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





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








“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)



“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.



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).

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

Plum Duff for the Prisoners: Gloucester Gaol, Christmas 1929

Illustration from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, by S. Eylinge, 1869 (British Library, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Illustration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, by S. Eylinge, 1869 (British Library, via Flickr Creative Commons)

An article appeared in The Citizen on 17 December 1929, bearing the headline:

Gloucester Gaol’s Xmas

“Lags” Now Making Their Way Home to Prison.

Readers were informed that plum duff, “the poor man’s Christmas pudding”, was to be served on Christmas Day to all the prisoners who were undergoing sentence in Gloucester Gaol. The chief ingredients of the pudding were to be currants, minced apples and raisins, with breadcrumbs “to give it lightness”. In addition there would be extra allowances of roast beef and bread. For those who spent the day in the prison hospital, there would be a dessert of apples and oranges.

A prison official was quoted as saying: “There are scores of old ‘lags’ now at liberty who are thinking out ways and means of spending Christmas with us. You will find them committing some minor offence in order that they may be the guests of His Majesty at Christmas time.”

The official continued: “It is not because we pamper them – we don’t – it is because they find the world unfriendly to them, and they would rather be amongst their own sort. Our special Christmas Day diet, if roughly served, is at least wholesome and appetising, and it is as welcome to them as is roast turkey to folk more fortunately placed.”

A search of the petty sessions proceedings in the Gloucestershire newspapers of December 1929 did not reveal dozens of people committing crimes in order to be in prison for Christmas, but there was one case of a man who wanted to be gaoled for longer than the festive period.

The Citizen of 3 December 1929 reported a recent meeting of the Gloucester City Petty Sessions court, presided over by the Mayor, in which James O’Hagan, of no fixed abode, appeared for stealing a pair of boots from the shop of Messrs Cash & Co. in Westgate Street, Gloucester. A policeman stated than when he asked O’Hagan to explain how he had got the boots, he replied, “I pinched them.” When he was charged at the Police Station, O’Hagan had said, “Guilty, my lord.”

Asked by the court if he had anything to say, O’Hagan responded, “I want to go to prison.” He was asked if he would like to say for how long, and he replied, “I don’t mind; the winter, anyhow.” He was sentenced to two months in prison. In a slightly different version of this report, printed in the Cheltenham Chronicle, the Mayor in sentencing him, said, “I am afraid we cannot see you eating your Christmas dinner outside Prison”, to which O’Hagan replied, “Thank you, sir.”

Interestingly, at the same court session, another man of “no fixed abode” appeared, who was also charged with stealing a pair of boots. James Edward Kettle was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for stealing boots from Messrs Baker and Sons in Westgate Street. Perhaps this particular form of theft was regarded by those in the know as the perfect way to get sent to prison, just in time for Christmas.


Gloucester Citizen, 3 Dec 1929, 17 Dec 1929

Cheltenham Chronicle, 7 Dec 1929

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.