Ancestry UK

Borough Gaol, Liverpool, Lancashire

Liverpool's new Borough Gaol was opened in 1855 at Walton Hill. It replaced the existing gaol and bridewell on Great Howard Street.

The design of the new building, based on the model prison at Pentonville is usually ascribed to the borough surveyor John Weightman, perhaps in collaboration with Charles James Peirce. The main building had a very long (nearly 800 feet) five-storey range running east-west, with a series of shorter wings to the north and south, creating cruciform sections to either side of the centre. The prison was the subject of a largely positive report in a local newspaper on 24 August 1855:

The design of the building is strictly adapted to that system of prison discipline called the "separate system," which originated in this country in the 1790, and was first tried in the county gaol, Gloucester. A model prison on the separate system at Pentonville, London, was completed in 1842; and since that period this system has rapidly progressed, and has been adopted in most of the continental states, in America, and in many of the counties and boroughs of Great Britain. The new prison at Walton is said to be the largest that has yet been erected on the peculiar principles of construction which this system requires. The site was purchased of the Earl of Derby, more than seven years ago. It is on the west side of the public road from Liverpool to Ormskirk; is nearly contiguous to the junction of the East Lancashire with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, and comprises in the whole nearly 23 statute acres; But a portion of this is severed off by the East Lancashire Railway passing through it by a deep cutting.

The general arrangement or plan of the building is exceedingly simple, and well adapted for the system of discipline for which it is intended. It was designed by Mr. John Weightman, the corporation surveyor; and the whole of the details and working drawings have emanated from his office.

The approach from the Ormskirk road is through a gateway and along a newly-constructed road which brings us to a bridge across the East Lancashire railway. On the right, separated from the road by a low brick wall, stand a row of 32 new and very commodious houses, now nearly finished, and intended for the officers of the prison and their families. After passing the bridge, the parish cemetery is on the left, the new prison on the right, the one divided from the other by a roadway from 10 to 12 yards wide, and which it is expected the Earl of Derby will continue forward to the village of Bootle. Before reaching the prison, a piece of land on the same side, enclosed within high walls, is passed. This is intended to be cultivated by prisoners. The entire frontage of the gaol faces the south, and extends in length upwards of 1000 feet. The depth backwards is about 600 feet; the form of the site, therefore, is a parallelogram, nearly true, 1000 feet by 600 feet. The whole of this is surrounded by a strong brick wall, 18 feet high, the four angles of the parallelogram being made re-entering, and occupied by hexagonal warder houses, with flat roofs and crenellated parapets, which outflank the boundary walls on all sides, and command them both externally and internally, and are designed for the double purpose of defence against any sudden attack and dwelling houses for the warders. The whole of this is again encircled by a roadway eight yards wide, and a minor boundary wall about 5 feet high.

A central portion of the south wall, nearly 500 feet in length, is made to recess back to form the approach to the entrance gateway, and to form a site for the governor and chaplain's houses, which are outside the prison walls, and to the right and left of the entrance gateway.

The entrance gateway is flanked on each side by two square Norman towers, with dressed brick fronts and stone dressings, and connected by a groined stone archway, in which are inserted the outer and inner gates. On one side of the gateway are a porter's lodge, house, and office for the entering and discharging of prisoners; and on the other side of the gateway are the chief warder's house, and a warder's waiting room. The governor and chaplain's houses are in the more domestic Elizabethan style, two storeys in height, the area enclosed within the boundary walls, and occupied by the site of these houses and approaches, is nearly 14 statute acres.

Having now described the accessories which encircle the prison, the prison itself may be noticed. Passing through the gates and archway in the centre of the south boundary wall, the visitor approaches the prison by passing over an open esplanade, about 15 yards in width, from which he obtains a view of the whole prison front, extending in length nearly 800 feet and the central portion towering upward nearly 90 feet in height. The principle entrance to the prison is immediately before him. This entrance is a Norman archway, ascended by a flight of seven steps, and flanked on each side by two massive Norman towers. Over the entrance there is a clock. Passing through this archway, he now enters a vestibule, with Norman doorways on the right, left, and in front, and with a groined stone ceiling.

Going onwards he enters a corridor or passage, 80 feet in length, and 16 feet in width. On the right of this corridor is a suite of offices for the governor, clerks, &c.; and on the left are rooms for the use of the magistrates, committee, &c. At the further end, and on either side, are rooms in which prisoners will be allowed interviews with their friends under inspection. Underneath the whole of this part portion of the building are general storerooms and messrooms over the whole of these is the chapel, 65 feet wide and 80 feet long, and containing sitting room for nearly 800 prisoners. The chapel, from its central position, can be entered from every divisional part of the building, it having eleven separate approaches, and its general tout ensemble is very appropriate. The greater portion of the body of the chapel is fitted up for the accommodation of male criminals. The females will occupy a gallery, constructed so as to prevent them seeing or being seen by the males. The debtors have sittings assigned to them in the body of the chapel, the men at one side and the women at the other, curtains separating them from the criminal portion of the congregation; and there are two small galleries — one at each side of the principal entrance to the chapel — for the families of the governor and chaplain of the gaol.

