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Buildings and Purpose

A History of Bedford County Gaol c1603 onwards

Bedford County Gaol

Bedford County Gaol has been located on two sites in the town of Bedford. Prisoners were transfered to the gaol from parish local lock-ups.

The County Gaol Pre 1801 In the eighteenth century the County Gaol was situated on the north side of Silver Street, at the junction with Bedford High Street. No painting, sketch or plan of this Gaol is known to exist. Eric Stockdale, in his book Bedford Prison 1660 - 1877 speculates that "the gaol may have stood on that spot from the year 1165". The earliest list of prisoners in the gaol is recorded in 1603 [FN 1024]. John Bunyan was imprisoned here from 1660 to 1672, and in 1677.

Prisoners from around the County were brought to the gaol by parish constables, who were paid for transferring the prisoners from the local lock-up or pound. Every parish had its own lock-up or 'cage' where people could be held for short periods of time. The poor conditions John Howard observed in this gaol when he visited it in his role as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773 led to his lifelong campaign for penal reform, and eventually to the building of a new County Gaol in 1801. He visited the prison many times and recorded his findings in 1783. He described the County Gaol at this time as having the following accommodation: first floor: day room for debtors also used as a chapel, four lodging rooms. Ground floor: for felons, two day rooms, one for men, one for women, two cells for the condemned. The rooms were 8'6"high. There were two dungeons down eleven steps, one of which was dark. He noted that 20 years earlier there had been an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) and some people had died there.

The Building of the New County Gaol in 1801

The Quarter Sessions minutes of Easter 1786 [QSM 18] record that the Justices of the Peace wanted to enlarge the gaol, and ordered the purchase of the house of John Howard, Gaoler, and its outhouses, yards and buildings to be used for the purpose of expansion. This was to include cells above ground, infirmary for the sick, wards for men and women and separate places for men and women to be confined. Plans and proposals were invited but there was no response. So at the Michaelmas Adjourned Sessions it was decided that the new Gaol and Bridewell be built on the pasture or garden or both behind the house where Mr Thomas Hensman dwells on the High Street in the parish of St Paul, Bedford. Mr Blackburn was to be commissioned to make a plan for a gaol and bridewell to adjoin together and Mr Samuel Southouse was to be asked to sell land leased by Thomas Hensman. Unfortunately these plans too came to nothing when Samuel Southouse refused to sell any part of the land so by Michaelmas Sessions 1787 all the orders regarding the new gaol and Bridewell were rescinded. [QSM18] In 1798 a Committee was set up to oversee the construction of a new Gaol. They recorded their decisions in a special minute book [QGE 1]. They stated that they deemed both the existing County Gaol and House of Correction in the gaol 'insufficient' and 'inconvenient'. One of the Committee was Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, who sold his land in Dovehouse Close, deemed a suitable site for the prison, to the County for the nominal sum of 10 shillings [QGE 3/21]. On 6th June 1798 the architect John Wing produced plans and estimates for the building of a new gaol and house of correction, and the committee unanimously agreed on plan no.3. He also gave an estimate of the cost of building, 6850 4s. The contract was signed on 11th Jul 1798. On 15th April 1801 the committee listed the furniture they had ordered for the prison: 32 iron bedsteads measuring 2'6"by 6'2", 11 iron bedsteads with sacking bottoms 4' by 6'6", a stone cistern to be placed at each pump, with a watering trough in each of the men's yards, forms and benches for the day room, another key for the lodge door to be held by the Sheriff and a copper for the gaolers use. 32 rugs, 20 blankets and 32 straw mattresses were also ordered. The Gaol was officially opened on 18th June 1801.

The Expansion of the County Gaol 1848 - 1849

The New House of Correction built in 1821 helped deal with the increasing number of prisoners, but by the mid 1830s further measures were needed. In 1834 plans were drawn up by the County Surveyor, Mr Francis Giles, for additions to the County Gaol [PP4]. However, these were never built. The expansion of the gaol was not without opposition, particularly from rate payers who resented the expense. A petition was delivered to Thomas Abbott Green, Sheriff, signed by 651 rate payers 'entertaining the strong opinion that no urgent necessity exists for the measure, and that in the present state of heavy taxation such expenditure is highly inexpedient?' [AD 1196]. After seeing a Gaol at Hertford in 1848 the County Magistrates appointed the Hertfordshire Surveyor, Thomas Smith, as Surveyor for Bedfordshire. He designed the substantial additions [PP 6/2], including a wing for women prisoners and a new main cellblock in the shape of a 'T'. The builder was Walter Parker. The new Bedford Gaol, finished in 1849 as an extension to the house of correction, followed the pattern set by Gloucester and Pentonville. All prisoners had their own cell in which they worked all day, to keep them apart so that they could not talk to each other. They were allowed to leave their cells for exercise, but then they were separated by each being made to hold a knot in a rope held taut between prisoners. The knots were 15 feet (nearly 5 metres) apart. Prisoners also attended services in the chapel, where they also sat apart from each other, facing the preacher. The nucleus of the original building from 1798 - 1801 remained, and is still standing, although the building has since been greatly extended and adapted. Notes Stockdale, Eric Bedford Prison 1660 - 1877 Phillimore & Co. Limited, 1977. All references in square brackets relate to documents held by the Bedfordshire & Luton Archives Service.