Ancestry UK

Town and Cinque Ports Gaol, Dover, Kent

In 1835, Dover's Town Gaol and Bridewell, previously on the Queen Street, was relocated to new premises on the town's High Street. It occupied part of Maison Dieu, the hospital of a former priory which had been acquired by the Dover Corporation the previous year for extending and converting into a town hall, sessions house and prison. The prison, placed below the sessions house, had accommodation for up to forty men and ten women.

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

1. Site, Construction, &c.

This prison occupies the basement of an ancient building, at the entrance of the town of Dover on the London road, formerly the hospital of a priory, called the Maison Dieu, and of late years used as a Victualling-office by the Ordnance Department. The premises were lately purchased by the Corporation of Dover, who have converted the upper part of the building into their sessions-house and the ground-floor into their gaol, which previously stood in the market-place, and was an edifice very ill adapted for that purpose. The mayor and jurats of Dover have criminal jurisdiction, not only within the town, but over a considerable part of the district of the Cinque Ports, including Margate and Ramsgate, from whence prisoners are committed to this gaol. It was first used on the 1st December 1835. It is a substantial stone building, and its yards are enclosed within a boundary-wall, of the height of 24 feet. There has been no escape, or attempt to escape from it. The yard on one side of it is overlooked by the windows of a private residence, formerly attached to the Maison Dieu, but which was sold separately, and is not now connected with it. It would be possible to communicate by signals from these windows to the windows of the cells which face it; but there is little reason to apprehend this, under present circumstances.

The prison is divided into five wards for males, and two for females, with day-rooms and airing-yards. The dimensions of the day-rooms are 18 feet by 12, and 9 feet high. The partition-walls are 18 feet thick. The airing-yards are 30 feet long by 11 feet 6 inches wide.

There are 14 sleeping-cells, 12 used for males, and 2 for females, of the dimensions of 11½ft. by 9, and 9 feet high. Three males, or three or more females, usually sleep in each of these. There are also six dark cells, of the dimensions of 10 feet by 6½, which are used both for punishment and as single sleeping-cells, and two more dark cells detached from the rest of the prison, intended to be used for peculiar offenders, not fully committed.

The means of internal inspection are wanting, but there are apertures in the walls through which the airing-yards can be privately seen, and they can also be looked into from the windows of the town-hall, to which the keeper has access.

The prison is ventilated by air-holes from the town-hall above it, and by the windows. The dark cells are, however, close, and want some farther supply of air.

The thickness of the walls secures the dryness, as well as warmth, of the prison. At the locking-up at half-past five p.m. on the 26th of January, the temperature of the sleeping-cells was 25°. The drainage is good, the water excellent, and the locality healthy.

There is sufficient ground within the boundary-wall to admit of any requisite extension or enlargement of the prison. At present, it cannot, at the utmost, accommodate more than 22 prisoners with separate sleeping-cells; whereas the total number in custody at the time of our visit was 31, and on the 6th February, immediately previous to the sessions, it reached 37.

It should be observed, that there are already 14 cells of sufficient dimensions for the separation of prisoners by day as well as by night, and that the day-rooms are convertible into separate cells. It would, therefore, not be necessary to construct many new cells, if the corporation were required to alter and enlarge this prison, so as to introduce the system of entire individual separation, both by day and by night. From what will be stated on the subject of its discipline, the desirableness of a new system may, in some measure, appear.

2. Discipline.

This prison is not within the regulations of the Gaol Act, and has not hitherto been governed by any written rules, but is frequently visited by the magistrates of the town.

The following was the classification adopted at the time of inspection:—

1st ward. Felons for trial; 8 prisoners, whose offences were—

1 Selling stolen Goods. Wardsman. Had been 3 months in gaol.

1 Stealing herrings.

1 Stealing a jacket.

2 Stealing lead.; aged 15 and 16.

2 Stealing shrimps; both aged 15. Had been 9 weeks in gaol.

1 Stealing a watch; a Fleming, unable to speak English.


2d Ward. Felons for trial; 7 prisoners; viz.—

2 Stealing lead; aged 13 and 15.

1 Stealing shrimps; aged 13. 9 weeks in gaol.

1 Stealing a purse.

1 Obstruction in a road; aged 14. Not felony. 7 weeks in gaol.


3d Ward. Convicted Felons; 4 prisoners; viz.—

1 Stealing herrings. Sentenced to 12 months, imprisonment and

hard labour. Employed as wardsman in cleaning.

1 Stealing two shoes. Same sentence) Employed in the kitchen as

1 Stealing rope. ditto cooks.

1 Stealing potatoes. ditto. Employed in sweeping.


4th Ward. Misdemeanants; 3 prisoners; viz.—

1 Obtaining goods on false pretences.

1 Deserting workhouse.

1 Assault; aged 14.


5th Ward. Miscellaneous; 2 prisoners; viz.—

1 Misdemeanant, for trial for assault.

1 Debtor. Committed for 80 days by Court of Requests. Debt 41.


N.B. These two slept in one room, the night before our visit, without any other person.


