great thoroughfare, and overlooked by other houses, the locality appears ill suited for the purposes of a prison.

2. Discipline, Management, &c.

This Prison is governed by the provisional rules approved by His Majesty's Secretary of State for the several prisons in the city of Essex. Its inmates have been already stated to consist,—first, of female criminals; and secondly, of debtors. These occupy distinct divisions of the prison, and ought not even to see each other. The female yards may, however, be seen from the debtors' windows, and especially from a balcony at the back of the keeper's house, in which the master-debtors are in the habit of walking. The debtors also see the female prisoners in their way to, and whilst in, chapel. Notes have been thrown over to the female. wards by the debtors, but not lately. The classification of the female prisoners was not exactly conformable to law. In the yard No. 11, for instance, convicted misdemeanants and vagrants were placed together; and in the yard No. 3 there were five women committed for trial for felony; one on charge of murder, and acquitted on the ground of insanity; and one convicted of felony, employed as nurse to attend on the insane woman. The female criminals associate by day, both before and after trial, unless when working at the crank-machine — that labour being performed in solitude. The testimony of the female officers, and of several prisoners examined by us, concurs in the fact that bad language and swearing is not uncommon, and that the more decent young women are corrupted by association with bad characters. The magistrates appear to be sensible of this, and occasionally order the separation of young women, to save them from contamination. We found a servant girl (S. W.) aged 19, convicted of robbing her master, who had been confined in a separate room for nearly nine months, by desire of her master, one of the county magistrates. The separation appeared to have had a very favourable effect upon her disposition, and she expressed herself grateful for it. Her room was, however, so near the yard, that she said she was often annoyed by the bad language and quarrelling of the other women; and she knew there was one prisoner in the yard of very depraved character. The women sleep some in separate cells, others several in a room together. Silence is not enforced, except so far as to prevent any great noise or disturbance. Visitors are received, under the regulations prescribed by the Provisional Rules, at the gate of the female turnkey's apartments, in her presence; and all letters are inspected by the keeper, or matron. The employment consists of washing and needle-work, and of the crank-machine for hard labour, which a woman is made to turn 3,000 times as a day's task. The latter is much disliked, but there are not wheels enough to employ all that are sentenced to labour. Shirts are made and mended here for the male prisoners in Springfield gaol. The use of money is allowed to females before trial, to the extent of 2s. 6d. per week, pursuant to the Provisional Rules. Tobacco is rarely introduced, but snuff is allowed to some women by order of the magistrates.

There is one male prisoner on the criminal side, whose case is somewhat extraordinary, viz. D. A., who has been an inmate of this prison for 22 years. He was committed on 16th January 1815, for want of sureties to keep the peace towards his father, and was retained in this gaol as a sweeper and cleaner when the other male prisoners were removed to Springfield. He is now above 50 years of age, and appears perfectly content with his situation. He has the extra diet, including 6 ozs. of meat per week, and also 9d. per week for his services, which consist of cleaning the chapel, and other parts of the gaol.. He cleans the front windows of the keeper's house, outside the gaol, and has occasionally been sent upon errands, by himself, into the town, not being suspected of any inclination to leave his quarters. The confidence reposed in this functionary has, however, lately been much shaken, for the reason stated in the following extract from the keeper's journal:—

"3d August 1836. On going round Chelmsford gaol I found two debtors, J. P. and W. F. in the house of correction yard of 6 cell, where they ought not to be at any time; they said they had gone there to see the old man, meaning D. A., whom I found in his cell drunk. J. P. said, in answer to a question as to how he got drunk, 'he had it amongst us all,' meaning the debtors. I removed D. A. to Springfield prison, and locked him in a refractory cell for being drunk. He told Mead the turnkey that he thought he must have drunk two gallons of beer, but refused to tell who gave it to him." The magistrates afterwards ordered him back to Chelmsford gaol, on the governor's application.

The treatment of debtors is prescribed by the 16th Regulation, contained in the Provisional Debtors. Rules. At the time of our visit there were nine debtors receiving county allowance, and occupying a ward in the gaol, comprising seven rooms; and five master-debtors (including one female), occupying private rooms hired by them in the keeper's house.

