The first attempt to close Gloucester Prison

Gloucester Prison from the east (J. Evans, 2010)

Gloucester Prison from the east (J. Evans, 2010)

In January 1850, the Epiphany County Quarter Sessions began in Gloucester. Before the trials commenced, the Chairman, Purnell B. Purnell, reported to the Bench of Magistrates that building works, which had begun in 1844 at the county prison and the four houses of correction, were nearing completion. The Chairman then gave an account of the reasons why it had been felt necessary to carry out the work in the first place. His report revealed that the County Prison and the houses of correction had been threatened with closure, with the Home Office wanting to replace them with a new “super-prison” on the outskirts of Gloucester.

The story went back to October 1842, when a man who had served a six month sentence of imprisonment with hard labour at Northleach House of Correction died soon after his release. A coroner’s inquest held in Cheltenham found that he had suffered from lung disease, and the conditions in which he had been kept at Northleach had aggravated his illness. The case caused a public outcry, and soon came to the attention of the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, who set up a Government Commission to investigate the conditions at all of Gloucestershire’s prisons.

The report of this Commission was laid before Parliament in February 1843,and its findings were damning. Concerning the houses of correction, it was found that damp conditions and poor diet were injurious to prisoners serving terms of hard labour for more than three months. In all the county’s prisons, the biggest problem was overcrowding. Increased numbers of prisoners meant that there was inadequate space to allow all them to be kept in their separate classes, as had been intended originally. Subsequent reports of the Government’s Prison Inspectors and Prison Surveyor also highlighted problems of overcrowding, plus poor ventilation and heating.

Having considered the various reports on Gloucestershire’s prisons, the Home Office suggested a radical plan of action. The county gaol and penitentiary and the four houses of correction should all be demolished, and replaced by one prison, to be operated on the separate system, as at the “model prison” Pentonville in London. The cost of carrying out this plan was estimated at about  £120,000, and it would have been up to the county to foot the bill.

At the Easter Quarter Sessions in 1843, Chairman Purnell reported the Home Office’s findings to the county magistrates. Purnell was not enamoured of the government’s plan, and over the following months, he came up with an alternative scheme which he presented to the court in January 1844:

In the houses of correction, a new ward would be added to each, providing room for  separate cells to be built for all the inmates. In future, houses of correction would only be used for prisoners awaiting trial, or those sentenced to terms of up to three months.

At Gloucester, a new prison would be built within the walls of the existing establishment, which would be run under the separate system as at Pentonville. Part of the original buildings would be used to accommodate the female prisoners, who would all have separate cells. The whole would be divided into five distinct prisons, each with its own code of regulations, namely the debtors’ prison, the gaol, the penitentiary, the separate prison, and the females’ prison.

This alternate plan was favoured by the magistrates, unsurprisingly, as it was estimated that it would cost less than £30,000 to achieve. After some fine-tuning, the scheme was unanimously adopted at the county’s Epiphany Quarter sessions in 1844, and subsequently approved by the government. Work began later that same year.

In  October 1850, at the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions, the Chairman announced that the construction work at the prison was completed, and after the session had closed, he took the magistrates, accompanied by some of the local press, on a tour of the new building. This was the part of the prison which still stands today, consisting of A and B Wings, and the chapel. The Chairman had been able to report, with some satisfaction, that the works at the prison and the houses of correction had been completed within the original estimate.

Sources: Gloucester Journal, 19 Jan 1850, 19 Oct 1850.

© Jill Evans 2013


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