Ancestry UK

St Albans Prison / HMP St Albans, St Albans, Hertfordshire

In November 1867, the St Albans Liberty Gaol and Bridewell transferred to new premises on what is now Victoria Square, Grimston Road, St Albans, Hertfordshire. The building was designed by William Martin and John H Chamberlain. The male prison was a radial layout, with two three-storey wings providing seventy-eight cells. The female prison was a single-sided two-storey block holding fourteen cells.

Below is a contemporary description of the new prison:

On Friday, the 1st instant, the prisoners were removed from the old to the new prison, for the Liberty of St. Alban's, which has been erected at a cost of at least 14,000l., —that being the amount of the building contract.

The new prison is situated on the north-east side of St. Alban's, about a mile and a half from the Town Hall. This locality has undergone a surprising transformation within the last few years,—the result of the construction of the Great Northern branch line from Hatfield to St. Albans, and of the extension of the Midland railway from Bedford to London. The Midland railway passes close to the gaol, from which, consequently, it is a very prominent object —and a view of it may also be obtained from the Great Northern branch to Hatfield. The building stands on an eminence, from which it may be seen for miles round; and is imposing in appearance, being as handsome as is consistent with its character—a place of punishment. The fine prospect presented from the eminence on which the gaol stands is, of course, shut out from the view of the inmates by the wall which surrounds the place.

The architects are Messrs. Martin and Chamberlain, of Birmingham, and the contractor, Mr. Young, of Lincoln. The works have been most carefully executed, the credit of which is in a considerable measure due to the oversight of the clerk of the works, Mr. Wilcox. The building is of brick, with facings of dark blue Staffordshire bricks and Bath stone. It is constructed on the same plan as the county gaol at Warwick, and several of our large modern prisons. It is in a castellated style of architecture. Over the gateway there is a portcullis. The governor's house stands on the right of the gateway, and the chief warder's on the left. The front with its grand entrance is of lofty proportions, and is surmounted by a large air shaft, which is sixty feet high from the entrance steps. This shaft conveys fresh air to every cell and other apartment in the building.

On entering the building we find ourselves in a spacious central hall, with long corridors to the left and right. This hall is lighted by a lofty lantern dome which rises about 64 feet from the basement floor. The corridors run in a straight line the whole length of the building, or about 150 feet. Along these corridors run three tiers of cells, with galleries running in front of the two upper tiers. The two corridor4 are respectively distinguished as the "A and B" wings. There are 78 cells for the male prisoners in the corridors, and each cell is numbered. We enter one of these cells—a room twelve feet long, seven feet wide, and nine feet high, with a small window, which gives a not too cheerful light. The cell is provided with two flues. A grating is provided through which hot air is let in for warming the cell. The vitiated air passes out through a grating above the floor of the cell, up the walls, and along the horizontal flues in the roof, to the shaft, outside the building.

The cells are heated by means of hot water pipes, which are let in at different points along the wall. The ventilation, therefore, is of the most complete and satisfactory character. Each cell is lighted with gas, the tap being placed outside the cell, so that the warder can turn off the gas without entering. Arrangements are made by which the solitude of the prisoner is broken in upon as little as possible. In the centre of the cell door is a little trap about a foot square, called a ration trap, opening from without by a spring. The warder who brings the prisoner his food opens this trap and places the food upon it; the prisoner removes his food the trap is drawn up again, and the warder passes on to the next cell. Each cell is provided with a cistern holding eight gallons of water, which is conveyed to the cell by pipes from the upper stories. The supply is so regulated that the prisoner cannot be cheated out of his allowance of eight gallons per day, nor obtain any more than that quantity. In each cell is a washing bowl with a tap over it, and a water closet with its tap. In the walls of the cells, about twelve inches from the floor on each side, are four strong staples, on which is swung the prisoner's hammock, which he must fold up carefully every morning, and place on one of the three slate shelves, with which each cell is provided. The door closes with a spring lock, of which the warder has a key, and the governor a "master key." A cell locked by the governor cannot be opened by the warder, and by this means the governor can, when he pleases, exercise a personal supervision over any prisoner. In the cell door there is a glazed inspection hole, rather larger than an ordinary eye glass, by means of which the warder can at all times overlook the cell and the inmate. One of the most remarkable contrivances of the prison is that for enabling prisoners to communicate with the officials. The prisoner pulls a handle drawing out a spring, which strikes upon a gong at the end of the corridor. When pulled the spring at the time it strikes the gong throws out a square piece of iron on which is marked the number of the cell from which the gong has been struck.