Supposing the visitor to be in the corridor underneath the chapel: if he again passes onward through a prison-like doorway at the further end, with iron fastenings, he will enter the main corridor of the prison itself, and here he will see something worthy of his attention — a vista of corridors, roofs, galleries, archways, doors, and staircases which, we believe, of its kind has no parallel in existence. In one continuous length, right and left, is a corridor 820 feet long, and at right angles, directly in front, another 130 feet long; Both 16 feet wide, 55 feet high to the summit of roof, and terminated at the three ends by stone bay windows the whole width and height of the corridors. On each side of these corridors are rows of cells for prisoners, four tiers in height, with four tiers of slate galleries, with light iron balustrades and brackets. From this point of view from 600 to 700 doorways may be seen almost at a glance, comprising nearly two-thirds of the entire structure.

But this coup d'oeil will be closed to the general visitor when the prison is occupied, as it can only be obtained by standing in the doorway of a brick wall which, at this point, divides the part of the building appropriated for female prisoners from that portion appropriated for males. And, in fact, the main structure is not so much one entire prison as two separate and distinct prisons joined together at this point.

If the visitor proceed along the corridor on his right, about midway of its length is an octagonal central hall, 13 feet diameter and 60 feet high, and covered with a glass roof. From this central hall, at right angles, in the form of a cross, branch out to transverse corridors, about 130 feet long, with tiers of cells on each side, and similar in every other respect to those already described.

From this point of view may be seen the doorway of every inhabited cell for adult male prisoners; And the portion of the structure appropriated to female prisoners is an exact counterpart, except that it is not quite so extensive. Each cell is intended for the confinement of only a single prisoner at once they are each 13 feet long, seven feet wide, 9 feet high, and fitted up with watercock, washbasin, water closet, hammock, table, stool, small cupboard, and small tub or footpan for washing feet. There is also apparatus for lighting the cells with gas the water systems are so arranged that each prisoner has the command of 6 gallons of water per diem, and no more; And means are provided whereby each prisoner will be able to sound a gong to call the attention of the orders whenever he may be in want of them. Each cell too has air flues which communicate with the warming apparatus in the basement, with the extracting shafts in the roof, and with the atmospheric air in the corridors. By means of these the temperature can be regulated to the greatest nicety. The warming and ventilating apparatus appears to be simple as well as efficient. The fresh cold air enters the building through a number of large flues in the various yards, and is warmed by passing over hot-water pipes. The warm air is admitted into each cell in such quantity as may be required through a small grate above the door, circulates in the cell and is finally drawn off through a similar grate in the wall opposite the door, the grate being placed on a level with the floor. There are nine extracting shafts in different parts of the building for carrying off the foul air, and at the top of each is a fire-grate for burning coke to increase the draught in case this should be needed in certain states of the atmosphere.

There are nearly 1100 cells opening into the corridors we have attempted to describe, and which, with the chapel and offices underneath, comprise the bulk of the main building. Besides these however, there are storerooms and kitchens in the basement; two small distinct buildings for debtors; a distinct building for the washing, drying, and storing of clothes; infirmaries or sick wards for the two sexes; baths for the cleanising and bathing of prisoners; a competent number of dark cells adapted to solitary confinement for the punishment of refractory prisoners, and for the reception of such as may be by law sentenced to be confined therein; a completely separated prison for the confinement of prisoners having infectious disorders; pump-houses, where the prisoners sentenced to hard labour will have to pump water from a well 150 feet deep for the supply of the entire establishment; a covered and enclosed rope walk, and other minor buildings. These, architecturally, have no very peculiar features; But the interior arrangements of all of them are admirably adapted to the uses for which they are intended.