6th Ward. 1 Debtor in the Tower (to be afterwards noticed).

7th. Females' Ward. Felons for trial; 4 prisoners; viz.—

1 Stealing from the person.

2 Stealing potatoes.

1 Stealing a sheet. 3 months in gaol.


8th. Females' Ward. Felons for trial; 4 prisoners; viz.—

1 Stealing a sheet.

1 Stealing potatoes.

1 Stealing a brass tap.

1 Convicted of theft, and sentenced to 9 months' imprisonment.


—31 . . Total.

One cannot but be struck with the very trifling nature of the offences Here are 9 boys, all under the age of 17, suffering imprisonment for weeks and months, upon the most paltry charges. Three boys had been 9 weeks in gaol, for taking a handful of shrimps out of an open shop-window! Four others had been in custody several weeks, for being concerned in taking 7 lbs. of lead out of a yard, which they sold for 1d., and they were brought here from Broadstairs, 24 miles! The sentences also of the four convicted men, to 12 months' imprisonment, and hard labour, each, are apparently very severe, with reference to the offences; but the. nature of their employment as cooks and cleaners defeats that part of the sentence which intended that they should be placed at hard labour. But the evil of imprisonment is enormously magnified, when, as in this gaol, the prisoners associate the whole day in their respective day-rooms, and sleep three in a cell at night. The results of this association are,—the contamination which must necessarily sometimes follow unrestricted conversation, bad language, quarrelling and fighting, and playing at games. The preservation of order is left to the wardsmen and in the first-mentioned ward, the wardsman has been in the habit of keeping order by the corporal punishment of the other prisoners. Several of the boys complained that the wardsman had beaten them with a rope's end, which he constantly used, besides striking them with his hands. Now, it may not be easy to keep a number of idle boys in order; but that one prisoner should be permitted thus to castigate another is not only improper, but also illegal. The wardsman admitted the fact, but said that he was authorized by the turnkey, who also admitted he had heard of it, but did not know that it was improper.

Silence is not enforced, the prisoners being allowed to talk quietly in the day-rooms, but they are punished for any great noise or disturbance. At night, the prisoners occasionally sing in their cells, and crow in imitation of a cock. There are two ranges of cells in the same passages opposite each other. The shutters of some of them are left open at night; consequently, the prisoners can communicate in some cases from cell to cell. The day-rooms, also, have open bars from the passage, so that the prisoners in one day-room can, and sometimes do, talk to those in another.

The separation of males and females is not effectual. They can speak to each other from their day-rooms; they see each other in chapel; the females who may be under punishment, or who may sleep in the solitary cells, constantly pass the men's day-rooms; and, on a late occasion, a woman stopped ana conversed with the men in an indecent manner. The sleeping-cells of the women are only separated by an open-barred gate from those of the men, and they could speak to each other from the sleeping-cells. The keeper and turnkey are in the habit of going into the women's apartments, and of locking up and unlocking them, without the presence of the matron or any female officer.

The only regular employment is picking oakum, or beating hemp. The convicted are assigned 3 lbs. of oakum to pick per diem. We found some of the untried also employed in oakum-picking; such employment, if not compulsory, appears by no means unsuitable to untried prisoners, and of course the absence of any employment always adds to. the mischiefs of association. The picking 3 lbs. of oakum is no very hard labour; in the summer season a healthy convict ought to pick at least 5 lbs. to make the labour burthensome; indeed in the Westminster Bridewell there have been prisoners who have made no difficulty in picking lbs. a day. This gaol having been occupied little more than a year, the profits from the oakum cannot yet be exactly ascertained.

Prisoners are constantly employed as wardsmen, and in menial and domestic services about the prison and town-hall. Of the four males convicted of felony at the time of our visit, two were employed as cooks, one as wardsman, and one as sweeper, and the female convict was cleaning the keeper's kitchen. Of 25 prisoners in custody on 9th February last, (22 males, including one debtor and three females,) five males were employed as wardsmen, two as cooks, and two in cleaning and whitewashing, and the three females in washing and cleaning. As an instance of the abuses arising from the employment of wardsmen, we may again refer to the conduct of the wardsmen in striking other prisoners, which has already been noticed.

There is a visiting-room, in which the prisoners' friends are allowed to visit them by order of a magistrate, and in the presence of the gaoler or turnkey. Letters are allowed to be received and sent, under the inspection of the gaoler, who in doubtful cases shews them to the mayor.

The prisoners are not allowed to have money in their possession, except the debtors, who find themselves.

Tobacco is not permitted to be used, but seems notwithstanding to be occasionally introduced. For instance, there is evidence of its having been used by the wardsman and the Fleming in the ward of felons before trial. It used often to be brought in by workmen, before all the work of the building was finished; but that is now stopped.

The debtors are allowed newspapers by the magistrates, but not books, except with the chaplain's approval.

There does not seem to be any play, within the strict description of gambling; but the prisoners amuse themselves by playing a game with buttons, which, like any other amusement, is inconsistent with the proper discipline of a prison.

