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Bedford's Gaol buildings

History of Bedford's Gaol Buildings

Most prisoners held in Bedford were incarcerated in the County Gaol. However, other prisons, in the guise of bridewells, penitentiaries, houses of correction and town gaols, have held offenders. View a map of these buildings.

Bedford Town Gaol

The Town Gaol is recorded on three different sites. The first was situated at the rear corner of the Guildhall which stood on the north-east corner of St Paul's Square. The second was on Bedford Bridge, established in 1589 by the conversion of the former chapel of St Thomas. In 1648 the Corporation of Bedford minute book [Ref.BorBB2/1] notes that 'Bridge House and the dwelling house thereto adjoining for a long time were annexed to the Bailiwick of this town and used for the common prison there and for the habitation of one of the Sergeants at Mace.'
On 17 July 1661, 'The Bailiffs having this day informed the Council that the Town Prison upon the Bridge is far out of repair, so that it is not fit to secure the prisoners, it is ordained that the Chamberlains shall forthwith take order to repair it, both for stonework and timber work and otherwise making it secure.' These Bailiffs were elected in the same way as the Mayor, and were entitled to collect the rent and tolls belonging to the Corporation. They were also keepers of the Town Prison, and liable for fines if prisoners escaped. A gaoler, one of the Bailiffs' two Sergeants at Mace, lived in an adjoining house and assisted the Bailiffs. The prison on the bridge was washed away in 1673 and rebuilt in 1675.

On 30th April 1776 the Corporation decided '…that a new gaol be built upon the bridge'. [Ref: Bor BB 2/8]. This plan was abandoned and the third location of the town prison was decided upon on 6th July 1776 .'It is ordered that a new gaol be built in St Loyes…and that Messrs Savage and Peet do the carpenter and bricklaying work.' John Howard in his work The State of the Prisons in England and Wales Vol.1 Prisons & Lazarettos (fourth edition 1792) [searchroom library Clf: 50] described this Town Gaol as two rooms without fireplaces, with no water, courtyard or gaolers' apartment.
There were no prisoners there on his visit in October 1779 and only one when he revisited in July 1782. However, with the prison population on the increase, the Corporation agreed in 1795 that John Wing would build a new Town Gaol. This would have a lodge for the keeper with a wall around the same, costing 360. The materials of the old Gaol were to be taken down and reused [Ref.Bor BE 10/2]. The gaol was to be built in 'Pesthouse Close', in St Loyes. It is shown on a map of 1807 [Ref. X1/60] a few hundred yards west of the site of the County Gaol, built in 1801.

Eventually it was decided to house the town prisoners in the County Gaol. At Bedford Midsummer Quarter Sessions held 12th July 1824 an order was issued that 'a contract be entered into by the Justices of the Peace of the said town with the Justices of the Peace of the County of Bedford, for the support and maintenance in the gaol and houses of correction of the said County of all the prisoners committed thereto from the said Town of Bedford.' [Bor BF 4/69/110].
On the 18th October the same year 'the several prisoners committed to and now confined and remaining in the gaol of this town be forthwith removed to the gaol of the County.' [Bor BF 4/69/145]. A contract was signed the same day 'for the transfer and maintenance of town prisoners in the County Gaol 8s per week per prisoner' [Bor BF 4/69/147]. The town gaol was pulled down shortly afterwards.

The Old Bridewell or House of Correction

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.
The institutions were intended to provide work for the unemployed and to instil industrious habits. A proclamation at the General Sessions held at Bedford in 1585 [Ref.CRT150/5, original in British Museum] outlined the intention to build a House of Correction. Originally it was administered by the County Justices but was eventually organised and run by professional gaol keepers, who were paid by the prisoner upon their discharge.

Bedford Bridewell was situated in St Mary's parish on the south side of Cauldwell Street. The first documentary reference to this occurs in the Quarter Sessions minutes of 4th October 1652, when Andrew Norris, a labourer from Ridgmont charged with an assault on William Hopkins, was sentenced '…to be in Bridewell a fortnight for his rude carriage in the court' [Ref.QSM 1 pg.17].
Recently catalogued material has helped us identified yet another Bridewell site at the junction of Lurke Street and the High Street, which was in use during the 17th century.

In 1724 John Okely was appointed keeper of the Bridewell 'for life…and he will put the prison 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' [Ref.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' [Ref.QSR 1755/86]. In 1783 John Howard described the Bridewell 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, who had no water supply available to them.

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. [Ref. QSM 1 p.86].

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 [Clf.150 searchroom] speculates that 'the gaol may have stood on that spot from the year 1165'. The earliest list of prisoners dates from 1603 [Ref. 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 'cage'. Details of these can be found in Stocks and Lock-ups in Bedfordshire Villages [Clf: 120] in the searchroom.

