Cambridge County Gaol as described in 1861

Cambridge used to host the county jail – or gaol as they spelt it in the olden days. This is what it looked like from the top of Castle Hill.

Cambridge County Jail

Image courtesy of the Museum of Cambridge – they’ve reopened following their spring clean so do go and visit!

I stumbled across this article in the British Newspaper Archive that describes the building’s history. What fascinates me about the description here is the time when it was written and how it reveals itself in the text. It was a time of huge social change – one where we went from having regular public executions to a time when Parliament was debating whether to do away with capital punishment in its entirety – even though it would be another century from the newspaper article’s publication before that was finally achieved.

The text is from an article from the British Newspaper Archive about the public hanging of Augustus Hilton of Parson Drove near Wisbech for the murder of his wife, Charlotte – a crime to which he pleaded guilty even though he knew it carried the death sentence.

I have omitted the details of the execution and the exchanges between the condemned and officials so as to focus on both the building and the style of writing that the journalist uses. I may well come back to this case – if only for Charlotte, the victim of the crime.

610810 Parson Drove Hilton hanging


“The Cambridge County Gaol was erected in 1804, 57 years ago. At that period, public executions were common almost every assize, inasmuch as the last dread sentence of the law was carried into effect upon criminals for offences which are now, thanks to the improvement of the age, treated with comparative leniency.

“On reference to the records of the past, we find that the first criminal executed at the new County Gaol was a man named Bird. His offence was that of forgery, longer a capital offence, and he suffered in April, 1812. The following year (1813), Daniel Dawson was hanged for poisoning a horse, at Newmarket; next, in the grim list, was a man named Scarr, who was executed in April, 1817, for housebreaking, and firing the premises he robbed.

“Two years afterwards (1819), Thomas Weems was executed in April, for the murder of his wife. In April, 1824, Lane was hanged, for rape; in April, 1829, Osborne was executed for highway robbery and attempt at murder; the following April, 1830, three men —William Foreman, Nathan Header, and John Howard —suffered the extreme penalty of the law; Foreman and Reader, for arson, at Linton, and Howard, for a similar offence, at Chippenham; all three tried at the same assize, and sentenced together. [The assizes were the quarterly gathering of senior judges from London who travelled the country to hear trials of those accused of serious offences. These continued until the early 1970s).

“The next executions were those of Westnott and Carter, laborers [sic], of Caldicott, in April, 1833, who, on a poaching expedition, shot, in Hardwicke fields, a gamekeeper, named Kidd; but who was not only not killed, but is still alive, and residing at Chesterton.

“On the 7th of December, 1833, John Stallon suffered for arson, at Great Shelford. This loan endeavoured to attach the crime for which he suffered, upon his wife, but when he found that his fate inevitable, he exonerated his wife, and became very penitent. The last who suffered at this gaol were Lucas and Mary Reader; this execution took place on April 11, 1850, for the murder at Castle Camps, of Mrs Lucas, poison, Mary Reader being the sister of the murdered, victim, who was the male prisoner’s wife.


“The same instrument of death which was used for Bird, the criminal, who was the first to suffer after the erection the gaol, was used this day for Hilton. Formerly, in fact to, and including the execution of Stallon, executions were carried into effect in front of the County Gaol, which then faced the streets, but when the County Courts were built, a new front to the gaol was erected, which faces, and is in fact vast at the foot of one side of the immense mound known as Castle HilL On Thursday and Friday the usual barricades were erected which surrounds the drop.

“The place of execution may be thus described. The boards of the barricade occupy an area of 50 feet wide, and 25 feet from the door of the gaol towards the Hill. The drop is fixed, of course, within the barrier, and on the ground, about four or five feet high, is stage and the drop is 6.5 feet above the stage, which gives a high altitude to the criminal, while standing upon it, and enables him to be seen vast distances, where the Castle Hill does not impede the sight. The drop is easily arranged, and the posts connecting it were not erected till this morning.


“Again referring to the past, we may say that was the custom in all gaols, immediately after sentence of death was passed upon a criminal, to confine in what was popularly known as “the condemned cell;” in such place he was heavily ironed, and from such place he was not permitted to have egress for the short time he had to live, except to attend chapel. It is not so now-a-days. Hilton has been permitted to exercise in the yard appropriated for the purpose, from early hour in the morning till sunset. He was allowed to be as communicative as he desired, and it was only at night that he retired to that cell set apart for the condemned. He was, however, young man of no conversational powers; he was partial to money, and he loved drink. He was not possessed of even respectable mental powers, and in this respect he was far inferior to his wife, who is represented as having been a shrewd, clever woman.”

[The extensive article describes what happened between the condemned, and officials, which I have omitted].

“We turn for a moment from the interior of the gaol, where all was silent as death, save the passing hither and thither of some official, the outside, where the sun shone and the busy world was all astir. An execution in all places, and under all circumstances, is source of attraction. The multitude may be calculated by thousands, and long before the hour for execution, the various streets leading towards the County Gaol were crammed with persons hurrying thitherward. That portion of the Castle-hill facing the gaol, and from which view of the culprit could be obtained, was a living mass of human beings, as were the open spaces on each side of the platform; and, indeed, from all parts, the Chesterton Road, and other places where a glance could be obtained, there people were to be seen waiting with the utmost patience.

[I have omitted the details of the execution in this piece]

“On Friday evening, a vast number persons, among them many well-dressed females, led by a morbid curiosity, went to the yard to see the coffin, which was of a very plain description; on the top of it was the shroud and cap, the grave habiliments of the murderer.

“In proof of the intense desire to obtain a good view of the execution, we may state that as early as five o’clock this morning, scores of persons had taken their places on the Castle Hill and in front of the Gaol, so as to obtain commanding view of the execution. It is believed that upwards of 20,000 persons were present. It was arranged that the body should be buried at 7 o’clock, in the gaol garden, next to Lucas’, who was buried near the grave of Mary Reader. The vast multitude in the morning at the execution conducted themselves with becoming propriety, and so soon as the drop fell many hundreds hurried away, while many remained till after the body was removed.”

CambCountyGaol 1918

Cambridge County Gaol from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

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