The leading idea in the plan and arrangements of the entire prison has evidently been to combine proper surveillance and the strict carrying out of the regulations of the establishment, with the greatest possible economy of time and materials. The kitchens are supplied with the best apparatus for cooking by steam. In the largest kitchen, the trays containing the prisoners victuals are pushed along a tramroad to hoists, by which they will be raised to the different tiers of cells, where the warders receive the loads and distribute the food. From this kitchen a speaking tube extends to the governor's house, and another tube communicates with the house of the chaplain, so that directions can be given to the officers and questions asked and answered without loss of time. The infirmary and debtors' kitchens are on a much smaller scale, but the facilities for cooking are equally good. There is machinery also for hoisting up fuel from the basement to those parts of the building where it may be required. At present water is pumped from the well before alluded to by a steam engine, but when the prison is occupied the pumps will be worked by male criminals. This employment will form one of the hard-labour punishments of the establishment. There are 80 pump houses, or places for the prisoners to work at the cranks. The number of pumps is 6 — two sets of three each, and these require 80 men to work them, or 40 men may work one set alone. The prisoners working in these small pump-houses will be locked in; They may work as hard as they please, but if anyone all of them should cease to do his appointed share he is liable to immediate detection by the warder who is stationed in a gallery above his head, and who not only can see what the prisoners are about but can, by simply refering to the index of a registering apparatus ascertain exactly the amount of labour which any particular prisoner has performed. This is an example of the perfect inspection which is obtained under the improved system of prison discipline. The water is pumped from the well into large cisterns at the top of the prison, and also into a tank in one of the yards. The water in this tank is used for flushing the drains.

The employment for male prisoners in the separate cells will consist of nearly all the ordinary trades — carpentry, tailoring, cobblery, mat-making, &c., each prisoner working alone. These cells are not gloomy: there is nothing dungeon-like in their appearance. But although a prisoner may not be doomed to endure the "vile nuisance of a noisome room," or denied the sight of the warm sun, yet it has been found by experience that the punishment under the separate system is very severe — as severe, indeed, as most human beings who have to suffer it for any considerable length of time can bear without sinking under it.

The yards for exercise are a feature worth noticing in connexion with the prison. There are five of these yards belonging to distinct divisions of the establishment. The exercise for which they are intended is walking. In each yard there are four concentric circles, formed of flags just broad enough for a person to walk upon. The walking exercise will be performed upon these flags, under the inspection of an officer of the prison, who will stand in the common centre of the four rings while the prisoners circulate round him.

There are three surgeon's rooms in the prison, and the surgeon's assistant will reside in the establishment. The rooms and arrangements for the reception of prisoners when they first arrive at the gaol are very convenient. Instead of being admitted indiscriminately at the main entrance to the building, the separation of the sexes begins at the very threshold. The male prisoners will be taken down a flight of steps at the right of the principal entrance, and the females down a corresponding flight of steps at the left, and conducted to the reception rooms appropriated for them, respectively. Close to each reception room are bathrooms, clothes stores, and a disinfecting oven for the purpose of disinfecting and cleansing the prisoner's own clothes after they have exchanged them for prison garments. When a newly-arrived prisoner has been examined by this surgeon, and it has been ascertained that he is suffering from no infectious disease, he is compelled to go into a bath, a regulation which is said to be a grievous punishment to some individuals, and he then gets himself attired in the gaol costume. He is next conducted to his cell, and the number attached to his name in the official prison register (by which number alone he is known to the water) is posted opposite the number of his cell upon a board in the corridor, so that an accurate directory to his whereabouts can at once be referred to in case of need.

Much more might be written respecting the new prison and the system of management which will be in force in it when it is occupied; but here we must stop for the present. It may give the general reader a clearer notion of the vastness of this enormous gaol by stating that it is calculated that about 23,000,000 of bricks have been used in its construction, 200,000 cubic feet of stone, 1000 tons of cast and wrought iron work, 50,000 cubic feet of timber, and 100 tons of lead. It contains nearly two miles length of galleries, 7 miles of lead water-pipes; and a complete tour of inspection could not be performed under a three miles' journey. The work throughout has been pronounced by competent judges to be exceedingly well executed; and it is said that Colonel Jebb, the inspector-general of prisons, and the first authority in the kingdom on such a subject, has declared this prison to be the best in Europe.

At the last meeting of the town council it was reported that the new gaol would be ready for occupation on the 1st of September, but as that date falls on Saturday it is not probable that the removal of prisoners from the prison in Great Howard-street will not commence before the 3rd. It was also reported at the last council meeting that there were 864 prisoners in the old prison. They are to be removed in vans, and it is expected that the removal will occupy about 10 days.

A week later, however, the same journal published a rather carping article describing what it perceived as faults with the new building.

A further and more minute inspection of the various parts of the prison and of its arrangements in detail has convinced us that while, as a whole, the structure is greatly to be admired, it is not without a number of defects, and some of these are by no means slight. Though it would be as unreasonable to expect absolute perfection in gaol building as in any other human work, yet the faults which appear to us to exist in it may be useful to point out.

