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

 The History of Durham Prison

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The new prison was founded with £2000 paid by Bishop Barrington Shute of Durham who wanted to be rid of the existing gaol which he felt was a traffic hazard. In 1808 Sir George Wood had commented on the poor state of the House of Correction and County Gaol and so moves were made to build a new prison to replace these. With great ceremony the construction of the current prison began on 31st July 1809 when the foundation stone was laid by Sir Henry Vane Tempest. Large crowds attended to see the Bishop place gold, silver and copper coins of the time into the foundations, bands played and soldiers from the Durham volunteers fired a volley of shots with their rifles to celebrate the occasion but because of problems in its construction, no prisoners were transferred to the new prison until 1819. Indeed, the first architect, Francis Sandys, was jailed for theft of money in building the prison, the plans were heavily criticised and some parts even had to be pulled down and rebuilt. When it finally opened the new prison had 600 cells and was able to replace both the old House of Correction and the County Gaol. Some prisoners have claimed that the new prison is haunted - saying they have seen something in a cell where one inmate was allegedly stabbed to death by another.

Front page of the 1819 Rules for the Governance of Durham Gaol.

Front page of the 1819 Rules for the Governance of Durham Gaol. (DUL ref: XLL 942.8)

The prison operated a series of punishments for various misdemeanours. This included fettering in irons, flogging, birching, the treadmill and close confinement. The treadmill was introduced as a punishment when a prisoner had severely brokem the prison rules. They were expected to turn the treadmill by walking on it. Each turn was counted and 500 turns was considered a good day's effort. However, as the prisoner became accustomed to the treadmill it became easier for the prisoner to turn so a special screw was introduced which the prison turnkeys could use to adjust the pressure and make it more difficult to turn. This is why prison officers are still known to this day as 'screws'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph showing Durham Prison. Image courtesy of HM Prison Durham and John Cavanagh.

Photograph showing Durham Prison. Image courtesy of HM Prison Durham and John Cavanagh.

 

The new prison needed new rules which reflected the changes in attitude to punishment and criminals. After 1819 male and female prisoners were kept apart, as were debtors and felons. Rules forbade drinking, bad language, disobedience, quarrelling and indecency. All prisoners were to be put to work with some being paid for their work when they were discharged. The prisoners were classified and separated according to the crimes they had committed and work was expected to help in reforming the character of these people. Short term offenders had to take away rubbish, level ground, extend gardens whilst longer term prisoners had to pick oakum, work in the workshops etc. Considerable efforts were made to find suitable work for every prisoner but bad weather sometimes made this difficult. In 1820 Visiting Justices were appointed to inspect the prison 3 times every quarter of the year to ensure that standards were acceptable.

 

Engraving from the London Illustrated News showing chains in use at Newgate prison.

Engraving from the London Illustrated News showing chains in use at Newgate prison. (DUL Ref + 050 v093 1888)

 

In the next section we take a look at the history of executions that took place in Durham.

 

Find out about executions at Durham PrisonGo back to conditions in prison

 

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