Gloucestershire’s old bridewells

state of the prisons

In 1777, prison reformer John Howard published a work called The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, which gave details of his visits to jails across the country. In Gloucestershire, as well as the old county prison in Gloucester Castle and the Gloucester city prison, then in the Northgate, he also had visited the county’s bridewells. Bridewells (also known as houses of correction) held prisoners who either had been sentenced to a term of imprisonment by a magistrate, or were waiting to be taking to Gloucester for trial at the County Quarter Sessions or Assizes. In 1777, the county’s bridewells were at Lawford’s Gate (Bristol), Berkeley, Cirencester and Winchcombe. There was also a gaol for debtors at St Briavel’s, in the Forest of Dean. Howard’s descriptions of these bridewells give a shocking insight into the terrible conditions in which their inmates were kept.

Lawford’s Gate, in the north-east of Bristol, was built in 1716, and probably had the best conditions out of the county’s bridewells. There were four rooms, each measuring 18 feet by 16 feet, two of which had beds in them, for those prisoners who could afford to pay. There was another small room in which felons (those awaiting trial) slept. There were no chimneys, so it would have been very smoky inside when fires were lit. Outside there was a courtyard, 22 feet by 18 feet, with a water pump. Unfortunately, the courtyard was not secure, so prisoners were always confined in their rooms. Poor prisoners were given an allowance of two pence per day (to buy bread). 572 prisoners in total had been confined there in eight years up to September 1776. On Howard’s first visit on 23 August 1774, there were only 2 inmates. On 8 Dec 1775 there were 8, and on 16 December 1776, there were 6.

At Berkeley, Howard found that the bridewell was “quite out of repair.” There was only one room for both men and women. There was no chimney, no water, and no straw on the floors. The yard was not secure, so prisoners were confined indoors. There was no work for them to do. The old Keeper “lamented the bad effects of close confinement in idleness, upon the health of even young strong Prisoners.” There was no allowance for poor prisoners. When Howard visited Berkeley on 22 August 1774, there had been two male prisoners and one female. On his next visit on 6 December 1775, there were no inmates at all. The Keeper gave Howard a list of his prisoners for the previous four and a half years. Between 1771 and 1774, there had been between 15 and 21 prisoners per year. In 1775, up to the time of the Midsummer Quarter Sessions, there had been 4 prisoners.

Howard did not visit Cirencester until 1776. He found that the bridewell consisted of a three-storey building. On the ground floor, the Keeper kept a shop, selling garden seeds, and also had his kitchen. On the first floor there was a room, about 16 feet by 11 feet, where the male prisoners were kept.  On the second floor there was a larger room for women. The whole place was out of repair, and the yard was not secure enough to allow the prisoners to use it. There was no allowance given to inmates, except to the felons who were occasionally committed there. On 4 September 1776, Howard found three prisoners.

Howard also visited  Winchcombe for the first time in 1776. He stated that the bridewell’s prisoners formerly had been kept all together in the cellar, but now they were lodged in the garrets. Men were kept in one and women in the other. Each area was about 14 feet square, but this included the slope down to where the roof and floors met. The tallest area in the middle was eight feet high. There was a glazed window in each, but no chimney, and there was no straw.  The prisoners were always confined to their rooms, because the courtyard was not secure. The whole building was “quite out of repair.” The keeper had a licence to sell beer. Felons were given an allowance of threepence- worth of bread per day. Other prisoners received nothing. On Howard’s visit on 14 December 1776, there were three prisoners: one male felon, and two “women delinquents spinning.”

Howard visited St Briavel’s Gaol for Debtors in December 1775. He stated that the property, which was in the Forest of Dean, belonged to Lord Berkeley. There was no yard, no water and no fire. The conditions in this gaol were perhaps the most shocking, because of the length of time some inmates were kept there. Howard wrote, “One of the two sickly objects I found there, told me had been confined a twelvemonth, and never once out of the dismal room: the other almost as long.” There was an upstairs room for women, but there were none there when Howard visited on 4 December. The keeper had no salary.

When the Gloucestershire Act of 1785 was passed, it provided for the building of four new houses of correction in Gloucestershire, to replace the old bridewells. Lawford’s Gate was rebuilt, but the other jails were closed down completely, and new ones opened in 1791 at Northleach, Horsley and Littledean. Conditions in these new houses of correction may still have been harsh, but at least every prisoner in them was given a bed to sleep on, food to eat, and fresh air in which to exercise.

© Jill Evans 2013

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