On how prisoners were treated in Cambridgeshire County Gaol in 1870


After a number of improvements to the old county gaol on Castle Hill – where Shire Hall now is, reporters from the Cambridge Chronicle paid a visit, and wrote this incredibly detailed report on the prison design and treatment of inmates. I’ve added photos from the Cambridgeshire Collection to illustrate the prison that is now lost to history.

700416 Cambs County Gaol described

The County Gaol of the present day is a very different thing from the dungeon it succeeded. The remark is of general application, for the modem prison, with exemplar in Pentonville has almost everywhere taken the place of the old-fashioned unsuitable gaol. The latter was irregularly built, crowded, and infectious. From Bacon’s time to the present it has been true that

“the most pernicious infection, next to the plague, is the smell of the gaol, when prisoners have been long, and close, and nastily kept.”

When an epidemic broke out, many lives were sacrificed, and occasionally we read of Black Assize, “like that at Oxford, when the noxious effluvia finding its way into the assize court, judge and jury were seized, and many carried off by death. In the old gaols discipline was impossible owing to their construction, and the association of the prisoners, which led even to worse evils than that. The opportunities for conversation, allowed under the ancien regime enabled the more hardened rogues and vagabonds to inoculate their younger and less experienced companions with their greater wickedness, teaching them how to escape the punishment of the law, and where they could practice the thieves’ profession with impunity.

“To this end, “maps” were made, not on paper, but by oral communication. The old hands “made their maps,” as they called it, into the most careless counties, where the “ quod was lenient, and the “scran” was good. But we have changed all that now. The modem county gaol is built so that it is almost impossible to get up an emeute ; discipline is strictly enforced ; the diet is judiciously fixed as low as is compatible with preserving life and health, and high enough to make the convicted persons work for their living Formerly escapes were frequent.

“Now one rarely hears of a prisoner breaking loose. Fit arrangements are made for the treatment of those who are only awaiting their trial, and have not committed a criminal offence, and who may reflect with Sir Walter Raleigh, when friends were deploring his fate, that “the world itself is but a larger prison, out of which some are daily selected for execution.” They may remember that—

Stone walls do not prison make,

Nor iron bars cage,

Minds innocent and quiet,

take That for a hermitage.

After all, however—

A prison is house of care,

A place where none can thrive;

A touchstone true to try a friend,

A grave for one alive.

“But to our task. It is a subject in which the ratepayers of Cambridgeshire are just now deeply interested. For the past two years extensive alterations have been going on in our own county gaol, which are now completed, and the cost to the county will be something like £8 000. Such a sum must prove heavy burden to the much-discussed county-rate, and the intention here is set forth to some extent the alterations and improvements which have been carried out, with the hope that it may be at once interesting and a source of some satisfaction to those who will be called upon to contribute towards the cost.

Castle Hill Prison 1920 EPW000056

This photo – a detail from Britain From Above, shows the prison walls and tower clearly visible. In the foreground is St Gile’s Church

“Our famous Castle” or County Gaol, has lately become more marked as one of the prominent structures of the town and a lofty shaft towering above the general cluster of buildings is the cause many a curious inquiry. Another new feature seen from the exterior is what cannot be mistaken as the prison-chapel. The Governor’s house—a commodious edifice—is now erected outside the walls of the gaol, almost immediately opposite the Hill. Before the alterations were commenced, the buildings consisted of a central block with four others completely detached from it and radiating from it.

“The central block consisted of the Governor’s house and the Chapel—the latter occupying the whole of the first floor, so that the only communication between the bed rooms and sitting rooms was through the Chapel. The four blocks radiating at right angles from the house consisted of cells, which were very imperfectly warmed and ventilated, and being so much detached, no proper supervision of the prisoners could be carried on. The map plan of the alteration has been to build the radiating blocks up to the central one and to form the house into a large central hall by taking out all the internal walls and floors, and opening out arches, so that there is a clear view down the corridors.

