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Buildings and Purpose

A History of Cambridge County Gaol 1802-1829

The County Gaol, Cambridge
The County Gaol, Cambridge

A new octagonal Gaol and House of Correction was built between 1802-07. It was built on the old castle site, designed by G. Byfield on 'Benthamite' principles (the ideas of Jeremiah Bentham).

The County Gaol, Cambridge

The Old Norman castle on Castle Hill in Cambridge was used as a gaol from at least the mid fourteenth century. Before 1601 a Bridewell was made from the old castle barracks, with a separate keeper, but by Howard's time in 1776 the positions of keeper and gaoler had merged. The gallows stood in the castle courtyard. The gaol was maintained in a far better condition than the borough one next to the guildhall.

The increasing number of Bridewell inmates and the shortage of solitary cells led to demands for a new gaol and House of Correction, and in 1802 - 07 a new octagonal County Gaol was built. This new gaol was used until 1915, prisoners after that date being sent to Bedford or Holloway.

The prison building was demolished in 1928 - 9, and the site is now occupied by the county's Shire Hall (which indeed uses bricks from the prison in its walls).

Few records survive relating to the early phases of the prison but there are plans of the buildings from 1801 - 1913 and lantern slides depicting the prison in 1740 and 1815 [23/Z 178-9]. The record office also holds registers of prisoners, 1885-1916, female prisoners 1893-1914, officers, 1897-1916 and photographic registers of prisoners, 1884-1905 [R94/13.]

Calendars of prisoners and dietaries can sometimes be found amongst the Cambridgeshire Quarter Sessions rolls which commence 1730 and reports and accounts of gaolers and gaol committees may appear in the Quarter Sessions order books.

Cambridge Borough Gaol

Cambridge was granted the right to its own gaol in 1224. By the sixteenth century prisoners were being kept in a building known as the Tollbooth, which was situated next to the Guildhall. Described by Carter in 1753 as ?a shocking place to be confined in" with no fireplace, exercise yard or water supply, it was replaced in 1790 by a second gaol, built in St Andrew's Street behind Hobson's Spinning House.

In 1829 this was in turn abandoned and replaced, at great expense, by a gaol, on the south -east side of Parkers Piece; the site is now occupied by the YMCA and a multi-storey car park.

Finally, in 1878 this gaol, too, was pulled down under the provisions of the Prisons Act, and all borough prisoners were sent to the County Gaol.

A limited number of sources relating to the buildings, reports on conditions, and accounts can be found among the Borough archives at the Record Office including a gaol delivery of 1503 [PBX/27] the deed and contract for the new gaol, 1828-9 and the gaol sessions (mainly reports of the gaoler and chaplain) which can be found in the Borough Petty Sessions minutes, 1844-78.

The accounts of John Payne, gaoler 1821-39 also survive [R96/19] and there are illustrations of the third gaol [R58/5/7 p.292, X20/107]. Registers of prisoners cover a limited period only; 1850-1859 [R94/13].

Prisoners are listed by name in the 1841 census [HO.107/85/24] and 1851 [HO107/1760/78b].
Initials only appear in the 1861 census [RG9/1024/68a] and 1871 [RG10/1857/29a]