Ancestry UK

City and County Gaol / HMP Exeter, Exeter, Devon

Some sources claim that prior to 1518, Devon's County Gaol was located at Bicton, a village to the south-east of Exeter, and under the custody of the lord of the manor of Bicton. However, the weight of evidence seems to support the prsion, also known as the Exeter County High Gaol for Felons, always being located in Exeter itself, within the walls of the castle erected in the town by William the Conqueror. By the early seventeenth century it occupied a building at the south-east of the castle, at the north side of what is now Bailey Street.

In 1784, John Howard wrote:

This gaol is the property of John Denny Rolle, Esq. whose family had a grant of it from the duchy of Cornwall: the late gaoler paid him rent £22 per annum. The house and court are too small: there is only one day-room for men and women felons; this is used as the chapel. Over it is the women's lodging-room. There are three rooms for fines, &c. one below and two above; that below is sometimes used for the condemned. There are three night-dungeons (about 20 feet by 12) down three steps; the small window of one of them is under a staircase. These dungeons are the more unhealthy as at one part they are 7 or 8 feet under ground. Mr. Rule the late surgeon told me that he was by contract excused from attending in the dungeons any prisoners that should have the gaol-fever. There are now two rooms for an infirmary, but the stairs that lead up to the men's rooms are intolerably bad: no bath.—The court is paved with pebbles; (flag stones would be much better). In it is an offensive sewer.—At the top of the gaoler's house is an alarm-bell.—The prisoners formerly made cabbage-nets for two pence a dozen; and purses of different sorts from four pence to seven pence a dozen: the turnkey found the twine and thread. Two tailors fined a shilling each had £1 : 1 : 4 each to pay the clerk of the peace, besides the gaoler's fees.

It was commendable and exemplary in the justices of this county to fix the felons allowance by a certain weight of good bread, not variable with the price.

There is no table of fees. But by the close of the preamble at the Sheriff's Ward, the table there seems to have included originally the fees of this gaol also. The gaoler had for each transport two guineas from the merchant, to whom the county paid per contract. The act for preserving the health of prisoners is not hung up.

About Christmas, the gaoler permits his prisoners to solicit charity in the city. When I was there in December 1775, the box was broke open, as was supposed, by the person. who conducted them, as he absconded. If any gentleman would undertake the disposal of the contributions, this would not only prevent such a fraud, but the money laid out for meat, firing, &c. would be far more beneficial than their spending most of it in liquor.

At my visit in 1779, 1782 and 1783, I found the men together encouraging, and confirming one another in wickedness, and the women are obliged to associate with them in the day-time.

An elegant shire-hall is now finished: may it not be hoped that the gentlemen will turn their thoughts to this crowded, offensive and destructive gaol, especially the proprietor, who (in 1782) liberally subscribed £1000 to encourage seamen to enter into his majesty's fleet; and who possesses an estate to uphold this prison?

GAOLER,Benjamin Sherry, now James Waber.
Fees,Felons, £0: 14: 4.
Transports,£1 : 1 : 0 each.
Allowance,Felons, twenty-two ounces of bread a day each.
Garnish,lately abolished.
Number,Felons &c.Felons &c.
1774,Sep. 12,14.1779,Jan. 31,33
—— Feb. 18,20.1782,July 27,25.
1775,Dec. 16,25.1783,Feb. 2,57
CHAPLAIN,Rev. Mr. Stabback.
Duty,Sunday a sermon, and twice a week prayers.
SURGEON,Mr. Rule, now Mr. Walker.
Salary,£42, for gaol and bridewell.

In 1796, the prison moved to a new building at a site on New North Road. It was designed by William Blackburn and featured a small entrance lodge, behind which lay a single four-storey block.

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

This Gaol is very conspicuously placed in a fine situation, elevated and healthy. The boundary-wall encloses nearly two acres of land; and, being sixteen feet from the several court-yards, the Keeper has thrown round, within that limit, a convenient garden.

