The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History
Plymouth's earliest recorded gaol stood next to the Guildhall in Whimple Street. It was five storeys high and the building measured 19 feet by 12 feet 6 inches. Male and female prisoners had separate quarters and the apartments for the keepers were next to the airing yard. The yard was larger than the prison itself, measuring 51 feet by 23 feet. The cells ranged in size from 9 feet 6 inches by 6 feet 3 inches to 19 feet 6 inches by 12 feet. Older offenders were kept separate from the younger ones and no communication was allowed between male and female prisoners.
It would appear that there were only nine cells for those convicted of a felony, or awaiting a court appearance, and there were three kept for debtors or those convicted of minor offences. Incidentally, a debtor had to pay 15s 4d upon his or her discharge.
Prisoners slept on a bed of straw and were allowed two blankets and a rig to cover themselves. They were allowed a pint of beer or ale each day and a 3d loaf of bread. This was supplemented on Tuesdays with one quart of milk broth and on Thursdays and Saturdays with a a quart of pea soup. They did eat well on a Sunday, however, when they had a half a pound of beef and nearly a pound of potatoes each.
Sentences were seldom longer than two months and those who had a trade could keep at work within the prison in order to support themselves and their families. Those sentenced to hard labour were expected to pick six pounds of oakum in an eight hour period. They were allowed a daily visitor and gentlemen of the Town would often call to explain passages from the Bible as there was no resident chaplain. Sick prisoners had the services of a surgeon or they would be transferred to the workhouse hospital.
Following the failure of proposals for Plymouth and Devonport to share a prison, Devonport Corporation let the tender for the erection of its gaol at Pennycomequick in April 1849. The contract went to the cheapest, that of Messrs Symons, Hoskins and Jenkins, in the sum of £11,803 10s 9d. The prison was completed in June that same year and contained a total of 70 cells, 44 for males, 12 for females and 14 for debtors.
The Prison Act of 1877 required that all gaols be passed to State control and consequently the Devonport Prison was closed from April 1st 1878 and the remaining prisoners were moved to Plymouth Prison. At first they advertised the premises for letting but then in November 1880 authorised its sale. At the auction on December 17th 1880 the highest bidder, at £4,200, was Mr John Martin. The Devonport Corporation sub-committee in charge of the disposal were not happy with that and instructed the Town Clerk to bid the reserve price of £7,500. The following month the sale was withdrawn and Mr Martin made a revised offer of £4,800. This they also turned down and made him an offer of the property at £5,500, which he accepted. He formally took possession on February 9th 1881. Subsequently all the buildings were pulled down, except for the gatehouse and offices, which remain standing today.
Devonport Borough Prison, circa 1880.
Millbay Prison was as built to house French and American prisoners-of-war. It was mainly used as a transit point between the ships that captured them and the new prison on Dartmoor. The men were marched between the two, summer or winter, the journey normally being accomplished in a day.
According to the earliest published description of the Prison in 1812 :
It has to be said that the above account is rather confusing. On the one hand the prison was said to be empty and on the other that it was a den of vice and gambling. And if it housed prisoners of war, what were children doing there? It is also not clear if the hospital referred to is the same one as is mentioned in a similar report about Millbay Barracks. 
On Thursday May 1st 1856 the "Plymouth & Devonport Weekly Journal" reported that: 'The Russian prisoners having all been sent home, the authorities of the Millbay prisons have been busily engaged, during the last week, in returning the stores and provisions that had been left, to the Royal William Victualling Yard, and the Dockyard; and yesterday [Wednesday] the establishment was turned over to Major Toby, of the Royal Marines. On the officers of the prison being paid off, a very handsome snuff box, contained in a morrocco (sic) case, was presented to Lieut. H T Veitch, the governor of the prison, by Mr Cumming, on behalf of the staff of the establishment, as a mark of their esteem for him personally, and of appreciation of the unvarying kindness which they had experienced from him'.
The Plymouth Borough Prison adjacent to the Workhouse at Greenbank was completed in April 1849 at a cost of about £12,500, of which about £3,500 was derived from the freeman's or prison fund and the remaining £9,000 was borrowed chiefly from the Exchequer Loan Commissioners. It was designed by Messrs Fuller and Gingell of Bristol on the lines of the prison at Pentonville and built by Mr William Clift. The ironwork was installed by Mr Moir.
There were 60 cells in the building, one of the wings being set aside for females. Airing yards and what they called "day yards, where the prisoners could carry out any work given to them, were also provided, along with a chapel, residence for the governor, kitchens and other offices. The limestone building, ornamented with Caen stone, measured some 270 feet in length and was 150 in width, with plenty of room for expansion if required.
Plymouth's new prison housed its first inmate before it had even opened. At around 3pm on the afternoon of Sunday May 7th 1849 a lone woman, advanced in pregnancy, was examining one of the cells in the unguarded building when the door closed upon her. The spring lock ensured that she could not open it from the inside. As there were no officials in the building it was some time before she was discovered and even longer before the person holding the keys could be found. When the door was finally opened at around 10pm that night, she was found 'crouched down in a corner of the cell in a very exhausted state'.
On August 9th 1878 the Secretary of State, Mr Cross, made an order under section 33 of the Prisons Act 1877 for the closure of Plymouth Gaol as from August 31st. It was in effect closed on Saturday August 24th because from Sunday August 25th the local Justices could only commit prisoners to Bodmin Gaol. On the following day, ten male prisoners were moved to Bodmin, the eleven female inmates were moved on the Tuesday, and the remainder of the male prisoners were moved on the Wednesday and Thursday. The Governor, warders and the chaplain had no idea what was going to happen to them.
Devonport Gaol had already closed (on April 1st) so the closure of the one at Plymouth caused much consternation within the Borough of Devonport. If the Borough now had to send its prisoners to Bodmin, involving a rail and road journey, who was going to pay the cost involved? The Prison Commissioners certainly were not interested so it was to presumably fall to the local ratepayers. Furthermore, the Mayor asked, what if a person was sent to Bodmin "on remand" only. Did they have to send a Constable down to Bodmin with the prisoner and then wait at Bodmin to bring him back to court? The Mayor hoped that the Council would follow the example already set by the County of Middlesex and not pay the bills incurred in such situations.
But Plymouth did retain its Gaol in the end and it did not finally close until 1930, when the remaining prisoners were transferred to the County Gaol at Exeter. The building was then converted into the new headquarters for the City of Plymouth Police, who moved here in 1935 from Catherine Street alongside Saint Andrew's Church.
Prison records are now available for consulting at the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Clare Place, Coxside, Plymouth.
|© Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK|
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