The "poor" debtors were sleeping, in two instances, two in one room, which is prohibited by the Gaol Act, as much in the case of debtors as of any other prisoners. They associate at pleasure without restriction. Upon examining some of the debtors, we find that they have heard swearing and profane talk among their associates; that more beer has been introduced than the quart per day per man allowed by the rules; and that spirits are occasionally brought in by friends. "I have known more instances than one," said J. R., a prisoner, "of friends bringing in a bottle of gin, and I have seen prisoners tipsy since I have been here." The turnkey confessed that he did not usually search the bundles and parcels brought by the debtors' visitors, but thought it very likely that spirits were brought in, as he had seen several of the debtors a little flush. The same prisoner, J. R., stated that he had played at whist, and that whist and other games at cards were often played in the winter evenings. Another of the common debtors (S. K.) said that the association with so many was very disagreeable. "They use," said he, "very bad language — they get hardened and dissatisfied, and think every body their enemy. "This discontented spirit leads to quarrelling, and the general laxity of discipline must obviously have a depraving tendency. Newspapers were in use by several debtors. The common debtors are not confined strictly within their own ward, but sometimes come into the keeper's house and visit the master-debtors.

The master-debtors live comfortably, having the means of cooking, &c., in the house, and their rooms being mostly large, with a cheerful view into the street. The prices of the rooms are fixed by the magistrates, and painted on the doors. The net profit derived from them by the keeper is stated, in the year to Michaelmas 1836, at £26. 6s. One of the debtors complained of the charge being too high; but, however this may be, it is most objectionable that the keeper should receive any emoluments of such a description, as the relation of debtor and creditor is one which it is dangerous to permit to subsist between a gaoler and his prisoner. There was one female debtor at the time of our visit. When she was committed last summer, she was placed, according to the usual practice, in a room in the male debtors' ward, there being no distinct division for female debtors, and used to receive visits from male debtors, and associate with them freely in the yard. It was stated to us that she had been seen exposing herself indecently in her bed-room in the presence of the male debtors, and that on one occasion she mounted a ladder and danced on the leads for the amusement of the male prisoners. After a time, the magistrates, perceiving the impropriety of her situation, ordered her to be removed to the female infirmary, when she hired a large room in the keeper's house, looking into the street, at the rent oft 8s. per week. After her removal she mixed with the male debtors on the balcony, and received occasional visits from them in her room. Her debt was about £19, and she was living at an expense of from 25s. to 30s. per week; keeping a servant, who attended constantly upon her.

Before the removal of the male criminals to Springfield in October 1825 there was a treadwheel for hard labour; but, from the association, want of inspection, and imperfections of the building, it was difficult to preserve order among the prisoners. The keeper related to us that the turnkey had overheard a pig-stealer, who slept in a room with four others, instructing another with great minuteness how to steal a pig — an instance, among many, of the mischievous effects of association. The following extracts from the keeper's journal will give a notion of the state of discipline before the male criminals were removed:—


Sept. 10.—W. W., a convicted felon, employed in the shoemaker's shop, was detected stealing a large quantity of leather.

Oct. 16. —. N., the yardsman on duty at the tread-wheel in the felons' yard, had allowed some,of the men for trial to get on the wheel to relieve those who ought exclusively to work on it.

Oct.18.—The magistrates ordered N. to work on the tread-wheel for one week.

Oct. 28.—The prisoners were singing on the tread-wheel, and Y., the yardsman, would not tell who they were until he was threatened to be locked up, when he named several.


May 24.—M., the yardsman, put on the wheel for allowing two men to be absent when they ought to have been at work.

Nov. 8.—The proper complement of men not on the wheel; and C. T., alias J. B. (formerly a man in respectable circumstances as an auctioneer, &c., in Cheshire), who was the yardsman, jumped off the wheel on the governor entering the yard.

March 16.—Locked up W. S. and W. W. for playing at dice; the box was made of a piece of an old shoe, and the dice were square pieces of wood with the dots burnt in.

