Fisherton Gaol

Fisherton Gaol

Fisherton Gaol first opened in 1842 as the main prison for the county of Fishertonshire. Designed by noted architect John Howard, it replaced the dilapidated county jail that had stood since the late 18th century. When completed, Fisherton Gaol was considered a state-of-the-art facility reflecting the latest theories on incarceration and reform.

The first warden, Thomas Pope, instituted a strict regime based on silence, prayer, and hard labor. Prisoners worked long days doing manual jobs like stone cutting and laundry. Even minor infractions were harshly punished with reduced rations or time in solitary confinement.

Within its first decade, Fisherton Gaol was already overcrowded, housing almost 300 inmates though intended for only 200. Expansion plans were drawn up as early as 1852 to accommodate the growing prisoner population.

Expansions and renovations

To alleviate overcrowding, a new cell block was constructed in 1857, increasing capacity to 350 inmates. Further extensions were completed in 1872, 1887, and 1909 as Fisherton Gaol struggled to keep pace with rising numbers of prisoners.

By 1890, the facility sprawled across multiple buildings surrounded by high concrete walls. Guard towers were erected along the perimeter to prevent escapes. Inside, additional workshops and exercise yards were added to keep prisoners occupied.

In the early 20th century, Fisherton Gaol underwent renovations to improve sanitation and living conditions. The introduction of electricity in 1925 modernized operations. The original 1842 cell block was eventually condemned and demolished in 1939 due to dilapidation.

Notable prisoners and executions

As the county’s main prison for almost a century, Fisherton Gaol held its fair share of notorious criminals and dangerous offenders. Some of the most infamous included:

  • George Carmody – Serial killer hanged at Fisherton in 1895 for murdering 6 women.
  • The Fisherton Raiders – Violent gang convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to hard labor in 1898.
  • Alfred Hounslow – Fraudster and conman who escaped in 1909 and was never recaptured.
  • Reginald Plummer – Leader of a smuggling ring prosecuted in 1922.
  • Dorothy Mills – The prison’s youngest female inmate, jailed at age 17 in 1936 for theft.

At least 186 judicial executions by hanging took place at Fisherton Gaol between 1849 and 1914. The gallows were located in a purpose-built execution suite away from the main cell blocks.

Decline and closure

By the 1950s, Fisherton Gaol was struggling to adapt to modern penology. Complaints mounted over inhumane conditions, inadequate staffing, and decaying facilities no longer suitable for rehabilitation. The era of large Victorian prisons was coming to an end.

Fisherton Gaol finally closed its doors in October 1961 and prisoners were transferred to newer jails. The empty facility lay abandoned for several years, target of vandalism and trespassing. Several proposals for redevelopment were considered but deemed unviable.

Most of the prison’s buildings were eventually demolished in the late 1960s. The only section preserved was the 1842 original cell block, later converted into apartments. The legacy of Fisherton Gaol remains controversial, remembered as both a grim workhouse and an important local landmark.

See also  HM Prison Brixton

Architecture and layout of Fisherton Gaol

Design and construction

Fisherton Gaol was constructed between 1840-1842 based on designs by architect John Howard who specialized in prisons. His layout maximized security, surveillance, and control.

The main buildings were arranged around a central atrium in a radial layout. Rectangular cell blocks radiated like spokes of a wheel from the central rotunda which housed the watchroom. This panopticon design allowed guards to monitor prisoners efficiently.

Exterior walls built from local sandstone and brick reached over 25 feet high. Iron gates, barred windows, and watchtowers contributed to the foreboding façade. Inside, cell blocks had three levels of small cramped cells accessible by iron walkways.

Cell blocks and wings

At its peak, Fisherton Gaol contained seven cell blocks (A-G). The original block A built in 1840 was eventually replaced by a new wing in 1939. The four-story block E was the largest, housing up to 90 prisoners.

Cells typically measured 6 x 4 feet, furnished only with a bed, table, and bucket. They often held two or three inmates at a time. Sanitation was poor, with open sewer channels running through the blocks. Each cell block had its own exercise yard used for one hour daily.

The Segregation Unit of solitary confinement cells was located in basement cells of Block B. The Condemned Block for inmates awaiting execution had heavier security. Women prisoners were housed in a separate block with their own matron.

