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County Gaol, Hereford

Historic Environment Record reference no. 20124, Ordnance Survey grid reference SO 5149 4025

In 1790 a Mr. Blackburne was commissioned to find a site for a County Gaol in the City of Hereford. The essential requirements of a suitable site were listed as:

1. An elevated situation, dry, with good drainage.
2. As near as possible to a river, brook or running water.
3. Well supplied with good water.
4. Sufficient space for airing grounds and not overlooked.
5. In a neighbourhood sufficient to assist upon alarm.
6. Clear from the smoak [sic] or ill smell of manufactures.
7. At an easy distance or as near as may be to the Assize Hall.

(Hereford Journal, 3rd February 1790)

A site on Castle Green was considered but was quickly dismissed. Other possible sites included Millers Meadow, which was close to St Owen's Gate, a site between Bye Street Gate and the City Wall and a site at Monk Moor (now the site of Morrison's supermarket), but all these were also discounted.

The site eventually chosen was a piece of land outside the Bye Street Gate, which was known locally as The Priory. The site was purchased and plans for the new prison drawn up and approved but unfortunately the man in charge, Mr. Blackburne, died before the building was started. He was succeeded by Mr. Hobson.

Hobson drew up his own plans, and although they were submitted to the Justices of the Peace by July 1791 little work was done in that year. In January 1792 the Sessions Clerk wrote to a man named John Nash to ask him to submit plans for the new gaol, and on 10th July 1792 it was recorded that the Court had approved  John Nash's plans.

John Nash was an architect who hailed from London but had been unlucky with some developments there and had been declared bankrupt. He then moved away from London to Wales and later obtained contracts to design and build the prisons at Carmarthen and Cardigan.

After his work in Herefordshire he returned to London a more successful man and became an important architect of the Regency style. He is now most famous for designing Marble Arch and Regent's Park in London, as well as the Brighton Pavilion.

After Nash's plans were approved an advert for a loan for the construction of the gaol was placed in the Hereford Journal on 22nd January 1794.

By 1796 the main work of building the gaol had been completed and, with various extras such as furniture, the project cost a total of £18,646 16s 3½d.

The layout of the first gaol

The original layout of Hereford County Gaol is apparently not dissimilar to that of Nash's gaol at Cardigan.

The main buildings were laid out in cruciform shape and surrounded by a high brick wall for security. The only access to the prison complex was via an entrance that led from Bye Street Without, now known as Commercial Road.

Excavations in 1986-87 uncovered stretches of the original boundary wall and show that this structure was made of locally-produced bricks with shallow broad buttresses at regular intervals.

The entrance

Above the entrance to the prison, which was designed to be impressive and commanding, was a flat roof that was to be used as a place of execution for public hangings. This area was first used in August 1796 when John Philips was executed after being convicted of stealing twenty-one sheep. The event was documented in the Hereford Journal on 10th August 1796.

Originally the hanging area had been partially obscured by a parapet wall and cupola, but these were later removed so that the hangings could be seen better by the public and prisoners, so as to act as a deterrent.

By 1864, some 20 people had been hanged there in public view. There was an area at the back of the prison where inmates could be buried, unless claimed by their families. However, the bodies of murderers were usually handed over to medical institutions for dissection.

Through the entrance building ran a central passage with a warm and cold bath, and on the right was an oven to fumigate inmates' clothes. This was also used as the reception area for new prisoners.

Behind this entrance building was a courtyard known as the "Penitentiary Yard", where prisoners on remand would stay. Within this courtyard was a well and a hand-mill for grinding corn. The cells surrounding this area were used to hold prisoners who had committed offences against the game laws, misdemeanours in husbandry and cases of bastardy. At one time the Gaol Committee was unhappy with this courtyard as it contained piles of mortar, which they said could be used by inmates to escape.

The prison

The main entrance to the prison was across the courtyard. It had accommodation for the gaolers on the second floor and committee rooms for the magistrates on the ground floor.

At the centre of the prison complex was the Great Hall, which was an octagonal room about 50ft in diameter. There were windows at each of the four main angles of the building, which enabled the gaoler to see into each of the courtyards within the prison complex.

The four wings of the prison radiated out from this central point and they were separated from the Great Hall by an iron gate. Each wing was of two storeys with cells on each level.

Above the Great Hall was the prison chapel, which had separate seating areas for the different classes of inmate. The chapel was linked to each of the four wings by separate staircases.

The prison wings

The Bridewell wing of the prison had nine cells on either side, one side reserved for male prisoners and the other for female. The ground floor cells on the female side were used as a dairy and shops, where products that had been made in the gaol, such as shoes, mops and wool, could be sold. Attached to this side was a washhouse where the women worked.

The debtors' wing was to the right of the main hall and had two rows of seven cells. These cells were much larger than the other cells in the complex, being 12ft x 9ft compared to 9ft 3in x 9ft in the Bridewell and 8ft x 7ft in the felons' wing. Each of the debtors' cells also had a fireplace. Debtors could have their rooms furnished at a cost of 1s 6d or 2s 0d per week. Those who were too poor to pay would be given a simple iron bedstead, straw bed, two blankets and a coverlet. Each debtor got one pound of bread a day. Debtors were treated much better than other prisoners as they were not thought to be as threatening or socially unacceptable.

