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Want to explore the darker side of social history? These 13 old prisons in the UK have opened their doors to visitors and put their grisly pasts on display. You can learn about the most notorious of criminals, the wrongfully imprisoned, the executed and the terrible conditions many of them lived and died in. Several of these prisons offer events such as ghost tours or even sleepovers in the cells. Read on to find out more.

Dartmoor Prison, Princetown, Devon

The gates to Dartmoor Prison

Photograph © Brian Henley

One of England's most famous prisons, Dartmoor has been a prison for over 200 years, situated on the windswept and foggy moors.

It was built to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic War, who started arriving in 1809. By 1813 they were joined by American prisoners, and the prison soon became overcrowded, leading to outbreaks of contagious diseases and thousands of deaths. In the Victorian Era it held convicts who were considered the worst criminals in the land, although it now houses only Category C prisoners - those who are preparing for release.

The prison museum is not your typical modern museum with stark lighting, gleaming surfaces and sterile out-of-context exhibits. It is a quirky, slightly ramshackle place which makes it all the more appealing. Exhibits include objects made by the prisoners out of bone, prisoner and guard uniforms, cells, items with secret compartments for keeping contraband hidden, handmade weapons such as knuckle dusters, shivs and shanks made from toothbrushes.

It is fascinating in a rather dark way and the fact that there is a sign informing visitors that the museum is sometimes staffed by prisoners, adds an extra frisson of interest to the whole experience.

Dartmoor Prison Museum website >>

Shepton Mallet Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset

A central corridor in Shepton Mallet prison

Shepton Mallet was built in 1610 when it was decided that the eastern part of Somerset should have their own House of Correction.

Men, women and children were all housed together for a variety of crimes, whether debtors, vagrants or just mentally unwell. Conditions were bad, with regular outbreaks of fever, jaundice, venereal diseases and many more unpleasant illnesses, with the bodies buried in unconsecrated ground just outside the prison.

Many executions were carried out in the prison whether by firing squad or hanging. Executioners included the famous Albert Pierrepoint, who executed about 600 people during his career. For World War II, the prison was used by the British and the American military, as well as safe storage for the National Archives from London, including the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book. The Kray Twins were held here in the 1950s after absconding from their national service.

The museum closed in 2013 and is now a tourist attraction, hosting not just sight seeing tours, but also ghost tours after hours, an escape room, and even the opportunity to spend the night behind bars, with free rein to explore the place at night.

Read about my Night Behind Bars at Shepton Mallet prison >>

Bodmin Jail, Bodmin, Cornwall

A noose hanging over a hole in the floor

Photograph © Bodmin Jail Attraction

Built in 1779 on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the prison was ground breaking in prison reform at the time, with individual cells, separate areas for men and women and prisoners paid for their work.

The prison was completely re-developed by 1861 and included a chapel and a debtors' jail, until 1869 when imprisonment for debt was abolished. From 1887, part of the jail was used by the Royal Navy, who were there until 1922. Over the years there were 55 executions on site, 8 of them being women.

The last prisoner left in 1916, and the jail was decommissioned in 1927.

The jail has been open as a tourist attraction for some time, but was recently overhauled and now has a lot to offer the visitor, including an immersive 'Dark Walk Experience', Ghost Tours, After Dark Tours, Scary Cinema and even a hotel being built in the site for visitors. The jail has the only original Victorian hanging pit left in the country (pictured), the Naval prison cells, an in depth look at the stories behind the administration of the prison and overall it looks like a fantastic place to visit.

Bodmin Jail Website >>

Shrewsbury Prison, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

A cell inside Shrewsbury Prison

Photograph © Shrewsbury Prison

Built in 1793, Shrewsbury Prison was built to replace the prison in the castle, which was crumbling so badly that prisonners could escape by removing bricks from the walls. Known as 'the Dana' after Rev Edmund Dana, a local vicar and magistrate, the prison was a place of execution for many years, with public hangings which attracted large crowds.

The prison was decomissioned in 2013 and is now open to visitors, with a wide variety of tours and events on offer. Guided tours by ex-prison officers during the day or after dark, tours underground of the original prison, escape rooms, a 'prison break' event, nights spent in the cells, ghost hunting, live music, even axe throwing; it is all on offer here.

Shrewsbury Prison website >>

Clink Prison Museum, Southwark, London

The outside of the Clink Prison in Southwark

There has been a prison on this site in Southwark, London from 1151. Owned by the Bishops of Winchester, the prison was part of the estate, and included heretics as well as local criminals.

No-one is quite sure how the Clink got its name - whether from the clinking of the chains the prisoners wore, or of the cell doors slamming shut, but it has now become a universal term for prisons.

This one became the most notorious of prisons, with massive amounts of corruption and prisoner degradation. By the 16th century, the prison largely held people who disagreed with the Bishops, and after that mainly held debtors. After a decrease in numbers, the prison burnt down in a riot in 1780 and was never rebuilt.

The museum is built on the original site, and contains just a single wall left from the original building. It covers over 600 years of history with a self-guided tour which looks at the assorted inmates, debauchery of the Southwark area and artefacts connected with the prison.

Read about a visit to the Clink Prison Museum >>

Littledean Jail, Gloucester

This one is best avoided by children and those of a sensitive disposition, as the warnings on their website will attest. Describing their museum as politically insensitive and bizarre, there is a huge rage of items on display. Exhibitions look at Witchfinders, Satanism, the SS and the Holocaust, the KKK, instruments of punishment and torture, police memorabilia and a whole host of other subjects. It is not all the dark side though, as their subject matters include the bravery of the SAS and people like Violette Szabo of the S.O.E.

Littledean Jail was built in 1791, and little has changed since it was first built. It has held all manner of prisoners, including children as young as 8, and is believed to be one of the most haunted prisons in the country. It was also used as a police station and a court for 20 years from 1854.