Four condemned prisoners escape from Gloucester Gaol, 1765


Gloucester Castle keep: the old county gaol. Based on an 1819 work, from W. Andrew, ‘Old English Towns’, published 1909. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The county Assizes, held at Gloucester in March 1765, were said to have had one of the fullest calendars ever known in the city. At the end of all the trials, nine prisoners had received sentence of death, but five of them were reprieved, leaving four unlucky men to be executed.

John Conroy, who had been a grenadier in the English Fusiliers, was condemned for committing highway robbery, having attacked a man named Morgan Thomas on the highway near Shirehampton, robbing him of his money and then stabbing him in the head several times with a clasp knife. Thomas survived the attack and was able to give a description of his assailant as being very tall and having an Irish accent. John Conroy was quickly identified as being the culprit.

Two more of the condemned men were from Ireland. William O’Brien, alias Howard, and James Wall, also known as Bryan Birchagra, were found guilty of stealing money and a pair of silver and stone buckles from the Ostrich Tavern at Durdham Down, on the outskirts of Bristol. They had been committed to Gloucester Gaol for this offence in November 1764, and also were examined by Sir John Fielding, the Middlesex magistrate, concerning two burglaries in that county. There was a fourth charge against them of stealing money and other items from a dwelling house in Bath, Somerset.

The last condemned prisoner was Richard Holmes, who had been brought into Gloucester Gaol in September 1764, on suspicion of housebreaking and stealing sundry items, including clothes, a silver stock buckle and a pair of silver knee buckles from several properties in the Mitcheldean area. At his trial, Holmes was found guilty on three indictments.

The executions of the four men were scheduled to take place on Friday, 12 April 1765. In the meantime, the prisoners were held in chains in the condemned cell at Gloucester Castle, which at that time served as the county gaol. On the Sunday evening before they were due to be hanged, the men started to work on freeing themselves from their chains, using a spring saw which somehow they had got hold of. In order to mask the noise, three of them loudly sang psalms while the other one sawed at the irons. Conroy and Holmes freed themselves first, then separated O’Brien and Wall, who had been chained together. However, before they could get the latter pair’s leg irons off, the saw broke.

Undeterred from carrying on with their plan, they called out to the person who was guarding the door to their cell, saying that one of them needed to be let out to relieve himself. When the guard opened the door, they jumped on him and knocked him down. Making their way to the gate, they beat and knocked down the turnkey there, taking his key and locking the gate behind them.

Perhaps because two of them were still wearing leg irons, the prisoners only got to Llanthony Causeway, about a quarter of a mile away from the gaol, before they were recaptured.  It was said that the four had made a pact that they would all share the same fate, and so Conroy and Holmes had declined to leave their companions behind. Their bid for freedom came to an end when a gentleman who was out shooting in the area pointed his gun at them and ordered them to surrender.

Back at the Castle, the four men behaved in a disorderly manner at first, but as the day of their executions fast approached, they became more serious. On Friday, 12 April, they were conveyed to Over to be hanged. O’Brien and Wall dressed well for the occasion and prayed with great fervour, but put off giving the signal that they were ready to die until the last possible moment.


Gloucestershire Archives, County Quarter Sessions, Gloucester County Gaol Calendars, (Q/SG1, Epiphany 1765)


Gloucester Journal, 25 March, 8 April 1765

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 28 March,  18 April 1765 (accessed 15/05/2019 on



A Reporter’s Unpleasant Duty: Attending Executions at HM Prison Gloucester


Gloucester reporter E. Kendall Pearson, pictured in the Gloucester Journal, 23 Feb 1933. (British Newspaper Archive)

In June 1935, preparations were being made at Gloucester Prison to carry out the execution of Arthur Franklin, who had murdered his former lover, Gladys Nott, at Hanham Woods, near Bristol. This prompted a former Gloucester journalist, Edward Kendall Pearson (known as E. Kendall Pearson), to write in The Citizen about his experiences attending executions in the 1890s. His recollections appeared in the column ‘Gloucester Day By Day: Views and Gossip For the Tea Table’, on 24 June 1935, the day before Franklin was executed.

The earliest execution Pearson had witnessed on behalf of The Citizen newspaper had taken place ‘on a grey March morning, 42 years ago’. [Albert Manning was hanged on 16 March 1893, for murdering his former lover at Kingswood, near Bristol.] This execution, Pearson said, attracted unusual public attention because the accused ‘feigned madness with so much cleverness as to puzzle the experts in lunacy who had him under observation’. Also, after the event, a London newspaper reported that the man was hanged ‘in sight of his open grave’. This led to a question being raised in the House of Commons. During the trial, Manning had been a ‘hunched-over dwarfish figure’. After being sentenced, his mother visited him in the condemned cell, and from then on, he started to talk and behave rationally. Pearson was amazed, when standing near the gallows on the morning of the execution, to see approaching his doom ‘not a dwarfish, hunched-over figure, but a much taller man than the occupant of the dock had seemed to be’.

Regarding the open grave story, the prison governor, Major Knox, had been furious at the statement, and invited several journalists, including Pearson, to replicate the walk from the condemned cell to the gallows taken by Manning, to prove that he could not have seen his grave. Pearson described ‘walking in the steps of the condemned man, from near the cell, down a flight of winding stairs, like a belfry, into the open yard and  right up to the gallows’.