Cambridge County Jail.jpg

Cambridgeshire County Gaol, from the Cambridgeshire Collection – again the chapel and tower clearly visible. This is taken from the top of the Castle Mound. Today the view looks down on Shire Hall.

“A more appropriate chapel has also been built, and the whole gaol thoroughly warmed and ventilated. The tread-wheel is arranged to pump the water into a large cistern for the general supply of the gaol &c. A covered exercising ground is provided. But these are only a few many matters of detail. So completely have the alterations changed the whole feature the building that it is hard to trace the former inconvenient arrangements in the present plan—but a small portion is left in the debtor’s wing which shews (sic) to some extent what the old plan was, though this part too has been considerably modified.

CambCountyGaol 1918“Entering the gate of the gaol the side next the hill, and having crossed a court-yard, the visitor is ushered into Governors office. The iron door having been properly secured by the watchful gaoler, one perceives The first evidences of ‘‘imprisonment.” After a hasty survey of the situation the cicerone conducts us into the older part the building, called the Debtors’ Wing. Here there is a slight semblance of comfort the fact of there being a fire-place in each cell, which is not the case with the cells for criminal prisoners, though no other points of difference are perceptible.

“The arrangements for the visits of friends of the prisoners are, however, specially distinct. There are (in addition to the new flag pavements) bell-pulls to each cell, by means of which officer can be summoned at any time —as for instance, in case of illness, or under any other circumstances of urgent necessity; but no prank can played with impunity (even if the prisoner were so minded under such cheerless circumstances.) The prisoner could not, for example, pull the bell and then deny having done so, as to each pull is affixed apparatus by means of which a plate jumps out whenever the bell is touched. These figure-plates arc visible from the end of the longest corridor, and the warder hearing the bell is able to walk straight to the cell where the alarm has been sounded.

“The Debtors’ Wing is seldom if ever used for its primary purpose, and is now held m reserve, and can used for the other class of prisoners, whenever the number of criminal cases renders it necessary. Leaving this wing we come to the prison proper, and are first introduced to the reception cells and bath. Every new comer has been through this ordeal: having divested himself of his ordinary apparel, is marched across a corridor to the common bath, and after a proper cleansing is invested with the unenviable distinction of the ‘*CCG” uniform, which may be termed the robes of crime.

“He is conducted to his permanent quarters—his name, residence, offence, and term of imprisonment being thereupon placed a card outside the cell-door. The manner in, which all this is gone through, combined with the sepulchral silence of the place, only broken the clank of keys, i or the warders’ funereal tread, and above all. the prisoners “hang-dog’’ look, forcibly impress the voluntary visitor.

“For the time being, they must have great influence on the demeanour of the convict, and seldom fail, with other conditions, to subdue the most rebellious spirit. To nine-tenths of gaol-birds there can be no greater punishment than to confine them to their own reflections; they find nothing horrible as themselves.

“The modern prison system throws the criminal back on himself. What his thoughts may be profess not to divine, when that heavy door with its great bolt harshly closes upon him. and his brightest prospect is a small but inaccessible window, guarded with ponderous unyielding iron bars. There is need to give details of the furniture of his apartment. Suffice to say that is scanty, but enough.

“Quitting the introductory bathroom, a few strides bring one to similar apartment devoted to convicts of long standing on the prison calendar; opposite to that are dark cells, approached through double doors. When the well is dry, know the worth of water,” and the man who doomed to total deprivation of light, learns how priceless is the blessed gift of sun, which is heat, and life, and hope to those who have it: what a dreary void, to those who have it not! The authorities will exercise a wise discretion in the use of these sunless cells, which are happily but seldom required, and then only for fits of extraordinary violence, or the wild-beast nature of the untamed human creature, born and bred in sin and crime. Truly may it be said of these dismal places that “ darkness is visible therein. One quits them with pleasure and unutterable sense of relief.

