Ancestry UK

City Gaol and Bridewell, Oxford, Oxfordshire

The City Gaol

Oxford had a Town Gaol by at least 1229 when its inmates included clerks arrested in Oxford until their delivery to the chancellor of the university, and also occasional prisoners from the county. In 1239, it was located at the North Gate and by 1293 was of two storeys by 1293, when the chancellor asked for an extra floor to be added so that felons, women, and minor offenders could be segregated. In 1305, the town authorities were ordered to make two prisons, one for each sex. In about 1310, a separate prison for prostitutes was provided in the west tower of the gate, later known as the maidens' chamber. In 1311, the part which had been used as a prison for clerks was demolished. By 1393, the maidens' chamber was also disused and new accommodation had been provided elsewhere in the gaol. Prisoners during the 14th century included clerks, townsmen causing a breach of the peace, a woman suspected of forgery, and debtors. By 1391, the prison had become known as 'Bocardo' (or 'Boccardo'), perhaps derived from 'boccard' or 'boggard', meaning a privy, and referring to its insanitary state.

Another storey was added in 1542-3 and major repairs carried out in 1583-4. In 1661 the prison comprised the freemen's ward above the gate on the south with an inner ward to the north of it, and below the wards two begging-rooms; on the west side of the gate, one above the other, were the dungeon, the condemned room, and at the top the women's ward. In 1605-6, the condemned room was called the close room, and a beggar's grate existed. The gaol was enlarged in around 1671 and the house adjoining the prison at the west was taken over to accommodate the keeper. A hall was built in 1675. Bocardo's most famous prisoners were the bishops Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, who spent various periods between 1554 and 1556 in a small strongly barred cell on the west side of the gate. The cell later became known as the Bishops' Hole, and an oak door associated with it is now preserved in the tower of the St. Michael at the Northgate church.

The City Bridewell

In 1598, the city council set up a bridewell in part of the town hall. Contractors were employed to occupy inmates in carding and spinning woollen and linen. The scheme faltered and for a while the city and university agreed to share the costs of sending men to the Witney bridewell.

From 1631, the bridewell operated in purpose-built premises outside the north gate, on the east side of the street, and was accessed from Cornmarket by an arched doorway. It contained at least three upper rooms, and a barred cellar, from which the inmates begged from passers-by and took in tools for breaking the bars; during the Civil War prisoners were confined the cellar in degrading conditions,

North Gate and City Gaol, from the north, Oxford, 1770.

The bridewell was in use until 1772, except during the Civil War and for a short period in the 1650s when the able-bodied unemployed were sent to a contractor in Witney. From the later 17th to the early 18th century, the university ran its own bridewell but then began sharing the city bridewell.

After Bocardo was closed in 1771, the corporation considered extending the bridewell to include a gaol but it was found to be impracticable. In 1772, the bridewell was moved to premises in George Street, where it continued until 1789.

The City Gaol and Bridewell

The old city gaol was demolished with the rest of North Gate in 1771, and for a few years city prisoners were housed in the Castle Gaol. In 1786-9, a combined gaol and bridewell designed by William Blackburn was erected at Gloucester Green.

The prison site is shown on the 1792 map below.

City Gaol and Bridewell site, Oxford, 1792.

In 1812, James Neild described the new prison as follows:

Gaoler, Thomas Wharton. Salary, 52l. 10s.

Fees, Debtors, 9s. 2d. Misdemeaners, 3s. 4d. Felons, none. No Table.

Chaplain, Rev. Mr. Penson. Duty, Sunday Prayers and Sermon. Salary, 10l. 10s.

Surgeon, Mr. Rawlins; makes a Bill.

Number of Prisoners,

Debtors.Felons &c.Debtors.Felons &c.
1800, April 29th,141896, Aug. 30th,16
1802, Nov. 23d,061809, Nov. 21st.03
1803, Aug. 19th,010

Allowance, for Debtors, none regularly established: But see the Remarks. Felons, and other Criminal Prisoners, have each eight pounds and eleven ounces of best wheaten bread per week, sent in twice weekly from the baker's, in loaves of 4lbs. 5½oz. each. These I found to be very exact, there being weights and scales provided by the City, for the use of the Prisoners. Those who can procure Employment from without are allowed to work, and have the whole of their earnings, but not the City allotment of bread, as above. At my visit in 1806, I found all the seven Prisoners employed; but four of them, not being able to maintain themselves entirely, had the City bread.


