New book!

New publication!

A History of Gloucester Prison, 1791-1950. 

Published by Glos Crime History Books, May 2017.

ISBN 978-1-5454-7984-1.

Paperback, 136 pages, 13 b+w illustrations, index and bibliography, £8.50. (Kindle version, £1.99.)

This is a short history of the prison, packed full of information on the development of the buildings, the different versions of the separate system employed in the prison over the years, the staff who worked there, the prisoners who were held there and their day-to-day routine, work, diet, punishment and illness, escapes, executions and more.

Available on Amazon.




“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).

A Family Business: Brothers Hanged Together in Gloucestershire, 1730-1830

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley's "Curiosities of Street Literature" (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley’s “Curiosities of Street Literature” (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

Recently I was looking through my lists of people who were hanged in Gloucestershire from 1730 on, and it struck me that there were a number of brothers who were found guilty of committing crimes together, and in consequence were executed together. A few other men who were hanged together shared a surname, and although press reports did not state whether or not they were brothers, it seems likely that they were.

22 August 1735, Nathaniel and Jonathan Willis were hanged at Over, near Gloucester, for committing highway robbery. I have been unable to find a newspaper report of their execution, so cannot confirm that they were siblings.

John and Abraham Wood were executed at Over, for highway robbery. A newspaper report described them as “two gipsies”, who had robbed Henry Lovel of 40 shillings in silver and 16 pence in halfpennies. Again, there was no confirmation that the pair were brothers.

The following have all been confirmed as being brothers:

26 March 1741, Thomas and Francis Cook were hanged at Over. They had been found guilty of “assaulting, beating and abusing in a barbarous manner Roger Rogers, a Carrier, on the Highway”, and taking from him 8s 6d and a pair of scissors, and from his horse, six Cheshire cheeses, a goose and several other things.

6 April 1757, Robert and Richard Colwell were hanged at Over, for housebreaking. At the scaffold, Robert Colwell, the elder sibling, confessed that he had committed the crime for which he had been condemned, and others besides, but he insisted that his brother was innocent. The only crime Richard could think to confess was that he had once stolen some potatoes. A  report on the execution, circulated to newspapers around the country, commented that Richard Colwell might be considered innocent of the crime for which he hanged, but when he and his brother were apprehended, he had swallowed a guinea, part of the loot from the robbery, which “came from him” after he was brought to gaol. He confessed to this and said he would have swallowed more if there had been time. “These are circumstances not much in his favour”, the reporter suggested.

30 July 1784, Henry and Thomas Dunsden were executed for murder. They were hanged at Over, then their bodies were hung in chains near Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire, where their crime had been committed. The Dunsden brothers were notorious highwaymen, part of a gang operating in the area around Burford in Oxfordshire. There had been three brothers, Thomas, Richard and Henry (Tom, Dick and Harry), but Richard had disappeared some time before, possibly dying after having his arm hacked off by one of his siblings in order to escape from capture during a botched robbery. The downfall of Tom and Harry was the result of a drinking session at Capp’s Lodge public house, on the edge of Wychwood Forest. Stories vary as to what exactly happened, but the night ended with Henry Dunsden shooting a waiter, William Harding, who later died of his wounds. On the morning of their execution Henry acknowledged that his life of crime had led to his sorry end, but he stated that his brother was far less to blame, and tried to keep Tom’s spirits up to the last. As they were being tied up, Henry said to his brother, who was lame in one leg, “Come Tom, you have but one leg; but you have very little time to stand.” It is unclear why the Dunsden brothers were tried and executed in Gloucestershire, when their crime was committed in Oxfordshire.

2 May 1801, William and James Jones were hanged at Gloucester County Prison, for burglary. The brothers came from Eastleach Turville, two of the nine children of William and James Jones. They were tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in April 1801, and found guilty of breaking into a house in Eastleach Turville and stealing goods with a total value of five pounds. They were buried together in the graveyard of Eastleach Turville Parish Church on 6 May. William was 28 years old and James was 22. The burial register noted that they had been hanged at Gloucester for housebreaking.

