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Home > Crime and Punishment in Durham > The History of Durham Prison
 

The History of Durham Prison

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In a word, awful! Before the 1823 Gaol Act, the warder had to pay for the right to run the gaol and made his money back by charging prisoners for their food, drink and 'other services' he provided. These services included releasing prisoners, providing straw for bedding and even providing drinking water! Durham Gaol also had a licence that allowed one of the warders, Bainbridge Watson, to sell alcohol and part of the gaol was used like a pub!

There were different rooms for debtors (people imprisoned because they owed money to others and who would not be released until it was paid) and felons (criminals and people awaiting trial in court). However, little attempt was made to keep the felons separated so innocent people awaiting trial mixed with murderers, convicted criminals awaiting execution and those waiting to be transported as punishment for their crimes.

 

Extracts from Gentleman's Magazine, 1805 containing Neild's description of the old Durham Gaol.

Extracts from Gentleman's Magazine, 1805 containing Neild's description of the old Durham Gaol.

Extracts from the Gentleman's Magazine, 1805 containing Neild's description of the old Durham Gaol. (DUL Ref: Bamburgh P 4 57)

None of the prisoners had an easy time. In 1776 the felons were given rations of 1 pound of bread per day and nothing else. Debtors ate water soup, which was bread boiled in water, and whatever foodstuffs had given from well-meaning people making charitable donations. So bad were the conditions endured by debtors that they even appealed to Parliament for better food and clothing saying they wore rags and had nothing to eat.

Copy of an escape form used in Durham Prison. Image courtesy of HM Prison Durham and John Cavanagh.

Copy of an escape form used in Durham Prison. Image courtesy of HM Prison Durham and John Cavanagh.

 

Durham County House of Correction (the Bridewell) was no better. Built in 1634 on the north side of Elvet Bridge it was originally set up to help reform idle vagrants by providing work and accommodation in a place of punishment but it soon started to serve as a common prison for felons just like the County Gaol. There wasn't much difference between the two and there were times when they were both run by the same people. Described by Nield as being 'fitter for the reception of coals than for any human being' conditions here were just as bad as at the County Gaol, although there were rooms for people to work and anything the prisoners earned could be kept to pay for food and drink. It too was home to a variety of debtors, felons, transportees, men being forced to join the army or navy instead of being executed, those awaiting execution and a collection of lunatics and vagrants who couldn't be put anywhere else.

 

Find out about the building of the new prison in Durham in the next section.

Find out the new PrisonGo back

 

 

Picture of a reconstructed prison cell. Image courtesy of Durham Heritage Centre.

Picture of a reconstructed prison cell. Image courtesy of Durham Heritage Centre.

 

Male and female prisoners were separated but conditions were no better for either sex. At night the felons were put into 5 cells deep in underground dungeons that were badly lit and ventilated by the few holes in the ceiling. These were described by Neild as the 'worst cells in the country." Women also both lived and slept in the same room in foul conditions.

 

The smell would have been foul as there was no sewer and the rubbish and waste wasn't removed very often. Cells were overcrowded and the felons lay on beds of straw and some mats infested with bugs and insects. Rats would have been a common sight, the filth encouraging their successful breeding. It was a place where the strong bullied the weak and any new inmate could expect to have their few possessions stolen and sold on for food and water. There was usually nothing for the inmates to do except swap stories of their great exploits and plot future crimes and escape plans. In his inspection of 1803, Neild did find prisoners spinning, picking oakum and beating flax but later inspections by Gurney found no evidence of such work being given to prisoners. The gaol was just too small to have space where the inmates could work.

 

Extract from the Prison Rules of 1865 showing the typical diet of Class 2 Prisoners.

Extract from the Prison Rules of 1865 showing the typical diet of Class 2 Prisoners. (DUL ref: L 365.6 HM)

 

The foul conditions meant that there were frequent attempts to escape but if caught, prisoners faced being clamped in irons - as did those who knew anything (or even nothing) about the escape attempts. When Howard visited he found men who had been chained to the floor for many weeks, which had 'twisted their bodies cruelly and caused great pain' to them. Even worse, in 1818 Gurney found every prisoner in irons because of an escape attempt on the previous day. Gaolers were penalised if anyone escaped plus they were able to extort more money from the felons for removing the irons. Only with the introduction of paid gaolers and the campaign for prison reform did the situation start to improve.

 

 

 

Photograph showing the entrance to the old Bridewell, now a bar.

Photograph showing the entrance to the old Bridewell, now a bar.

 

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