This Gaol is surrounded by a boundary-wall, 20 feet high, inclosing about an acre of ground; and being at the distance of 25 feet from the Prison, the Keeper has a convenient garden within it, for the growth of vegetables.

There is an alarm-bell at the top of the Prison. The Gaoler's house, which is in the centre of the building, fronts the outer-gate, and has, on each side, a small flower-garden, 40 feet by 20, fenced in with open palisades. At the entrance is a small room, about 10 feet square, in which the Act for preservation of Health, and Clauses against the use of Spirituous Liquors, are conspicuously hung up.

In the above room, on an old door, and engraved on a brass plate, (as if in perpetuam rei memoriam,) is the following Inscription.

This Door was at the entrance of a Cell, in the Old City Gaol Boccardo, called 'The Bishops' Room;' wherein the Bishops Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer were confined; and from whence they were taken to suffer martyrdom in the Town-Ditch, behind the Houses opposite Baliol-College, in the Reign of Queen Mary.

Over the Door are the Heads of the three Prelates, burnt in wood.

Here are five court-yards, each about 'A feet by 29, enclosed with open wood palisades; three are assigned for Criminals, and two for Male and Female Debtors. The two court-yards fronting the entrance have arcades, for shelter in wet weather, or for the Prisoners to work in. Every court has a sewer, and is well supplied with water.

The ground-floor of the Prison contains the Visiting Magistrates' Committee Room; the Gaoler's Kitchen; also a place called The Hall, an irregular octagon of 23 feet diameter; and two day-rooms for Criminal Prisoners, one for Men, the other for Women; with fire-places, and shelves to deposit their provisions.

The Hall has on each side a lobby, 43 feet long, and 5 feet wide, with three working-cells, 8 feet by 6, and 9 feet high to the crown of the arch. Both the lobbies terminate in a stair-case leading to the Chapel; which is on the first-floor, and of the same size with the Hall beneath it. The Chapel is open above to the top of the building, with a sky-light in the roof. The Prisoners are disposed according to their classes; the Debtors seated below, the Felons in the gallery; and all in full view both of the Chaplain and Gaoler.

On each side of the Chapel is a lobby, similar to those below, each containing eight sleeping-cells, with double doors; the outer one iron-grated, the inner of wood. They are 8 feet long by 6, and 9 feet high to the crown of the arch; all well lighted and ventilated, and fitted up with elm-plank bedsteads on stone bearers, 6 feet long, 22 inches wide, and supplied with a sedge mat, and three blankets each.

Here are also two day-rooms for Debtors, about 14 feet square, with fire-places; and a sleeping-room, furnished with beds by the Keeper, at 1s. 6d. each per week. A Criminal Prisoner, in his proper department, is allowed to bring his own bed; or else hires one from the Keeper, at a shilling or eighteen pence per week.

Common-Side Debtors, who have not beds of their own, and cannot afford to pay, sleep in the cells above-mentioned.

The second, or attick story, contains two dark cells for refractory Prisoners; two Lazarettos, for those infected with cutaneous or other disorders, so as to render their admission amongst the other Prisoners improper; and sixteen sleeping-cells. Also two Hospital-rooms, with fire-places, for the Men and Women, 15 feet square, with a water closet in each. The Dispensary is close to the Infirmaries, and from these a door opens into the Chapel gallery. Above the Dispensary is a large cistern, replenished with water by a forcing-pump, which is placed at the back of the Gaol, and plentifully supplies the whole Prison.

No Gaol uniform is here provided; but if any Prisoners, on entrance, are found ragged, or in offensive apparel, they are supplied with other, by an order from the Magistrates. Here is no oven to purify infected clothes; but towels, soap, &c. are allowed by the City, for Prison cleanliness.

Coals in the Winter, meat, and soup, are frequently granted by the Magistrates; and when a Prisoner is ill, the Surgeon has a discretionary power to order such food, and other accommodation, as he thinks necessary.

One Moiety of Mrs. Catherine Mather's Legacy is appropriated for the supply of Coals to the Prisoners in this City Gaol; and any deficiency of that article is sent in by the considerate Magistrates; who visit here in monthly rotation, and enter their Remarks in a book kept for so very useful a purpose.

Here are seldom any Debtors; none being sent hither but by Writ issuing from the City Court.

Upon their discharge, and if they have behaved well under confinement, money is given to the Prisoners, according to their respective distances from home; and all of them are humanely discharged in the morning.

No Rules and Orders. The Prison is clean.

