A Report on Gloucester’s Prisons: James Neild, 1812

The most well-known prison reformer in Britain is probably John Howard, whose State of the Prisons, published in three editions in 1777, 1780 and 1784, instigated the building of the new Gloucester County Prison. Another influential reformer was James Neild, a former jeweller, who became the treasurer for the Society for the Relief and Discharge of Persons imprisoned for Small Debts, which formed in 1773. In this role, Neild visited many prisons in Britain (and later on the Continent), and although he was chiefly concerned with the plight of Debtors, he made notes in his diaries on everything he saw in these institutions. He later published some of his notes on these visits in the Gentleman’s Magazine, under the heading of “Prison Remarks”. Then, in 1812, he published his State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales. Neild had come to Gloucester in 1802 and 1806, visiting both the County and City prisons, and his reports on both provide some interesting details.

Neild started with “The County Gaol, and Penitentiary House annexed.” He remarked that, “The situation of this Prison is judiciously chosen, a little way out of the Town. The boundary wall encloses nearly three acres of ground; and the buildings consist of the Gaol, and the Penitentiary House, calculated for separate and distinct purposes.”

On the day of his visit in 1802, there were 50 criminal prisoners and 29 Debtors; in 1806, there were 47 criminals and 28 Debtors, plus “Two French Captives”.

Neild started his tour at the gatehouse, which he called the “Turnkey’s Lodge”. On the ground floor there was “a fumigating room, a guard-room, porter’s-room, and pantry; a bake-house, and warm and cold baths”. Upstairs there were “two rooms for  flour and wheat, and four Lazaretto cells, each 7 feet 6 inches by 6 feet. Two rooms for Prisoners’ clothes; one for irons, locks, bolts, &c, and a porter’s sleeping room”. On the flat roof of the lodge was “the place of execution; and between the two chimnies is placed an alarm-bell, which is tolled during the awful ceremony”. In the outward gate there were two boxes, to receive donations. One was inscribed, “To encourage Penitence and Orderly Behaviour in Criminal Prisoners”, and the other read, “For the Relief of Poor Debtors”.

Neild then moved on to the Gaoler’s House, separated from the gatehouse by a small courtyard, and having on the ground floor “a Magistrate’s Committee Room, the kitchen, pantries, and brewhouse, with cellars underneath”. On the next floor was a sitting room, then above that there was, “a Dispensary, two Infirmaries, and a general Hospital-room, with a fire-place at each end”. On the top storey was “the Foul-Ward, containing three cells for Prisoners who have any infectious disorder”. Convalescents were able to “take the air” on the leaden roof of this building.

Around the prison buildings, there were “eleven separate courts, of an irregular polygon shape”. Between each there was “a small plat of garden-ground, to prevent conversation between the different classes”. They had “open wooden palisades, by which a thorough air is admitted; and the ground, being an inclined plane, is constantly dry”. There was also a vegetable garden.

Describing the provision for Debtors, Neild noted that they had “a spacious airy court, of 70 yards in length, and 19 yards wide, with a colonnade at each end, 16 yards by 10 feet 6; and two smaller courts”. There was a day-room with two fire places, which allowed for “frugal cookery”. There were also two large workrooms. Neild’s account became rather muddled when he tried to explain the sleeping arrangements, as there were two divisions for Debtors, namely those under the Magistrates’ protection, and  those in the “Sheriff’s Ward”. All Debtors started in the Magistrate’s Ward, but if they refused to obey the rules, they were placed in the Sheriff’s Ward. Those under the Magistrates’ protection had separate bedrooms, furnished with an iron bedstead, a hair mattress, blankets, sheets and a quilt, the expense of which was met from the county rates. Those in the Sheriff’s Ward could have the same accommodation, if they paid for it. There were 34 of these single sleeping cells. Female debtors slept in one large room on the first floor, while men in the Sheriff’s Ward who could not pay for a single room slept in two rooms on the second floor.

Outside, Neild saw a courtyard in which there was a coal store, plus “a large wheel for forcing water into four reservoirs; and from them every part of the Prison is well supplied with water”.  [Note. This was not the treadwheel designed to punish prisoners, which was not installed until the 1820s.]