In the same year, Pearson attended another execution, ‘rendered all the more sensational by the prisoner addressing some farewell words to the reporters as he came in sight of the scaffold’. [Frederick Wyndham, who shot and killed his father, was hanged 21 Dec 1893.] He was reported to have said, ‘I wish you all goodbye. I should have liked to have killed that whore [his father’s mistress] before I die’.

The attendance of newspaper reporters at executions came to an end at Gloucester Prison in 1912, when a special execution chamber was built on the end wall of A Wing, which was too small to admit anyone other than the prisoner, the executioner, and a few officials. Pearson noted that the execution of Franklin would take place in this chamber, ‘a room adjoining the condemned cell, on the same floor as the Prison Chapel’.

Pearson’s recollections prompted a former colleague of his, Paul Francillon, to continue the subject in his column in the Gloucester Journal, ‘St John’s Lane and It’s Memories: Glancing Back Over the Years’, which appeared on 29 June 1935. Pearson had made no mention of his personal feelings about attending executions, but Francillon indicated that his friend had found this to be a particularly unpleasant duty. Regarding his time working at The Citizen, Francillon said that he had never had to do this task, so had no ‘gruesome memories’ of executions in Gloucester Gaol, unlike his friend Kendall Pearson. His [Francillon’s] nerves might have better stood the ordeal of attendance in pursuit of professional duty, as Pearson found it ‘utterly repugnant’. Francillon was glad that he had never been instructed to attend an execution, because, he asserted, he would have ‘mutinied’ rather than being ‘the unwitting instrument of ministering to a morbid public taste which happily now belongs to a past age of journalism’.

Francillon recalled that there used to be a fierce competition to be the first paper with the news of the actual executions in the times of which he wrote, 40 or 50 years ago. He remembered the speed with which Pearson got his copy in and ‘the feverish haste with which it was composed and sent to the press, and the despatch of a big issue by a convenient express train to sell on Bristol streets in competition with the Bristol papers, which we did not count half so go-ahead as the lively little Citizen’. Francillon recalled that he had his own work to do in forwarding the production of these ‘Execution Specials’, so although he never witnessed an actual hanging, he had a share of responsibility in passing through what he still regarded as ‘a not very delectable side of journalism’.

When he and Pearson started work at St John’s Lane, there were still many people to whom public executions had been a familiar scene. The attendance of reporters when executioners were withdrawn from public into the gaol [in 1868] marked a transition stage in which reporters acted by proxy for the public. Now it was an ‘almost extinct’ practice for reporters to attend. Instead the newspapers had to rely on documentation – the registration of death and the inquest certificates – for information.

In Francillon’s early days, the public had ‘an avid appetite for the ghastly details’ of an execution. Execution specials in The Citizen usually brought the total day’s issue to a new high record of circulation. Old time publicity was not confined to newspapers. Itinerant vendors sold copies of ‘last dying speeches’, etc, to morbid crowds waiting outside gaols for the black flag to be raised over the gaol gateway. Today [1935], the black flag, the tolling gaol bell and ‘the last dying speech and confession’ were all things of the past.

Looking back at Kendall Pearson’s report on the execution of Albert Manning, which  appeared in The Citizen on 16 March 1893, it is clear that Francillon was correct in his assertion that his colleague did not enjoy this part of his job. After giving all the details of the crime and the trial, he wrote, under the sub-title, ‘THE SCENE AT THE SCAFFOLD. MANNINGS LAST MOMENTS’:

Of all the duties which the reporter whose lot in a county town is called upon to perform in the interests of the paper which he represents and the public, none, perhaps, are more irksome or unpleasant than his attendance at an execution. The “ordeal” must be faced and the Pressman must leave his feelings – if he has any – at home, and proceed to the spot where the unhappy criminal is to end his day, with mind intent on one thing only, and that the absorption of all those impressions of the scene which are necessary to the compilation of a faithful and accurate description of what the public are anxiously waiting to know.

Pearson went on to describe how he arrived at the prison gatehouse with two other local reporters, was taken to his place near the gallows to watch the execution, then ushered forwards to peer down into the pit where the body was hanging, fingers still twitching. An unpleasant duty indeed.


Edward Kendall Pearson was on the staff of The Citizen and the Gloucester Journal for 43 years. He joined the newspaper group in 1891, and worked as chief reporter for both newspapers for 33 years, before becoming news editor of The Citizen. He retired in 1932, but continued to contribute to the column ‘Gloucester Day-By-Day’ in The Citizen, as ‘E.K.P.’ He died on 26 May 1946.

Paul Francillon joined the newspaper group at St John’s Lane in 1886. The group published the Gloucester Journal, The Citizen, the Gloucestershire Chronicle and the Gloucester Standard. He was on the editorial staff of The Citizen and the Gloucester Journal for 59 years. By the end of the 19th century, he was the leader writer for The Citizen, and by the time he went into semi-retirement in 1838, he was the Deputy Editor. He continued to write leaders and columns until his death, on 25 April 1945.


Newspapers all accessed on British Newspaper Archive,, 21-24 May 2018):

Gloucester Journal, 25 Feb 1933, 29 June 1935

The Citizen, 16 March 1893, 24 June 1935, 30 April 1945 (report on Francillon’s funeral)

Gloucestershire Echo, 27 May 1946 (obituary of E.K. Pearson)

Further Reading (aka Shameless Plugs):

Hanged at Gloucester, by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011)

A History of Gloucester Prison, 1791-1950, by Jill Evans (Glos Crime History Books, 2017)


Quarrelling Radicals in Gloucester Prison, 1799-1801


John Binns as pictured in his autobiography, 1852

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)





Escape from Gloucester’s City Gaol: Mary Steward, 1799

On 6 May 1799, the Gloucester Journal reported that ‘two genteely-dressed women’ had been committed to the city gaol, after stealing a quantity of lace from a milliner’s shop in Gloucester. The pair had been pursued and apprehended in Cheltenham, where some of the stolen lace was found among their possessions. The newspaper commented that it was supposed that the women were members of a large gang of shoplifters, who had been operating for some time in the country.

