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
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.
Shepton Mallet Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset
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.
Bodmin Jail, Bodmin, Cornwall
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.
Shrewsbury Prison, Shrewsbury, Shropshire
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.
Clink Prison Museum, Southwark, London
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.
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.
Read the website before you go to make sure you want to - reviews on Trip Advisor range from 'fantastic' to 'absolutely disgusting', so make sure you know what you are getting into.
Gloucester Prison, Gloucester
Built in 1792 as a County Jail, this men's prison has been renovated and added to over the years, including the addition of a Young Offenders Wing in the 1970s.
It was the site of many an execution, with the last one taking place in 1936. By the early 2000s it had a reputation as being seriously overcrowded, as well as bad conditions for the inmates and subject to repeated flooding.
The prison closed in 2013 and its re-development is still under discussion. In the meantime however, it is open to the public for guided tours and a variety of events.
Visitors can take guided tours which are family friendly or which included more details on the executions, paranormal activity and violence. Various paranormal groups run ghost hunts in the prison, as do Salvation-Z - a live action Zombie survival experience, or combat games.
Read about a visit to Gloucester Prison >>
National Justice Museum, Nottingham
A Victorian Courtroom Photograph © National Justice Museum
The National Justice Museum is in a Grade II listed building, on a site which has been in use as a court since 1375 and a prison since 1449. The current building was a Victorian police station, gaol, courtroom and execution site, making it a one stop shop for the judicial process. Executions were held on the front steps of the building, with the last public execution held in 1864 of a Richard Parker, who shot both of his parents after a drunken row.
The building ceased use as prison in 1878, but continued as courts and the meeting place of the County Council until 1991. It opened as a museum in 1995 and objects on display include the cell door of playwright Oscar Wilde, the bath from the Brides in the Bath murder case, gibbet irons, force feeding equipment used on Suffragettes and conscientious objectors and the dock from Bow Street Magistrates Court, which was used in notorious cases such as the trials of Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement and the Krays. There are over 40 000 objects and archives, making it the UK’s largest collection relating to law, justice, crime and punishment.
Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast
Built in 1845, 'the Crum' in North Belfast was a County Gaol for men, women and children, who were often imprisoned for offences such as stealing food and necessities.
Executions were carried out in public at the gaol until 1901, when an execution chamber was built inside. 17 executions were carried out in the prison, including the final one in all of Ireland in 1961. The prison had some well known prisoners from the Troubles, and two prisoners were killed when a IRA bomb went off in one of the wings. The prison closed in 1996.
The prison is now not just a tourist attraction, but hosts concerts, live events and party nights. Tourists can do the Crumlin Road Gaol Experience, a self-guided tour around the building which includes the tunnel linking the courthouse on the other side of the Crumlin Road to the hanging cell, the historic holding cells and the graveyard.
York Castle Prison, York
Photograph © Visit York
Part of York Castle Museum, there has been a prison on the site for nearly 1000 years, with a castle built for William the Conqueror in 1068, which included a prison.
The site is still in use for criminal justice, with York Crown Court held in the 18th century court and people are still held in cells here, including those accused of the most serious crimes.
The prison buildings were built in the 18th century, and visitors can explore the original cells. Conditions were terrible at the prison, with 15 to a cell sleeping on bare floors and living off bread and water. Many of the Keepers of the prison were as corrupt as the inmates, and they made as much money as they could off the prisoners. The most notorious prisoner held here was the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin, who was found guilty of his crimes at York Court and sentenced to death at the gallows.
The museum is part of a visit to York Castle Museum, which looks at many aspects of life in historic York.
Prison & Police Museum, Rippon
Photograph © Rippon Museums
There has been a prison on this site since 1684, when a Workhouse and House of Correction was established for putting the poor to work and punishing those who had broken the law. In 1816, it was incorporated into the new Liberty Prison, which is the current museum building. Prisoners were held in cells on the ground floor, with debtors on the floor above them. Inmates had to do hard labour and worked for 10 hours a day, walking the treadwheel amongst other tasks.
The prison later became the police station, until it became a museum in the 1980s, one of three in the area which also include a workhouse museum and the courthouse, giving a fantastic look at poverty and justice in the region. The prison museum includes a look at policing from the Anglo-Saxons onwards, as well as an exhibition in the prison cells about life in a Victorian prison.
The Old Gaol Museum, Buckingham
Photograph © Buckingham Old Gaol
Built in 1748, this Gothic prison provided terrible conditions for the inmates, who lived in damp cells with no heating, lights or bathrooms, and who were fed on just bread and water.
The prison housed local convicts, although one in three were just poachers, often held for the smallest of crimes.
Over the years, the prison has been used as a Police Station, Fire Station, ammunition store and an air-raid shelter. Faced with demolition in the 1980s, the prison was bought by a charitable organisation, and it now houses the local museum as well as the Old Gaol.
The museum focuses on local history, spanning time from the Ice Age to World War I. It is also home to the Lenborough Hoard of 5,000 Anglo-Saxon silver coins as well as a permanent exhibition dedicated to Flora Thompson, author of Lark Rise to Candleford.
Dorchester Prison, Dorchester, Dorset
A Victorian prison built in 1885 on the site of a much older prison, Dorchester was closed in 2013 and is now awaiting its fate from developers.
In the meantime, you can take guided tours from Ed who is still a serving prison officer and who used to work there. He provides a fascinating insight into the life of this prison, showing you round this now crumbling site. There were several executions here, including that of Martha Brown who is said to still be haunting the prison, and whose execution was watched by Thomas Hardy, inspiring the hanging he wrote about in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Visitors can also join paranormal nights and airsoft combat games within its walls.
Want to delve even deeper into prison history? Try the Prison History website which looks at UK prison history from 1500 - 1999.