Below is a description of the prison from 1823:

The city gaol, on Gloucester-green, was built about thirty-five years ago; and if ventilation were all a prison wanted, it would be one of the best in the country, a thorough air passing through the building in every direction indeed, it is evident that this object has been carried too far; the prisoners in winter must be very much exposed to the cold. All the doors are made of open iron-work; every passage has ventilators to the floors, above and below, and each cell has an aperture for the same purpose above the door into the passage. This plan has the inconvenience of affording great facility of communication to the prisoners, although the governor (who has held the office twenty-eight years) says that from the situation of his bedroom, no prisoner can speak from one cell to another without his hearing them.

The governor's room and the chapel are in the centre of the building. There are four yards, one for the untried, one for debtors, one for women, and one for men after trial.

The yards are only separated by low, open, wooden paling, which affords the prisoners the opportunity of both seeing and conversing from one class to another. As these partitions are falling to decay, it is to be hoped that they may soon be replaced by substantial walls. There are thirty-two solitary sleeping-cells, two wards for infectious cases, and two sick wards; there are also two dark refractory cells, provided with a contrivance for confining the prisoners upright to the wall, by the throat and legs;this however has only been once used in the case of a violent madman, who was sent here some years ago.

At the present time there are only twelve prisoners: the greatest number in the prison was forty-two, which was during the disturbance at the time of the Queen's trial. The greatest proportion are women of the town, who are continually committed here by the proctors of the University. Washing and scouring are almost always going on, as it is the only employment at present for the women. The men pump water, and work at their own trades, and in the garden. Irons are used for very heavy crimes. Divine service is performed once on Sunday; the chaplain often visits in the week, and sees the prisoners separately, or in classes, in the gaoler's parlour. The allowance of food consists of two quartern loaves a week; one is given on Monday and one on Thursday. A hot dinner is allowed on Sunday, when each prisoner has as much meat as he can eat!

In 1836, the Inspectors of Prisons reported:

Construction.—This building is extremely clamp. After a thaw (January 1836) I found the walls, floors, doors and bedding, all moist. The officers and the prisoners agree as to the general dampness of the Prison.

There are five Yards and five Day Rooms. The prostitutes associate in one Day Room.

This Prison appears to have been built about half a century ago, and partakes of the want of information which then prevailed on the subject of good discipline in Prisons. It is solid, and spacious when compared with the generality of City and Borough Prisons. Some of its defects might be corrected by mechanical means, and others by an increase in the number of Turnkeys. It stands alone, and has a boundary wall. The Chapel is convenient and ample: it has a division opening• from the Infirmary for the use of convalescents.

A separate privy is wanted for the use of the Gaoler's family. An entrance lodge for the use of the Turnkey would be an advantage. An intermediate wall has been carried some length between the main building and the boundary wall; it does not go the whole circle, and an open wooden palisade supplies its place very indifferently.

In the Day Room of the Labour Yard for Males, the two windows are mere apertures, left open in summer, and covered with oiled-paper in the winter. The Debtors' Day Room looks down into this Labour Yard ; the Debtors can accordingly easily hold conversation with Convicted Felons, and can throw things out to them. This yard is also too near to the neighbouring houses; the prisoners, indeed, have been sometimes accused of breaking the windows in those houses. The Convicted Felons' Sleeping Cells look also upon the windows of some of the houses in Gloucester Green. In the Untried. Ward are the oiled-paper windows again. There is a sink in this yard, which should be kept covered. The Day Room used by the Prostitutes looks down upon this yard ; the women cannot see nor be seen, but they readily can converse with the men below; the screen, however, which interrupts sight, excludes too much both light and air. The cells appear cold as well as damp; indeed a general defect throughout the Prison is a scanty admission of air and light. There are no means of warming the cells at present employed. Conversation appears very easy at night between some of the cells. There are no paved yards. There is a pump and privy in each yard.

Management.—The superintendence of this Gaol is the more difficult, because it usually contains several inmates of a peculiar class — the prostitutes of the City. They are found here generally in numbers varying from 3 to 25. They are frequently recommitted. The salary of the Keeper is small, when we consider the importance of his trust, and the qualities Which its right fulfilment demands. His wife has to sustain, without any salary, the burdensome office of Matron. Two men are never put into one bed, nor into one cell alone, except when one is to act as nurse. Two women never sleep in one bed, and only two in one cell when the prison is crowded, or when one is to act as nurse.

Silence is not enforced, and tobacco is not prohibited.

Diet.—Those prisoners who are on the City allowance have 1½lb. of bread, 1 b ounce of cheese, and 1 quart of gruel daily. On Sundays they are allowed half a pound of meat (when dressed) and one quart of broth.