April 9.—W. S. was detected-playing with dominoes of the same manufacture as the above-mentioned dice.

April 28.—J. P. locked up for cutting the tops off a pair of new stockings, with which he had been supplied last week.

Sept. 7.—The prisoners in their cells kept up a correspondence by whistling, which seemed perfectly intelligible to them, as we judged by the manner of responding. 1824.

March 23.—The prisoners in chapel communicated a plan for them to 'strike' working on the treadwheel, which was carried into effect.

March 26.—The convicts under sentence of transportation proposed to seize the turnkey in the chapel, "douse him," take his key from him, open a door which leads into a garden, and escape over the wall. The governor heard the conversation, and the prisoners were secured.

Aug. 30.—J. P. was tried before a court composed of prisoners. W. J. as judge, and — G. as sheriff. There was a jury, &c. The offence, asking for a mallet to beat his oakum; sentenced to be beaten with a leather strap, which was done; but, on complaint made by P., the judge and sheriff were put under arrest.

Oct. 4.—J. L. attempted to stab Mr. Neale, the knife bent against his ribs, but being blunt no wound was made.


March 13.—Sunday. A plan was discovered by which some of the prisoners intended to escape during the time of divine service.

May 27.—.J. L. attacked Mr. Neale with a broomstick; but the latter, being rather too expert as a swordsman, broke L.'s head with his cane, and disarmed him.

May 28.—L. was punished with 50 lashes by order of the visiting magistrates, and in the presence of one of them he threatened to kill Mr. Neale within two years. N.B.—He did afterwards come to Chelmsford, as was supposed for that purpose; and he was then transported for robbing a workhouse.

3. Religious and other Instruction.

The chaplain is the same as at Springfield. He reads daily prayers selected from the Liturgy, and performs divine service twice on Sundays, with one sermon. He administers the Holy Communion about once a-month; and it it usually received by some of the debtors, with the matron and officers. He keeps a journal, but not a character book. He gives his advice and instruction to the prisoners as occasion requires, and the matron, under his superintendence, also instructs the female prisoners as schoolmistress. The debtors are required to attend chapel, unless prevented by illness. The male and female prisoners see each other in chapel, and on their way to it. Females of different classes have opportunities of communication during chapel. The chapel is damp inconveniently situated, and badly arranged. The prisoners are supplied with Bibles, Prayer-books, and tracts of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, under the superintendence of the chaplain.


The surgeons attending this prison are the same as those at Springfield with the duties of this gaol, being lighter, are comparatively better attended to. The rules not absolutely requiring medical examination before the prisoner is passed into the ward, this important precaution is seldom taken. There are two rooms, in No. 5 and No. 11, used as infirmaries, as occasion requires. There are no special regulations relating to infirmary patients; consequently, they converse as others do. There were seven women sick at the time of our visit; two of them were in bed in their cells, which are unfit for sick persons, as they have no ventilation, except by a small aperture above the door, or by the door itself, which opens directly into the yard, the cases of slight indisposition, exclusive of debtors, in the year ending Michaelmas 1836, were 67, or about 50 per cent. upon the whole number of females in confinement (133); the infirmary cases about 6 per cent, on the same; and the deaths 75 per cent. Before the removal of the male criminals, and whilst tread-wheel labour was used, symptoms of scurvy, such as discolouration of the legs, &c., appeared; but the disease has never shown itself since the prison has been appropriated to its present inmates, viz. females and debtors, who do not work at the wheel—a fact which tends strongly to prove that scurvy does not proceed from causes connected with the locality even of a very low and damp prison. The general proportion of slight indisposition among the females in this gaol is 15 per cent, higher than that of the males at Springfield, but that of infirmary cases 2½ per cent, lower.

The diet is according to the provisional rules, which are publicly affixed in the prison. The cost per head per annum is stated for this prison at £2. lls.2¼d.