The two women, Mary Steward and Jane Bowers, were held in the city gaol in Southgate Street until July, when the Assizes were held. When the time came for their trials, it was revealed that Bowers had ‘turned evidence’ against her colleague, and was acquitted as a result. Mary Steward was found guilty of stealing lace from the shop of Mrs Bright, milliner. She was sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years. She was taken back to the city gaol, to wait there until she was transferred to the next available convict ship.

On 5 August 1799, it was announced in the Gloucester Journal that Mary Steward had escaped from the gaol. The city prison had only opened in 1782, but Steward had been able to make a hole under her cell window, big enough to climb through, then she had lowered herself down into the street, using sheets which she had torn into strips and sewn together to make a rope.

In the same paper, an advertisement appeared, submitted by William Dunn, Gaoler, offering a reward of five pounds to anyone who detained Steward or gave information leading to her recapture. The notice stated that Mary Steward was twenty-eight years old, and from ‘Harwin’, in Ayrshire, Scotland. She had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, was round-featured with a fresh complexion, had a scar between her eyebrows, a mark from a sore on her left arm, near the wrist, and was five feet one and a quarter inches in height. She had previously lived in Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham. At the time of her escape, she was wearing ‘a pair of black Stockings, a flannel under Pettycoat and a black Skirt over it, a Night Cap and a black Bonnet, but no Gown, Stays, nor Shoes’.



Detail from a sketch by G Cruickshank, in ‘Jack Sheppard. A Romance’ by WH Ainsworth, 1839.*


A week later, the Gloucester Journal reported that Mary Steward was ‘still yet at large’, but it was hoped that she would soon be retaken. The advertisement for her recapture was repeated on the same page, with the reward being offered now increased to ten guineas.

Unfortunately, no record has been found of where or when Mary Steward was recaptured, but she certainly was, because she was listed as one of the convicts who were transported to Australia on board the Earl Cornwallis, which set sail on 18 November 1800, arriving in New South Wales on 12 June 1801. Her initial sentence of seven years had been increased to transportation for life.



Gloucester Journal, 6 May, 15 July, 5 Aug, 12 Aug 1799

Transportees from Gloucestershire to Australia, 1783-1842, Irene Wyatt, ed. (Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Gloucestershire Record Series, Vol. 1, 1988)

Australian Convict Transportation Registers, Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868, via

*The full sketch is ‘Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess escape from Clerkenwell Prison’, by George Cruickshank, in Volume II of Jack Sheppard. A Romance, by WH Ainsworth (accessed via I removed Jack Sheppard from the sketch on this occasion, because this sister was doing it for herself!

© Jill Evans 2017




Buried at the crossroads: William Birt, 1791

William Birt was supposed to be the first person to be hanged on the gatehouse roof of the new Gloucester Prison, which opened in the summer of 1791. However, having been found guilty of murder and condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1791, he decided not to wait for the executioner, and took his own life in the condemned cell.

The charge of murder against Birt was far from being a straightforward case. Birt was a carpenter, 26 years of age, who lived in Tewkesbury. He had been ‘walking out’ with Sarah Powell, who was a servant maid in the household of a Tewkesbury family. In the spring of 1791, Sarah had discovered that she was pregnant, and William had given her a powder to take, in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. Unfortunately, the powder caused the death of both mother and child.

Sarah Powell had lingered on for eleven days after taking the powder, and so she was able to tell her doctor who had given her the substance and why. After Sarah’s death, William Birt was committed to Tewkesbury Gaol at first, then was removed by habeus corpus to Gloucester, to await trial at the Assizes. This was in April 1791, before the new prison opened, so he was held in the old gaol in Gloucester Castle, where the conditions were terrible. In the last week of July, although the building works were not entirely completed, the new prison was judged to be fit for occupation, and the prisoners were moved from the crumbling old castle keep into their new quarters, where everyone had their own cell in which to sleep. Birt was held in the gaol section of the prison to await his trial, which took place on Friday, 12 August.

Newspaper reports on the trial were not sympathetic to Birt. They said that he had ‘deluded the Deceased under a Promise of Marriage’. When she told him she was pregnant, he gave her a small quantity of a powder, telling her it would do her no harm, but rather would do her good, as he had taken twice as much in the past. Back at her home, she had taken the powder with some sugar, after which she was ‘seized with violent vomitings’, and after lying in agony for eleven days, she died.

It was clear that William Birt had never intended that Sarah Powell should die, so it might have been thought that he would have faced a charge of manslaughter rather than murder. However, the judge explained that, ‘having recommended to her a Medicine to procure abortion, and death ensuing, he was considered as guilty of Murder’. According to a well known principle of English Law, the judge said, ‘where Death ensues in consequence of an illegal Act, Malice is implied, and the offence, with its consequences, is deemed Murder’. Abortion was an illegal act, so Birt was considered to be guilty of murder. The judge added that although Sarah Powell ‘might be an Accomplice with him in the guilty Design’, her account of how Birt had encouraged her to take the powder was enough to ‘fix the crime upon the Man’. The source of the powder had not been discovered, nor exactly what it contained, but the surgeon who attended Sarah Powell was sure it was poisonous and had caused her death.

