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St Peter's Square, Hereford

Ordnance Survey grid reference SO 5125 3999

On Taylor's map of Hereford, drawn up in 1757, the County Gaol in Hereford is shown as to the east of St.. Peter's Church, on the site where the Shirehall now stands.

It is not known when this gaol was first constructed, but in 1729 the Hereford City Council Minutes record that after "great sickness amongst prisoners", the City Council were petitioned by prisoners "for an enquiry into the treatment by the gaoler".

In 1757 St Peter's Square was much more built up and cramped than it is now. The church had buildings adjoining it on both the east and south sides.

The County Gaol buildings were set back slightly from the road and the forecourt may have been surrounded by a high stone wall. Hereford City Council minutes from 1733 and 1758 suggest that there were underground vaults in the area in front of the Shirehall; some years ago workmen dug into these vaults but unfortunately no detailed archaeological observation or excavation was undertaken and they were simply covered over again.

The St. Peter's Square gaol was reviewed by John Howard during his tour of the country's prisons in the 1770s, and he noted that the gaoler Thomas Ireland, who had been there 40 years at this time, received no salary but took fees from the prisoners. These fees would have most likely have come from debtors held in the prison.

The Reverend Underwood, who was chaplain at this time, received £40 a year and the surgeon, Thomas Cam, received £20.

Felons held in the prison were given 3d of bread every other day and were not separated from the debtors. In 1774 there had been 14 debtors and 29 felons, while in 1782 the number of debtors had risen to 23 but there were only six felons. John Howard also noted that alcohol was available to the prisoners "as if in a common alehouse".

In 1785, Thomas Symonds was commissioned by the Justices and Aldermen of the City to try to restore and alter the prison in order to put off having to build a new one. Three years later further plans were prepared by John Nash.

Plans drawn up in 1788 give us a good idea of the layout of the prison. There was a gaol court at the front with a central passage that led through to a courtyard. The ground floor held cells, kitchens and a chapel. There was little more than a fence separating the male and female areas. Almost half the area of the entire site was taken up by the gaoler's garden.

In 1790, the Board of Magistrates called in a Mr. Blackburne, who had built prisons elsewhere in the country and was a good friend of John Howard (the prison inspector and penal reformer). Mr. Blackburne concluded that the prison was in a very populated area and was overlooked by adjoining properties. He also noted that as the buildings had not been designed as a prison, they were inadequate and facilitated escape. He was also worried by the fact that there was improper communication between the Keeper's house and an adjoining house, which enabled alcohol to be brought into the prison.

The adjoining house was owned by Mr. Sylvester and was a public house known as the "Sign of the Fleece" (now The Golden Fleece). In 1804, orders were made that the window of the "Fleece" that looked onto the gaol must remain shut. This was later revoked, but an order was made that no liquor was to be conveyed through the window to people in the prison yard.

Most executions in Hereford at this time took place in an area named "Gallows Tump" towards the south of the city, however at least one execution took place at St. Peter's Square Gaol. The case was that of William Jones (also known as Watkins) and Susannah Rugg on 1st August 1790. Jones was a native of Clodock, and the pair were accused of conspiring to kill Jones' wife at Longtown by poisoning her with arsenic.They were executed in St. Owen's Street and Jones' body was then taken back to Longtown to hang on the Green.

In 1815, an Act of Parliament for the erection of a Shirehall, Courts of Justice and other buildings received Royal Assent and plans for the construction of the Shirehall were put into action.

{Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]