The Chron looks back at what life was once life for Northampton’s prisoners

Feature on  previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.
Feature on previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

“GLUM”, “poorly lit” and “outdated” were just some of the words the Chronicle & Echo’s crime reporter used to describe the cells in Northamptonshire Police’s Campbell Square custody suite, when he visited them this week.

The Victorian cells look set to be closed for good now that work is underway to build a new “state-of-the-art” Criminal Justice Centre in Brackmills, due to open in June.

Feature on  previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

Feature on previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

But both the future, or even current, cells are a far cry from what detainees could have previously expected in the cells and jails of Northampton’s past.

We took a trip around the town with Northamptonshire historian, Richard Cowley, a retired member of Northamptonshire Police and its current archivist and curator, to discover how prisoners were treated in days gone by.

YOU won’t find any jails in the county today.

But once upon a time there were two in Northampton (a borough and county jail), as well as lock-ups (single rooms where prisoners were kept for a few hours or overnight before they were taken to a magistrate or sobered up) and police cells.

Feature on  previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

Feature on previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

“Prison as a punishment has only been around for 200 years. Before that they were only kept there to await trial, at which point they were generally either released or executed,” said Richard.

“There would have been cells in the police stations, but before 1856 to 1830 police stations weren’t compulsory.

“Purpose built police stations were built in Brackley, Kettering and Wellingborough... Northampton was completely separate from the rest of the county.

“The very first police station in Northampton was in Dychurch Lane, it then moved to Fish Street.

Feature on  previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

Feature on previous Northamptonshire jails with the police archivist Richard Cowley.

“Police station cells in those days would have been about 10ft by 20ft, built in solid brick with a big heavy door and no heating.

“They wouldn’t have been very nice places at all.

“The prisoners would not stay in the police station very long, they would have been released on bail or sent to a temporary lock-up very quickly.

“They got them before the court very quickly in those days.”

But for those leaving the small cells, if they didn’t face the noose, there could not expect any better conditions once in jail.

“If they were sent to prison they could expect hard labour,” said Richard.

“They would have to do exercises like turn a wooden box with boxes of sand or would be forced to use its treadmill.

“You could be hanged for things like theft in those days and could receive hard labour for very minor things.

“There was a case of a 12-year-old being sentenced to three months hard labour in Northamptonshire for stealing some money and at the other end of the scale there was a 69-year-old who got one month for stealing some glasses.

“Welfare was not a word they used back then.

“They had a chapel in the prison and they were given bread and water, as they realised they had to feed them, but they spent as little as possible on it.

“They would be on their own in cells, because they believed in strict segregation back then.”

WHEN queuing in your bank or supping on a pint around Northampton, there is a possibly you could be standing on the site of the town’s former cells. We discovered what the sites of the town’s jails and cells are used for today:

The Borough Jails:

Northampton Castle: “In the 16th century prisoners were kept in the old Northampton Castle, but it not known for sure whether this was just for the town’s prisoners, or the county’s or both. When the castle fell down they built a new town hall, and the cells and the Borough Gaol were built in the basement of this,” said Richard.

Wood Hill and Abington Street: Built on the corner of these two streets, the ground floor of this town hall, was the Borough Gaol from 1584, until a new Borough Goal was built in Fish Street in 1792.

“The building itself is long gone,” said Richard. “The Skipton Building Society is now built on the site where it stood. There could still be cells underneath, if they didn’t mess around with the foundations.

“The Northampton Corporation converted it into the Borough Gaol for debtors and convicts.

“Conditions and security were not reported to be good here but it continued for 200 years until 1776, when it was visited by John Howard [a prison reformer].

“He found it was the only prison in England and Wales that did not have running water or an exercise wall.”

An Act of Parliament in 1790 forced the country’s prisons to modernise and the jail then moved.

Fish Street (then Fish Lane): “Forced to modernise from 1792, the new Northampton Borough Gaol was built on this street, where Subway and The Cordwainer are.

“It was a small jail with a governor’s house attached.

“In August 1801 there were two inmates, in September 1805, five...

“The jail was enlarged in 1823 and in 1840, further enlarged to accommodate 40 prisoners.

“But by the mid 1840s even this was becoming too small, so in 1845 a new Borough Gaol was built on The Mounts.

“Once it ceased being a jail it became the headquarters for Northampton Borough Police.”

The Mounts: “After 1880, it became the only jail in town, as the County Gaol had closed the year before. This had space for 100 prisoners, and cost £17,000 to build,” said Richard.

“But by 1922 it too was closed by the Home Office. It was demolished a few years later and the site was used for the new headquarters of the then Northampton Borough Police, which is now Campbell Square Police Station.”

The County Jails:

Sessions House in George Row: “When the ruins of the old Northampton castle were finally pulled down in 1662, the County Gaol moved farther into Northampton, and the new site was built on what is now the Sessions House.

“In 1675 this building, together with most of the buildings in the town centre, was destroyed in the great fire.”

The jail did not move far however.

“The new Sessions House was built, and next door to it on the western side, Sir William Haslewood built a house which he immediately leased out to the county magistrates as the new county jail.

“However, following the prison reforms in 1792, a new County Gaol was started at the rear of the existing one.

“It cost £16,000 and housed 140 criminals and 30 debtors.”

St Giles Square and Angel Street; The prison reforms meant that land was acquired on the eastern side of the Judges’ Lodgings, and the new prison opened in 1846.

“The new building became the male block and the old building the female block.

“The gateway to the new gaol was on St Giles Square, which is now The Old Bank Pub.

“The new governor’s house was part of this gatehouse and the house he had vacated became the new central administrative headquarters for Northamptonshire County Constabulary.

“It also doubled as the operational headquarters of the Northampton division of the County Constabulary.

“In 1859, the Northampton divisional headquarters of the County Constabulary were moved into the old militia stores in Angel Lane, leaving the St Giles Square building just as the County Constabulary headquarters and chief constable’s house.

“A new Northampton divisional headquarters was built in 1901 in Angel Lane, which is the building still there today.

“Today all of the old jail complex is part of the Northamptonshire County Council offices.

“The old chief constable’s house and county constabulary headquarters is now the restaurant Ask.

“The gallows at Northamptonshire County Prison were in Angel Lane from 1868 to 1879.

“The brick course where the platform went can still be seen on the county council building, as can the steps up to the platform from the condemned cell door.”

The end of jails in Northamptonshire:

“The nationwide running of jails became the sole responsibility of the Home Secretary in 1877, and not the local magistrates.

“Northamptonshire’s County Gaol ceased to be used on New Year’s Day 1880, with all the prisoners being moved to the Borough Gaol on The Mounts, which closed a year later.”

Although we asked several places if any of the former jails formed cellars or rooms of the new buildings, most knew little of the history of the land the buildings stood on.

However, a Northamptonshire County Council spokesman said: “Today, the former gaol block in county hall houses a number of the authority’s services including the legal department, property management and public health.

“A number of the legal team occupy what were once cells used by prisoners who were condemned to death by hanging. Some of the cells would have looked out on where the gallows were situated.

“The shape of the rooms reflects the building’s previous use, with a slight curvature of the brickwork giving a cell-like appearance.”

To learn more about the criminal history of Northamptonshire, take a look at Richard Cowley’s book Guilty M’Lud!, which has provided photographs and information for this feature.