1792 The Old Gloucester Gaol

1792 The Old Gloucester Gaol

The first settlers on the banks of the River Severn at Gloucester are thought to have been Romans. During the Anglo-Saxon era Gloucester was originally within the Kingdom of Wessex before it was lost to Mercia in 584.  Gloucester Castle was built to the west of Barbican Hill (on the site of the current prison) overlooking the River Severn in the very early decades of the 12th century and was partly in use as a gaol by 1185. Gloucester’s trade was centred on the river and was appointed a port town by Queen Elizabeth I in 1580.

1672 – 1785

Since the mid-15th century Gloucester Castle had gradually been in decline. Most of the castle complex was demolished when, in 1672, the Sheriff of Gloucester affirmed his right to use the surviving keep as the county gaol. By the late 18th century the building had become cramped, overcrowded and in need of considerable repair.
Attempts were made to alleviate the conditions: repairs were carried out between 1780 and 1782, and in 1784 the building was fumigated, but a long term solution was still needed.


The Penitentiary Act was passed in 1779, outlining strategies for the reformation of Britain’s prisons as highlighted by philanthropist John Howard in 1777.


The castle keep was razed and additional neighbouring land was purchased for a little over £1,000.


In 1783 the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, Sir George Onesiphorus Paul, observed the poor conditions at the castle keep gaol. Paul proposed the construction of a new county gaol and five bridewells in the Gloucestershire area.


An Act to Explain and Amend the Laws Relating to Gaols and Houses of Correction was passed and sparked major changes in the prison system. For the first time county magistrates were able to establish their own prisons. Men and women were also to be kept separated and every new prison was to contain a chapel and basic facilities like laundries and exercise space.


The Act for Building a New Gaol, A Penitentiary and certain New Houses of Correction for the County of Gloucester was passed and plans drawn up in the previous year by William Blackburn were presented to and approved by a newly formed Gaol Committee. The buildings were constructed upon the motte of the castle in order to keep them raised above flood level. Additional features included the use of turnstiles to control the flow of inmate traffic.

The layout of Blackburn’s prison was centred on a central block with four wings extending off each corner to create a roughly H-shaped plan. The single complex contained the county gaol, house of correction and penitentiary. The building was to hold a total of 207 prisoners, divided according to gender and crime.


The first inmates were transferred to the new prison on the last Friday of July. The final building costs amounted to over £20,000. There were three different areas within the prison: the penitentiary, the gaol and the House of Correction. The most dangerous inmates (those serving deferred death sentences or awaiting transportation to the penal colonies) were held at the penitentiary. Inmates at the gaol were mostly debtors, those unable to pay fines or others awaiting trial.


The decade-old building was by this time suffering from the extreme cold during the winter. Experiments were undertaken to install central heating systems via underground flues below some of the cells.


The penitentiary element of the prison was expanded into the area designated as a House of Correction, while the House of Correction prisoners were moved to Northleach Prison, Gloucestershire.


Around this time the solitary confinement and ‘three phase’ system advocated by Howard was phased out at Gloucester. This was because the benefits of solitary confinement were quickly wiped out once the prisoner returned to mixing with other inmates and because hard labour punishments were difficult to achieve within the confines of the prison site.


A plan showing the prison and surrounding properties illustrates the extent of Blackburn’s proposed buildings laid over the existing site. The gate house is shown to the east of the cell blocks. The existing site plan shows two small buildings in the north-west corner, the former location of the castle under the north-east wing of the prison and the large gaol garden which was partially built over with the new buildings.


Recognising that the prison was still too crowded, a triangular plot of land immediately east of the original site was purchased by the prison authorities.


A new perimeter wall – complete with gatehouse – was built around the newly extended east section. A new debtors’ prison was also built on the newly acquired plot, to designs by the County Surveyor, John Collingwood. The building originally had an open arcaded space on the ground floor which could be used for prisoner exercise in bad weather and as a workshop space where debtors could carry out tasks in order to earn money to repay their debts. This was a feature that Blackburn had also used in his (now demolished) cell blocks.


Gloucester Prison was enlarged and underwent a programme of alterations that were heavily influenced by the success of the design at Pentonville. The additions increased the number of cells by 143 to a total of 489.


The new Governor’s House was built against the south boundary wall. The south tower of the prison wall was incorporated into its design.


Ten square yards of land at the south-west corner of the prison was purchased by the Corporation of the City of Gloucester for £5. It was agreed that the existing stable buildings on this site were to be pulled down and the boundary wall of the prison amended.

Late 19th Century

Early 20th Century

In the early decades of the 20th century most of Blackburn’s original buildings were demolished as part of a programme to update facilities at the prison. The west range was demolished around 1920 and a terrace of eight officer houses was instead built in the north-west corner. Other buildings, such as a kitchen, laundry, boiler house and photoshed were built on the site of Blackburn’s buildings but have since been replaced.


A new execution chamber was built against the south elevation of A Wing. The last inmate was hanged in 1939 and the chamber was dismantled in 1966, leaving behind a clear scar on the adjoining wall.


An aerial photograph from the late 1920s show the chapel in the centre with A and B Wings behind. The west wing has been demolished and a new building constructed in the south-west corner. On the far right (the site of the 19th-century treadmill) there appears to be a building in the process of either construction or demolition. Additionally, the square stone details on the garden walls of the houses (which matches the detail on the surviving perimeter walls) indicates that the lower part of the boundary wall was retained to form the front gardens.



The internal structure of the former Debtor’s Prison was gutted and replaced with a concrete frame in the 1970s. The eight terraced officers’ houses built in the 1920s were demolished and a new administrative block took their place in 1985. Most of the buildings on the western half of the site were also constructed during this time.


Her Majesty’s Prison Gloucester was decommissioned and made available for redevelopment.