Ancestry UK

Borough Gaol, Colchester, Essex

The Colchester Borough Gaol dates back to at least 1683, when it formed part of the Moot Hall complex on the town's High Street.

In 1784, John Howard wrote that is comprised:

A room for debtors. A strong ward for men: another for women; and now two rooms are added to the bridewell. Court very offensive, and not secure; no water in it: no straw. Allowance to criminals, three pence a day; and a chaldron of coals in winter. Keeper's salary, £12. Licence for beer. Fees, 2s. 6d. Clauses against spirituous liquors not hung up.

1776, Nov. 19,Debtors 2.Felons &c. 2.
1779, April 7,04
1782, July 11,15

In 1804, James Neild reported on the poor conditions in the establishment:

Keeper John Hardy; salary 12l.; fees 2s 6d, No chaplain or surgeon. Number of prisoners, 1801, October l2th. eleven. Allowance, fourpence per day. No court yard. In one room of 15 feet square, and lighted by two iron-bar grated windows,six women were confined; no bedding, some short and dirty straw on the floor, with two rags as blankets, on which two of them lay sick. In another room l6 feet by 11, lighted and ventilated by one iron-grated window, four women were confined. In a third room up stairs, 15 feet by 9, lighted by a small iron-grated window, was a man heavily ironed. To each room a half tub. uncovered, served the purpose of a necessary; the cieling's about seven feet high, so very dirty, the man told me no whitewash would stick upon them. No water accessible to the prisoners. The effluvia from the tubs, and the putrid exhalation from the poor wretches in confinement made the rooms almost insupportable With the assistance of aromatic vinegar, and my handkerchief to my mouth, I could scarcely remain long enough in them to take their dimensions. Below are two strong rooms, each 16 feet by 11, both dark and offensive. The act for preservation of health, and clauses against spirituous liquors, not hung up. There is a room for debtors, but no prisoner was in it. Upon expressing my doubts how long six persons could live in so confined a space as 15 feet square, the man who attended me said, when the rooms were so crowded, the commitments were for a very short time. With respect to this INFERIOR CLASS or CRIMINALS, offenders against the public peace, and public order, &c., would it not be better if they were committed to the House os Correction to hard labour?,would there not be a greater chance of reforming their manners, and restoring them better members to society, than, by imprisonment in a place in which there is no possibility of industry? A letter from the keeper, dated 10th February, 1802, informs me, the rooms have since my visit been cleansed and whitewashed.

Following another visit in 1810, Neild was able to report that things had changed for the better:

Gaoler, John Hardy. Salary, 12l. Fees, see Table.

Chaplain, none.

Surgeon, Mr. Gritton. Salary, none. He makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners,Debtors.Felons &c. Disorderly Women.
1801, Oct. 12th,0110
1805, Sept. 18th,148
1810, Sept, 24th,066

Allowance, to Debtors, unable to maintain themselves, one pound and half of good wholesome bread, and a quart of small beer, daily. To Felons, and other criminal Prisoners, sixpence a day, and the like quantity of small beer.

This once-despicable Gaol has lately received great improvements.

Debtors are now separated from Criminal-Prisoners; and have a spacious courtyard assigned them, of about 60 feet by 50, with a water-closet very conveniently placed. Also a day-room, about 14 feet square, with a flagged floor, two large sash windows, and a fire-place; to which two bushels of coals per week are allowed, from Michaelmas to Lady-Day, and one bushel weekly, from Lady-Day to Michaelmas.

In the chamber-story are three rooms; two of which have one bed each, and the third will contain two or more beds, if needed: They have boarded floors, fireplaces, and glazed sash-windows, which command a very extensive view. They are liberally furnished by the Town with bedsteads, chamber utensils, water pitchers, and brooms; but the Prisoners must provide their own beds and bedding, or pay to the Gaoler, as per Table.