The Turnkey's lodge, which is in front, has, on the right-hand, his sitting-room; and on the left-hand are two baths, and a copper. Above stairs is his sleeping-room, and four reception-rooms, for Prisoners, who are either unhealthy, uncleanly, or sent in by night; and likewise a room, in which some of the Prisoners' own clothes are deposited, and the Gaol-Uniform put on them instead.

Above the Turnkey's lodge is a leaded flat-roof, upon which Criminals are executed! The Gaoler's house is in the centre of the building; and the approach to it lies through a small garden.

On the ground-floor are thirty sleeping-cells, which open into a lobby, or passage, five feet wide; and also twelve other cells of the like description, that open into two court-yards, six cells in each. These last, however, being damp in winter, are prudentially unoccupied, except when the Gaol is crowded.

There are two day-rooms for men on the ground-floor, nearly octagon, and about 22 feet in diameter; with glazed windows and two fire-places in each; to which the County liberally allows coals, seats, and tables; with shelves for putting by provisions.

To this Prison there are no less than fourteen court-yards. Two of them, 84 feet by 60, are for Men-Felons, both before trial and after conviction; enclosed by a brick wall, and each having in it a pump, and arcades, for accommodation in wet weather.

One court, for the Women-Felons, has open wood palisades, surrounding a grass-plat. Several of the other court-yards, since their first laying out, have been temporarily converted into gardens; there being, at the time of their destination, no Prisoners of the class for which they were originally intended.

The first-story has forty-eight sleeping-cells, which open into passages 5 feet wide, leading (24 feet on each side,) to the Chapel; and also two day-rooms, similar to those below.

The second-story has fifty cells; which, twenty-five on each side, are separated by a passage, of the same width as the former, and opening toward the Chapel in the same manner as those below. Here are two day-rooms also, of similar construction with the foregoing.

The third-story has fifty sleeping-cells, and two day-rooms, like those on the second-story.

The Chapel, a very neat structure, is partitioned off, to separate the different classes of Prisoners; and in the gallery there are six cells, made occasionally to open. These are for Prisoners under sentence of death, and generally kept in utter darkness; but during Divine service, the inner door (a wooden one,) is thrown open, so that they can hear very well. They are each 8 feet 6 inches by 7 feet, and 10 feet high; and the Turnkey's sleeping-room is close adjoining.

The common sleeping-cells are 8 feet 6 by 6 feet 6, and 10 feet high; with arched roofs and double doors: the outward iron-grated, the inner of wood; with glazed windows, well-ventilated; and fitted up, some with wooden crib-bedsteads, others with those of cast-iron, straw-in-sacking beds, two blankets, a coarse sheet, pillow, and rug.

On the attic-story of the Keeper's house are two neat rooms, with conveniences for the sick; and communicating to the Chapel by a lobby.

Every Prisoner is required to attend Divine Service, unless prevented by sickness: and only one Prisoner was absent when I was there.

Religious books are distributed amongst them, at the Chaplain's discretion. Forty Bibles, with the Common-Prayer and Psalms, were sent by an unknown Lady, just before my visit in September l806.

Those Criminal-Prisoners, who wish to be better accommodated than the rest can afford to be, have feather beds and bedding furnished by the Keeper, at 2s. 6d. per week.

The Act for preservation of Health, and Clauses against Spirituous Liquors, are conspicuously hung up; and excellent Rules and Regulations for the government of the Gaol, signed by the Justices in Session, and confirmed by the Judges of Assize, are duly printed and published.

Previous to the appointment of the present Keeper, a singular custom had prevailed, for a party of the Prisoners, doubly-ironed, to be escorted, and to beg charity every Christmas throughout the City. The custom is, now, very judiciously discontinued.

The only permanent Donation to this Gaol, of which I could get information, is the sum of ten shillings per annum, from the Dean and Chapter of Exeter.

