Ancestry UK

City Gaol, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely's City Gaol, also known as the Bishop's Prison or the Liberty Prison, was the property of the Bishop of Ely. Dating from at least 1276, it housed prisoners from the Liberty of Ely — the area over which he had secular powers, covering the City of Ely and the surrounding area. The prison, or a later one which stood at the corner of Gaol Street (now Market Street) and Lynn Road, was partly rebuilt by Bishop Mawson in 1768 following a public inquiry into the excessive measures taken by the keeper to secure his prisoners. This was by chaining them down on their backs upon a floor, across which were several iron bars, with an iron collar with spikes about their necks, and a heavy iron bar over their legs.

In 1812, James Neild reported that:

This Prison is much improved since my visit in l802: nor can too much praise be given to the Visiting-Magistrates, for causing all unnecessary severity to be discontinued; for its better ventilation; County-clothing, and bath; for the regular entry of their visits in a book for that important purpose; and for the great cleanliness and good order in which every part is kept.

As here is no Chapel, Divine Service is performed in the Keeper's house.

For Debtors there are three good-sized rooms above-stairs; and another, called the Nursery Room, set apart for the sick, with a fire-place in it; one iron bedstead, (made a present of to the Gaol by the Bishop's Lady), and one wooden bedstead for the Nursery. If a Debtor has a bed furnished by the Keeper, he pays 2s., 1s. 6d., or 1s. per week, according to his circumstances. Some of the windows are glazed, and have sloping boards before the iron gratings, to prevent Prisoners from looking into the street, and conversing with passengers.

The Condemned Room is up stairs, 15 feet 6 by 13 feet 6, and 8 feet 10 inches high; ventilated by an iron-grated window, and an aperture in the door about 6 inches square. Across the floor of this room are spread twenty-six iron bars, and two staples fixed in the floor; to which, formerly, prisoners were fastened by a strong iron chain, run through the main link of their fetters, which, passing through the side-post of the door, was locked on the outer side. No Prisoners now experience this severity.

Below stairs is the Felons' day-room, together with their cell, or night-room, of 18 feet 6 inches by 10 feet. The latter has a double door; the outer is iron-grated, the inner, of wood; lighted and ventilated by a window of 2 feet 4 inches by 2 feet 2, and improved by two air-pipes.

Mr. Leaford, the late Keeper, at one of my visits, told me, that in the year 1798 he had twelve Prisoners, in Assize-time, confined within the before-mentioned cell for four nights together; of whom, upon trial, six were acquitted!

The court-yard is about 45 feet by 39, with a sewer in it; and the whole Prison is well supplied with water, by a pipe judiciously laid on from the pump to the day-rooms.

Compared with how many Prisons, even in Great Britain, may not these Prisoners say, of such a resource, "We thank our Friends, and call it Luxury!"

As there is but this one court-yard for all descriptions of Prisoners, the Debtor who conducts himself well, is indulged with the range of the Keeper's garden. The two Debtors were comfortably walking in it, at the time of my coming here in August, 1802.

The Gaol is now rendered secure. In some of our best regulated Prisons the Irons employed are but from 6 to 8 lbs. weight. Those now occasionally used here, are of 18 or 19 lbs. One pair is still kept, weighing forty three pounds, which, in the year 1799, one John Gothard, a Transport, had on for three days successively: But, as his body became greatly swelled in consequence of such a pressure, they were taken off, upon the Surgeon's representation. There was only one iron collar with spikes left at my visit in l802 : the last time it had been used was on James Thompson, in the year 1798. At my visit in 1805, I had the pleasure to find that not the shadow of one was remaining, to dishonour an English Gaol. Wooden bedsteads, with straw mattresses, are now (1810) allowed to each sleeping-room.

Every Sunday a begging-box is permitted to be carried about, through the two Parishes of Trinity and St. Mary, for the benefit of the Prisoners. The average collection is about three shillings each Sunday; and when 1 was here in l802, it amounted to nine-pence for each Prisoner.

Those who find employment (for none is provided,) receive two-thirds of the net profit of their earnings.

Both the Act for Preserving the Health of Prisoners, and the Clauses against their use of Spirituous Liquors, are conspicuously hung up. Here are also Rules and Orders, but they are not signed, to avouch their Establishment.

Allowance, Debtors who are very poor, Felons, and other Prisoners, have each a loaf of wheaten bread, weighing two pounds and a half, every day; and scales and weights are provided to weigh it.

In 1818, the prison could house twenty inmates. After the Liberty was abolished in 1837, the building ceased use as a prison. From between about 1842 and 1879, the Ely Mechanics' Institute appears to have been housed in it. It is now used as the Diocesan Muniment Room, and the floor rings, by which prisoners were secured, can still be seen.


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  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.