There has a been a great deal of speculation since Gloucester Prison closed, concerning the number of executed prisoners who may lie buried in its grounds. Between 120 and 125 seems to be the usual figure suggested. From the research I did for Hanged at Gloucester, I have been able to come up with my own estimate of the number of prisoners buried there. Between 1791 (when the new county prison opened) and 1939, 123 prisoners were hanged in Gloucester; 2 at the city gaol, and 121 at the county prison (which later became HMP Gloucester). This does not mean, though, that 121 people were buried within the prison grounds.
Until the mid-1830s, there were many crimes for which you could be hanged, most of them involving some form of robbery. For all except those hanged for murder, the friends and family of the dead prisoner were permitted to take away the body and have it buried where they wished – usually the family’s local parish church. It is not true that executed criminals could not be buried in consecrated ground. This only applied to those hanged for murder, and this was a rule which was sometimes flouted. Of the 121 prisoners hanged at the county prison, 81 of them were convicted of offences other than murder, so it was permitted for those people to be buried in their parishes, or at any other church which would accept them. I found 33 cases where prisoners were buried in a parish churchyard, or their friends were said to have collected them for burial. It is not clear what became of the other 48, but I think it is most likely that they were buried in pauper’s graves in a local churchyard.*
So, that leaves 40 prisoners who were hanged for the crime of murder. They could not be buried in consecrated ground, so they must have been buried in the prison grounds, right? Well, not necessarily. In 1752, the Murder Act was passed, which stipulated that the bodies of hanged murderers should either be sent to the local infirmary to be anatomized, or placed in a gibbet near the area where they committed their crime, until they rotted. The idea was that murderers should not be buried at all – a severe punishment in an era of Christianity which believed that a whole body needed to be buried in order to be raised to heaven at the time of the Resurrection. This Act was in force until 1832. Between 1791 and 1832, 18 prisoners were hanged for committing murder. These 18 prisoners would have been sentenced to be dissected at Gloucester Infirmary, and I didn’t find anyone who escaped this fate, but 4 were collected by their friends or relatives afterwards and taken away for burial, including John Penny and John Allen, two of the so-called Berkeley poachers, who were condemned for the murder of a gamekeeper in 1816. Both men were buried in Thornbury churchyard and their burials were recorded in the parish registers. The others were Ann Tye, buried at Northleach in 1818, and Rebecca Worlock, buried at Bitton in 1820. What became of the remains of the other 14 dissected prisoners is not known for sure.
The Murder Act ended in 1832, when the Anatomy Act was passed, which provided new sources of bodies for dissection. From then, judges condemning to death prisoners convicted of murder were required to state as part of the sentence that their bodies were to be buried in the grounds of the prison where they were executed. By the 1830s, many of the crimes which had been capital offences had been removed from the statute books, and from the middle of the decade it was usually only murderers who were executed. Of 27 prisoners hanged at Gloucester between 1832 and 1939, all but 5 of them were convicted of committing murder. This means that 22 executed criminals were buried somewhere within the prison’s walls. In a recent interview with The Citizen, Mr Bryan White, a former prison officer at HMP Gloucester, stated that when the new reception and administration block were built in the mid-1980s, they were expecting to find 12 bodies of prisoners who had been buried in the area where the building work took place. I think these must have been the last prisoners executed, between 1886 and 1939, who were buried in a particular area of the prison. Mr White says that the bodies were searched for, in order to transfer them to the cemetery, but only 3 were found. You can read the article in The Citizen here: http://www.gloucestercitizen.co.uk/Ex-Gloucester-Prison-officer-opens-Fred-West-s/story-19650005-detail/story.html So, my conclusion is that with 3 bodies having been removed to the cemetery, there are the remains of 19 prisoners who were executed at the County Prison still buried somewhere within the walls of HMP Gloucester. In addition, there are 48 prisoners hanged for crimes other than murder, whose burial place is unknown, and another 14 who were anatomized and should not have been buried at all, but it is not certain if their remains were disposed of at the infirmary, or if they were in fact returned to the prison. This makes a total of 62 “don’t knows”.
Of course, the new prison was built very close to the old castle, which was the county jail for hundreds of years, before the new prison was built. Executions of county prisoners in those days were held at the nearby village of Over, and it may be that the bodies of murderers – or at least those who were not gibbeted or sent for dissection – were buried there. Or were they taken back to the castle prison? I shall investigate, and report my findings.
* See an update on this theory: New thoughts on burial places of prisoners hanged at Gloucester.
© Jill Evans 2013