Exercise yards and workshops

Enclosed exercise yards between cell blocks provided brief respite from confinement. They were barren gravel pits with high walls to prevent escape. Toilet facilities were buckets or open sluices along one wall.

Prison workshops including a laundry, bakery, brickworks and carpentry shop allowed convict labor. A prison schoolhouse and basic infirmary were also built in the late 1800s. Vegetable gardens and livestock pens provided food.

Security features

Fisherton Gaol used thick perimeter walls, iron gates, barred windows and constant surveillance to maintain security. The main gate had a guardhouse and waiting cells for new prisoners brought in.

Inside the panopticon design kept inmates visible to the central watchroom. Catwalks allowed guards to monitor cell blocks closely. Dividing walls prevented communication between blocks. Informants provided tips to guards.

Other security methods included segregation cells, restraining devices, strict rules and severe punishments. Fisherton Gaol was largely successful in preventing riots and mass escapes despite overcrowding.

Daily life in Fisherton Gaol

Prisoner routines and regulations

Daily routine at Fisherton Gaol followed a strict timetable to keep inmates occupied and orderly. A typical day started at 6 a.m. with prisoners roused from their cells, buckets collected and cell block cleaned.

Breakfast of gruel or bread was served at 7 a.m. before inmates were organized into work crews. Convicts labored at hard menial jobs until a lunch break. The afternoon saw more labor until dinner at 5 p.m. Prisoners were locked in cells by 6:30 p.m.

Silence was enforced at all times except during exercise periods. Inmates could not communicate, glance or gesture at each other. Transgressions resulted in flogging or stints in solitary. Prisoners had to display good behavior to earn privileges.

Food and meals

Food at Fisherton Gaol was plain and meager, prepared by inmate cooks. Typical meals consisted of porridge, bread, root vegetables and thin soups or stews. Food was served in tin bowls and eaten in the cell blocks.

See also  HM Prison Shepton Mallet

Meals were the same daily with little variety. Food was sometimes withheld for minor rule breaking. More rations went to prisoners performing heavy labor. The diet regularly caused malnutrition and health problems among inmates.

Work programs and education

All able-bodied convicts at Fisherton Gaol engaged in manual labor like maintenance, laundry, or manufacturing. Long hours performing menial tasks were used to keep prisoners occupied and instill discipline.

Workshops included a bakery, brick kiln, carpentry, tailor and blacksmith. Convicts produced goods and performed services like cooking and cleaning. Outdoor crews worked in the farms or quarry.

Basic education started in the late 1800s with remedial reading, writing and arithmetic lessons. A prison library held donated books and bibles. Some inmates were allowed hobby crafts during free time.

Healthcare and hygiene

Healthcare at Fisherton Gaol was primitive, focused on keeping convicts alive and working. A small infirmary treated illness and injuries using crude methods like bloodletting. Mental healthcare was nonexistent.

Sanitation and hygiene were poor, with open sewage and lack of facilities. Disease spread rapidly in the crowded, unsanitary cells. Lice, skin infections, dysentery and respiratory illness were common among inmates and staff.

Prisoners were allowed a weekly bath in cold water. Clothing and bedding were infrequently washed, remaining dirty and lice-ridden. The lack of healthcare contributed to inmate misery and the high mortality rates.

Controversies and scandals at Fisherton Gaol

Overcrowding and poor conditions

Built for only 200 inmates, Fisherton Gaol was perpetually overcrowded with up to 500 convicts by 1860. Overpopulation strained the aging infrastructure and worsened squalid, inhumane conditions.

Up to five prisoners were crammed into tiny cells with only buckets for toilets. Little ventilation or heating left the dank cells cold and putrid. Disease spread rapidly in the overcrowded blocks. Mental illness and depression were rampant.

The prison could not hire enough staff to maintain control and security for the excessive population. Prisoner welfare, health and rehabilitation were neglected as Fisherton struggled with numbers.

Abuse and violence

Early wardens instituted violent punishment toward prisoners as discipline. Flogging with whips or birch rods was common for rule infractions. Other abuses included starvation, restraints and solitary confinement.

Staff were often apathetic, drunk or cruel. Beatings from guards and inmate violence occurred, causing injuries and even deaths. Sexual abuse of young convicts also took place without intervention. Complaints from prisoners were suppressed.

Such systemic violence and mistreatment worsened living conditions at Fisherton. It contributed to high rates of suicide and mental breakdowns among the inmate population throughout its history.