The prison reformer John Howard made the first of many visits to the gaol when he was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. In 1783 he described the County Gaol 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).

The Building of the New County Gaol in 1801

The Quarter Sessions minutes of Easter 1786 [Ref.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, (no relation to the prison reformer of the same name) and its outhouses, yards and buildings to be used for the purpose of expansion. This was to include cells above ground, an infirmary for the sick, and separate places for men and women.

When there was no response to the invitation for plans and proposals to be sent to Mr Jeremy Fish Palmer before Sat 8th July, the JP's altered their plans, and ordered that a new Gaol be built on a site within two miles of the existing gaol. At the Michaelmas Adjourned Sessions of 1786 the Justices resolved 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.'

Unfortunately they had to report at the Easter Sessions 1787 that Samuel Southouse, who owned the premises occupied by Thomas Hensman, had refused to sell any part of the property, despite generous offers. At the Michaelmas Sessions the same year they had to rescind the previous orders respecting the spot where the gaol and bridewell were to be built, [Ref. QSM 18]. The project was neglected for nearly a decade.

In 1798 a committee was set up to oversee the construction of a new gaol [Ref. QGE 1]. 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, a suitable site for the prison, to the County for the nominal sum of 10 shillings [Ref.QGE 3/21]. On 6th June 1798 the architect John Wing produced plans and estimates for the building of a new gaol, 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", 32 rugs, 20 blankets and 32 straw mattresses, a stone cistern to be placed at each pump, with a watering trough in each of the men's yards, and forms and benches for the day room. Lord John Russell, John Miller, John Higgins, Samuel Whitbread, Francis Pym and Edward Tanqueray were selected to consider regulations for the management of the new gaol.

The Gaol was officially opened on 18th June 1801. The redundant County Gaol was purchased by Samuel Whitbread at the Michaelmas Sessions 1801 for 170. [Ref. QSM 21 p.86].

The New House of Correction 1819 - 1849

The prison population continued to grow at an alarming rate. In the year 1802, 65 prisoners were recorded in the gaol register [Ref.QGV 10/1]; the number admitted in 1817 had risen to 242. In 1818 it was decided to erect a House of Correction not directly connected with the gaol and once again John Wing was invited to submit plans [Ref. PP 2/4]. However, the following year at the Epiphany Sessions his plans were dismissed as 'on a scale too extensive' and the work was advertised. Of those plans submitted four have survived, including the one used which was by James Elmes [Ref.PP 2/1]. The site chosen was to the north of the gaol, but not directly adjoining it, with a frontage onto Kettering Road, now known as Tavistock Street.

In 1819 James Elmes, reported the progress of the contractor. 'The weather has been hitherto most favourable to the durability of the works…the extra works that have been ordered by your Worships at various times have increased the quantity of work to be done, and consequently the length of time necessary.' John Millington produced further plans for an infirmary, chapel, laundry and treadmill [Ref. PP 3/5 below right] and these were erected [Ref. QSR 24/365].
The next year (1820), a circular letter sent by the Clerk of the Peace stated the New House of Correction was 'so far completed and furnished as to be fit for the reception of prisoners'. It was recommended by the court that offenders against the game laws, servants and labourers for misbehaviour in their employment, men for cases of bastardy, women committed for lewdness, persons committed for light offences or for want of sureties 'with the exception in all cases of prisoners of notoriously bad characters' should be sent there. The old (within the County Gaol building) or new house of correction was specified on all warrants of commitment. [Ref. QSR 24/69, 70].

At the Michaelmas Sessions of 1822 the County Surveyor, John Millington reported: 'It affords me the greatest satisfaction to be able to state that the present sessions will terminate all the heavy and expensive works in which this County has for a considerable time been engaged.' [Ref. QSR 1823/684]

The 'New' House of Correction was pulled down in 1851 after housing all County prisoners during the expansion of the County Gaol in 1849, and the site became a garden for prisoners in the County Gaol.

The Expansion of the County Gaol 1848 - 1868

The New House of Correction had 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 [Ref. 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…' [Ref.AD 1196].

After seeing a gaol at Hertford in 1848 the Bedfordshire Magistrates appointed the Hertfordshire Surveyor, Thomas Smith, as Surveyor for Bedfordshire. He designed the substantial additions [Ref. 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. James Horsford designed an extension to the female wing in 1868 [Ref. PP8]. The nucleus of the original building from 1798 – 1801 remained, and is still standing, although the building has since been greatly extended and adapted. Further records of the gaol are listed in the brown PRIS catalogue in the searchroom, many of which are subject to a 100 year or 75 year closure period.