Birt was said to have remained calm during the trial and when receiving the death sentence, but when he was taken from the Bar, ‘his Confidence forsook him, and he fainted away in the Pen, and as he was conducting away from the Court, he dropped down again in a Fit’. That evening, when he arrived back at the prison, Birt was conducted to a condemned cell to await his execution, which was to take place on the following Monday, 15 August. As he was taken to the cell, he was said to have ‘wrung his hands as in the utmost Misery and Despair’. Next morning, when his cell door was unlocked, he was found hanging and dead. The prison surgeon made a brief note of the incident in his journal: ’13 Aug 1791. William Birt meant to hang on 15 August but hanged himself in cell.’

A Coroner’s Inquest was held later that day. It was said that Birt’s body had been ‘quite cold’ when the cell door had been opened. He had twisted the sheet of his bed and fastened it to the bars of the window, then tied the other end in a running knot round his neck, before throwing himself from his bedstead. The inquest jury returned a verdict of felo de se. This translates roughly as ‘felon of himself’, and the verdict had great significance, as it meant that Birt’s body was ordered to undergo the traditional fate of suicides who were judged to have been of sound mind at the time they took their own lives, which was to be buried at a crossroads, without any Christian service. The Gloucester Journal of 18 August 1791 reported that on that same Saturday, Birt’s body “was buried in a cross road, near Tewkesbury’. The treatment of the bodies of those buried at crossroads varied, but they were supposed to be ‘desecrated’ in some way, such as having a stake put through their body. The newspapers gave no details of what had happened in Birt’s case.

The authorities were keen not to disclose the exact burial places of suicides, so no details were given of the site of Birt’s burial. However, Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, published in 1830, gives some useful information on the subject:

‘The corpse was sent by order of the coroner, to the parish officers at Tewkesbury, and buried in the cross-road at the entrance into the lane which leads to the Lodge, near the House of Industry’.

The House of Industry, later Tewkesbury Workhouse, was south of the town, on Gloucester Road. An examination of a map of Tewkesbury from 1835 shows that the most likely place of burial is in the area with the lane leading to the Lodge (now Lincoln Green Lane) on the left and a lane to the right just before the House of Industry (which now leads to the cemetery).



Detail from a map of Tewkesbury, from Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England 1835. (via GENMAPS website). The ‘House’ is the House of Industry. The burial took place at the crossroads just below that.


The reason for burying suicides at crossroads has never been completely clear. The practice took place from at least medieval times, when crossroads were believed to be ‘otherworldly’, God-forsaken, places. (There is an interesting article about the subject here: Whatever the reasons for the practice, it ceased with the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act of 1823. However, taking one’s own life continued to be a criminal act until 1961.



Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791

Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, 1830, p.214, note (via

Gloucestershire Archives:

Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)

Gloucester County Gaol, Surgeon’s Journal, 13 Aug 1791 (Q/Gc32/1)

“A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads”, 27 Sept 2015, on (Link in the main text above.)

Map of Tewkesbury 1835 from GENMAPS (

© Jill Evans 2017







Gloucestershire’s Jack Sheppard: The Prison Escapes of Charles Buckingham

Jack Sheppard was a thief and robber, born in London in 1707. During  the year 1724, he was gaoled five times and escaped on four occasions, but was finally hanged at Tyburn on 16 November 1724. His prison-breaks made him into a national folk hero whose execution was witnessed by an immense crowd of admirers. The character of Macheath in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was based on him, and a fictional account of his life by WH Ainsworth was published in serial form between 1839 and 1840, then published as a novel, entitled Jack Sheppard.

Illustration by George Cruickshank, 1854, from "Jack Sheppard" by WH Ainsworth. (British Library Commons)

Illustration by George Cruickshank, 1854, from “Jack Sheppard” by WH Ainsworth. (British Library Commons)

Charles Buckingham was born in the Cheltenham area in 1781-82. By 1808, he had become a footpad – someone who committed highway robbery on foot. Like Sheppard, he proved to be proficient at escaping from prison custody, but Buckingham did not meet the same fate as the popular anti-hero.  His final escape attempt was successful and as far as is known, he was never recaptured.

On the evening of 27 August 1808, a gentleman and his wife were robbed by two footpads on the public highway, as they travelled on horse-back from Gloucester to Painswick. Charles Buckingham and Richard Sims were identified as the chief suspects, and they were captured in Bristol, after a desperate struggle. Both men were brought to Gloucester gaol to await trial at the next Gloucestershire Assizes, which would not take place until the following April.

During the night between 12 and 13 December 1808, Charles Buckingham managed to escape from his cell and get out of the gaol. A “Wanted” notice appeared in the next edition of the Gloucester Journal, offering a twenty guinea reward his recapture. Buckingham was described as being a native of Cheltenham or its neighbourhood and was aged 27. He was 5 feet 11 inches in height, with brown hair and hazel eyes, and had a large, long nose and “large whiskers”. He had been a sergeant in the North Gloucester Militia.

