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Photo: Mark Wheaver


Our History

Over the years the Old Prison has had different roles to play in rural life in the Cotswolds. Each change has reflected developments in society and the legal system. 

Before Reform

Prison Reform saw the building of new prisons and houses of correction across the country, starting in Gloucestershire. Before reform the majority of crimes were punishable by either deportation to the colonies or death; even for petty crimes such as stealing anything worth more than 12 pence. 

Those not deported or executed would find themselves incarcerated. Each county had a county “Gaol” and also a number of “Bridewells” or Houses of Correction. Gaols were for criminals and Bridewells for vagrants and idle persons. The conditions in both were terrible; damp, unhealthy, filthy and over-crowded. All prisoners were mixed up together whether man, woman or child, regardless of crime, conviction or health.


John Howard

It was philanthropist John Howard who reported on the state of prisons in 1777, condemning the system and calling for change. His writing opened the eyes of the country to how dreadful the conditions were as well as how broken the system was in England, ultimately leading to the Penitentiary Act of 1779.

John Howard - The Old Prison

Reported Conditions

  • Prison Keepers demanded fines from new arrivals and refused to release them at the end of their sentence until these fines were paid

  • People who had got into hard times and owed money were called “Debtors”. They were imprisoned with the general population of the Gaols and Bridewells and had to buy their food, drink and clothing from the Keeper. 

  • Most Debtors lived in rags and starved if family, friends or even other inmates didn't help them survive.

  • Female prisoners were housed alongside male prisoners resulting in many pregnancies and babies being born in prisons 

  • All prisoners were made to wear "fetters." These chains and manacles stopped them from escaping unsecure prison buildings.

  • Overcrowding resulted in filthy, damp and unsanitary living conditions which were crawling with vermin.


Sir George Onesiphorus Paul - Philip Watson.jpg

Campaign for Change

Sir George Onesiphorus as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, was responsible for its prisons. Prompted by John Howard’s report, he visited the Gaol at Gloucestershire and was shocked by what he saw. He began a campaign for a new prison system for the county siting the need for a modern prison system to support the rehabilitation of prisoners. 

Photo: Philip Watson

He successfully presented his case to the Grand Jury, Magistrates and other Noblemen and Gentlemen of Gloucestershire and it was agreed in October 1783 that the new prisons would be built. The “Gloucestershire Act” was passed in parliament to allow the new prisons to be built providing meals and clothing at cost to the county rate. It enacted that prison officers should enforce decent behaviour, cleanliness and temperance and ensure just and humane treatment. 


Old Prison Plans

Building Begins

The Old Prison was designed by architect William Blackburn who had gained prominence from the 1779 Penitentiary Act as well as also winning first prize in a competition for prison design. Sir George was appointed to design the Old Prison in Northleach as well as the County Gaol in Gloucester. 


Originally called the “House of Correction at Northleach”, the Old Prison was built in a significant location on the crossroads of two major roads. The scattered towns and villages of the north Cotswolds were accessible as well as Oxford and London to the east and Cheltenham and Gloucester to the West. 

The Brief

Sir George wanted a a secure building so inmates did not have to be fettered, along with fresh air and running water to reduce prison disease and ill health among the inmates. Segregation by class of prisoner was also a key requirement. Blackburn's design was for an enclosed prison and compound in an irregular hexagon shape, surrounded by high walls which were originally 7.5 meters tall.

The original building included;

  • A Keeper’s House 

  • A 3-storey central Blockhouse 

  • 2 wings of two-storeys connecting this centre block 

  • 2 corner blockhouses 

Cells were small, only 1.8 meters by 2.4 meters. Each prisoner would have both a day and night cell on separate floors. The little river Leach was diverted by a few meters to flow under the rear security wall of the prison. Water was pumped by prisoners in the exercise yard as being used to power the mill. 

An exercise yard was overseen from the Keeper's House and was sectioned by wooden fencing to segregate the different classes of inmates. Sadly William Blackburn died in 1792 before he saw his plans materialised.


The Early Years

The prison finally opened in 1792 and ran according to Sir George’s vision until 1823. Prisoners were given meaningful work, they were unfettered, segregated, fed and clothed and generally well looked after. Life of course was not easy in the Old Prison, but it was a huge improvement to what came before it. 