24 April 1813, Thomas Edwards and Edward Edwards (also known as Edward Rees) were hanged at Gloucester Prison, along with their brother-in-law James Bailey, for a highway robbery near Northleach. They came from Monmouthshire and had been committing crimes together for years. Thomas Edwards had escaped from a prison hulk at Woolwich in September 1811, and Edward Edwards had deserted from the Glamorgan Militia in January 1812. The two brothers and Bailey had than got together again and continued with their “family business”. After their execution, their bodies were delivered to their friends for burial.

28 April 1827, Mark and John Dyer were hanged at Gloucester Prison for shooting at Thomas Mills. The Dyer brothers were part of the Wickwar Gang, who operated in the south of the county. A number of the gang had been tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1826, and Thomas Mills had “turned King’s Evidence” – giving evidence against his former colleagues in return for not being prosecuted himself. Two of the gang members were executed as a result, and one of them was Thomas Mills’ own brother, William. In an act of revenge, the Dyer brothers shot through a window at Thomas Mills, but missed him and wounded his wife. After their condemnation, Mark Dyer protested to the court and tried to blame his brother for the crime. When they returned to the prison, both of them told the chaplain that they had another brother who had been responsible for the shooting.

18 April 1829, Matthew and Henry Pinnell were hanged at Gloucester Prison for robbing James Kearsey on the highway, between Rodmarton and Tetbury. After their condemnation, Henry asked the judge to order his body to be delivered up to his mother for burial. The brothers were said to be well-built young men, and there were more women than men in the crowd who came to watch the execution. Some of the spectators asked to touch the bodies after they were dead, presumably in the belief that this would cure some affliction, such as a cancerous growth or a wen in the neck.

It is interesting that in all but one case, these brothers were executed for crimes of theft, in particular highway robbery. If they had been found guilty of committing such offences from the mid-1830s onwards, they would not have died together on the scaffold, but would have been transported (not necessarily to the same place) or imprisoned.


Newspapers: Stamford Mercury, 8 Sept 1737 and 26 March 1741, Oxford Journal, 9 April 1757, 5 June and 7 Aug 1784, Bath Chronicle, 16 April 1829. (All accessed via British Newspaper Archive.)

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

Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987), Chapter One, “The Highwaymen of Wychwood Forest”.

“Atheism and Blasphemy”: The case of George Jacob Holyoake, Cheltenham, 1842

George Jacob Holyoake

George Jacob Holyoake

On 24 May 1842, a lecture was given at the Mechanics’ Institute in Cheltenham, bearing the snappy title of “Home Colonisation as a means of superseding Poor Laws and Emigration”. The speaker, George Jacob Holyoake, was a teacher and lecturer from Birmingham who was an advocate of the socialist principles of Robert Owen.

Since 1841, Holyoake had been contributing articles to a journal published in Bristol by Charles Southwell, called the Oracle of Reason. Early in 1842, Southwell was arrested because of the anti-religious views aired in his journal, and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in Bristol Gaol. Holyoake took over the editorship of the journal, and in May 1842, decided to walk from Birmingham to Bristol to visit Southwell. He broke his ninety-mile journey by staying for one night in Cheltenham, and it was then that he gave his lecture.

The subject of Holyoake’s talk was not religion, but Owen’s idea of Utopian communities, in which associations of between 500 and 3000 people would settle together on allocated land and be largely self-sufficient, sharing the produce and profits from their work. At the end of the lecture, Holyoake invited questions from the audience, and a man named Maitland commented that while he had told them their duty to man, he had not told them their duty to God, and asked whether there would be any churches and chapels in these proposed communities. There are two versions of what Holyoake said in reply.

In his own account of the case, published in 1850 (The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography), Holyoake said that there was great economic distress in the country, and churches and religious institutions cost the nation about twenty million pounds annually. “Worship being thus expensive, I appeal to your heads and pockets whether we are not too poor to have God?” As a matter of political economy, he objected to building chapels in the communities. “If poor men cost the state as much, they would be put like officers on half-pay, and while our distress lasts I think it would be wise to do the same thing with diety.” Speaking of his own beliefs, he said, “Morality I regard, but I do not believe there is such a thing as God.”