By the time of the Lent Assizes in April 1809, Charles Buckingham had not been recaptured, and Richard Sims stood trial alone. Despite the victim of the crime being convinced that Sims was one of the men who robbed him and his wife, he had a very strong alibi and was acquitted. He was then tried on another count of highway robbery, for an offence against a Mr Harris on 17 September 1808, in company with another man, supposed to be Charles Buckingham. Sims was acquitted due to a lack of evidence against him.

On 6 June 1809, Charles Buckingham finally was arrested by two Bow Street Officers in London. He was placed in the New Prison in Clerkenwell until he could be escorted back to Gloucester. Jack Sheppard had escaped from this prison in 1724, and Buckingham nearly managed to do the same, getting off his irons with a file, then using a crow-bar to make a hole in the outside wall. He was discovered by the gaoler just as he was about to leave, accompanied by twenty of his fellow prisoners. He was held in a more secure cell until someone arrived to take him back to Gloucester Gaol, to await trial at the next assizes.

Back in Gloucester Gaol, the governor and the chaplain questioned Buckingham about his escape the previous December. They had suspected that he must have had inside help and the night guard, John Brown, had been tried at the April assizes for aiding an escape, but was acquitted. Buckingham said that he had first used a knife, then later a large nail, to ease out a bar of his cell window. This had taken him a month, but then he had managed to get hold of a spoon, which he was able to use to open his cell door. (Jack Sheppard had also made use of spoons to open prison doors.) He had left his cell at 6 o’clock in the evening, when it was dark, and lowered himself down into the debtors’ yard using cut-up blankets he had tied together. He then tied two or three mops to his sheets and threw them over the boundary wall, then climbed over and ran away.

Buckingham finally stood trial for highway robbery in August 1809, nearly a year after the crime had been committed. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, this sentence was commuted to one of transportation for life. On 26 September 1809, Buckingham and three other prisoners (Nilus Cowper, John Thompson and James Payne) were put in a coach to be taken to the hulks at Woolwich, where they would be held until they set sail for Australia. The four men were all in leg-irons and handcuffs and were chained together. Two guards were in the coach with them, while another officer, well-armed, sat outside.

When the party reached Uxbridge early the following morning, there was a halt to change horses. One of the guards got out of the coach to get some water and Buckingham, Cowper and Thompson, who had managed to get their irons off during the night, jumped out of the coach and ran away, while Payne, who had failed to get his irons off, held the remaining guard down. The outside guard gave chase, but the three got away. Once again, a  twenty guinea reward was offered for the recapture of Charles Buckingham, and the same amount was offered for the other two prisoners.

Nilus Cowper was recaptured in Warwickshire in October after committing a robbery, and John Thompson was arrested near Cardiff in November. John Thompson (alias Grimes, alias Smith) was hanged at Cardiff in April 1810.  Nilus Cowper (alias Launcelot Cooper, alias John Jones, alias William Davies) was hanged at Warwick Gaol in May 1810. Buckingham, as far as is known, was never recaptured.

Charles Buckingham had made only one escape from prison, plus an escape from custody, and he had made an unsuccessful attempt to get out of Clerkenwell New Prison, so the Cheltenham man could not be classed in the same league as Jack Sheppard when it came to gaol breaks. However, after Buckingham’s capture in London in June 1809, some newspaper reports revealed that his time in the North Gloucester Militia (during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars) had not been without incident.

The reports stated that about two years previously, when Charles Buckingham had been a sergeant in the North Gloucester Militia, he had been suspected of helping a prominent French prisoner-of-war escape from Stapleton Prison, near Bristol. He had deserted from his duty there and after being captured he was tried by court martial and sentenced to transportation (which must mean he was ordered to serve with the army abroad). He was sent to the Isle of Wight to be taken overseas, but escaped.

Looking into this story in more detail, it transpired that the North Gloucester Militia were guarding the French prisoners at Stapleton in December 1806, when one Monsieur Dare, described as “a Frenchman of some distinction”, escaped. It was believed that he must have been helped by some of his guards, and a number of privates were arrested, while a sergeant had deserted. In February 1807, it was reported that, “the sergeant who connived at the escape of M. Dare, the French prisoner, from Stapleton, has been taken.”

Buckingham was not named as being this sergeant and nothing was found in the newspapers on a court martial, sentence, or escape from the Isle of Wight army depot. However, on 18 July 1807, a Charles Buckingham was admitted to Dorchester Prison, having been picked up “On the Road”. He was described as a deserter from the North Gloucester Militia, born in Cheltenham and aged about 24. He was discharged three days later, being “taken by the party who brought him”. If he had indeed been captured in February, then he must have been picked up on the road after escaping from the Isle of Wight. If the information on the capture in February was incorrect, this may have been the time at which he faced a court martial and was sent to the Isle of Wight army depot. Either way, no more information concerning him was found, until his arrest for highway robbery in the autumn of 1808.

Between the years 1806 and 1809, Charles Buckingham had deserted from his militia unit at least once – possibly twice –  and had absconded from the Isle of Wight army depot, thus avoiding being sent to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He had broken out of Gloucester Gaol once, nearly managed to get out of prison in Clerkenwell, and finally escaped from a coach – while chained to three other prisoners – taking him to serve his sentence of transportation to Australia. Charles Buckingham did not become notorious like Jack Sheppard, but he did succeed in carrying off the greatest escape of all – he avoided the gallows.


