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Exeter's Prisons

Page updated 8 August 2009

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Devon County Prison

Exeter had two sets of prisons in or near the city. The Southgate and Bridewell in Queen Street were run by the County and City of Exeter, while the Castle, and later the County Gaol run by the County of Devon. There was also the Sheriff's Ward, Devon County Prison for Debtors.

Situated across the Longbrook valley from Northernhay Castle, the modern Exeter prison was built in 1853 for the county. Before that, the site had been occupied by the Devon County Gaol and Bridewell or House of Corrections.

The County Gaol was built between 1790 and 1794 to a design by William Blackburn, regarded by Pevsner as 'the most important early prison designer', and held about 100 prisoners while the Bridewell was built in 1807 and held 150. Conditions were tough and prisoners often had to work the treadmill as part of their sentence. The first execution at the County Gaol was of William Martingborough on Friday 20th March 1795. He was convicted of murdering Henry Smith and described at the time by the newspapers as a 'man of colour'.

Executions were held on the flat roof of a stone lodge at the front, on a temporary scaffold. This gave the large crowd, assembled on the slopes of Northernhay Gardens, a fine view of the proceedings.

In 1853, the prison at new North Road was rebuilt by the prolific John Hayward, based on the plan of the model prison that had been built at Pentonville. Originally housing 193 cells of 13 ft by 7 ft, the surrounding wall was over 20ft high.

The prison was described in Vincent's Guide to Exeter, 1884 thus "The prison is built on the Pentonville, or 'silent' system. Every prisoner has a separate cell, about 13 feet by 7 feet, and contains water, washing bowl, bed, table, stool, &c., and a gas-jet. the cells are well ventilated, and the vitiated air is carried off by an extracting flue. The food to the inmates are delivered through flaps. There is a bell-pull, which strikes upon a gong and throws back a plate with the number of the cell, when the prisoner requires the attendance of a warder, in the case of sickness or otherwise. The exercise yards are arranged into radiating compartments to prevent the prisoners communicating with each other. The officer in charge has an inspection house in the centre, so as to have the whole of the prisoners under his eye whilst taking exercise. The chapel has also radiating seats so contrived that the prisoners are precluded from seeing each other. The superior advantages attending the separate system of prison discipline has caused it to be generally adopted."

Perhaps the most famous execution at the prison was the one that never happened. They attempted to hang John 'Babbacombe' Lee three times, but each time the trap door jammed. His sentence was commuted to life.

A prisoner named Robert Graham who was, in 1903, serving seven years for burglary at Exeter Gaol, managed to remove some bricks in the wall of his cell, while the governor was on holiday. He crawled through, dragging a plank that he had procured from his carpenter's bench. He then used the plank as a ladder to reach the top of the prison wall, climbed onto the roof of the Governor's house, dropped through a skylight and stole a deer-stalking cap and shooting-coat belonging to the Governor, unlocked the shutters and escaped into the street. He was not missed for half an hour and then a man hunt was instigated. After a day and a night, Graham reached Newton Abbot where a vigilant policeman noticed his convicts clothes under the Governor's shooting coat and he was promptly arrested.

The Devon County Police Headquarters was situated in a building on the site of the prison until they moved out to Middlemoor.

Charlotte Bryant's Execution

An illiterate, 33 year old Irish woman with five children was hung at the Prison on 15th July 1936 for poisoning her husband. The anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Van de Elst made an appearance in her Rolls Royce at 8am outside the prison in protest, with a crowd of about 2 to 3 thousand. Bryant sent a telegram to King Edward VIII the day before which said "Mighty King, Have pity on your lowly, afflicted subject. Don't let them kill me on Wednesday. Ask them to give Mrs Van de Elst an opportunity of saying what will prove my innocence. From the brink of the cold, dark, grave I am a poor helpless woman. I ask you not to let them kill me, I am innocent." There were three more executions at Exeter Prison, the last in 1943, when the gallows were dismantled and sent to Jersey, where it was used once more in the mid 1950s. See Exeter's Execution List.

Mrs Emily Pankhurst was subject to the so called 'cat and mouse' law in 1913, when the authorities would imprison her, and release her when she went on hunger strike, to then arrest her again when she had recovered. On one such occasion, she was arrested on the 4 December 1913, when the Majestic anchored in Cawsands Bay, after she had toured the United States, and brought by car over Dartmoor to be imprisoned at Exeter Gaol. On the 7 December she was released on seven days licence, and proceeded to the Great Western Hotel before leaving Exeter.

An escape in September 1960 of three men who climbed over a 20ft wall, and stole a green shooting brake from Velwell Road, was reported in the Times. The car belonged to Mr I Bartlett, who was inside his house at the time, having lunch. There was enough petrol for 30 miles and maps in the vehicle to aid the prisoners escape.

New flats were built in 2005 on the far railway embankment, destroying a fine view across the Longbrook Valley from Northernhay Park to the front of the prison.

The City of Exeter Bridewell

The City of Exeter's original Bridewell for criminals was located in one of the towers of the old Southgate while debtors were held in cells over the archway, giving them a fine view up South Street. The term Bridewell was adopted from the Bridewell Palace in London, a 16th century prison. The term 'living on a shoestring' comes from the habit of the prisoners in the Southgate lowering shoestrings from their cells, for friends to tie food and other commodities to them. The last prisoner to be executed by the city of Exeter in 1818, Samuel Holmyard, was held at the Southgate before he was taken on a cart to the Magdalen Road drop to meet his maker. It is worth mentioning that some recent histories of Exeter state that the flag pole outside the Rougemont Hotel was the site of the gallows at the Bridewell. I have found no evidence that executions took place here, and that all City of Exeter executions after 1818 were held at the Devon County Prison, above.

