HM Prison Gloucester

Published: 15 September 2013
Gloucester Prison HM Prison Gloucester

As part of the Heritage Open Days, the Grade II listed Gloucester Prison opened its doors once again this weekend. HMP Gloucester was formerly closed on 31 March 2013, after 222 years of operation, when it was deemed too old and uneconomic to run.

We were shown round the prison by Custodial Manager Jim Sweeney (what a great name for a Prison Officer!) and his colleagues Simon Thomas and Lee, all of whom had worked at the prison before its closure. Their enthusiasm for the prison was evident and the anecdotes they shared, really brought the building to life.

Gloucester Prison First Floor Landing View from first floor landing

The prison was built on the levelled site of the 12th century Gloucester castle, at The Quay on the east bank of the River Severn. The castle keep had been used as the prison until it was condemned and demolished in 1787. The main part of the old prison was constructed in 1792, using the radical designs of the time, including a ventilation system to help prevent disease and a running water supply. The idea of reform, rather than punishment was believed to be the way forward.

Extensions and partial rebuilding were carried out in Victorian times. A new wing was added in 1987, which seems to be crumbling faster than the older parts! The maximum capacity of the prison was up to 321 prisoners.

Prisoners were allowed to spend time outdoors in the exercise compound – healthy bodies were supposed to develop healthy minds. In the past prisoners were always forced to walk in an anticlockwise direction. This was supposed to represent the turning back of time and repenting of their sins. The exercise compound had been covered by netting in recent years in order to prevent items, especially drugs, from being thrown from the street by the public into the prison grounds for the prisoners.

Serpents Representing Evil Serpents of Evil

The prison interior was reminiscent of the BBC sit com Porridge, only colder and more sombre. The first thing you notice are the serpent brackets lining the walls. These are symbolic and said to represent evil. Closer examination reveals a lion’s claw at the base of the railing above the serpent, symbolising justice bearing down on the evil.

Gloucester Prison Cell Gloucester Prison Cell

The tiny cells were very dark, having only small windows situated high in the walls, so that prisoners would be denied the pleasure of looking outside.

Visitors were invited to be ‘locked in’ the cells, to experience just how dark and unpleasant the confinement would have been.

Infamous inmates at Gloucester Prison have included the Kray twins and Fred West.

Gloucester Prison Chapel Prison Chapel

The Chapel is the most spacious room in the prison and part of the Grade II listed building. Natural light streams through the large windows and must have been uplifting for those attending services there.

Between 1872 and 1939 there were 140 hangings carried out at Gloucester Prison. Condemned men and women were kept in cells with larger windows than the rest, in order to give them some comfort in their final days.

The executioner would visit them to measure their height, work out the length of rope required and to calculate the trap door position on the gallows, in order to ensure a swift death. The details were carefully recorded in the executioner’s journal which still survives.

Gloucester Prison Comened Prisoner Cells Condemned Prisoners' Cells

On the night before their execution the condemned prisoners were given a decent meal and a drink. A priest or Prison Chaplin would remain with them for the entire night, reading passages from the Bible and praying for them.

In the morning they were taken through to the gallows, which was sited opposite the Governor’s residence. The outline of the gallows can still be seen in the brickwork above the blue door in the picture below. From his window, the Prison Governor would signal that the execution should be carried out. A notice would then be published at the gate of the prison.

The bodies were either buried in unmarked graves within the grounds of the prison, or taken to Gloucester infirmary for anatomical dissection.

At the current time, the future of the prison building is still uncertain. Suggestions have been made that it may be turned into flats, a hotel or a museum. Clearly as it is Grade II listed, it cannot be demolished, but we hope that it will not simply be allowed to deteriorate. Even in the five months since its closure, weeds and buddleia plants have started to colonise the grounds.

So many people applied for tickets to look round the prison during the Heritage Open Days, that an extra 520 tickets were released. Even then, many people have told us that they were disappointed not to have been able to get tickets. This surely must give an indication as to what the public would like to see happen to it. Let's save our heritage!

© The Gloucestershire Oracle September 2013

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