JRS Whiting, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (1978)


Bath Chronicle, 4 Dec 1806, 12 Feb 1807; Gloucester Journal, 29 Aug 1808, 19 Dec 1808,  20 March 1809, 2 Oct 1809, 2 April 1810, 23 April 1810; Oxford Journal, 5 May 1810, Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 12 June 1809; Bristol Mirror, 5 Aug 1809, 4 Oct 1809. (All accessed via

Dorchester Prison Admission and Discharge Registers, 1782-1808 (accessed via

© Jill Evans 2016




The Bull Lane Murder (Gloucester, 1741): Historical fact or fiction?

A tragic story  about a murder in Gloucester and the terrible miscarriage of justice which followed has been related many times over the years. It appears in four books that I have on my shelves: Tales of Old Gloucestershire by Betty Smith, Haunted Gloucester, by Eileen Fry and Rosemary Harvey,  A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire, by Robin Brooks, and Paranormal Gloucester, by Lyn Cinderey.

The story goes that an elderly lady called Dame Eleanor Bunt (variations give her name as Blunt, and say she was a Miss, not a Dame) lived in Bull Lane, Gloucester, with a young servant girl named Mary Palmer, who came from Littledean in the Forest of Dean. On the night of 19 September 1741, Eleanor Bunt was robbed and murdered.  As there was no sign of a forced entry and a bloody handprint was  found on Mary Palmer’s bedroom door, the maid was the only suspect. A Miss Jones, who was jealous of Mary’s relationship with a local young man, Henry Sims, gave evidence that she had overheard the couple discussing the £50 Mary was to inherit from Dame Eleanor’s will and their plans to set up a shop in Littledean. Mary Palmer was committed to jail, and at her trial, she was sentenced to death for murdering her mistress. She was hanged three days later in Gloucester Prison and buried in the prison grounds.

Two years later, a gang-member from Cirencester was sentenced to death for offences including robbery and murder. Before his execution, he confessed to the prison governor that his gang had killed Dame Eleanor Bunt. The news got out and there was a public outcry. The authorities had Mary’s remains removed from the prison grounds and her coffin was carried through the streets of Gloucester with great ceremony, to be interred in one of the city’s churchyards under a handsome tomb.

When I was researching my book, Gloucester Murder & Crime, I was keen to include this case, and set about researching the story of Mary Palmer. There were a number of details in the story which didn’t seem quite right to someone who had been researching crime in Gloucestershire for many years:

  • If Mary Palmer had been condemned for murdering her mistress, this would have been petty treason, and the punishment for a woman was to be burned at the stake.
  • Executions did not take place within prison grounds at that time. It was considered very important that justice was seen to be done by the public. Also bodies of executed criminals were not commonly buried in the prison grounds. In this particular case, the  murder took place in Gloucester city, therefore Mary would have gone to the City Gaol, which at that time was in the Northgate, where there would have been no grounds in which to bury her.
  • The Cirencester prisoner was said to have confessed to the governor. The Gloucester prisons did not have governors then, only gaolers, and confessions would have been made to the chaplain.

Still, stories get embellished over time, and I remained hopeful of finding the historical evidence behind the tale. I was a little worried by the fact that when researching Hanged at Gloucester, I had already gone through all the hangings in the Gloucester area from 1731 onwards, and had not come across a Mary Palmer, but thought that even if the execution had not been reported, the murder surely had been. I was encouraged that the author of A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire had quoted a passage from the Gloucester Journal concerning the crime.

So, I set off for Gloucestershire Archives and started looking at copies of the Gloucester Journal in September and October 1741. A thorough search revealed that there was no mention of a murder in Bull Lane. This was surprising, as the local newspapers loved a “horrid murder” as much then as they do now. I then moved on to the reports of the next Assizes, which took place in March 1742. These revealed that a city prisoner was condemned at these Assizes. His name was James Matthews, and he was hanged at the city gallows on 6 April 1742. He was the first person to be hanged within the city for 37 years. There was no mention of Mary Palmer.

The only evidence I did find that matched the story was that two robbers from Cirencester were sentenced to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in March 1743/4 (1744 in the modern calendar). One of the men died in the condemned cell while awaiting execution. If he confessed anything before dying, it was not revealed in the Gloucester Journal at the time. The other offender, named Thomas Cambray, was hanged and gibbeted at Cirencester, near the scene of his crime. He would not even confess to having committed the crime he was hanged for, let alone any earlier offences.

To briefly cover everything else I tried to find any historical evidence:

I wondered if the murder and hanging might have happened somewhere other than Gloucester, so I looked on John Clark’s website,, which has lists of everyone executed in England and Wales from 1735. No Mary Palmer was found.

A search on Ancestry‘s Gloucestershire Parish records did not come up with any burial of an Eleanor Blunt or Bunt. No will of an Eleanor Bunt or Blunt was proved in Gloucestershire, according to the Gloucestershire Archives’ Probate Indexes.

A search for a baptism of Mary Palmer in Littledean on the Forest of Dean Family History Trust website came up blank. Apart from a Mary Palmer buried there in 1711, the only Palmer’s in Littledean’s registers were in the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the lack of any historical evidence meant I had to abandon the idea of including this tale in my book.

Recently, the story was mentioned on a Facebook page, and I had a look at the case again. Going back to A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire, it occurred to me that the quotation from the Gloucester Journal used very flowery language  for an eighteenth century newspaper report: “The deep spreading stain on the sheet and counterpane showed she had perished by the hand of a murderer.” The quotation was not dated, and I wondered if the story had been told in the newspaper at a later date. This suspicion was strengthened when I realised that the same quotation is given in Tales of Old Gloucestershire, and the author says it came from a “later edition of the Cheltenham Examiner“. On the British Newspaper Archive website, I searched the Gloucester Journal for the name Mary Palmer at any date and – BINGO! – there she was, in the issue dated 14 January  1843, on page 4, in a section entitled “Literary Notices.” The story was told in full, under the title, “The Bullace-Street Murder”, and it’s source was given at the end as “Metropolitan“.

