Gloucester Prison has a long history which goes back across the centuries as it is one of the oldest purpose built prisons in the country. Closed as a working prison in 2013, it is now a tourist attraction open for guided tours and events such as Airsoft and Zombie games. It is currently having the main entrance re-developed for a small museum, café and visitor centre which is sure to enhance a visit to this fascinating site.
The History of Gloucester Prison
The prison is very much central to Gloucester, a pretty city in the Cotswolds which is a place of half-timbered medieval buildings, a magnificent cathedral, ruins, gardens and a lot of industrial heritage, its unique position at the head of the River Severn once making it an important trading post. First founded by the Romans in the 1st century, the city continued to be occupied throughout the Saxon era and had its first castle built on a strategic site by the river, that of the current prison.
The castle was a simple motte and bailey, built during the reign of William the Conqueror. It was expanded and enlarged over the years, and was partly in use as a prison from 1185 even before being used as residence for Henry III. Most of the building deteriorated over the subsequent centuries, with the stone being taken away and used for other buildings and roads, but the central keep remained in use as a gaol until 1787 when it was rebuilt.
This new prison which opened in 1792 was designed by William Blackburn, the leading Georgian prison architect. After the Penitentiary Act of 1797, which was an attempt to deal with an increase in the prison population as well as a decision to detain rather than transport prisoners, his aim was to make prisons more habitable. He designed Gloucester with two wings, with his design lasting until the 1850s when it was substantially altered. Only the gatehouse remains of Blackburn's design, which was later incorporated into the central area of the prison complex.
Inside the prison grounds
The prison has been enlarged and expanded several times over the ensuing years, eventually having three wings, a new admin block and a new gatehouse, the previous one having been too small for lorries and fire engines to get through, one of which actually got firmly stuck when called out to a fire at the prison during the 1980s.
The site was in use until 2013, meaning it was a prison for well over 800 years.
Visiting Gloucester Prison
Gloucester Prison sits at the heart of the heritage section of the city; near the docks, the ruins of Blackfriars Priory and the famous cathedral. It formed a triumvirate of a judicial centre, with the police station and crown court just metres away. With an imposing entrance gate and high brick walls all around the outside, there is no mistaking the purpose of this building.
The entrance gate is currently undergoing some renovation to turn it into a café and museum, so the first place you currently see on a visit is the old visitor centre, a large hall where prisoners could meet their visitors. The ceiling was filled with CCTV cameras and there was a booth in one corner where guards could watch the screens, prisoners and guests could get drinks and snacks from a small café run by either the prisoners themselves or sometimes the local Women's Institute.
Outside is the exercise yard, built above the ruins of the Norman keep, and there are plans to excavate it so that the ruins can be seen under the yard, with clear flooring to keep the archaeology visible yet still protected from the elements.
The prisoners were entitled to an hour of outside exercise every day, although not all of them would be out there at the same time, and they were confined within the exercise cage for the duration. Surrounded on all sides by brick walls and steel wire, the only real contact with the outside world they would have had was the endless squealing of the seagulls, which still fly loudly overhead.
There was actually an escape attempt made from the yard in the 1990s and you can still see the different fencing used to repair the damage caused by the inmates who did a runner. Apparently they were not seen by the prison guards, but by staff in the local council offices which overlook the prison, who reported it to the police. From then on, a guard had to remain in the yard at all times during the prisoner's exercise sessions, sitting outside the cage and keeping a close eye on what was going on.
The prison was originally designed with two wings, A and B, with a C wing added in 1972. Although their uses changed somewhat over the years, A tended to be for convicted prisoners, those who had already been sentenced, and B was for those who were on remand. Life on B Wing was far easier, with no prison uniforms worn and no need to work. They could also have more visits than those who had been convicted. The clever ones could manipulate the system so that if they knew they were guilty, they would delay the court date as long as they could so that most of their sentence would be served on remand.
A Wing was also home to the condemned man cells, a series of five cells next to each other within which the prisoner would move from one to the next each day in the days leading up to his execution. These cells differ from the rest in that they have larger windows, it being believed that the condemned were entitled to a better view in their final days. The prisoner would exit his final cell on the day, be greeted by a cleric for any last words and then step through to the gallows, which was a scaffold over the 1792 gatehouse.