But in the first place we must correct an inaccuracy in our former notice, in ascribing the design to Mr. Weightman, the corporation surveyor. The plans, as originally drawn, are from the hand of Mr. James Newlands, the borough engineer, and they were a mere transcript from the general design of the model Prison at Pentonville. These underwent sundry modifications, and were principally moulded into their adopted form in the surveyor's office, whence the details and working drawings — in some instances, we fear, not very remarkable for taste — certainly proceeded. With so much land at command, it is to be regretted that more space has not been left between the main entrance and the approach to the prison. It cannot but strike the visitor as being unnecessarily confined. The central portion, which we have already described as towering upwards nearly 90 feet in height, is imposing in its architecture, but its beauty is almost lost to the view owing to the very circumscribed space from which alone a view of it can be obtained.

The corridor of the main entrance, from which the magistrates', governor's, and clerks' rooms are approached, is low and gloomy. The rooms and offices themselves, too, though extensive and commodious in their several arrangements, are exceedingly dark. This appears to be owing to the great blunder of constructing the debtors' wings directly opposite to the windows on each side. Besides, these wings extend beyond the line of the front of the building, thus detracting much from the general effect, and crowding the buildings at the very point where the most open space should have been retained. There does not seem to have been the least necessity for placing these debtors' wards in this prominent position. There is abundance of space at the sides and back of the main buildings where these might have been equally advantageously erected as relates to the discipline, and the inconvenience to the officer, the unsightly appearance, and the obstruction to the free circulation of air and light might easily have been avoided.

The chapel is certainly a beautiful building — light, roomy, and well ventilated; hut here, too, it is much to be regretted that mistakes should have been committed, The gallery, which is intended for the female prisoners alone, is at least three or four feet too high, and to compensate for that blunder it has been found necessary to construct the pulpit and reading des — which are detached and of different design, if indeed they can be said to have any design about them — meet outrageously high. The pulpit is nothing more nor less than a tub with a door to it, placed on four pillars which rest on a circular base, elevated three steps from the floor of the chapel. It is attained by a staircase which winds round the front of it — narrow, but perhaps wide enough if traversed with care, but so fixed as to convey the uncomfortable feeling to any one upon it that the whole structure will topple ever together. The projecting corner, too, of the landing at the summit, is unnecessary, and offensive to the eye. But the structure or contrivance which was pointed out to us as intended for the reading desk is, of all things we ever saw, the most unsightly and absurd. It is related of a certain sculptor that on discovering a glaring omission in one of his works, otherwise perfect in all its parts, he a went and destroyed himself rather than endure the sarcasms of his critics; and whoever was the author of this abortion ought certainly to be studious to keep his name in obscurity. Had it been intended for a pedestal for an equestrian statue it might have been appropriate; but in a chapel, where, of all places, everything ought to be fitting and becoming, it is more calculated to excite derision than any other feeling. The space embraced by the communion rail is small, but confined as this is, the approach is even more obstructed by the method in which the stairs of the so-called reading desk are disposed. The is clerk's desk seems to have been entirely overlooked, and no arrangement whatever is made far that important official.

We must next advert to another gross error which strikes us on going over the prison as having been committed. We allude to the hospitals, or infirmaries. These are narrow, confined, low, constructed close to the northern boundary wall, with a north aspect, and with the cells consequently excluded from what is so indispensable to health and cheerfulness — the benefit of the the sun's rays. The convalescent yards are certainly, on the south side of the building, but these are overlooked by the main prison. These inconveniences might and ought to have been avoided, and it is to he hoped, for the surgeon's credit, that he was not consulted as to the arrangements. The gaol acts prohibit the prisoners of either sex being attended by officers or Servants of the other, and so therefore there is no conceivable reason why the male and female hospitals should have been constructed, as these are, together, under one roof, though separated certainly by a divisional door. Had they been so separated there is abundance of unoccupied space on the male and female sides of the ground respectively for distinct hospitals, in positions where air, and light, and sun might of have been enjoyed.

As we before stated, the building is visited daily by large numbers of our townspeople. The access by the the East Lancashire Railway, stopping at Walton junction, is easy, and a long walk or ride by the highway is thereby avoided.

In 1857, an even more extensive account of the prison appeared in a series of articles in a local newspaper.

H.M. Prison, Walton, Liverpool, from the south-west, early 1900s.

In 1878, following the nationalisation of the prison system, the establishment became H.M. Prison, Walton.

On 18 September 1940, during the Liverpool Blitz, a wing of the prison was damaged by German bombers, with 22 inmates being killed.

Now H.M. Prison Liverpool, the establishment is used to house remand and sentenced adult males from the Merseyside area, with over 1400 inmates at its peak occupancy.


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