The Metropolitan Magazine, A Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and Fine Arts, was published in London, between 1831 and 1850. Some old volumes have been put on the Google Books site, and luckily, Volume 36, for January to April 1843, is available to read. The story, “The Bullace Street Murder”, appears as No IX  in a series called “Curiosities of Legal Experience, By a Solicitor.” The author states that he (it is probable that the writer was male) was told this story while he was attending Gloucester Assizes in his professional capacity. There are a number of problems in his narrative. Most importantly, he states that Bull Lane was formerly known as Bullace Street, but I have never heard of it being given this name – only Gore Lane. He specifies the day and month of the murder, but doesn’t give a year, saying only that it happened during the reign of George II (1727-1760). I would guess that the year of 1741 given in modern versions of the story was deduced from the fact that the Cirencester man was hanged in 1743/4.

I searched Google Books for any other stories in the series “Curiosities of Legal Experience” by this “solicitor”. The only one I found was the first in the series, published in Volume 24  of the Metropolitan Magazine (1839). This one, called “The Skeleton of Lincoln’s Inn”, told the story of a man named Harry Sheppard (from the Forest of Dean, like Mary Palmer) who was condemned to death at the Old Bailey in 1780, but escaped from Newgate Prison thanks to the Gordon Riots, which broke out just before his execution was to take place. The date of his trial is given as Friday, June 2, 1780. A look at the Old Bailey Online website reveals that no trials took place at all on that day.

In conclusion, all of the evidence – or rather lack of it – has led me to believe that the tragic story of Mary Palmer is the work of someone with a great imagination, who could take one historical fact (like an execution in Cirencester) and weave a story around it. His piece of fiction was repeated in a local newspaper and adopted in an even later time by someone as being a true story. There is, of course, a very slight possibility that the story is true, but that it happened at a much earlier period than the author of “The Bullace Street Murder” suggests. Whatever the truth is, I would suggest that this tale in future should be called , “The Legend of the Bull Lane Murder”.


Gloucester Journal, Sept 1741-April 1742, 13 Jan 1843

Metropolitan Magazine, Volume XXXVI, January 1843, pp. 89-98, “The Bullace Street Murder”. Volume XXIV, March 1839, “The Skeleton of Lincoln’s Inn”.

Robin Brooks, A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire (Sutton, 2004)

Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987)

Eileen Fry and Rosemary Harvey, Haunted Gloucester (Tempus, 2004)

Lyn Cinderey, Paranormal Gloucester (Amberley, 2009)


Metropolitan Magazine on

Forest of Dean Family History Trust:

Lists of executions on

Gloucestershire Archives Genealogical Database via

Gloucestershire Parish Records on

Picture of Bull Lane with permission of

© Jill Evans







“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.


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

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


“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 an 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 until the Quarter Sessions discussed the matter, 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 of a male industrial officer named Coates, who, it now was revealed, had been in Wigmore’s apartment when she was taken 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, Miss Mortimer, 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.



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).

Jill Evans, A History of Gloucester Prison, 1791-1950 (Glos Crime History Books, 2017).

© Jill Evans 2015

An Atheist in Gloucester Gaol, 1842-3

At the Gloucestershire Assizes held in August 1842, George Jacob Holyoake, a socialist lecturer, was sentenced to six months in Gloucester Gaol for committing blasphemy, after saying at a lecture in Cheltenham that he did not believe in God. I wrote about his case in a previous post, which you can read by clicking here. In Holyoake’s own account of the trial, published in 1851 (The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England), he described his time in prison.

George Jacob Holyoake, in later life.

George Jacob Holyoake, in later life.

Holyoake first entered Gloucester Gaol in June 1842, after being committed there by the Cheltenham magistrates to await trial, and remained there while he tried to organise bail. After his trial, Holyoake was returned to the Gaol and put in the “Fines” section (where most of the inmates were there in lieu of paying a fine or sureties). It is clear that the authorities were puzzled as to how to treat their new “guest”, who was not the usual sort of criminal. On his first morning, when everyone else went to prayers, Holyoake refused to go, and said if they wanted him to attend, they would have to carry him to the chapel. He also was disinclined to wear prison clothes, and said that if he must wear them, the guards would have to dress him every morning. He was left to wear his own clothes, and only attended chapel on Sundays, when a sermon was preached.

Holyoake had as little as possible to do with his fellow prisoners, although he spoke of a small gesture of kindness made to him when he first entered the prison to await trial. On going into the “general room” on his first morning:

“The prisoners surrounded me, exclaiming, ‘What are you in for?’ As I made no reply, another observed, ‘We always tells one another’. ‘Oh! blasphemy’ I replied. ‘What’s that?’ said one. ‘Aren’t you ‘ligious?’ said another…Seeing my loaf unbroken, and that I could not eat, ‘Here’, said four or five of them at once, ‘Will you have some of this tea, zir?’ – which was mint-tea, the reward of some extra work, and the nicest thing they had too offer.”

When Holyoake returned to the gaol as a convicted prisoner, he avoided the company of his fellow inmates, as he disliked having to listen to “recitals of depravity such as I had never heard before, and do not wish to hear again.”

