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Bye Street Gate, Hereford

Historic Environment Record reference no. 38849, Ordnance Survey grid reference SO 5125 4015

At the beginning of the 16th century the City Gaol in Hereford was situated in the southern section of the buildings that made up the Bye Street Gate entrance to the City, on the north-eastern side of the city walls. The area is now the site of the Kerry Arms Inn and the City Ring Road, at the point where Commercial Street and Union Street meet.

In 1624-5 it was recorded that during a nine-month period 12 prisoners in the Bye Street Gate Gaol died. There was an inquiry into the deaths of these prisoners and a jury of 15 men found that nine of them had died by "God's visitacon" [sic], one had poisoned herself, one was drowned in the River Wye and one "did casually fall out of the gallery of the Boothall" (the Booth Hall was where sessions of the Justices of Assize or of the Peace heard pleas). (F. C. Morgan, "Hereford Poor and Prisons in Olden Days", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Vol. XXXVIII Part III, 1966, p. 223)

Bye Street Gaol was notorious for its terrible living conditions, and in 1691 it was even included in a booklet called "The Cry of the Oppressed". The entry concerning Bye Street Gaol is from a letter written by debtors in the gaol and details the cruel actions of the gaoler William Huck (M. Pitt, 1691).

Corporal punishment was also carried out in the gaol, and in 1699 we have a record of the gaoler and his deputy keeper being ordered to "cause the bodies of seven prisoners to be duly whipt and after to set their bodies at liberty" (Hereford City Council Minutes, 1699). This shows that corporal punishment was used as an alternative to a gaol sentence.

In 1792 an inspection of the prison's buildings was ordered, and although estimates for alteration and repair were made they were apparently not extensive. A letter, written in 1803 by James Nield to Dr. Lettson of London and published in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1808, gives a good description of the gaol:

"This gaol in the Bye Street Gate, in which one room is called the Bridewell. It has a small Court with a sewer in it, and the Whipping-post. For Common-side Debtors here is a Free Ward, to which the Corporation allows straw: they have a little Court, about 15 feet square, with a sewer; and it is well supplied with water. Master's-side Debtors have two rooms in the Keeper's House, for which they pay 2s 6d per week each single bed; or if two sleep together 1s 6d each. For felons here are two small Courtyards, about 15 feet square, with a sewer in each and well supplied with water.

"In one of the Courts, down eleven steps, are two horrid dungeons totally dark (apparently no longer used). The felons have also three close offensive Sleeping-rooms, which I found scattered over with loose straw on the floor, dirty and worn to dust. Here is likewise one room, justly denominated 'The Black Hole', which, if not impenetrably dark, has no light nor ventilation, save what is faintly admitted through a small aperture in the door: it is supplied with a barrack bedstead and loose straw; and in this wretched sink-hole was a poor deranged man, in the most filthy and pitiable state that it is possible to conceive."

At the time that James Nield visited the gaol the gaoler John Thomas was paid £13 a year with fees of 6s 8d and extras of 2s 6d. The gaol did not employ either a surgeon or a chaplain, and the allowance of bread for prisoners was four pence a day.

In 1837 the City Council considered rebuilding the Bye Street Gaol as the City Gaol, but it was decided that this was unsuitable and so the New City Gaol was built in Gaol Street not far to the west, although Bye Street Gate Gaol was still used up until 1842, when it was totally demolished.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]