Up to five thousand people at a time would watch the hangings when they were still public. The wealthier prisoners would pay the hangman extra to make it as quick as possible, sometimes by standing on their neck to speed the process up. The last execution in Gloucester Prison was that of Ralph Smith in 1939 who had a fling with his landlady and didn't take it well when she went off with someone else, slitting her throat. She managed to survive long enough to run into the street to tell people who had done it to her before she died. Smith spent his final days in the condemned cell at Gloucester prison and was hanged on the 7th June 1939, by the infamous Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew, Albert.
There were 123 executions at the prison, mostly for murder but some were for minor offences such as stealing sheep or clothes. The bodies are buried in unmarked graves in the prison as was the custom, making the current excavation and renovation of the site a delicate business.
The prison may now have a few peeling walls and a slight air of neglect, but the Victorian wings are very visually appealing.
A and B wings have some detailed design features such as decorative balustrades, staircases and exterior brickwork which provide an aesthetic style that I'm sure can't be found in any contemporary prisons.
The buildings may have been utilitarian, but even the smallest parts were designed with attention to detail. One example are the brackets used to hold up the floors outside the cells. Each bracket is a sinuous snake complete with scales and eyes. The serpent represented evil in Victorian symbology. Above each one, on the floor above, the base of the balustrade is a lion's paw. The lion's paw represented strength and character. The meaning is clear - a simple 'good overcoming evil' message to the inhabitants of the prison, strength overcoming weakness and vice.
The ground floor of B Wing was home to the VP population - vulnerable prisoners. These were all prisoners who had to be kept entirely separate from the rest of the inmates, the majority of them because they were sex offenders, some for their safety, for example if they owed money to other inmates.
The stairs from B Wing to the ground floor are completely encased with bars which were once boarded, as the other prisoners would try to throw hot water or urine at the VP's as well as calling them all sorts of obscenities whenever they walked through. It was a prison within a prison and must have been quite harrowing for those incarcerated within.
B Wing was also home to the solitary confinement cells. Many of these were from the normal prison population but in need of separation from the rest if they had been bullying someone, or if they needed constant watch or supervision for a variety of reasons, including self-harm and suicide. These inmates would exercise alone and eat alone in cell, often with very little to do. They were held in safe cells which had fixed furniture such as a concrete bed base and sink, and perspex over the bars. Some would also have an officer watching them permanently, sitting opposite them outside the door. As with all prisons, Gloucester had its fair share of suicides over the years. These cells were always seen as a temporary place for the inmates, as integration was always encouraged when it was possible.
The prison chapel led off from both A and B Wings. Today it is an empty, high ceilinged room used for events, but it is easy to imagine it as it once was, with an altar on the raised platform, an organ high above on the mezzanine, curtains on the windows and filled with chairs. All prisoners had a right to an hour's service each week, and all denominations were catered for. It was also where meetings were held, mass vaccinations took place and all manner of other group activities. At the back is a Chaplain's office, looking tailor made for its current role as a bar for the assorted events which are held here.
The chapel is a vast empty space, once the hub of the prison and now used for events
C Wing was added in 1972 and held up to 90 prisoners in single cells. It was initially used to house sex offenders, but by the 1980s it was used for 'lifers' - those nearing the end of a life sentence for murder, before they were moved on to an open prison before release. In later years, the unit held Young Offenders aged between 17 - 21. C Wing doesn't have the decorative details or aesthetic appeal of the two Victorian wings, but was probably far more comfortable for the inmates.
Outside in the grounds of the prison are various workshops, the hospital wing and education block. In one area is an old helicopter, used for the airsoft games which take place there. One particularly appealing feature outside is the 'debtor's wall' with initials, names and tallies etched into the bricks from over the years. This area of the prison was once accessible to inmates of the debtors prison without any supervision, and so they engraved their details on the wall as some form of record of their presence. Some date from the 1800s and possibly even earlier.
Leaving the prison is done the same way as the prisoners, with a long walk down the entrance bay, the gate sliding slowly but dramatically to one side, leaving you emerging blinking in the sunshine. The door closes behind you with a bang and the prison returns to being a fully sealed unit, cut off from the urban life going on around it.
It is a fascinating place to visit and well worth the trip, richly evocative of how life was for those serving at Her Majesty's Pleasure.
Visiting Gloucester Prison
The website also has full details of all events, ghost hunts and airsoft games.