Holyoake had some interesting comments to make on the officials he came into contact with at the gaol. The Governor at that time was Captain Mason, who held the post from 1836 to 1862. Holyoake wrote that Mason was:

“A type of gentleman, official and conventional, whose qualities were instructive. Bland, imperturbable, civil and firm, he was never weak and never rude…I watched his manners with pleasure – he governed the gaol like a drawing room, excepting that the desserts were not quite the same…Possibly he had nerves and sensibility, but these articles were not in common use. They were kept under lock and key, and never brought out in the routine of official duties. As blandly and courteously as he wished me good morning, he would have conducted me to the gallows had instruction to that effect reached him. He would have apologized for the inconvenience, but he would have hung me while I was still saying, ‘pray don’t mention it’.”

The Visiting Magistrates who supervised the running of the prison took a great interest in Holyoake, and some of them asked for interviews with him in order to question him about his beliefs and to try to persuade him to see the error of his ways. Gloucestershire’s Senior Magistrate then was Mr Bransby Cooper, who had formerly represented Gloucester in Parliament. Cooper had many conversations with Holyoake, who wrote of him (in The History of the Last Trial…) that he was:

“A man of venerable and commanding aspect, generous to a fault in matters of humanity, harsh to a fault in matters of religion…One minute he would growl at me like an unchained tiger – the next he would utter some word of real sympathy…He had the voice of Stentor, and though at first his savage roar shook me, at last I acquired an artistic liking for it, and his voice was so grand that I came to the conclusion that he had a natural right to be a brute.”

In a later work, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (published 1892), Holyoake described Cooper as, “A man of great stature, great tenderness, great humanity, and like Lord Byron, a man of tumultuous passion, with a voice like the Plymouth Sound.”

The Prison Chaplain was the Reverend Robert Cooper, who was the son of Mr Bransby Cooper. The Revd Cooper served in the role from 1822 to 1850. In Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, Holyoake wrote of the Chaplain that he:

“Had the kindly nature, but none of the force of character of his father. He was merely a regulation clergyman, who believed he had spiritual duties to discharge; but his piety was like cold water – it gave you the discomfort of dampness, and when dry again you were as you were before. Still I retain respect for him. He had none of that spite of piety I had hitherto experienced, and was only disagreeable as a matter of official duty.”

Of the Prison Surgeon, Mr Thomas Hickes, Holyoake had little to say, except in an article he published in the Oracle of Reason after his release (reprinted in The History of the Last Trial…). Holyoake’s health had suffered in part due to the poor prison diet and he had been frustrated by the surgeon’s refusal to order additional food for him, without first referring to the Governor. In the Oracle of Reason he wrote:

“I gladly admit, that his manner was always very kind, but I complain that his answers were always very indecisive. What he recommended he seldom prescribed and professed that he must consult the governor when he should have consulted only himself.”

In his article in the Oracle of Reason, Holyoake made observations on the conditions inside the gaol. His worst recollection was of the state of the reception cell in which he spent his first night, sitting on the edge of the bed:

“Those are happy who are ever preserved from the reception cells of Gloucester Gaol. Of the one in which I was put, the floor was filthy, the bed was filthier, and the window was filthier still, for in the window was – what I sicken to write – a rag full of human excrement. And of the bed, a prisoner assured me that when he lay in it the lice crept up his throat off the corners of the blanket which covered him.”

Holyoake wrote that the prison diet consisted of bread, gruel, and potatoes, with boiled rice substituted for potatoes twice a week. “After I had been in prison nine weeks I was, by the rules, allowed a small portion of salt beef on Thursdays and Sundays. The gruel was little remarkable for its delicate and little celebrated for its nutritious qualities, and known by the luxurious cognomen of ‘skilly’. The rice had a blue cast, a saline taste and a slimy look. The beef I could not often taste, seldom chew, and never digest.”

He also complained of the lack of exercise inside the prison walls:

“The yard in which I walked was so small, that I always became giddy, through the frequent turnings, before I became refreshed. The governor sometimes permitted the “Fines-Class” in which I was, to walk in his garden; but the occasions came seldom and lasted not long – and I was previously so enervated by confinement, that the unusual exercise thus taken, threw me into a slight fever.”

As for the Chapel, Holyoake described the building as “a cold place” and sympathised with the prisoners who, unlike himself, were not able to get out of attending prayers every morning:

“The prisoners are assembled every morning to hear prayers, on empty stomachs, after sixteen hours’ confinement in their night cells. On the ‘long prayer’ mornings, they are detained in chapel three-quarters of an hour, and the penitentiary men, on their return to their cells, find their gruel on the floor, gone cold in their absence.”

George Jacob Holyoake was released from Gloucester Gaol on 6 February 1843, having served his six months’ sentence. In a letter he wrote to the Cheltenham Free Press (reprinted in The History of the Last Trial...) he wrote:

“How my imprisonment is supposed to affect me toward religion I cannot tell. I only know that I have no change of sentiment to own…After this, I can only say, that I have greater difficulty than ever in believing that humanity is the associate of piety; and if Christianity has no expounders more attractive than those I have fallen in with, the day of my conversion is still distant.”

The Prison Chaplain’s attempt to present Holyoake with a bible on his release from the gaol failed.


G.J. Holyoake, The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography (1851). (Available as an e-book from Google Books and other sites)

G.J. Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (1892). (Available on

© Jill Evans 2015