Ancestry UK

Liberty Gaol, St Albans, Hertfordshire

The Liberty of St Albans was created in the 8th century. It encompassed twenty-two parishes within Hertfordshire but enjoyed the powers of an independent county. It was absorbed into Hertfordshire in 1874.

The Liberty Gaol occupied one side of the St Albans Abbey Gateway.

St Albans Abbey Gateway.

In 1784, John Howard reported on his visits to the gaol:

The Liberty Gaol, for twenty-two parishes, is the property of Lord Salisbury. For debtors, two spacious day-rooms, and three lodging-rooms. For felons, three offensive rooms. When there are men and women, they cannot be properly separated.—One of the windows is towards the road, through which tools were lately conveyed, which facilitated the escape of an atrocious criminal.—No straw: no court. Salary, £16. Licence for beer. Clauses against spirituous liquors not hung up. Fees, 13s. 4d. no table.

1776, March 1,No prisoners. 
1776, Nov. 3,Debtor 1. 
1779, April 24,0.Felon &c. 1.Deserters 2.
1782, May 7,0.0. 

In 1812, James Neild wrote:

Gaoler, Samuel Lines; now John Cooke. Salary, 50l. Fees; Debtors, none. Felons, &c. l3s. 4d. For conveyance of Transports a Bill is made.
I was informed that a late Keeper of this Gaol had been dismissed, for cruelly treating, and half-starving the Prisoners.

Chaplain, none; nor any religious attentions.

Surgeon, is ordered in, when wanted, by the Mayor.

Number of Prisoners,

1801, Aug. 15th, Five.1805, Aug. 1st, Two.
1802, Feb. 4th, Four.1810, Aug. 12th, Five.
1804, Sept. 8th, Two. 

Allowance, To Debtors, none whatever. To Criminals, one pound of bread per day, cut from the Keeper's loaves, and which he furnishes out of his Salary!

This "Liberty Gaol," for twenty-two parishes, is the property of the Marquis of Salisbury.

Here is one court-yard, of 36 feet by 30 feet 6 inches, with a flag-stone floor, a pump and sewer, and a day-room, of which the Gaoler's room commands a full view. Also a spacious airy room for Debtors, with a fire-place, but no bedding allowed, not even straw! No room is set apart for the sick.

For Men-Criminals here is a small day-room, about 12 feet square; and four dark sleeping-cells, the size of the largest 12 feet by 8, with straw on the boarded floors, a blanket and a rug for each Prisoner.

The Women Criminals have a large room above stairs, with two sleeping-cells, 9 feet by 7 feet 6 inches.

Under the gate-way are two very offensive sleeping-rooms, the one totally dark; the other has a post fixed up in it, to which refractory Prisoners are chained.

Here is no employment. Some years since, Lady Spencer, with her accustomed benevolence and humanity, had ordered a Mill to be fixed here; but some French Prisoners, who had been confined for but a night or two, just previous to my visiting the Gaol in 1804, had wantonly destroyed or spoiled it.

The other side of the Abbey Gateway was occupied by a bridewell, serving both the Liberty and the Borough of St Albans. From 1823, the gaol and the bridewell were usually treated as a single establishment with two departments. In around 1826, the establishment also absorbed the function of the St Albans Borough Gaol, previously under the old Town Hall on the Market Square.

In 1838, the Inspectors of Prisons reported on what they referred to as St Albans Liberty Gaol and House of Correction:

This prison is a common gaol and house of correction, and belongs to the County and Liberty of St. Albans. Prisoners from the borough are also committed to it, although the management is vested exclusively in the Justices of the county.

The prison is in the tower of the ancient gateway of St. Albans, and consists of the following apartments and yards:—

Common Gaol.
Day-room14'-10" by 12'-11"; height 12'-0".
Sleeping-room.10'-2" by 11'-10"; height 12'-10".
"11'-9" by 7'6"; height 12'-0".
"8'-0" by 7'-10"; height 12'-8".
"12'-0" by 7'-10"; height 12'-8".
"21'-3" by 14'-0"; height 15'-6".
"20'-0" by 16'-0"; height 9'-5".
Females' room18'-3" by 14'-0"; height 10'-10".
Debtors' room18'-5" by 6'-7"; height 9'-5".
Chapel.20'-7" by 14'-7"; height 10'-5".
The Yard.32'-0" by 26'-7"; height 22'-0".
House of Correction.
Day-room.17'-0" by 10'-0"; height 16'-4".
Sleeping-room.15'-3" by 11'-6"; height 15'-4".
"21'-6" by 19'-0"; height 15'-4".
"25'-0" by 17'-0"; height 14'-6".
"24'-4" by 12'-0"; height 16'-0".
Treadwheel-room.20'0" by 16'-0"; height 15'-4".
Females' Day-room.29'-2" by 12'-6"; height 10'-8".
Do. Sleeping-room.19'-6" by 14'-6"; height 10'-6".
The Yard.36'-6" by 32'0"; height 17'-8".

There are no means of inspection into any of these apartments, and the gaoler has to unlock the room-doors before he can see any of his prisoners. The principle on which the prisoners are classed is that of separating the sexes, and also the untried from the convicted, and placing together those who, in the judgment of the visiting justices and the gaoler, are the least likely to corrupt each other. At the period of our last inspection we found 38 prisoners in custody, of whom 24 were in the House of Correction. Among the untried was one prisoner who subsisted himself, in order that he might have the privilege (which, under such circumstances, are allowed) of being kept apart from others. When questioned as to his motive for so doing, he said that he had never been before in prison; that he could prove himself Innocent of the offence with which he was charged; and that he was anxious to avoid the exposure and disgrace which would be occasioned by his being recognized by any of the other prisoners at a future time.

The convicted male prisoners are employed on the tread-wheel for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, and are required, in addition, to pick 3 lbs. of oakum daily. The women are never placed on the tread-wheel, but are employed in picking oakum, and occasionally at needlework. Conversation is not prohibited, nor, in fact, would it be possible to enforce the Silent System in this prison.

Divine Service is performed on Sundays; a full service in the mornings, and prayers only in the afternoon. Prayers are not read on the week-days. There is no partition in the chapel between the male and female prisoners.

The convicted male prisoners go into the House of Correction yard for air and exercise twice a week The women are allowed to go into the yard three or four hours in the course of the day.

The punishment for prison offences is solitary confinement.

The Surgeon attends daily, whether his services be required or not.

The convicted prisoners have a prison dress.

Two prisoners are employed as wardsmen.

Neither visitors nor letters are allowed to the prisoners for the first six months of their imprisonment.

There are no accommodations for the cleansing of the prisoners on their entrance, or for the fumigation of their clothes.

The Magistrates are sensible of the defects of this prison, and desirous of adopting effective measures for its improvement. However desirable it may be that they should for the present defer any measures which would be attended with much expense, we would recommend,in the mean time, that more attention should be directed than appears now to be the case, to the religious improvement of the prisoners. In a prison to which not less than 277 prisoners have been committed in the course of a year, and where 55 prisoners have been at one time in custody, Divine Service should not only be performed on Sundays, but prayers should be read daily, and each prisoner visited apart from me rest by the Chaplain, in the course of the week.

Some arrangement ought also immediately to he made for preventing the male and female prisoners from seeing each other in chapel.

In 1867, the prison moved to a new building on Grimston Road. In 1871, the Abbey gateway became part of St Albans School.


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