A different version of what Holyoake had said was given two days after the talk, in a paragraph published in the Cheltenham Chronicle, bearing the headline: “ATHEISM AND BLASPHEMY”.  The piece stated that Holyoake had delivered a lecture on “Socialism, (or as it has been more appropriately termed Devilism)”, in which he had attacked the Church of England and religion generally for some time, before inviting questions from the audience. It went on to relate Maitland’s question and stated, “The Socialist then replied that he professed no religion at all, and thought they were too poor to have any. He did not believe that there was such a thing as a God, and impiously remarked that if there was, he would have the diety served the same as the government treated the subalterns, by placing him on half-pay.” Holyoake had gone on to make other similar “blasphemous and awful remarks, which we cannot sully our columns by repeating”. The writer finished by remarking that “to their lasting shame”, a considerable proportion of the audience had applauded the speaker.

At the end of the report was added an editor’s note, stating that there were “three persons in our employ who are ready to verify on oath to the correctness of the above statements. We therefore hope those in authority will not suffer the matter to rest here, but that some steps will immediately be taken to prevent any further publicity to such diabolical statements.”

By this time, Holyoake was in Bristol, where he was shown the above paragraph. In his 1850 account of the case, Holyoake said that the Cheltenham Chronicle was “commonly called the Rev. Francis Close’s paper, for it is the organ of his party”. Whether or not that influential clergyman was behind the critical paragraph, this newspaper in particular appears to have been very keen to see Holyoake arrested. In the Cheltenham Chronicle published on 2 June, another paragraph appeared, headed, “HOLYOAKE, THE BLASPHEMOUS SOCIALIST LECTURER”. This reported that at the town’s Petty Sessions held on 27 May, the magistrates had read the paragraph previously published regarding Holyoake’s lecture, and “expressed their opinion that it was a clear case of blasphemy. In order to check the further progress of his pernicious doctrines, the Superintendent of Police was ordered to use every exertion to bring him to justice.”

If Holyoake had stayed away from Cheltenham, he might never have been “brought to justice”, but on 1 June he came back, having decided to return to the town to defend his position and explain his beliefs further. He arranged to give another lecture at the Mechanics’ Institute on 2 June, this time entitled “Civil and Religious Liberty”. During the talk, a row of policemen stood at the back of the hall, and after he had finished, Superintendent Russell told Holyoake that he had been instructed to arrest him. Although Russell did not have a warrant, Holyoake eventually agreed to walk down to the police station, where he was kept for the night.

On the following day, Holyoake was taken before three Cheltenham magistrates, the Rev. D. Newell, R.Capper, Esq., and J. Overbury, Esq.  The Cheltenham Chronicle (9 June) reported that “George Jacob Holyoake, described as a Socialist lecturer and the Editor of the Oracle of Reason, was brought up charged with delivering Atheistical and blasphemous sentiments, at the Mechanics’ Institution, on the evening of 24 May last.” Solicitor J. Bubb, Esq. (described by Holyoake in his 1850 account as “a particularly gross and furious man”) preferred the charge of blasphemy and said he was doing so “upon the common or unwritten law of the land”, which stated that “any person that denied the existence of a God, or a Divine Providence, or was guilty of blasphemy, was liable to imprisonment, corporal punishment and fine.” Two witnesses were produced, both compositors employed at the Cheltenham Chronicle, who described what they had heard Holyoake say. Mr Overbury then declared that it had been proved that Holyoake had said he didn’t believe in the existence of a God, and used “most contemptuous expressions with regard to the Divine Being”.