Upon the head of the general discipline of this gaol, we beg to refer to the annexed memoranda of the evidence taken by us, which furnishes sufficient proof of laxity of management and of abuses requiring correction.

3. Religious and other Instruction.

The chaplain resides in the town of Dover, and is curate of the neighbouring parish of St. Margaret's at Cliffe. He reads prayers selected from the Liturgy, in the chapel, on Wednesdays and Fridays, and performs divine service, with a sermon, once on Sundays. He never administers the Holy Communion. He does not keep any journal or character book. He converses with and endeavours to instruct the prisoners, setting them lessons from lime to time. He selects the books used by the prisoners, being Bibles, Prayer-books, and the Tracts of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. All the prisoners, except the debtors, are obliged to attend chapel; the keeper and turnkey also attend regularly.

4. Health.

The surgeon or his assistant attends when required, and is paid according to his attendance. He does not keep any journal, or sign any attendance-book. There is an infirmary, But it has not yet been found necessary to use it. Six prisoners were slightly indisposed at the time of inspection, but the number of sick has hitherto been very few, and it can hardly be said that there is any prevailing disease. The labour being light and the diet good, the imprisonment seems to operate favourably upon the prisoners' health. The cost of diet is stated at no less than 6l. 1s. 8d. per head per annum, or about 2s. 4d. per week. The diet, indeed, appears excessive, with reference to the kind of labour. It consists weekly of 122½ oz. of bread, 16 oz. of meat in soup, and 112 oz. of potatoes, being 250½ oz. of solid food, betides 14 quarts of gruel. This it not only superior to the ordinary fare of a labouring man, but considerably exceeds even the tread-wheel diet of neighbouring prisons: viz., those of Maidstone and St. Augustine's. We are quite aware of the evils arising from insufficient diet; but here it really seems in the other extreme, and no distinction is made in regard either to age or sex. The diet table is not affixed any where in the prison. The debtors are the only prisoners who find themselves. They are allowed eatables and beer as they want them, without any particular rule as to the quantity.

There is not at present any prison clothing, but a dress is said to be in the contemplation of the magistrates.

The bedding appeared in good order. It is aired occasionally in the yards, according to the weather.

The whole of the linen is washed in the gaol by the female prisoners. The day-rooms lime-washed, and appeared clean at the time of inspection.

5. Prison Punishments.

No record or journal of punishments is kept, consequently the number inflicted cannot be stated. We were informs that the magistrates have not ordered the punishment of any prisoner since the gaol was opened; but that the gaoler has punished from time to time by confinement in a dark cell for a time not exceeding one day. The dark cells are so near one of the day-rooms that there may be talking between them. There is a cat-o'-nine-tails, but no prisoner has yet been whipped. The gaoler admits that he himself has occasionally cuffed the boys to keep them in order, but has never hurt any of them. No gaoler, however, ought ever to strike a prisoner, whether boy or man, unless in self-defence, or when the prisoner is regularly whipped by the magistrates' authority.

6. Officers.

The establishment consists of the gaoler, the matron, (his wife,) and the turnkey, all Officers, of whom reside in the prison. The gaoler has been employed 11 years in that capacity in the late and present gaol. He keeps only two books, being a register of prisoners and of expenses, and no journal of punishments or occurrences. The keeper and turnkey are in the habit of visiting the females without the matron, the impropriety of which has been already noticed.

7. Miscellaneous.

It has been seen that, out of 31 prisoners in custody at the time of inspection, 8 were boys under the age of 17, who were suffering long periods of imprisonment before trial in the midst of bad associates, for very trifling offences. It is a perfect delusion to suppose that such a system is conducive either to the prevention or repression of crime. If these boys had been well whipped and discharged, without any imprisonment, the interests of justice and of humanity would both have been gainers.

Debtors within the general jurisdiction of the Cinque Ports are not confined here, but in Dover Castle. This gaol, however, receives debtors committed by the Court of Requests, and also occasionally debtors taken upon process out of the Court of Record of the Mayor of Dover. There has been a debtor in custody for upwards of four years upon process out of this court for a debt of 20l., of which lie has the means of payment, as he receives the half-pay of a lieutenant in the navy, and is supposed to have other resources. He lives by himself in a large airy apartment in the tower of the Maison Dieu, which he seldom leaves, but takes exercise when he pleases. He maintains himself, and is allowed to buy beer and occasionally spirits. He is in all respects as comfortable as if in private lodgings, and appears not at all inclined to leave his quarters, but has been frightened at times when the magistrates have threatened to place him below with other debtors.

In the early 1850s, a number of crank-turning machines were installed at the prison as an alternative form of hard labour.

The prison site is shown on the 1858 map below.

Town and Cinque Ports Gaol site, Dover, c.1858.

Maison Dieu site, Dover, from the south, c.1900.

The prison closed in 1878 and a large room known as the Connaught Hall was constructed in its place. The whole complex is now a heritage site and event venue which includes two large halls, a disused court room and Victorian gaol cells, council chamber, civic offices, meeting rooms.


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