The old prison was closed in 1819 when the mediaeval Southgate was demolished to be replaced by the 'House of Correction', designed with a three wing radial design by Cornish, containing the central building, governor's quarters, infirmary and chapel, located on the site of the present Rougemont Hotel, in June 1819. Built for fifty prisoners, it had twenty single night-cells and separate housing for debtors. The prison had eight classes of prisoner - there were quarters for master and commoner debtors, two classes for female prisoners, and four classes for convicted and untried male prisoners. Each class had a day-room and exercise yard. The cells contained iron-bedsteads and the inmates were supplied with three blankets and a rug in the winter and two blankets in summer.

Even the chapel was segregated into classes with a chaplain attending every Sunday. They prided themselves in providing bibles, prayer-books and religious tracts. Each prisoner had an allowance of a pound and a half of white bread per day and ten pounds of potatoes per week.

Prisoners were expected to work the treadmill, which was used to beat hemp, probably for rope making. The treadmill had been largely constructed by one of the inmates. Female prisoners were engaged in washing, mending clothes and knitting stockings for the charity school in Exeter. Inside the outer wall, surrounding the prison complex was a garden.

The first Governor was Mr Gully from 1819 until his death in 1830, whereupon his son Mr J Gully was appointed, to remain in charge until the prison was closed in 1863. It was demolished and in 1877 construction on the Rougemont commenced.

The first two prisoners to enter the new prison were debtors, with one a trader from the High Street. They were immediately followed by prisoners from the Southgate Bridewell who were walked up South Street, down North Street and up Northernhay Street to their new quarters. Those who were on foot passed along Maddock's Row and through the archway cut in the city wall in 1771.

The escape

There was one attempt at escape from the prison by an inmate named McCarthy who was a tailor by trade. There had been rumours of an attempt at escape at the Sunday morning service for the prisoners and extra police were on duty in the prison that evening, out of site of the prisoners. The warder did his last round as usual that night, and McCarthy appeared to be asleep. Once the warder had passed, McCarthy used an old spoon to cut through a panel in the door and escaped his cell, taking with him a bakers jacket and cap he had secretly made, along with a bag for a brick and ropes made of blankets. He managed to reach the exercise yard, where he threw the bag containing the brick over the wall which was attached to his makeshift rope and started to climb the wall.

Warder Guppy's wife happened to see him and gave out an alarm that a prisoner was attempting an escape. The police rushed to the wall and one grabbed hold of the man's legs, pulling him back down, to be hurriedly locked back in a cell. He was later sentenced to twenty years' transportation for breaking into the house of Mr Windeat, the draper, which was close to the police station.

Other prisons

In the 18th and first half of the 19th century there were other prisons in Exeter. Both a Bridewell and a gaol for debtors was located in St Thomas. Beaufort House, the seat of of the Duke of Exeter, John Holland was built in the 14th century. In 1637, it was converted into the St Thomas Bridewell and ten years later it was taken over by Royalist troops during the siege of Exeter, and converted into Hunkses Fort, during the Civil War. It returned to being a house of correction after the war and was used to house some 1,300 French and American prisoners during 1770. The building was demolished in 1809 and a new structure constructed that remained until the mass demolition of St Thomas in the early 1960's and the Farmers Friend was built on the site.

The Devon County Prison for Debtors

The front façade of Cowick Street Motors in Cowick Street is all that remains of the entrance to the Sheriff's Ward, Devon County Prison for Debtors. The first prison on the site stood from 1675 or earlier became notorious as the ‘most feeble and insecure prison in the Kingdom’. It was decided that it had to go by October 1817 and demolition commenced to be followed the next year by the construction of a new prison at a cost of £8,000. It opened in November 1819, but by the middle of the century, new ideas on prison design and reform brought about its demise. The last prisoners were moved to the County Gaol in January 1855 and the facility was closed, and sold to the Justice of the Peace of the County of Devon for £2,400. It became a barracks for the First Devon Militia. In 1892, it changed use again and was converted into artisans dwellings. All but one wing and the façade were demolished in 1909, with the remaining wing remaining as dwellings, and part of the site used for the Wesleyan Church. The church is now John Holts carpet and furniture showroom.

The Guildhall was also used to house prisoners with a cellar beneath the building which dates from the 14th-century used as a prison and referred to as the 'pytt of the Guyldhall'. The rear of the Guildhall in Waterbeer Street has windows for the female cells on the ground floor. Built in the 16th-century, the cells were last used in 1887.

Source - Reminiscences of Exeter Fifty Years Since by James Cossin, Penny Illustrated 1903, Portrait of Exeter by Brian Little, Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, Cowick Street Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Plan, various websites about John Lee. GENUKI Exeter history website, quote from Vincent's Guide to Exeter 1884, and Tony Lethbridge.

Exeter Prison The frontage of Exeter Prison. City of Exeter Bridewell City of Exeter Bridewell by George Townsend - now the site of the Rougemont Hotel. The Debtors Prison, St Thomas The St Thomas Debtors Prison in Cowick Street is now Cowick Street Motors. The Debtors Prison, St Thomas A view of the one remaining wing of the St Thomas Debtors Prison in Cowick Street, at the rear of Cowick Street Motors, before demolition circa 1970. St Thomas gaol The Rev. Shore is visited during his incarceration at St Thomas' gaol (Devon County Gaol for Debtors) when he was imprisoned for not paying the costs of his case. Bishop Philpotts had him prosecuted for taking oaths to become a dissenting minister while already ordained a priest of the Church of England. See Thomas Latimer Guildhall cell window A cell window from the inside, at the Guildhall.

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