“We are next called upon gaze upon the arrangements for cooking. The apparatus is complete, plentiful supply of hot water being always ready. At the time of our visit, 4 p.m., preparations were being made for the evening meal. This U comprised chiefly of gruel, which is known as “skilly.” Despised though it be, it is such a meal, however, as prisoners care not to lose, and the steady plying of their task manifested that they were fully aware that it was case of Hobson’s choice: skilly or nothing.

“The heating apparatus has been fixed by Messrs. Haden, of Trowbridge, at a cost of £500, and is on the hot-air system. Through iron-gratings the courtyards the air gains admission to flue which runs in numerous convolutions, causing the air to travel a great distance within a circumscribed area. By the time the air reaches the principle flue it has become quite warm. This flue increases the temperature of the air by hot water pipes, and by the sharp draught it is hurried along through all the corridors of the prison, each cell being fitted with a grating to admit the hot air separately, and eventually it finds its way out by the conspicuous shaft which is seen towering above the rest of the gaol. This shaft forms the source of ventilation to the place, and also conveys the smoke away.

“There is gas in every cell, but the prisoner has no control over its illumination, as it is extinguished by the warder from the outside. An officer standing in the middle of the central hall previously referred to can now command a view of the whole of the cells on every hand. This is a marvellous improvement. The dome of the central hall can be seen from the exterior, and may be distinguished its skylights. Around it is erected an iron gallery, communicating with the upper and lower tier of cells.

“On the basement of the ball we noticed a “ tell-tale or “ peg-top,” which may be better described as an old-fashioned case-clock, the peculiarity of which is that the face, instead of the hands, revolves; it forms check upon the watchman, who has to indicate his attention to duty throughout his lonely hours pressing down peg at certain periods, which if not done at the proper time indicates his dereliction, as the lost opportunity cannot be re-called. Poor fellow! We pity his seemingly obdurate fate with this fearful time-piece; but England expects that every man will do his duty, and no doubt he does his. We wonder whether he repeats to himself a line from Young’s “Night Thoughts”

We take no note of time

But from its loss.

To stand under the dome of the central hall, and see and hear no human being—nothing save the heavy thud of the looms in the cells—and to be conscious that you are surrounded by sixty invisible convicts, sends quite an unpleasant chill through the region of the spinal chord of one unacquainted with such places. It is a ‘‘occlusive companionship” much to be shunned. novel invention was pointed out in one of the cells, and is worthy of notice; it is the Governor’s idea, and consists double window fit obscure glass The window is about 2ft. 4in. in depth, about 8 inches at the top moving on a pivot, about foot distant from which there is sash a foot in depth, so that when the 8-inch portion is opened plentiful supply of fresh air is once obtained. The other advantage is that there is not the slightest chance of the prisoners speaking to each other from the windows—a common offence under the old regime.

“The Court of Quarter Sessions has decided to continue the necessary alteration of the windows according to the Governor’s invention. Ascending the iron staircase in the central hall, the chapel is the next to notice. Here there is accommodation for a hundred prisoners, the benches being of stained and varnished deal, with a slight partition between each man, the backs being about 2ft. higher than the seats. There are oak stalls on either side for the Governor and Chaplain, with oak lectern and oak communion “table.” By our report of the Quarter Sessions, last week, it would be seen that there is a difference of opinion as to the advisability of retaining the latter piece of furniture in its present shape. It may be mentioned that there is aa average attendance at the chapel of sixty unfettered prisoners.

“The number of officers in attendance is very few, comparatively speaking, and there is apparently a want of security amongst such body of this description of men. The new dry-earth closets are in use throughout the gaol, and the system works admirably. The closets are manufactured on the spot, so that the county has nothing but the raw material to provide. There ia a special arrangement for the carrying on of the earth system in one of the yards, in close communication with the gaol, where a large shed is fitted up with seven bins and a separate apartment for cleansing and storing the buckets, and the whole is managed by one prisoner.