There are seventy-eight of these cells in the male prison, and fourteen in the female prison. The cells in the upper prison are reached by a stone staircase leading to the iron gallery which runs along the front of them.

Near the entrance hall, is the Visiting Justices' room, a retiring room, a waiting room, the offices of the Governor and Chief Warder, reception cells, bath rooms, an examining room, and a visitors' room. On arriving at the gaol, the prisoners are placed in the reception room. They then pass to the examination room, where they are examined by the surgeon. After being divested of their clothing, which is placed in a fumigating oven, they are compelled to take a tepid bath. After this generally very needful operation, they are supplied with the prison uniform, and placed in their respective cells. There are two separate cells outside the entrance, for prisoners afflicted with infectious skin disease, and a dead house, also outside the entrance. Attached to the infirmary are a surgery and a room for the infirmary warder. The Chaplain has also an apartment. In the basement story are the workshops for the prisoners, called "associated rooms," which are a modification of the separate system. The kitchen is a large and most convenient apartment, in which we found, two prisoners engaged in cooking operations. A quantity of potatoes were being cooked by steam; and some savoury soup was being made by the same process. The prisoners' food is raised from the kitchen by means of a shaft. The scullery adjoins the kitchen, and near it are the bakehouse, potatoe store-room, meat store-room, ordinary store-room, and an officers' mess room.

There are two punishment cells in the male prison, in which prisoners may be placed in solitary confinement for three days, for breaches of prison discipline. These cells are provided with double doors so that no sound can reach the ear of the prisoners confined in them. There is a visiting room where prisoners at rare intervals are allowed to see their friends. The room is divided into three compartments, by means of iron grateings. An officer of the prison is present at all interviews, and stands in the centre compartment, between the prisoner and his friends.

The chapel, which is in the upper part of the north side of the prison, is a handsome and spacious structure in the Gothic style. It is fitted up plainly, but appropriately. That portion of it used by the female prisoners is shut. off by a partition from the other part of the chapel, so that the male prisoners are excluded from all sight of the women. The chaplain, however, and the officials can see every person in the chapel. There are, of course, separate entrances for the male and female prisoners—there being a covered way from the female prison to the chapel.

The arrangements of the female prison (which communicates with the other part of the prison on the ground floor) are much the same as we have described. There are ten cells, two reception rooms on the basement story, one punishment cell, and one itch cell, at the outside entrance. There is also a laundry, a washhouse, with a steam drying closet, and an airing yard adjoining.

Haying inspected the interior of the prison, we inspected the exercise yard and the tread mill, which is divided off into separate compartments for each prisoner. There is a platform over the wheel on which a warder keeps guard. A little bell rings at every five revolutions of the wheel, and the prisoners listen eagerly for the third peal, which is the signal for their temporary relief. Water is pumped up for the supply of the gaol by the tread-mill.

The works in common with the new gaol were finished by Messrs. Kirk and Belstone, as sureties for Mr. Young, the contractor. The heating, steam, and treadwheel apparatus, with the pumps, were supplied by Messrs. Haden and Son, of Trowbridge, Wilts., and the works in connexion with the water supply to the gaol were carried out by Mr. Whitworth, of Birmingham.

Following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878, the establishment became Her Majesty's Prison St Albans.

Former HMP St Albans reception block.

The prison was closed in 1914. It was later used as a council depot for many years. Only the former entrance block survives, now home to the St Albans Register Office.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.



  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.