Table of Fees,
To be taken by the Keepers of the Debtors' Gaol of the Borough of Colchester.
For the Turnkey's Fee on admitting every Debtor10
For the bed and bedding of each Debtor per night, provided that not more than two be put into one bed04
For the Turnkeys Fee on the going forth of every Debtor10
For the Gaoler's Fee upon every Debtor's Discharge134
Moot-Hall, Colchester. The foregoing Fees were, at the General Quarter Session of the Peace, holden in and for the said Borough, on Monday the 10th day of July 1809, seen, examined, and allowed.
By the Court.
W. Mason, Town-Clerk.

A Woman, in this Gaol, attends the Female Debtors, and they have the exclusive use of the court-yard daily, from twelve till two.

That part of the Gaol which is appropriated to Felons, and other criminal Prisoners, continues in much the same state as at my former visits; and consists of a room, about 15 feet square, with two iron-grated windows, straw-in-sacking beds, three blankets, and a rug, laid on the boarded floor. I found it occupied by six disorderly Women. Another room, 16 feet by 11, with one iron-grated window, had four Men-Felons in it; and a third room, 15 feet by 9, with a very small iron-grated window, held two other Felons. The bedding in these two last rooms is similar to that for the Females. In each apartment a covered tub was made to serve as a sewer; and it is needless to add that all were shamefully offensive.

I had the pleasure to learn that the two dark strong-rooms below, of 16 feet each by 11, were at length deemed unfit for human confinement, and I found them far better filled with lumber.

The whole of this Felon's-part of the Gaol is to be taken down, and likewise some old buildings adjacent; which, from the plans I have seen, will afford space for a convenient Felons' Prison, with a court-yard adjoining, which cannot fail of doing credit to the respectable Borough of Colchester.

The Surgeon here has a discretionary power, with respect to the diet and bedding of sick Prisoners under his care.

A national report in 1818 listed the borough as having three distinct prisons: a Felons' Gaol, a Debtors' Gaol, and a Women's Room. It appears that these all formed part of the High Street site. An 1837 report described the establishment as follows:

This is a very incommodious building at the back of the Town-Hall. It is appropriated to Prisoners before trial — prisoners after conviction, if not very bad characters — Vagrants, and Debtors.

All prisoners sentenced to hard labour are sent to the County House of Correction near Colchester.

The Prison is divided into a number of Apartments:—

No. 1.—16 feet by 13 feet 6 inches, 7 feet highin the Town Hall
No. 2.—15 feet by 9 feet, 7 feet 4 inches high
No. 3, below—14 feet by 9 feet 4 inches, and 8 feet highold part of the Prison.
Upstairs.—15 feet by 10 feet, and 7 feet high
Below.—15 feet by 10 feet, and 8 feet 3 inches high.

At the end of the Area on the ground floor, are two Cells, 9 feet by 5 feet 9 inches, and 10 feet high.

The number of Prisoners who passed through this Gaol from January to July in 1835 was 154, and the greatest number at one time in custody during that period was 25. In this period 14 persons were in the County House of Correction at the expense of the Borough. The longest period for which a Prisoner has been in confinement in the Borough Gaol has been four months.

It is impossible to maintain an efficient superintendence in this Gaol; and the prisoners confined in the several Cells must necessarily be left to themselves.

As the County House of Correction is within a mile of the Town, we beg to recommend that the Magistrates should, if possible, send all their prisoners thither; reserving their present Gaol as a lock-up house only for Prisoners while under examination, with the means of individual separation.

In 1844, the ancient Moot Hall was demolished and replaced by a new Town hall. The effects of this on the prison were detailed by the Inspectors of Prisons in 1845:

