The Gaol at Lancaster Castle

‘The Gaol at Lancaster Castle’ by Eric R.Wilkinson MA

Lancaster Castle is the oldest working prison in Great Britain. The first recorded gaoler was Warrin or Warren, in about the year 1200, and since then there have been very few periods in the castle’s history when prisoners have not been held here. It has housed those awaiting trial and those found guilty of crimes; prisoners of conscience, debtors and even those deemed insane have been lodged within its walls.

George Fox, the father of the Quakers was imprisoned here in the 17th Century, and 15 Catholics were held here prior to their trials and subsequent execution on Lancaster Moor.

In 1612 eight women and two men were found guilty of witchcraft and were taken from the castle’s Well Tower to their deaths, and in the early 19th Century a considerable number of those caught up in the industrial unrest in Lancashire were held and tried here. Large numbers of prisoners in the 18th and 19th Centuries went from the gaol to Transportation to Australia, after trial in the Castle’s Crown Court. This was Lancashire’s Bastille.

Conditions in the prison must have been grim. Surviving cells, of considerable antiquity, are small and probably originally had earthen floors. Sanitation, water and light were lacking, and prisoners were crowded into the cells, particularly just prior to the start of the Assizes. Until the late-18th Century, little consideration was given to the segregation of prisoners, and at times men, women and even children were confined together. The notion of prison as a long-term punishment is comparatively new. Until the 19th Century short sentences were passed on misdemeanants – more serious crimes were dealt with by death sentences or Transportation. Prisoners normally wore their own clothing until about 1810, when a blue and yellow uniform seems to have been introduced, but the Gaol Rules of 1785 mention a prison uniform being supplied even then. The cloth was made on looms in the prison, which were powered by one of the gaol’s treadmills.

By 1780 the gaol was in a poor state, and in 1783 an outbreak of gaol fever (probably typhus) killed not only a number of prisoners but the gaol’s governor as well. At this time, control of the prison had passed from the High Sheriff of Lancashire to the county magistracy and it was decided that a huge programme of modernisation was necessary. Work started in 1785 and continued until 1820, the last work being the completion of a separate tower for the lodging of women prisoners.

Until the middle of the 19th Century, persons were frequently confined in the castle for the inability to pay their debts, and debtors usually formed the bulk of the gaol’s population. In 1812 debtors were outnumbering criminal and remand prisoners by about three to one. Debtors had been held in the gaol since at least the 17th Century, and it was only with the passing of the Bankruptcy Act of 1861 that many of the poorer debtors were able to obtain their release from prison.

Until 1812 the debtors in the gaol were a largely self-governing society and the governor of the gaol had little legal authority over them. Wealthier debtors, with access to funds from outside, were able to purchase places in better rooms within the gaol, and had the opportunity to buy food, beer and wine from the town. Poorer debtors often worked as their servants to earn a few shillings. Debtors organised their own entertainment, and concerts and even mock Parliamentary elections took place. A bowling green for their amusement existed in the castle in the 18th Century. In some cases tradesmen were permitted, (where practicable) to carry out their trades, to enable them to obtain funds to procure their release.

Before 1816 a number of the seriously mentally ill were confined within the gaol. “Lunacy” covered not only those found not guilty by reason of insanity at the Assizes, but others who could not be looked after within the community. In 1816 a County Lunatic Asylum was established on the outskirts of the town, but in the 1840’s a governor was complaining that unsuitable persons were still being confined in the castle.

The concept of long-term imprisonment as a punishment dates only from about 1820. Prior to this date criminals found guilty of serious offences were either transported or hanged. Prior to 1825 there were over 200 offences which nominally carried the death penalty, and more people were hanged at Lancaster for forgery than for murder. The number of capital offences was gradually reduced, and the introduction of the Bankruptcy Act finally removed debtors from the gaol. The number of prisoners held here had fallen dramatically by the time the Home Office assumed responsibility for the gaol in 1877. For a period of some 20 years the gaol was used for women prisoners only, but a fall in their numbers saw male prisoners returning to the castle by the end of the 19th Century.

In 1915 civilian prisoners were removed and the castle became a prisoner of war camp for German officers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s it was used as a training school by Lancashire Constabulary, and during the Second World War it served as a headquarters for the Royal Observer Corps. A number of Conscientious Objectors were detained in the castle during the war, and employed to pack supplies for the forces on local factories. The gaol was re-opened by the Home Office in 1955.

Her Majesty’s Prison Lancaster now holds approximately 230 inmates. It is a Category C gaol and a number of its inmates are serving life sentences. Part of the prison is used as a major drugs rehabilitation unit. A recent extension of the Home Office lease means that the use of the castle as a gaol will continue for the foreseeable future.

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