On arrival, all prisoners were received in the reception area. Here they were ordered to bathe and given clean clothes in the form of the prison uniform. After 1808 when vagrants* were accepted at the prison, they had their clothes burnt, their heads and beards shaved and bodies deloused before being given a hot bath and fresh clothes. 

Each day prisoners were provided with two hot meals. Those that worked more manual jobs were given extra rations. 

There were 5 classes of prisoner and the yard and cells were segregated according to class: 

  • Class 1; The “most atrocious” males

  • Class 2: 1st time offenders

  • Class 3: Men and boys imprisoned for not paying fines or being unable to pay surety

  • Class 4: Women and girls 

  • Class 5: “Vagrants* in foul and filthy state” 


Work and pay differed by class too. Any craftsmen could work at his craft and be paid. Expectations and pay for work differed by class. Class 1 prisoners undertook hard labour often without pay and Class 4 prisoners worked in the Keeper’s House, the laundry and the garden. 

*A vagrant was a homeless person

Vagrant (AMH6FK).jpg





Crimes & Convictions

Until the formation of Petty Sessions Courts, Magistrates could send offenders brought to them by a gamekeeper or local voluntary constable straight to prison. They would be marched to the Old Prison and handed over to the Keeper with a note from the Magistrate saying how long they had to be imprisoned and for what offence. Magistrates would also meet in twos or threes to hold summary hearings.

The Old Prison was designed to hold 37 prisoners. However, records show that the average imprisonments in one year between 1792 and 1816 was 46. With sentences being an average of 2-3 months, it is clear that there would have been times when the prison was almost empty and it would rarely have been full. By far the most common crimes during this period were petty theft, breach of contract and vagrancy.  

Rehabilitation & Punishment

Following the death of Sir George Onesiphorous Paul in 1823, the treatment of prisoners in the House of Correction changed drastically. Only three months after Sir George passed, magistrates began to introduce a form of hard labour. 

In 1823 a hand winch was introduced. Men turned the handle to grind corn on a millstone. This was then replaced in 1827 with a treadmill as the Magistrates looked for an even more punishing tool for the prisoners. The treadmill had steps 8 inches deep and inmates were made to climb for 16 minutes at a time, before returning to the yard to walk for 8 minutes and then back to the treadmill again. This would be repeated for the whole work-session with men climbing between 10 and 12 thousand feet a day. 

Treadmill (HHG5H2).jpg



Treatment of Children

The Factory Act of 1833 made it illegal for children under 9 to work. It also required all children between 9 and 13 to be educated for 2 hours a day. Children under 9 were no longer imprisoned as they could not work. And in 1844 the top floor of the central block became a class room for children between 9 and 13. 


Single Mothers

In an attempt to deal with the “problem” of single women having children, The Poor Act of 1834 was passed. This prevented unmarried mothers from claiming poor relief from their parish. The act also removed all financial responsibility from fathers for their children, as the government tried to dissuade unmarried women from having children. Under law, unmarried mothers who couldn’t support themselves became vagabonds and were imprisoned by magistrates. 

The Order Book in the Apothecary’s Journal at the Old Prison makes regular references to women and children. Effectively the female cell block was a nursery for the poor as working without support or childcare was almost impossible. 

Convict Nursary (C13K2F)_edited.jpg


The Mill House

The Magistrates were still not happy that their original treadmill was working the prisoners hard enough. They constructed a new building to house the treadmill – a Mill House that was later converted into the Sergeant’s House. The mill machinery was driven by a shaft through the north wall rotated by the prisoners at the tread wheel. You can still see the arch of the mill from the café today. 


Government Enquiry

Following the death of a former inmate shortly after his release, the Magistrates faced a government enquiry into the conditions at the Old Prison in 1842. The enquiry concluded that there were many issues at the Old Prison; ventilation, warmth, quality of medical care were all lacking particularly in the Block House and Female Ward at the north of the building.

As a result, a new cell block for female prisoners was constructed in 1844. The cells were bigger, they included a toilet, basin and heating system that was used throughout the other building. 

