Ancestry UK

City Gaol and Bridewell, Exeter, Devon

In 1819, a replacement for Exeter's old South Gate prison was erected at the corner of Queen Street and Northernhay Street, Exeter. A report in 1835 noted:

The Gaol was built in the year 1818, under the authority of a local Act of Parliament, Gaol, the 58 Geo. 3, c. 61, entitled, "An Act for building a new Gaol and House of Correction for the City and County of the City of Exeter." The cost of the building was 10,000l. besides the materials and site of the old gaol. Visiting justices are appointed under the Gaol Act, who visit it according to the requisitions of that statute. There are a chaplain and surgeon appointed, and, as far as the building will permit, the prisoners are classified according to the directions of the Gaol Act. There is a tread-wheel, with machinery, for the purpose of beating hemp.

In 1837, the government's Inspector of Prisons reported:


I shall dwell the less minutely on the defects of this prison, because the new town-council are very desirous of immediately correcting them, and are, I believe, engaged in that work. The cells for the females are more numerous than is necessary; at all events, in the extremely crowded state of the male wards, it is very desirable that a certain portion of the female cells should be appropriated to the males. There are other means of permanently enlarging the male part of the prison, which I have suggested to the magistrates.

Cells where one prisoner sleeps only1010
Cells where more than one prisoner sleeps44
Refractory cells (light)8
Refractory cells (dark))0
Refractory cells (below ground)0
Wards or divisions in the prison7
Tread-wheel houses, or divisions upon the tread-wheels2
Receiving-rooms or cells0
Divisions in the chapel6
Warm and cold baths, or bathing-tubsone bathing tub
Airing yards6

The cells are not heated in the winter. Some of them are extremely close and ill ventilated in consequence of very large screens placed in front of the windows. The walls which divide the yards are so low that the prisoners can easily see others in the different yards when standing at the door of their ward. This evil is, I have no doubt, by this time corrected. The boundary wall is not high enough, and a chevaux-de-frize is wanting. Three successful escapes have occurred during the last 15 years.


I cannot speak with satisfaction of the system which has hitherto prevailed here; but I believe that a better one is by this time introduced. At the time of my visit the male wards were excessively crowded. In two cells which I desired to be unlocked at night I found in each six men sleeping ; there was no room to step between the beds, some of which were on the ground. In one of these cells, in the place of pots, I found only one pail for the natural wants of all the six prisoners. Both the cells were very hot and fetid.

The untried and the convicted associate freely together in their respective day-rooms and yards.

It will be very necessary to have another turnkey, and to issue new rules. Silence was not enjoined before the period of my visit.


A tread-wheel is in,operation here, but the,labour is not productive. They beat straw to keep the wheel at work, not having a supply of hemp. There is no crank machine. Seven hours in summer, six in winter, are the hours for those that work at the tread-wheel. There is no other regular labour except the tread-wheel for male prisoners. Female prisoners are employed in washing and mending for the male prisoners, in knitting, &c. The labour is considered as a punishment.

There are no compartments on the wheels. They are employed every month in the year. The height of each step is 7½ inches. The ordinary velocity of the wheels per minute is 24 times. The power is applied to beat hemp or straw.


There are 34 twopenny loaves a-week distributed to the debtors from different donations ; some besides are allowed from the county 6d. per day.

For those prisoners not engaged in-hard labour the allowance is 22oz. of white bread per day and l½lb. of potatoes; 22oz. of white bread, and l½lb. of potatoes, and 11b. of mutton per week, to those that are at hard labour only.

There are some gaol-dresses, lent only to those who ask for them: the supply is scanty.

The bedding consists of three blankets, one coverlet, and a mattrass filled with straw.

Coals, salt, soap, and hand-towels are supplied at the gaolers' orders.

Religious and other Instruction.

The chaplain keeps a journal, and also a list of all who are present at church and absent. He delivers the sacrament about four times yearly; rarely more than five or six prisoners communicate. The supply of books is moderate : the chaplain has represented the want to the new town-council. He is chaplain to the workhouse. There is every Sunday one service with a sermon. Service also is performed on Wednesdays and Fridays; also on Christmas day. The chaplain instructs the juvenile offenders in reading generally, as well as in the church catechism. The keeper is now instructing three juvenile offenders in writing. The chaplain has at present a class of four. He thinks that the want of separation is an obstacle to religious improvement. The recommittals are usually prostitutes and breakers of the peace.

Care of the Sick, Disease, and Mortality.

The surgeon visits the prison three days a-week, and at all other times when required. There is no infirmary, which is a defect which I have recommended to the correction of the, magistrates. There has been no death in the prison during the last year. The most frequent disorders are itch and venereal complaints. There is no insane prisoner here at present.


I. Number and Description of Prisoners confined in the Prison in the course of the Year:—

  Tried by a Jury71
  Summary convictions10248
  Under the Bastardy Laws10
  Under the Vagrant Act406
Total Number of Prisoners confined in the Prison in the course of the Year:—
In custody at the commencement of the year.2410
Received under commitments, and who have not been in the custody of other keepers for the same offence18171
Above 17 years of age20667
Under 17 years of age256

II. Number and Description of Prisoners in the Prison on the date of this Return, July 1836:—

Number of debtors51
Number of misdemeanors142
Number of felons145
Prisoners for trial00
Prisoners under sentence287


Average number of prisoners daily3010
The greatest number of prisoners at one time in the course of the year4019
Number of prisoners sentenced by courts of justice to solitary confinement96
Number of prisoners sentenced by courts of justice to be whipped—
Punishment for offences within the prison—
  Refractory cells5
  Hard-labour sentences120

IV. Salaries.

Keeper£105  0  0.
Chaplain60  0  0.
Surgeon30 10  0.

This sum was paid last year as the amount for the surgeon's charge for attendance and medicines. It would be preferable, however, to assign to the medical officer a fixed annual stipend, which should include not only all the medicine requisite, but also regular visits on certain days and in every case of need.

Matron£20  0  0.
One male turnkey30  0  0.

V. Progress of the Population.

There were in 1835, July 3,38 prisoners here.
1834, July 4,37
1833, July 3,40
And at present, in 1836, July 4,50 (including debtors in each year).

VI. Expenditure.

The cost of the daily diet of the prisoners sentenced to hard labour is 4½d.; that of the other prisoners is 3½d.

Cost of the Conveyance of Prisoners.

One shilling a-mile per head is the price of the contract entered into by the town-council with the gaoler; the gaoler usually accompanies the prisoners.

A report in 1850 recorded:

[The prison] was erected in 1819, and has since undergone some judicious alterations, but it still does not admit of a complete system of classification. It is in three divisions, called the debtors' ward, the felons prison, and the bridewell, or house of correction; and comprises 36 cells, 7 wards, 8 day-rooms, and 6 airing yards, all enclosed by a lofty outer wall. It has room for about 80 inmates, but its average number is about £250 is repaid by government for the maintenance of prisoners and removal of convicts, and £293 is for salaries. It is in contemplation either to enlarge and alter this, or to erect a new city prison, on the plan of the model prison at Pentonville; or otherwise to arrange for the reception of the city prisoners in the Devon County Gaol and Bridewell

The prison closed in September 1863 and its functions transferred to the Exeter County Gaol on New North Street. The old building was subsequently demolished and the Rougemont Hotel erected on the site.


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