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!
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.
from the Gentleman's Magazine, 1805 containing Neild's description
of the old Durham Gaol. (DUL Ref: Bamburgh P 4 57)
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.
an escape form used in Durham Prison. Image courtesy of HM Prison Durham
and John Cavanagh.
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.
out about the building of the new prison
in Durham in the next section.
of a reconstructed prison cell. Image courtesy of Durham Heritage
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.
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.
from the Prison Rules of 1865 showing the typical diet of Class 2 Prisoners.
(DUL ref: L 365.6 HM)
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.
showing the entrance to the old Bridewell, now a bar.