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Buildings and Purpose

A History of Bedford Bridewell 1585-1801

The Old Bridewell was also known as the House of Correction, originally a place built to house vagrants and 'the workshy' The terms ‘ House of Correction' and ‘Bridewell' are used interchangeably. This usage arose from St Bride's Well, a Holy Well in London, near which Henry VIII had a lodging, donated by Edward VI for a hospital which was then converted into a House of Correction. An Act of 1575 [18 Eliz.cap.3] required the Justices of the Peace for each county to set up a House of Correction to accommodate vagrants and the workshy. They were intended to provide work for the unemployed and to instil industrious habits.

A proclamation at the General Sessions held at Bedford in 1585 [CRT 150/5, original in British Museum] outlined the intention to build a House of Correction. Originally they were to be administered by the County Justices but gradually they became organised and run by professional gaol keepers, who were paid by the prisoner upon their discharge.

Deeds of 1629 mention a House of Correction in St Peters, Bedford [Russell papers KK Bundle 1]. Later the Bedford Bridewell was situated in St Mary's parish on the south side of Cauldwell Street. The first reference to Bedford Bridewell occurs in the Quarter Sessions Minutes of 4th October 1652. A Ridgmont labourer called Andrew Norris, charged with an assault on William Hopkins, was sentenced "To be in Bridewell a fortnight for his rude carriage in the court." [QSM 1 pg.17].

In 1724 John Okely was appointed keeper of the Bridewell ‘for life'. ??he will put the prison and the appurtenances?in good and sufficient repair and so keep the same and tile all that part of it which is now thatch'd for the yearly salary of thirty pounds?and that he shall find straw and all other incidents." [QSR 1724/155]. In 1755 the architect Thomas Moore carried out repairs and many alterations to the Bridewell and the Bridewell Keeper's house; ?Take down the West front of the Bridewell being now only built with timber and build the said front with bricks." [QSR 1755/86]

In 1783 John Howard described the Bridewell at Bedford as consisting of three 13'6" x 11'6" rooms on the ground floor, no fireplace, and a courtyard 36' x 24'. It housed few prisoners, between two and four on his visits between 1776 and 1782. He commented that no water was available to the prisoners.

In 1801 prisoners held at the Bridewell were transferred to the new County Gaol (which included a House of Correction), and at the Michaelmas Sessions that year Samuel Whitbread purchased the buildings and land of both the Bridewell in St Mary's and the old County Gaol site on the corner of Silver Street and the High Street. [QSM 21 p.86].