“There is a prevailing idea amongst the gaol outsiders, that the hard labour in such places is profitless —sorting oats, for instance, and then when the task is finished, unceremoniously to mix them together again; or to put men on the dreaded “mill” to grind naught, but chaff ; or to carry stones from one part of the yard to another and back again. It is not the case in the Cambridge County Gaol, if it be so elsewhere. It a perfect manufactory—although one was impressed with the idea of its having slight semblance to a deaf and dumb institute. By that is intended to be conveyed some notion of the dread silence and solemnity which pervades the establishment.

“Verbal intercourse is absolutely interdicted, indeed about the only opportunity for this is by snatches of talk in the exercising yards. But we digress; let return to our muttons. The principle feature of labour is mat-making, which is carried on to a large extent. Looms, made in the gaol, are fitted up in some the cells, at which the convicts perform their allotted task. And well they do their work. It is to be hoped that there will be greater demand for gaol-made mats. The purchase of these articles helps to render our criminal population productive, at all events while they are in “durance wile;” moreover, let it be known to all whom it may concern, that these same mats are really worthy of the object for which they are designed.

“Besides there is a conscientious feeling in wiping ones feet on such mat; positively glory in it, and think we have done the State some service.’’ The prisoners make their own sleeping hammocks. It may be said that good conduct has its reward here as elsewhere, and a convict is promoted to a higher grade of employment by it. Besides mat-making, all the clothing, caps, braces, shoes, and tin-ware are made by the prisoners, according to their several capabilities. Next comes the exercising. this, in all well-conducted gaols, exercising in the yards, the cleaning of the cells, and so forth, takes place in the morning. In the large exercising yard there is an inner circle”—that is, a covered portion devoted to lame and infirm convicts.

“Entering within the walls once more, a visit is paid to the new tread-wheel which is turned to useful purpose. There are eight prisoners working simultaneously at this notorious machine, who take it in rotation to have 15 minutes on and five off. In this, as in many other particulars, it was to be observed that improvements have been introduced: every man has a partition to himself, which is so constructed (each division of the wheel having a separate communication with the shaft), that there is not the slightest possibility of any conversation going on between any two of the prisoners. By means of this wheel water is sent up to the tower, whereby the whole prison, the County Courts, and the Governor’s house, are supplied with it. The old wheel shed is not entirely abolished, being used as a stock-room for yarn.

“Above this old wheel-house is room devoted to the reception of the prisoners’ own clothing, which is fumigated on admission, and kept separate bags, each numbered in accordance with the prisoner’s status in the gaol; so that when he leaves his wardrobe is at once pointed out, and assuming that he of cleanly disposition, he is not punished unnecessarily by having his clothes placed in contact wth those of prisoners less careful of personal comforts and cleanliness.

“The cleaning of the prison is done on Fridays, when (many hands making light the work) it is completed in about two hours. The Governor has made another invention for the large cells, in the shape of article which comprises wash-stand, receptacle for towel and soap, and (when closed) a small table. It is a neat affair. There are many other points which might be referred to, such its the “condemned cell,” with its three beds, and the small hospital over the gateway.

“Our task is now nearly brought to close, but we should not omit to mention that provision has been made in this court yard for private executions in case any one may suffer the direst penalty of the law. God grant there may be no such necessity of the law in this county!

“The architect for all the gaol alterations has been Mr. W. M. Fawcett; the clerk of the works, Mr. Edwin Bays; builders, Messrs. Bell and Sons, all of Cambridge. As shewing (sic) the capabilities of the gaol it may be stated that there are now 103 cells certified by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons as fit for separate confinement for long sentenced prisoners, and 13 uncertified—capable of being used for prisoners committed for short periods. The Iterations have not been earned out on the principle of make-shift, but are complete and satisfactory.

“The cost of the whole will be about £8,000, and from the Visiting Justices’ report (which we published last week) it would be seen that owing to the increased effectiveness of the gaol a clear profit , salaries of all officers) will be made of £290, or a little more than 3.5 per cent, on the outlay.”


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