“Was buryed a prisoner from the Castle”: St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester, 1558-1785

In a previous life as a professional family history researcher, I used to spend a lot of time searching through the parish registers at Gloucestershire Archives. On one occasion, when I was looking in the burial registers of St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester, I noticed that there were a lot of entries where the person buried was described as being “from the Castle”. I didn’t have time then to write down all the entries, so made a note to return to look at them properly one day. Recently, the parish registers for Gloucestershire have been put onto Ancestry, so last week I made use of my annual subscription to thoroughly study the St Nicholas burial registers.

Until the new prison was opened in 1791, the old Gloucester castle was used as the county’s gaol. As well as prisoners waiting to be tried and convicts, it held debtors, people who could not or would not pay fines, and also it was used as the county house of correction, holding people who had committed minor offences (misdemeanours). The castle was included in the parish of St Nicholas, which was a wealthy parish with a large population in the 16th century, when it’s first registers began. The church stands in lower Westgate Street. It had it’s own burial ground, behind the church, from the early 15th century.

St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester. Etched by J. Le Keux from a picture by W.H. Bartlett. In "Picturesque Antiquities of the English Cities", by John Britton, 1836.

St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester. Etched by J. Le Keux from a picture by W.H. Bartlett. In “Picturesque Antiquities of the English Cities”, by John Britton, 1836.

In total, between 1558 and 1785, I discovered that there were 338 burials which were of people who either were described as being from the Castle, or as prisoners. Not all of those from the Castle were prisoners; staff were included among the burials too, and many entries did not specify.

Breaking down the analysis into separate registers, the first, covering 1558 to 1706, was perhaps the most interesting, giving more detail than in the later volumes. This register held 98 relevant entries. 77 of these were of people from the Castle. Of these, 20 were specifically described as prisoners and 15 as debtors. There were also 4 children of prisoners and 6 members of staff from the Castle. 19 other entries did not mention the Castle and the people were described just as prisoners, and another 2 obviously were prisoners, from the circumstances of their deaths.

I was very interested to see that there were two burials were of executed prisoners in this register:

24 May 1562, John Hawkins, a presoner whoe suffered deathe in the Castell.

25 Feb 1601, one Saint John, a presoner and a gentleman, who was executed for a robberie.

Another man should have been executed but died before his sentence could be carried out:

28 March 1582, Thomas Veysey who should have been executed and dyed in the boothall after his judgement.

And another strange entry which might just refer to an execution, or could indicate an accident or even a murder:

27 Feb 1590 was Buryed one that was killed at the Assizes.

Some other unusual entries in this register were:

21 July 1573, William Jones,  farmer who dyed in the Castell.

25 Aug 1588, One Butler once of the Castell.

23 Oct 1592, Thomas Thomson a papist out of the Castell.

6 Oct 1703, a girl, and 7 Oct 1703, her mother, both from the Castle; They were drown’d.

How I wish there was a newspaper in that era to investigate that last one!

The next register included the burials from 1707 to 1760. This register contained the largest number of relevant entries, totalling 189. All of the burials stated that the person was from the Castle. 30 of those people were described as prisoners and 16 as debtors, but the majority just said “from the Castle”. Sometimes the name of the person buried was not known and their burial entry would read “A prisoner from the Castle”. None of the prisoners were said to have been executed.

More unusual entries in this register include:

19 Dec 1707, John Allison, Tapster at the Castle.

Until June 1783, the keeper was allowed to run a taproom to sell beer in the gaol, hence the employment of a “tapster”.

8 Aug 1709, a Base child from the Castle.

25 March 1741, A Boy from the Castle.

19 March 1742, A Vagrant Girl from the Castle.

St Nicholas Church, in Westgate Street (Jill Evans, 2010).

The next register contained burials from 1760 to 1809. This register held 51 relevant entries, but none after 1785. All of the entries either described the person buried as being “from the Castle”, or just had “Castle” written next to their names. Two people were described as convicts, but none were called prisoners or debtors.  There was one member of staff buried, and one child of a (supposed) prisoner:

31 Aug 1772, Thomas Pritchard, Turnkey at the Castle.

5 Nov 1777, James son of Mary Morgan – Castle.

Another interesting entry was:

13 March 1770, George Webb from the Castle, a Black.

In conclusion, it is evident that many deceased inmates of Gloucester Castle gaol were buried at St Nicholas Church. These burial records do not account for all of those who died at the Castle, though. When Sir George Onesiphorus Paul was campaigning for a new county prison to be built in Gloucester, he gave a speech in August 1783, in which he spoke of outbreaks of gaol fever and smallpox in the Castle during that year, which had resulted in the deaths of 14 prisoners. None of these were buried at St Nicholas. It might be that some had families who took them back to their own parishes, or possibly they went to the Infirmary for dissection, or were disposed of by whatever means was practised in the case of contagious diseases. Also, none of the prisoners who were executed at Over were brought back to St Nicholas for burial, so what became of most of them (that is, those who were not anatomized) is still unknown.

Sources:

The parish registers for St Nicholas, Gloucester, are held at Gloucestershire Archives. The burial registers examined here have reference numbers PFC154/15 IN 1/1, 1/2, and 1/3. I looked at the registers on Ancestry.co.uk.

Herbert, N.M., ed., A History of the County of Gloucester, Volume IV, Gloucester (Victoria County History, 1988).

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

© Jill Evans 2015

 

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