The debtors' wing also included the infirmary, which contained four rooms on the top floor. By 1816 the infirmary had a separate staircase from the outside so that those prisoners who were contagious could access a courtyard without using the main prison staircase and risking the infection of other inmates.

The felons' wing had twelve rooms for male and female inmates, six on the ground floor and six on the first floor, with a separate day room for each sex.

Each wing of the courtyard had access to its own courtyard for recreation and exercise. Each yard had its own sewer and was supplied with water. In some of the courtyards vegetables were grown for use within the prison.

The first 70 years

During the first 20 years of the life of the gaol numerous alterations and additions were made to the building. On a plan of 1858 a walled area has been added to the south of the original buildings; this had the effect that the total area of the gaol was increased by one quarter. The extension also included two new courtyards separated by a new two-storey cell block attached to the felons' wing. One of these courtyards contained a pumping mill and well, and in the other there was a row of sheds.

Later extensions were also made to the Bridewell and debtors' wings, building them out to join the perimeter wall. The Bridewell was then attached to a new wing, which stretched almost the entire length of the east side. This new wing had cells on the ground floor and a galleried passage.

Although the gaol had been built strong and secure, disaster almost struck in 1863 when, at 3.20am on Tuesday October 6th, an earthquake hit Hereford. The arched roof of the gaol shook so much that a fissure 27 yards long appeared in it and a chimney pot and several bricks fell down. The iron braces that held the corridor moved so much that the corridor would have fallen down had the iron braces not recently been put in place.

The later 19th century

In 1877 the City and County Gaols of Hereford were united as a result of the Prisons Act. By this time there were 132 separate cells in Hereford County Gaol, which was considered sufficient to house all the prisoners in the county.

On 1st April 1878 the administration of the prison was transferred from the County Council to the national Government. Plans of the gaol in 1880 and 1885 show that alterations were made to the prison. The total area was increased, meaning that the boundary of the prison now ran right alongside Union House Walk, which was the private road that led to the Union Workhouse. The Governor and his family had a house built within this new extension and to the west stables and a coach house were built.

The boundary wall on Commercial Road had been lowered and replaced with a garden wall. In the 1870s a police station was built to the west of the main entrance block. This was a two-storey brick building with a slate roof and included a cell which led through to the prison.

In 1885 a strip of land to the east of the gaol was purchased so that new prisoners could be brought into the gaol via this side entrance and not through the main entrance in view of the public, where the opportunity for escape was greater.

Also in this period the ground floor of the gaoler's house was converted into offices and the first floor of the Great Hall was opened up to be converted into the chapel.

The Governor's House, which had been added earlier, was attached to the main body of the prison. This would have been an annoyance to the Governor, and so as a result on complete bay of the west wing of the prison was demolished.

The façade of the prison was altered, with an enlarged and widened central bay.

The police station at the prison was later closed and the buildings converted into a deputy governor's residence. Buildings were erected in the courtyard of the prison, including a cookhouse and a laundry. Part of the building that had been used as a mill was converted into an execution house complete with pit, trapdoor and gallows.

The last Governor of Hereford County Gaol was Henry Thomas Pearce, who was responsible for overseeing the transportation of prisoners to Gloucester Gaol in 1915 when Hereford Gaol closed. The Old County Gaol then became a detention house for soldiers and deserters during World War I.

The gaol was finally closed in 1929 and the site purchased by the County Council in February 1930 for £4,100. For a short time the public were invited to visit the gaol and see the cells and fittings before it was demolished.

The following advert appeared in the Hereford Times on 3rd May 1930:

Visit Hereford's Old Gaol before Demolition

Open Daily 2pm - 9pm Until Further Notice

Admission 6d

1/3 of proceeds to Herefordshire General Hospital

Above the prison entrance in Commercial Road was a sign reading:


before demolition

Try going to Gaol of your own accord.

(See R. Shoesmith and R. Crosskey, "Go to Gaol ... in Hereford", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Vol. XLVIII, 1994)

Demolition started the day after the May Fair, and the local unemployed were paid to chip mortar off the bricks so that they could be re-used; the rate paid was five shillings per 1,000 bricks (Hereford Times, 17th May 1930).

The reclaimed materials from the gaol were put up for sale in the Hereford Times on 28th June 1930. All that was left standing of the prison was the Governor's and Deputy Governor's houses, with the Governor's house being converted into offices and toilets for a new bus station. Today these are the only surviving parts of John Nash's Gaol.

Life in the gaol

At the beginning of the 19th century the administration of Hereford County Gaol was highly praised, as prisoners were treated by a surgeon upon arrival, bathed and also allowed to attend daily services in the prison chapel.

Prisoners in Hereford were kept busy during the day making items for sale, and they were allowed to keep a percentage of the profits. The most common items manufactured in Hereford Gaol were stockings, gloves, shoes and nets. The work of the prisoners was organised by a "Taskmaster" who was paid 50 guineas a year. The Taskmaster was there to enforce good production and discipline, and also to ensure that there were suitable intervals within the working day for instruction and reading.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]