Chris Upton tells the story of a Gloucestershire prison which was the blueprint for penal reform across the country in the 1790s.
The UK is blessed – if that’s the right word – with a rich heritage of prison buildings.
In fact, the country is littered with all the paraphernalia of law and chastisement: lock-ups and stocks, pillories and gaols. Today it’s no longer necessary to have a close relative banged up to do a spot of prison visiting. As society has changed its views over what constitutes appropriate conditions for the prisoner, so some of the older places of confinement have been replaced or otherwise fallen out of use.
The old Oxford gaol, for example, is now a posh hotel, while the one in Ruthin in North Wales houses the county archives. The former prisons at both Ripon and Lincoln are now museums, with a much more open policy on admissions.
But if you want to see the place that has made the longest journey from original purpose to new use, then you surely have to go to Northleach in the Cotswolds. Once a machine for punishment, it is today a sophisticated bistro and coffee shop.
Strictly speaking, the building that stands just outside the town, at the junction with the Fosseway, is not a prison; it is a house of correction. But its forbidding exterior is no less menacing for that.
Houses of correction sprang up all across the country during the 18th century to deal with petty criminals. There was a whole raft of offences that did not merit the ultimate sanction of hanging or of transportation. A short, sharp shock in a corrective institution, it was believed, would be enough to put the minor offender back on the straight and narrow.
Many such houses were located close to the county gaol, but there were many others, scattered far and wide across the country, and one of these was at Northleach. They were often known as “bridewells”, after the first such penal house at St Bride’s Well in London.
The Cotswolds today is not a place you would tend to associate with criminal behaviour – over-pricing in an antiques shop, perhaps, or allowing your yew-tree hedge to grow anti-socially high – but that was not always the case. Drunkenness, vagrancy and petty theft were as common in Gloucestershire as anywhere else, and the county had no less than five bridewells by the 1780s.
Bridewells were not pleasant places, and they were not even run efficiently. The novelist, Henry Fielding, called them “prototypes of hell”.
From as early as the 1770s there was a national campaign, led by John Howard, to reform and professionalize the prison system, and to turn it into an instrument of reform, rather than a breeding-ground for even harder criminals.
The man who pioneered such changes in Gloucestershire was the delightfully named Sir George Onesiphorus Paul, who, in the 1780s, set out a blueprint for penal reform in the county. There would be a new county gaol, together with four model houses of correction at Bristol, Littledean, Horsley and Northleach. The latter opened in 1791. Only the keeper’s house and one of the cell blocks survive today, but from them and from surviving records, we can get a good idea of how the house of correction operated.
The prison was hexagonal with four cell blocks graded according to the sex and seriousness of the offender. The principle of separation was at the top of Paul’s list of changes, along with improved health (there were two infirmaries and hot and cold baths) and better security.
So, unlike the old gaols it replaced, each prisoner at Northleach had his or her own day and night cell. All in all, the house of correction could accommodate 37 prisoners.
The need for fresh water was another of Paul’s priorities, and the River Leach was channelled under and round the new institution to supply the water and to afford a protective moat to the keeper. It also supplied water for the baths.
A spell in a house of correction almost always included hard labour. But in contrast to the old bridewells, where the labour was usually repetitive and meaningless, the prisoners at Northleach worked for money, typically spinning wool, plating straw or making wicker.
At the end of their sentence they got to keep half of their earnings, the rest going to the keeper and to the county.
Discipline in the house, thought Paul, was improved by making the work profitable, and by imposing a strict timetable. The prisoners rose at 6am in the summer, washed and worked three hours before breakfast and a further two hours before dinner.
All of these enlightened changes, it has to be said, did not survive the death of Sir George in 1820. Soon after this, a tougher regime arrived, along with the dreaded tread-mill, which became standard equipment in almost all houses of correction and county gaols.
By the middle of the 18th century the very concept of the bridewell was disappearing. Northleach ceased to be a house of correction in 1857, though it did remain part of the legal system. It became (at various times) a remand home, a police station, a tramps’ home and a petty sessional court. Only when the latter was switched to Stow-on-the-Wold in 1974 did two centuries of correction come to an end.
Closure might have led to complete demolition, but the building was saved by Cotswold District Council in 1980 and turned into a museum of rural life, preserving what was left of the prison for visitors.
Two years ago it became Brand’s bistro and coffee shop.
A place that once confined people for stealing cutlery is now supplying cake forks and teaspoons much more liberally.