Cell Formation Old Prison Northleach


The End of the
Correctional House

The growth of the railway in Britain was changing the country. In 1838, 500 miles of railway existed. By 1848 there were 5,000 miles of railway and it was still increasing and would double again within 10 years. By 1857, railways had quickly spread across the Cotswolds linking small towns and villages with larger towns and cities in the county and beyond. This changed how people lived and worked. It was now much cheaper and easier for Magistrates to travel between courts, and also for offenders to be transported to Gloucester for trial and sentencing. And so, the decision was made to close the Old Prison in 1857 as it was no longer financially viable to keep the rural prison open.

Old Train, Cotswolds


Petty Sessions Court

The government had established Petty Sessions Courts in England in 1828. Three were in operation locally in Northleach, Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton in Marsh. When the Old Prison closed as a House of Correction, the Northleach Petty Sessions Court in town relocated to the Old Prison. The Keeper’s reception room was repurposed as a courtroom which still exists today. 

The established procedure was for the accused to be brought before the local Justice of the Peace for an initial interview. The offender would then be sent to a Petty Sessions Court  to receive summary justice. The maximum sentence that could be imposed by a magistrate was 2 years and the court would normally be presided over by three Magistrates assisted by a clerk. For more serious crimes the interviewing Magistrate would send the accused to the Quarter Session where they would face a magistrate and jury before sentencing, including death and deportation.



Old Prison Courtroom, Northleach

County Police Station

In the same year, the Old Prison also became a County Police Station for Gloucestershire County Constabulary. The Building was altered between 1857 and 1859 for its new role. Gloucestershire had created a paid police force in 1840 based in Stow-on-the-Wold. When the Old Prison became available the growing force decided to move in and make the Old Prison their main police station for the North Cotswolds.  


The police force made some adaptations to the Old Prison to make it fit for purpose. Extensions were built creating two apartments for both the Superintendent and Superintendent of Tramps along with their families. The Mill House was converted into the Police Station complete with accommodation for the Superintendent of Police and his family, while the old women's block became remand cells.

After the Second World War, Northleach was gradually becoming less of a commercial centre and no longer warranted a Superintendent Police Station in the town. The station was reduced to a Sergeant in charge until 1973 when a new police station was opened in Northleach. 

1834 English Workhouse (2CWBNJD).jpg

The Casual Ward

At the same time the House of Correction closed and the building became a Police Station, much of the former prison cells were converted into a Casual Ward for tramps.

After the Nepolionic wars and the famines of the 1830's, the parish relief system broke down leaving many of the poor and hungry to wander the roads seeking work. Tramping travellers were viewed as rogues and vagabonds by law and should be in prison, however the Vagrancy Act of 1824 made the distinction between vagrants and tramps and many of those tramping, of which their only crime was being unemployed, could legitimately ask for poor relief from Local Overseers of the Poor but local resources couldn't cope.

Before the Old Police Station became a Casual Ward, tramps were housed at the workhouse in the town. The decade before in 1848 had seen a new system of poor relief which was supervised by the local police. This made the new Police Station a perfect location for the Casual Ward. 


In 1929 the management of the workhouses and Casual Wards passed from the Board of Guardians to local government. And then in 1930, Public Assistance was introduced for all elderly people. This meant that only the sick and incapable elderly made their way to the workhouse. By the middle of the 1930s most workhouses and casual wards had either closed or become geriatric hospitals. The Old Prison was no different, and it closed its doors as a Casual Ward in 1934. 



Demolition & Disposal

During the winter of 1936 - 1937, the County Council demolished many parts of the Old Prison as they were no longer being used. All three blockhouses as well as the cell wings were demolished. Sadly nobody thought to conserve any of the artefacts from the buildings and the ironwork went to a Leicester scrap metal merchant. It is unknown whether the building materials were removed completely, or simply covered in soil. 

All that remained were the Old Mill House, the Keeper’s House and the North House. The boundary wall around the compound was retained but reduced in height. The Police Station moved from the Keeper’s House to the Mill House during World War II. After the war it was downgraded to a Sergeant Station with remand cells, before finally moving out of the Old Prison altogether in 1973. One year by the Magistrates Court moved to Stow on the Wold and the Old Prison was empty. 

County Bridewell, Northleach


Friends of the Cotswold Logo

Friends of the Cotswolds

The Old Prison is owned and managed by the Friends of the Cotswolds. They bought the site from Cotswold District Council in 2013 to ensure it remained open to the public as an important local heritage asset. Find out more about them. 

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