A NIGHT BEHIND BARS: SHEPTON MALLET PRISON EXPERIENCE
Shepton Mallet prison closed in 2013 and since then has been open as a heritage site whilst developers wrangle over its future. People can take guided tours, do the escape rooms, go on ghost tours or join the ultimate experience, a 12 hour stay in the prison - allocated a cell and allowed to wander the darkened building throughout the night. A friend and I decided to give it a go, and have just returned from a night in the country's most haunted prison.
A Brief History of Shepton Mallet Prison
Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset was first opened in 1625 as a House of Correction. Conditions were terrible for the inmates, with men, women and children all mixed together, corruption and poor sanitation creating appalling living conditions with drunkeness, promiscuity and disease rife.
By the 1800s the new penal reform system led to the introduction of hard labour in prisons, with inmates forced to do back breaking tasks such as oakum picking or to walk on the treadwheel - the one at Shepton Mallet was one of the largest. The Silent and Separate System meant that inmates were kept apart with no one to talk to, to break their spirits as well as their bodies.
Shepton Mallet became the only jail in the county towards the end of the 19th century, and as public executions had been abolished in 1868, it became the site for local executions. The bodies of many of the executed remain there today under the tarmac.
The prison closed in 1930 due to a lack of inmates, but was opened again as a Glasshouse (military prison) in World War II, before it was taken over by the American Military in 1942. Over 700 US servicemen were held there, with 16 hanged and two killed by firing squad. One wing of the prison was retained by the British, who kept national treasures from the archives in it, the empty cells stacked with boxes containing items such as the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book.
After World War II, the British military took it back until 1966, when it became a civilian prison again. In 2001 it became a Cat-C prison for men at the end of their jail terms for serious offences such as arson and sex crimes, until it closed in 2013.
The prison now is in a sort of limbo. Developers want to turn it into flats, but as it is Grade II listed, they are limited with what they can do. The company currently leasing the prison are very much hoping that it will be able to remain as a heritage site and are currently running a variety of tours and activities to bring visitors in. There are guided tours, self-guided tours, late night tours and the ultimate experience, the Night Behind Bars.
The Night Behind Bars
Detailed instructions are emailed to you before arrival, what to bring, the rules, your cell allocation and a specific evening arrival time. There is a car park on site, which we eventually found after some miscommunication between our sat nav and the narrow roads of Shepton Mallet. Arriving slightly early, we watched as everyone slowly pulled up and parked, people getting out of their cars carrying sleeping bags, pillows, bags of food and nervous looks on their faces.
We made our way to the prison gates where we checked in and were directed to our cells on B-Wing. B-Wing is exactly how you imagine an old prison to look, with three floors of cells all on narrow walkways overlooking the suicide nets in between.
Our cell had one rusting metal bed screwed to the floor, a small loo and sink which were both out of action (there's no plumbing) and a small window, high up by the ceiling. Paint was peeling off the walls and the heavy metal door had had its lock removed. Not bothered by any of this, we dumped our stuff and set off to explore.
We wandered around part of the prison before heading back to our cell for the picnic we had brought with us, then to the bar for a few fortifying gin and tonics. Our official guided tour started at 10pm.
There were about 20 of us in our tour group, some dressed in bright orange prison jumpsuits which gave it an entertaining and slightly 'hen-party' air.
We were an eclectic mix of ghost hunters, couples looking for adventure and groups of friends out for a giggle.
Darkness gradually descended as we walked around, being told some fascinating facts about the history of the prison as well as the hauntings, of which there are many, and which I won't share here - you will have to go on the tour to hear them! We did discover however that the shower room, just a few doors down from our cell, was the site of a mass death, when four American servicemen were put in there overnight having just arrived in the prison. They stuffed a towel under the gap in the door and lit their gas lamp to play cards - the next day all four of them were dead.
My favourite story though was when we were in C-Wing, which had been used as the storage for the National Archives during the war. The archivist had lived there with his family for the duration and his kids had grown up not realising they were living in a prison, with hundreds of convicted felons just yards away. They would bounce around on the suicide nets using them as trampolines and would fall asleep listening to the military prisoners singing gospel music every night (nearly all the US military prisoners were African Americans), thinking it was the music of angels.
After the tour, we were able to explore the prison on our own. Setting off with just torches, we then spent the next few hours wandering around the place. It was very dark and ominous, with the peeling paint, rusting patches and ever present black mould in so many of the rooms we saw making the prison far more macabre than it was when we had briefly seen it in daylight.
We wandered through the cells and corridors, the hospital infirmary complete with mannequins and bloodied sheets, the kitchens with their shiny new equipment bought just before the prison closed, the guard's offices which were the only places with carpeting, the power points for their computers looking completely incongruous against the rest of the prison.
We loved the exercise yard which was very atmospheric with its overgrown flower beds, looking out for the ghost that is meant to be seen on the roof. In the middle of one of England's heatwaves, the black sky was filled with stars, the heat palpable even in the middle of the night.
It was while sitting in the exercise yard about 3am, that a group of teenagers came running out of A-Wing yelling 'Did you see her, did you see the White Lady?'
In a state of high panic they asked us to go back with them and so we did - I was convinced they were just trying to wind up us oldies, but my friend thought it would be a laugh, so we sat with them, torches off, in the pitch black of A-Wing listening for the stones they thought that the White Lady had thrown, or the footsteps from the walkways above us.
If they were trying to wind us up they managed to sustain it for quite some time, and were so agitated that at one point I heroically walked down the pitch black corridor on my own, shining my torch into the open cells and bravely declaring 'Nope, nothing here'.
We met quite a few people that night - there were some serious ghost hunters there with equipment looking for paranormal activity. People were asking if anyone had 'felt' anything in any of the rooms, and the ghost hunters would head straight off to find it for themselves. There was an interesting older gentleman on his own, clearly a regular, and he seemed to have an extensive knowledge of the prison and its former occupants.
Death row was quite harrowing - a series of cells in a row in which the condemned man would stay, moving down the line until he got closer and closer to the final cell. This cell was nicer than the others and had a large bookcase in one wall. It wasn't until the day of their death that the inmate would realise that behind this bookcase was a hidden door to the gallows.
They would take just a few paces out of their cell into the tiny room where they would be hanged, their bodies ending up in the room below, where they would be left for an hour then taken into the morgue right opposite. The morgue was quite a creepy room at night, with a mannequin cadaver under a sheet to really add to the impact.
We worked our way through the segregation unit, the drug testing rooms, the old guardhouse with its boiling hot top floor and crawled through a hole in the wall to the wood panelled cell from the 1600s which had recently been found.
Our narrow torch beams would pick out odd details in our surroundings; crumbling walls, plants growing through cracks, barbed wire glinting in the weak light.