Here, as in many other County Gaols, Lunaticks are received. Of this description were four, when I was here; who failed not very much to disturb the quiet of the Prison, as well as to endanger the safety both of the Gaoler and his Turnkeys. It appears a very desirable object, that persons so peculiarly pitiable should be admitted to the blessings of an Hospital; where, by medical aid, tranquillity, and judicious treatment, they might be restored to usefulness in life, or rendered at least more comfortable both to themselves and others, than the circumstances of a Gaol can possibly afford.

This Prison is very frequently visited by the considerate Magistrates of the County, and every comfort supplied to its inhabitants, consistent with the privation of liberty.

Although the situation of the building is excellent, the original plan of it is extremely defective. The Gaoler's house is so placed, as to command the view of but a small part of the whole concern. The twelve cells which open into the courtyards are unfit for any human being to sleep in. It would be a great improvement, if most of those cells, built on the ground-floor, were converted into work-shops; the local situation of this City affording an inexhaustible supply of resources, in the picking of oakum, making of nets, mops, and various other articles for shipping; and in which the most flagrant Criminals might very usefully be employed, without availing themselves of any means to facilitate their escape.

Every Prisoner, on being discharged, receives money to carry him home; and thus prevents the danger of an immediate recurrence to those practices which brought him hither.

The Gaoler is active and intelligent, and the whole Prison very clean.

I cannot close this narrative without expressing my very grateful acknowledgements to the Magistrates of the highly respectable County of Devon, for the honour which they have done me, in so conspicuous a manner, by noticing the faithful Remarks I had presumed to make in my several visits to Exeter. The result is truly pleasing. Where the Prisoners heretofore had but loose straw to sleep on, they have now comfortable beds and bedding. Their day-rooms are supplied with every requisite for decency and cleanliness in a Prison. The impediments to health, and the consequent hazards of disease, have been removed.

Gaoler, James Brown.
Salary, 200l. with two fields for his use, of about six acres of ground.
For conveyance of Transports, 1s. per mile. Fees and Garnish abolished.

Chaplain, Rev. William Bowness, now Rev. Edward Chave.

Duty, at the Gaol, Prayers every morning: On Sunday, Prayers and Sermon. At the House of Correction, Prayers and Sermon on Sunday, and Prayers on Thursday.
Salary, for the Gaol, House of Correction, and Duty at the Quarter Sessions, 126l. 10s. He is a Priest-Vicar of the Cathedral, and to hold no other Cure.

Surgeon, Mr. Walker. Salary, 50l. for the High Gaol and House of Correction.

Number of Prisoners,
1802, Feb. 1st, 28.  1803, Oct. 6th, 32.  1806, Sept. 26th, 31.

Allowance, twenty-two ounces of bread per day, in loaves from the baker. I think it but justice to mention, that I found many of the loaves weighing 23 ounces. Convicts under sentence of Transportation  have not the County bread, but the King's allowance of 2s. 6d. per week for their support.

In 1822, the prison installed a treadwheel, for employing eighty-four inmates.

In 1853, the prison was rebuilt on the same site to a design by local architect John Hayward. His plan was based on the layout of the model prison of Pentonville and featured four long cell blocks radiating from a central. The prison was based on the plan of the model prison at Pentonville, with four residential wings. The adjacent House of Correction, previously operating as a separate establishment, was incorporated into the new building.

Exeter Prison, from the south, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1878, following the nationalisation of the prison system, the site became known as Her Majesty's Prison, Exeter.

Many executions were carried out at the prison. Perhaps the most notable was the attempted execution of John 'Babbacombe' Lee in February 1885. Three attempts were made to carry out his dispatch but each ended in failure when the trap door of the scaffold failed to open. This was despite the fact its having been carefully tested beforehand by the executioner, James Berry. The Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, subsequently commuted Lee's sentence to life imprisonment. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released from Exeter prison in 1907.

In around 1946, the prison's women's wing was converted to become the Exeter Borstal Institution for young female offenders. The unit closed in about 1969.

HMP Exeter is still in operation as a category B local and resettlement men's prison, its inmates mainly being those sentenced by the courts of Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset.


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  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
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