Those who do not receive this allowance may work at their own trade, and may receive the profits. No Clothing is allowed. I believe that 10l. a year are allowed for the supply of Bedding.

Labour.—During winter the Tread-mill is in operation for six hours daily, and during summer for nine. The wheel will hold eight prisoners at one time. The height of each step is eight inches. Washing is sometimes performed by female prisoners, and Cooking by a Male Felon. I believe that in the Kitchen a communication of prisoners of both sexes is sometimes thus produced, when the washing and the cooking arc going on at the same time.

There are no profits available to time support of the Prison from the Labour, whatever accrues goes to the prisoners.

Religious and other instruction.—Divine Service is performed by the Chaplain on Sunday Morning, Prayers are read by the Governor every night and morning. There is no provision made for instructing the prisoners in reading; but they arc supplied with Bibles and other good books at the expense of the Corporation, and at the discretion of the Chaplain. The Chaplain believes that no moral improvement is likely to happen, unless the prisoners can be separated.

Care of the Sick, Disease and Mortality.—There is an Infirmary Room for the Males, and another for the Females. The Infirmary is good, well glazed, and has a water-closet adjoining. During the year, however, from January 1835 to January 1836, no inmate appears to have occupied the Infirmaries; there have been many slight cases of sickness, but no severe ones; nor has a single death occurred during this period. I believe that there has been no death for four years. The greatest number at one time on the sick-list during the year has been seven. On the whole, the extreme dampness of this Gaol does not appear to have produced the serious disorders which might have been presumed likely to ensue from such a cause; but the unvarying testimony of all the inhabitants of this building, whom I have questioned, points out the frequency of colds and rheumatisms.

The Surgeon attends daily, if it is requisite; but uniformly three times a week; usually four times weekly, and is ready to go whenever sent for.

Venereal Symptoms are not uncommon here; one in six, or one in eight, perhaps, of the prostitutes bring in this disease with them. Sometimes discharges have taken place spontaneously in individuals who came in quite free from them. The Surgeon is not disposed to attribute any diseases to the dampness of the Gaol, and does hot think that it suffers more than the ordinary proportion of complaints which are elsewhere attributable to such a source.

There is no insane prisoner in confinement.

Three new cells were built in 1837, and other substantial improvements, including a new wing, carried out in in 1871, as described in a local newspaper report:


In order to make this building more in accordance with the requirements of the age, nearly 3000l. have been spent in making various alterations and improvements. When built about 80 years ago, it was supposed to be perfect of its sort, being provided with all the sanitary advantages which the philanthropic Howard could conceive; but when it is stated that none of the cells were either warmed, lighted, ventilated, or furnished with bells, it need scarcely be added that the Inspector refused to certify them. The gaol has been enlarged by erecting a new north wing, thus providing twelve additional cells for the male prisoners. There are three storeys to this new portion, and four cells in each. The cells measure 11½ feet by 7½ feet, and 9½ feet high. The walls are very massive, being built of close grained local stone with brick lining. The dressings, quoins, string courses, headings of sills, arches, &c., are of Headington stone. The cells are flagged with best Yorkshire, some of the slabs being of immense size, and the vaulting is in segmental arches. The new cells contrast forcibly with. the old ones, being larger and more airy and. fitted up with modern appliances. Three cells have been. added to the south wing, on the female side, but the superficial area of them is the same as the old ones. These, however, have been rendered comparatively healthy, for the system of ventilation and warming, used by Messrs. G. Haddon and Son, of Trowbridge, has been adopted throughout the gaol. A part of this system is the substitution of open iron work for the paved floors of the corridors on the first and second storey, and the stone steps of the staircases. The iron. work is supplied by Messrs. Lucy and Co., of this City, The chapel, which formerly occupied the centre of the main block, opposite the entrance gates, has been removed to the east side of the building, and now occupies the space which was formerly the debtors' rooms and the female day rooms. Its area is about 500 superficial feet. The space which it originally occupied remains open to the !anthern in the roof. The Chapel has been fitted up with plain deal seats, and divided into two portions by a wood partition, one for the males and the other for the females. The Chaplain's desk is at one end of the partition. Two new reception rooms, looking out upon the south-eastern airing yard, have also been added to the building, and the whole of the work is of a most substantial and thoroughly finished character, eminently suited to the purpose for which it is intended, and highly creditable to the builders, Messrs. Honour and Castle.

Despite the various alterations, the building's flaws led to its being one of those closed in 1878 following the nationalisation of the prison system.


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