Holyoake asked if it was customary in Cheltenham to bring persons up without a warrant. Mr Capper replied that any person would have been justified in taking him up for using such blasphemous language, without any warrant. Mr Overbury said that whether Holyoake was of no religion was of no consequence to them, “but your attempt to propagate the infamous sentiment that there is no God, is calculated to produce disorder and confusion, and is a breach of the peace”. Holyoake responded that it was customary in other towns, “where bigotry existed to a greater extent than it did here”, for regular notice to be given. Capper responded, “We refuse to hold an argument with a man professing the abominable principle of denying the existence of a Supreme Being.” Capper also remarked that Holyoake was “only actuated by a love of notoriety”, which led Holyoake in his 1850 work to describe this magistrate as a “brutal old man”. Holyoake was called to find £100 bail for himself, plus two sureties of £50 each, for his appearance at the next county Quarter Sessions. In the meantime, he was to be held in Gloucester Gaol.

It was proposed that Holyoake should be made to walk in handcuffs from Cheltenham to Gloucester, but some of his friends protested, and it was agreed that he could go by train, if he paid the fares for himself and two accompanying policemen. The same Cheltenham friends then sent a memorial to the House of Commons, protesting at Holyoake’s treatment by the authorities, criticising not just the attempt to make him walk in handcuffs from Cheltenham to Gloucester, but also the conduct of the Cheltenham magistrates, which “indicated a predisposition to punish Mr Holyoake, independently of any evidence which might be offered in defence of his own conduct.”

After sixteen days in Gloucester Gaol, Holyoake managed to arrange bail, but had to return to Gloucester quite soon after being released, in order to attend the Quarter Sessions. In the meantime, though, it had been decided that his trial should be take place at the Assizes rather than the Quarter Sessions. This meant that instead of facing a bench of magistrates, some of whom would have been those same Cheltenham gentlemen who had committed him, he would be tried by an independent judge.

The trial of George Jacob Holyoake took place on 15 August 1842, before Justice Erskine. Holyoake had elected to defend himself. He was charged that on 24 May, at the Mechanics’ Institution, Cheltenham, he “maliciously, unlawfully and wickedly did compose, speak, utter and pronounce, and publish with a loud voice, of and concerning Almighty God, the Holy Scriptures, and the Christian religion, these words following, that is to say, “I (meaning Holyoake) do not believe there is such a thing as God; I would have the Diety served as they (meaning the Government) serve the subalterns, place him (meaning Almighty God) on half pay”, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal and reproach of the Christian religion, in open violation of the laws of this kingdom, to the evil example of all others in the like case offending, and against the peace of our lady the Queen, her Crown and dignity.” Holyoake pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution case was that Holyoake had conned innocent people into attending his lecture by pretending it was about one subject, then spoke about something completely different, namely his hostility towards religion. The only witness to give evidence was one of the Cheltenham printers, James Bartram, who repeated the evidence he had given at the magistrates’ hearing. Holyoake cross-examined the witness closely, but could not get him to agree that he was in fear of losing his job, or that he had been coached as to what to say in his evidence.

After the prosecution case had ended, Holyoake began his speech for the defence. He made some good points, including that the evidence showed he had given the talk he had advertised, and had only made his remarks concerning religion when asked a question at the end. Unfortunately, he also tried to explain the values of socialism to the jury, quoted from poetry and political tracts, and read out numerous testimonials in his favour, and in total he spoke for nine hours. When he had finished, the jury quickly found him guilty, and Justice Erskine sentenced him to 6 calendar months imprisonment in Gloucester Gaol. Holyoake protested: “My lord, am I to be classed with thieves and felons?” The judge replied, “No; thieves and felons are sentenced to the Penitentiary, you to the Common Gaol.”

And so Holyoake went down to the cells, and was then taken to Gloucester Gaol to begin his sentence. In his later publications concerning this case, he spoke extensively about his time in gaol, and had some interesting things to say concerning the staff and visiting magistrates he encountered there. This part of his story will be related in a separate post.



Cheltenham Chronicle, 26 May, 2 June, 9 June, 16 June and 18 August 1842

G.J. Holyoake, The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography (1850)

Dictionary of National Biography