Moving on to the Chapel, “a neat building”, Neild related how each class of prisoners came into the chapel “by a separate door to the place assigned them; which is out of view of the others. Their names are called over before Divine Service begins; and none are permitted to absent themselves, except on some special occasion, or sickness”. The visitor was impressed with “the suitable discourse of the worthy Chaplain, which he very forcibly addressed to the several classes of his audience”. The Chaplain took services three times a week, and on the other days the Gaoler read prayers.

Coming to the Gaol section of the prison buildings, Neild stated that the inmates had several spacious and airy courtyards, “with arcades, and day-rooms for each class, fitted up with every convenience for simple cookery”.

In the Penitentiary House, there was a wash-house and “common cooking-room”. The washing was done by the female penitentiary prisoners, who had a drying ground, and also three rooms in which to dry the laundry during bad weather. There was also a manufacturing area, containing rooms for making bedding, for weaving, and for picking hair to put in mattresses. There was a “sale-shop” for the finished goods, and a tailor’s shop. A store room in this section contained “pease, clothing, pots, paint, &c”. The Penitentiary prisoners had “three courts, into which opened sixteen work-cells”. There were also two passages which each led to another five work cells. In all there were twenty-six. The work cells were “heated by brick flues” and had a thermometer to regulate the temperature.

On each of the three storeys of the Penitentiary House there was a day-room for State Prisoners, with fire-places and glazed windows. There were 178 sleeping cells, plus two cells for refractory prisoners, “dark indeed, but, like the rest, well-ventilated”. Each of the sleeping cells was provided with a straw mattress, a hair mattress, “with 16 lbs of hair each”, two blankets, a pair of sheets, a night-cap, and a coverlet lined with flannel. Neild noted that clean sheets and night-caps were issued every month.


James Neild, detail from the frontispiece of his book.

James Neild, detail from the frontispiece of his book.


Neild’s account of his visit to the City Prison [built in 1782] is understandably shorter than that for the County Prison, as this was a much smaller establishment. On the day of his visit in 1802, the only inmates were three Debtors. In 1806, there were five Debtors, one female convict, and “also a Boy, for leaving his work.”

Neild stated: “This Gaol, which is likewise the City Bridewell, was first occupied 24th Nov. 1784, and is situate in South-gate Street.”

The Keeper’s apartments fronted the street, and his kitchen looked over the courtyard, “which is flagged, and of an oval shape, 26 feet by 24 feet 6; supplied with two sewers and two pumps; and this is the only court-yard for Prisoners of all descriptions”.

Debtors who could pay for their keep (the Master’s-side Debtors) had a day-room upstairs, and a bedroom, for which they paid 2s per week each. Those who could not pay (the Poor or Common-Side Debtors) had a “Straw-Room” [presumably meaning it had straw on which to sleep] over the Felon’s day-room, with a fire-place and glazed window.

The accommodation for Felons was on the ground floor, where there was a day-room, and three sleeping-cells, “furnished with barrack bedsteads, loose straw, and a rug to sleep on, lighted and ventilated by iron grates over the doors”. There was also a condemned cell, “about 6 feet 3 inches square, totally dark, except what light can reach it through an iron-grated aperture in the door, 9 inches wide by 8. Deserters were sometimes confined in this cell.

Upstairs was the Bridewell-Room, which measured 15 feet by 12. It had a fire-place, a glass window, a sky-light, a barrack bed – and a whipping post.

Neild ended his description of the building by saying: “The place of execution is at the end of the Gaol.”



The State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales, by James Neild, was published in 1812. The section on the prisons of Gloucester is on pages 244-251. The entire work is available as an e-book on the Google Books website.

The sections on Gloucestershire are available to read at Gloucestershire Archives, in the library. In addition, the section on Gloucester County Prison (and the four Houses of Correction) is reproduced in Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820, by J.R.S. Whiting (1975), Appendix H.

Information on the life of James Neild was obtained from the Dictionary of National Biography online, and from Wikipedia.

© Jill Evans 2014






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