“Matron Wanted at the County Prison”: Gloucester, 1845-67

Gloucester County Prison held both male and female inmates from its opening in 1791 until the early 1900s, when it became and all-male establishment. In the first set of Prison Rules, published in 1790, there was no mention of a matron or any other female warders being appointed to supervise the women prisoners. However, a matron must have been taken on some time in the first ten years of the new prison’s existence, because on 11 December 1800, it was noted in the journal of the Visiting Justices that it had been discovered that Mrs Kent, the matron, had been smuggling soap out of the prison. Mrs Kent was dismissed by the magistrates at the next meeting of the County Quarter Sessions. In 1808, revised Rules were published, and this time it was stipulated that a salaried Matron should be employed, who would be in charge of the female prisoners and supervise their work in the laundry, as well being responsible for the prison’s linen.

Advertisement in Gloucester Journal, 27 July 1867, courtesy of British Newspaper Archive.

Advertisement in Gloucester Journal, 27 July 1867, courtesy of British Newspaper Archive. (Image copyright of The British Library Board. All rights reserved.)

It became evident whilst researching the female staff at Gloucester Prison that as well as Mrs Kent, a number of matrons were dismissed for breaking the Rules in some way. In fact, between 1845 and 1867, three successive matrons either were sacked or resigned before they could be dismissed.

The first of these matrons was Mrs Susan Peel. In the Visiting Justices’ Journal, an entry dated 18 October 1845 noted that Mrs Peel had been dismissed by the Quarter Sessions, after it had been discovered that she had been getting female prisoners to make caps, shawls and collars, which were sent to London to be sold. The prisoners also had been making shirts for her, and other articles for two other female officers. On 1 November 1845, an advertisement appeared in the Gloucester Journal, for a person to fill the office of matron at the County Prison. It was stipulated that she must be able to write and keep a journal. Her salary would start at fifty pounds per annum.

Mrs Peel’s replacement was Mrs Mary Bedwell. This matron seems to have carried out her duties to the satisfaction of the officials, but ten years after her appointment, she was obliged to resign, due to an incident involving her under-matron. The goings-on at the prison were discussed in detail at the Easter meeting of the County Quarter Sessions, held in March 1855.  It transpired that a few months earlier, a female debtor had been brought to Gloucester Prison from Bristol, by a Sheriff’s Officer. They arrived at about nine o’clock in the evening, and the lodge-keeper took them to the under-matron, who was on duty that night. Unfortunately, the under-matron, named Wigmore, fell down drunk in front of the sheriff’s officer and several other people, and had to be taken to her apartment, while another officer took charge of the debtor.

When the matron heard of her subordinate’s behaviour, she decided to make light of it and told the governor that Wigmore had been “fresh” that night. The prison chaplain and surgeon also became acquainted with what had happened, but the Visiting Justices were not informed. Unfortunately, the matter was mentioned by the Sheriff’s Officer at the Bristol Council House, and word got back to the Gloucester Magistrates. At a subsequent inquiry, Wigmore said she had got caught in the rain while shopping and had taken a drop of gin to warm herself up and ward off a chill. As she was not accustomed to drinking spirits, she had felt the effects of the alcohol later on. Mrs Bedwell stated that she had just wanted to preserve the reputation of her subordinate, and to retain the services of an otherwise efficient officer. The inquiry resulted in Wigmore being suspended and Mrs Bedwell resigned, saying she was suffering from an increasingly debilitating illness.

The Quarter Sessions confirmed the dismissal of Wigmore, and also censured the governor, chaplain and medical officer for not informing the Visiting Justices of what had occurred. There was also criticism of the lodge-keeper and a male industrial officer named Coates, who, it now was revealed, had been in Wigmore’s apartment when she was returned there in a drunken state. Coates had stated at the inquiry that he had been returning something he had borrowed from her.

At the next meeting of the County Quarter Sessions, held in July 1855, a memorial from the former matron, Mary Bedwell, was read out to the magistrates. She requested that she might be awarded a retirement pension, “in consideration of the helpless debility to which she had been reduced by assiduously attending to her duties between nine and ten years in an artificially heated atmosphere, with frequent changes to cold draughts, and being now wholly without resources for the future.” The Chairman of the Quarter Sessions said that he could not recommend that any favourable notice be taken of the memorial, and the subject was dropped.

The next matron was Miss Ellen Gillett, who was appointed in March 1855. She had been the deputy superintendent of the female department of Brixton Prison before coming to Gloucester. Twelve years went by peacefully, but in July 1867, another notice appeared in the Gloucester Journal, advertising for a new matron at the prison. Her salary would be £75 per year, and she would have unfurnished apartments in the prison, with fuel and light.

At the next Quarter Sessions meeting, held in October 1867, it was revealed that a charge had been brought against Miss Gillett by the Inspector of Prisons, and she “had been called upon for an explanation of certain irregularities at the female prison.” Details were not given, except that the matter involved “the disposal of some articles”. Miss Gillett and the under-matron had resigned as a result. It was stated that although the charge against her had been the immediate cause of her resignation, the matron had been in a very nervous state for some time, due to over-attention to her duties and lack of relaxation time.

Miss Gillett was replaced by Mrs Renwick, who only stayed in the position of matron at Gloucester Prison for one year. She did not leave under a cloud, however, as her resignation was due to her moving to Brixton Prison as Deputy Superintendent. Her successor (whose name I have not been able to discover) stayed for five years before resigning, then from 1873, Miss Marshall took on the position of matron. She stayed in the post for twenty years, then resigned and soon afterwards got married. Unlike the unfortunate Mrs Bedwell, Miss Marshall was awarded a pension.

 

Sources:

Gloucester Journal, 1 Nov 1845; 10 Feb, 24 March, 7 July 1855; 27 July, 19 Oct 1867, 20 June 1868; 4 Jan, 18 Oct 1873; 7 Jan, 8 Apr 1893.

Gloucestershire Archives, Quarter Sessions, Gloucester County Prison, Visiting Justices Journals, 11 Dec 1800 (Q/Gc1/1) and 18 Oct 1845 (Q/Gc1/5).

J.R.S. Whiting, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975).

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