The "poor" debtors supply themselves to the extent of 2s. 6d. per week, in addition to the county allowance, or receive such articles as their friends may send them; and a few of the female prisoners before trial do the same. Although the rules authorize the search of all baskets, parcels, &c., brought in by the debtors' visitors, the search is not regularly made, and beer has been introduced in greater quantities than the quart per head per diem allowed. The debtors also obtain spirits occasionally, and it has been already noticed that debtors have been seen drunk in several instances. The case mentioned of D. A., who confessed to have had two gallons of beer from the debtors, when he was found intoxicated, is a proof that beer must be consumed to a much greater extent than the rules permit.

The cost of clothing and bedding is estimated at 18s. 10¾d. per head per annum. The prison clothing is the same all the year round. The bedding is occasionally aired in the yards in summer, but not in the winter.

The female prisoners wash their own linen, but the debtors' washing is generally done out of the prison. The rooms and cells are swept daily, and washed weekly. The prison is frequently lime-washed, and appeared tolerably clean at the time of inspection; but the dampness is unfavourable to the operations of washing and cleaning.

5.—Prison Punishments.

The number of punishments inflicted in the year ending Michaelmas 1836 is stated at 14, or nearly 10 per cent, upon the whole number in confinement. They consist entirely of solitary confinement, there being no whipping used in this prison.


The keeper, Mr. Thomas Charles Neale, does not reside in this gaol, but at Springfield prison, about a mile distant, of which he is also keeper. The emoluments which he derives from this prison are the rents of furnished rooms, and certain fees from debtors; which amounted together, in the last year, to £33. 18s. 6d. He undertook the charge of this prison to save expense to the county, as a temporary arrangement, about two years since; it having been in contemplation to abolish this prison altogether: he gives security to the sheriff for the custody of the debtors. He appoints a deputy, who acts as chief turnkey and book-keeper, and resides in the gaol; the journal is, however, kept by Mr. Neale, who is, in all respects, the responsible keeper, and visits the prison, in general, dally, or every two days. It appears to us indispensably necessary that a resident gaoler should be appointed to this prison in compliance with the provisions of the Prison Act.

The deputy-keeper, turnkey, matron, and under-matron, are resident; and there are two watchmen at night.


There was one insane female (Elizabeth Rockliffe) in custody for the murder of her child, and who had been acquitted on the ground of insanity. We found her in the same room with five untried prisoners, and one convicted felon who acted as nurse. This woman afterwards committed suicide; having been left, during chapel time, in the care of another prisoner who happening to leave her for a short time, the unhappy lunatic took the opportunity of hanging herself from a piece of wood fastened to the wall. This,occurrence is one among many proofs of the impropriety of a prison for the custody of lunatics.

The total population of the prison (debtors included) at the time, of inspection, and for two years previous, was:—

15 February 183550
Ditto 183640
Ditto 183544

The greatest number in custody at one time, in the three last years ending at Michaelmas respectively, was:—


And the total number committed in each of the same years was:—


The proportion of recommittals (27) to the whole number committed to e criminal side of this prison, in the year ending Michaelmas 1836 (120), was 22 per cent.

The proportion of prisoners under the age of 17 (22), to the whole number of criminals confined in the above year (1834), was about 16 per cent.; the whole of the latter (except one) being females.

It would be quite superfluous to attempt to suggest here any specific plans for the improvement of this prison. It is built upon a plan so irregular, and so entirely at variance with the present improved notions of prison construction, that its adaptation to the objects of a good prison' would be quite impracticable. The building is moreover so much affected by damp, and the site so ineligible, that it appears very desirable that the magistrates should pursue the plan which it is stated that they have already had in view, viz.—the abolition of this prison, and the making of arrangements for the custody of the prisoners in some other place.

Despite all the Inspectors' criticisms the prison continued in operation until 1848. It was demolished in 1859. Retail premises now occupy the site.


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.

  • Essex Record Office, Wharf Road Chelmsford CM2 6YT. Holdings include: Return to Government of number of criminal lunatics in Gaol and five Houses of Correction, with original returns from Gaol etc. (1808); Copy of lists of lunatics in the Gaol and Houses of Correction within the previous 10 years, giving names, ages, crimes, and observations (1819).
  • 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.