The Colchester Town Hall, in the rear of which this prison stands, has lately been rebuilt. In order to carry out the plan of reconstruction, it was found necessary to remove a portion of that part of the prison (constituting the old gaol) allotted to male criminals; so that, while on the one hand, a projection of the town hall now encroaches on the prison space, on the other, the effect has been to leave the remaining portion of the old gaol in a state of the greatest dilapidation and insecurity, inasmuch as the roof and wall at the point where the demolition has been suspended, are not proof against the admission of wet; and the boundary wall, still standing, which formed the back wall of the demolished cells, is built of very frail materials that are tumbling to pieces. The old gaol, as it originally stood, consisted of seven rooms or cells: these are now reduced to three — one on the basement and two above, the space under one of which, separated from the lower cell by a narrow passage, is open, and used only as a shed. The approach to the upper cells is by a crazy ladder, railed, certainty, but to ascend or descend which is, from the angle and state of the steps, a matter of no small peril. We are very far from regretting the demolition of the four cells; on the contrary, we think they had already existed too long, and that the three which remain ought to have been demolished with them, seeing how little claim they have to be preserved. They are very confined; without the means of warmth; badly lighted and ventilated; and, being built almost entirely of wood, afford no security against fire. The two upper rooms are divided by a narrow passage into which they open. Two privies, one for each room, extend across the upper end of this passage, and ate separated only by some boarding, the seats being back to back; so that nothing could be more easy than communication by this medium. The end wall and contiguous part of the ceiling of the furthermost of these two rooms were saturated with wet. From the cause before mentioned. One of the upper rooms contains three frames for Beds, slightly raised from the floor; each of the others, one. The straw in one of the latter, we found without a tick. But what is to be regretted is, that the cells demolished have not been replaced by any of a better kind; so that, whilst the number and description of prisoners committed to this gaol continue the same as formerly, the means of accommodating them, such as they were, have been decreased; and the consequence has been, as we shall hereafter show, that male prisoners have been of necessity placed in the females' prison, and, in one instance, have escaped from it. It is true that the basement of the projecting part of the new Town Hall, a space 17 feet 2 by 13 feet, has been reserved for cells; but at the time of our inspection, it remained unfitted, as the particular mode of fitting had not been determined, this reserved space is on a level with the basement story of the new Town Hall, and one end of it abuts on the side wall of the wash-house, forming part of the new residence assigned to the keeper. To give light to this wash-house, a large sash window has been constructed in the wall which separates it from the cell, so that if the object had been to supply the means of communication between the prisoners and washerwomen, it could scarcely have been more effectually accomplished than by the plan adopted.

The approach to the gaol was formerly through the Town Hall entrance from the main street, and this is again the case since the new building has been completed. During the progress of the works the entrance had been, and, at the time of our visit, still was, through a side door in the narrow lane running at right angles with the main street, and opening into the little yard of the old gaol. Thence, a passage was formed to the debtors' prison by partitioning off a space 16 feet wide across the upper end of the area which intervenes between the males' and the females' divisions of the gaol, so that the area for the use of the prisoners was curtailed to ten yards by nine and a half. The walls of this end of the area, having been weakened by the alterations, were bound with iron braces in various parts. The area itself was filled with rubbish, and workmen's implements were scattered about. During the greater part of the same interval, that is, since June, 1843, the governor having been dislodged from his ,apartments in the old Town Hall, had the debtors' prison assigned to him as a residence, and this he still occupied, but was about shortly to vacate it, his new apartments being ready. They present the same inconvenience as before, of placing the keeper at too great a distance from the gaol. Within the space partitioned off from the area, a temporary wooden kitchen bad been built for the keeper's use, so that his female servant was, as it were, in the midst of the prison, and communication with the male prisoners when these were exercising in the area, ,or passing to and from their cells across the passage, a door from which led into the area, was By no means impossible. No alterations of construction have taken place either in the females'; division of the prison, or in the part occupied by debtors'; except that in the latter, a moveable wooden porch, for the purpose of shelter, has been affixed outside the door opening into the airing-yard. The debtors' prison consists of a common room and three sleeping-rooms. These were in a tolerable state of repair; being, indeed, those only fit for habitation : but the wet had penetrated through a part of the roof over the staircase, and some of the stone steps were in a mouldy state from dampness.

From 1868, the prison was used only for prisoners on remand and juveniles. It was closed following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878.


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: Colchester Sessions (Gaoler's) bundles (1821-34) — entries typically include name and parish of prisoner, and details of crime and sentence.
  • 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.