The Ballad of Barnstaple’s Gaols

We often come across intriguing items which have a story to tell when we are looking for something else in our collections, this generally happens when we are doing something quickly for someone!

This was the case when I kept coming across images of a rather imposing building from various angles and in various states of repair which had stood the other side of the car park to our current home, when the car park was the cattle market.

Barnstaple Prison [BSCD 0490]

The story of this building starts with the story of our current home which is the site of the old Dornat’s Mineral factory and before that the parish workhouse and the Bridewell or prison.

By 1828 the Bridewell and prison was in a grave state and needed replacing. Construction of a new prison on the Square started in February 1828 and was completed in the September of 1829.

“The front is wrought of stone. Towards the street are separate and convenient apartments for the prison keeper and an under jailor; behind these is a courtlage in which, besides domestic offices, leads to appropriated as the jail, varying in dimensions from 8 by 9, to 9 by 10 feet square, and seven of similar proportions immediately over them, used as a bridewell; there are two excellent day rooms to each department of about 12 feet by 19 feet. There is also a debtor’s day room. 11 feet by 17 feet, and night room somewhat larger. The prison yard, across which there is a division, is as airy as the site would admit of, and bounded (in those directions in which is not enclosed by buildings) by a wall 20 feet hight.” [Gribble: Memorials of Barnstaple: p416]

The old prison on the Square became known as Albert Place after it was decomissioned. [BSCD 0779]

The prison on the Square was in use for the next 40 years or so until 1874 when “a new Prison was provided on a site adjoining the Cattle Market, the old Prison in the Square having been condemned. The total cost was £3,172, provision being made for prisoners sent from neighbouring boroughs. To raise the amount needed, borough property of £2,120 was sold, together with £1,052 in Consols, it being arranged that the money should accumulate in a sinking fund to which £200 per annum should be paid.” [Gardiner: Barnstaple 1837-1897; p55-56]

This new prison cost a considerable amount of money and was only in use for a few short years when a new Prisons Act came into effect. “Under the Prisons Act of 1878 the new prison ceased to be used, all prisoners from Barnstaple (as well as from Devon generally) having to be sent to the County Gaol in Exeter.” [Gardiner: Barnstaple 1837-1897; p70]To add insult to injury “the gaol, erected only four years previously, was confiscated. Barnstaple was actually obliged to buy back its own Prison for £1,123, which was borrowed from the Public Works Loan Commissioners.” [Gardiner: Barnstaple 1837-1897; p56 ]

Barnstaple Prison [BWO Album 16-p05-6]

There were 32 certified cells in the Castle Street Prison and on “September 29, 1876, there were eight persons (four male and four female.) The average daily number of prisoners in custody for the year previous was 11.25. The number of persons sentenced to different terms of imprisonment during the year was 76, and the average number in custody for the five preceding years was 9.75. The greatest number in custody at any one time during the year was 19, compared with an average for five years of 16.” [Gardiner: Barnstaple 1837-1897; p70]

Writing about the prison and the effects it had on Barnstaple’s coffers in 1897, William Frederick Gardiner, commented…”The last instalment of the repayments has just been made, so that the Council now holds the property free from any incumbrance. The financial difficulties connected with this unfortunate Prison enterprise have hampered the Council a good deal., but the town will now reap the benefit of the scheme. The Prison premises are at present used for various purposes, one section being utilised as an isolation hospital and another devoted to a disinfecting chamber, while the Prison Yard has been thrown into the Cattle Market.” [Gardiner: Barnstaple 1837-1897; p56]

Demolition of Barnstaple Prison March 1954 [NDJ Bx221-13]

The building continued to be used for various purposes until the cells were demolished in March 1954. The front half of the building stood until the 1980s when it too was demolished. At some point a Police Station was built next to the Prison building and was used until the Police Station at the Civic Centre was built. The former police station is now used by the probation service.

Barnstaple Prison and Police Station [BWO Bx05-55]

Further Reading:

W.F. Gardiner; Barnstaple: 1837-1897; Ralph Allen (Barnstaple 1897)

Jospeh Besly Gribble; Memorials of Barnstaple; Edward Gaskell (Bideford 1994)

…Barum Athena

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