The City Gaol

  • 21 Jan 2019
  • Crime and Legal
  • Back

Over the centuries, the City had many prisons. There was the gaol at the east end of St Nicolas Street, a Bridewell at the bottom of Cucken Street (Copenhagen Street). and below the gatehouse of the Foregate were cells which, for a long period, were used as a prison for strangers. The Freeman of the City had the questionable privilege of being detained in the cells beneath their own Guildhall. Like the County, after the escape of so many prisoners from the old prison at the Castle, the City authorities were compelled to provide a more secure gaol, and they employed George Byfield, a London architect, who specialised in gaols. He was not new to Worcester, having built Perdiswell House, the House of Industry on Tallow Hill and adorned the gallery of the Guildhall.

Sadly, for motives of economy, the ancient Friary was demolished, and the new gaol was commenced in 1822. It cost the City £12,578 and prisioners were moved into it in July 1824. Like the County Gaol in Castle Street, it was built on John Howards principles, and had a treadmill. It generally held about 30 persons, and was always considered orderly, clean and secure.

The new gaol had only a brief existence. The number being detained was small and the prison staff correspondingly so.  The post of Governor was very much a sinecure, and was so regarded. The chief feature of the prison was the Governor's house, and the principal employment of the prisoners was in his domestic service. Some even waited at table upon him and his guests.

There was only one Governor, Mr William Griffiths, who was appointed in 1819, and held office for nearly 50 years. He was quite a local character, and even in his old age, he was a bright eyed, cheery little man, who wore the long antiquated garb of his youth - black with swallow tailed coat, soft white neck cloth such as Beau Brummell wore, and a high crowned silk hat. He kept an excellent table and gave dinner parties to those whose hospitality he enjoyed outside. His company on such occasions was a liberal education in the art of social enjoyment. However, a mishap befell the Governor, He had a favourite prisioner of irreproachable manners, and his aptitude for domestic service procured him the run of the Governor's house, and often went out at night to light the retiring guest home. But the prisoner, one night, retired himself, carrying the Governor's family plate with him. The story helped to hasten the inevitable merger of the county and city prisons,

At the close, the gaol was submitted for auction and brought by a gentleman named Laslett, going almost as building land. There was much speculation as to why Laslett brought it, it being attributed to his insatiable appetite for a bargain. However, the cells became quarters for the aged poor, a chapel was constructed to replace that of St Laurence: the Governor's house accommodated chaplain and a superintendent, and the transformation was complete, though the external walls remained for some time.

Incidentally, the boundary between St Helen's and St Martin's parishes runs between Lasletts Almshouses and the Greyfriars, and on the west side of Friar Street, near the boundary, was an inn, known as the Sign of the Three Catherine Wheels which was the arms of the Street family, who lived at the Greyfriars.