In the late 18th century, a number of political or ‘State’ prisoners were sent to Gloucester Prison, to be held on suspicion of intending to commit treasonous practices. After the events of the French Revolution, the British Government was very nervous of individuals or group that criticised the government or the monarch, and the habeus corpus was suspended in 1794, enabling the government to commit suspicious persons to prison without trial. Gloucester County Prison, with its individual cells, was regarded as an ideal location to house such prisoners.
Kid Wake could be regarded as being Gloucester’s first State prisoner, although he had been tried for committing an actual crime. In May 1796, he had been sentenced to five years’ hard labour, for shouting “No King, No War!” as George the Third’s carriage made its way to the opening of Parliament. Wake was kept in the penitentiary at Gloucester from 20 May 1796 to 7 May 1801. As part of his sentence, he was made to stand in the pillory in the middle of Gloucester for an hour on every market day, for the first three months of his term.
While Kid Wake was serving his sentence, another political prisoner, John Binns, arrived at Gloucester Prison. Unlike Wake, Binns had not been tried for committing any particular crime. He was a member of the London Corresponding Society, which had formed in 1792, with the aim of campaigning for parliamentary reform. The leaders of this society, and its most active members, were frequently arrested, interrogated and sometimes put on trial. John Binns had been held in a number of jails, including the Tower of London, several times before he was sent to Gloucester Prison in May 1799. This was the result of a committee report to parliament in which Binns was named as ‘a person particularly zealous in organising political associations, in opposition to the government’. Binns was detained on 16 March 1799 and held in Clerkenwell Prison in London until 9 May, when he was sent to Gloucester on the orders of the Duke of Portland, the Secretary of State.
John Binns published an autobiography in 1852, in which he gives some interesting details of the time he spent in Gloucester Prison. As he had not been tried and convicted for committing a crime, he was treated like a prisoner waiting for trial, but as a man of a higher social status than most of the inmates, he was given some special privileges. However, the governor was given strict instructions by the Duke of Portland not to allow him to mix with other prisoners. Therefore, Binns was given a dayroom for his sole use, where he spent most of time alone. At night, he was locked in an individual cell, the same as the other prisoners.
Binns recalled that he had been allowed the use of a yard, ‘abundantly large’ where he exercised for three or four hours a day. He was also given two plots of ground, on which he cultivated vegetables, for his own use. Soon after his arrival at the prison, he met with the board of visiting magistrates, several of whom offered to lend him books. He later met the Dean of Gloucester, who offered him the full use of his library. Binns had a microscope at the prison, but he was not allowed to read any newspaper, and the warders and officials were not permitted to talk to him about national or international events. While at Gloucester, Binns had two pets to keep him company: a cat which followed him wherever he went and a toad. He took the cat away with him when he left the prison, but released the toad.
After Binns had been at the prison for three months, he was joined by two more political prisoners. John Bone and Robert Keir were both members of the London Corresponding Society and were committed to Gloucester in August 1799, by the Duke of Portland, for ‘treasonable practices’. Bone and Keir were put into the same dayroom as Binns, then locked up in separate cells at night. The three men already knew each other, and Binns recalled that they got along well for the first few months, spending their days using books to learn French and mathematics, and exercising in the yard allocated to them. However, according to Binns, the other two became jealous of him and ‘conspired’ against him, leading to the three being split up.
In January 1800, the governor noted in his journal that the three State prisoners had been put into separate rooms for fighting. In his autobiography, Binns related what had been the cause of their quarrel. He stated that one morning, he and his companions were exercising in their yard, ‘whipping tops’, when Bone and Keir were summoned to appear before the Board of Magistrates, who were in the governor’s house. After about forty-five minutes they came back, and Binns was sent before the Board. He was told that Bone and Keir had made a complaint of a serious nature against him. They had claimed that for some time past, two or more evenings a week, after they had all been locked up in their cells, Binns, instead of being locked up, had been taken to the governor’s rooms, where he would spend the evening in company with the governor, his wife, and sometimes his niece, until the outer prison bell was rung, at which time he would be conveyed back to his cell and locked in.
Binns expressed great surprise at the charge, as neither of the two prisoners ‘had ever apprised me of their mean suspicions or petty jealousies, nor warned me that they had, or thought they had, cause of complaint against me.’ He denied their accusation and was then taken back to the yard. He described what happened next:
‘I no sooner found myself in the yard, on my return from the board, and within striking distance of my worthy compeers, than I began thrashing them soundly; while they, to do them justice, “ran and roared” lustily, until the turnkeys came and took them out of the yard into the prison.’
Binns stated that he never saw then in the jail again, but his memory of the incident may have dimmed over time, as according to the prison journals, they were in the same dayroom until October 1800, when Keir was separated from the others after Bone complained that Keir had prevented him from keeping their room clean.
Binns, Bone and Keir were all liberated from Gloucester Prison on 1 March 1801, along with all the other political prisoners in the kingdom who had been detained under the suspension of the habeus corpus. No doubt the officials and staff at Gloucester were happy to see their quarrelsome ‘guests’ take their leave.
Recollections of the Life of John Binns (1852)
Whiting, JRS, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975)