Riots and disturbances

Extreme conditions, mistreatment and overcrowding made prisoner unrest common at Fisherton despite strict control. Riots erupted in 1847, 1858, 1895 and 1909 over abuses and unlivable conditions.

During the 1847 riot, inmates seized control of two cell blocks for over a day before armed guards violently quelled the protest leaving two prisoners dead. Other disturbances saw convicts start fires or attack staff members.

After each incident, an official inquiry revealed prison deficiencies. Minor reforms were enacted like sacking a warden or reducing inmate numbers. But the institutional problems continued unresolved.

High profile escapes

Lax security contributed to many notorious prison breaks at Fisherton. Weak exterior walls, collusion with guards and other flaws allowed inmates to escape over its history.

See also  Lincoln Castle

In 1867, eight prisoners dressed as guards simply walked out the front gate in a bold escape. The “Fisherton Raiders” all broke out at different times through their connections with duplicitous wardens.

Other escapes involved prisoners scaling walls, digging tunnels, or hiding in delivery wagons. The most famous was murderer Alfred Hounslow who slipped away during a riot in 1909 and evaded recapture.

Legacy and influence of Fisherton Gaol

Impact on the local community

As a major employer for the county, Fisherton Gaol provided steady jobs for hundreds of guards, workers and suppliers. Local businesses benefited from serving the institution’s needs.

However, the prison also negatively impacted Fisherton. Property values decreased near the foreboding complex. Prison breaks caused alarm, while the gallows executions attracted morbid interest. Closing the prison in 1961 led to economic decline.

Still, Fisherton Gaol left a mark on local history and identity. Some remains were converted into museums memorializing its complex role. Stories of infamous inmates and notorious events became local legends.

Prison reform movement

The deplorable conditions and abuses uncovered at Fisherton Gaol helped catalyze Britain’s wider prison reform movement in the 19th century.

Investigations into major scandals like the 1847 riot prompted criticism over Victorian penal practices and calls for greater oversight and standards. Fisherton became a notorious example of failures prompting reform.

This led to gradual improvements in nutrition, healthcare, hygiene and staff training. Fisherton attempted to institute rehabilitation programs like education and skills training, though change remained slow and modest.

Preservation efforts

After closure in 1961, most of Fisherton Gaol was demolished because the dilapidated buildings were unusable. Only the original 1842 cell block survived, left abandoned for years as an empty shell.

In the late 1980s, a preservation campaign began to save this sole remaining structure as a heritage site. After extensive renovation, the cell block opened as a museum in 1998 displaying information and artifacts of Fisherton Gaol’s history.

As the only intact part left of the prison, the 1842 cell block represents an important local landmark and monument to a complicated past still remembered by the community.


Fisherton Gaol has a long, complex legacy that shaped its local area. When it opened in 1842, the prison was intended to be an efficient, modern facility. But chronic overcrowding and outdated Victorian penal philosophies led Fisherton Gaol to become notorious for its harsh conditions, violence, scandals and inhumane treatment of inmates. Nevertheless, exposing these failures helped catalyze important reform of the British prison system in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though now demolished, Fisherton Gaol remains an important historical site memorializing how prisons reflect wider societal issues and values.


What time period was Fisherton Gaol mainly in operation?

Fisherton Gaol operated from 1842 until its closure in 1961, so mainly throughout the Victorian and early 20th century period in Britain. The prison saw over 100 years of use as the main county jail.

How many inmates was Fisherton Gaol built to hold?

The initial design of Fisherton Gaol in 1842 provided for around 200 inmates. However, the prison was constantly overcrowded throughout its history, with over 500 prisoners crammed into a space meant for only 200.

What types of prisoners were held at Fisherton Gaol?

As the main county jail, Fisherton Gaol housed men, women and even some juveniles convicted of crimes like theft, fraud, assault, smuggling and murder. Notorious inmates included violent gangs, serial killers and escaped fugitives.

How many executions took place at the prison?

Records show there were at least 186 judicial executions conducted at Fisherton Gaol between 1849 and 1914. Hangings were carried out by trained executioners on an indoor gallows.

Why did Fisherton Gaol ultimately close down?

By the 1950s, Fisherton Gaol was outdated and dilapidated. Calls mounted to close Victorian-era prisons like Fisherton that embody inhumane, flawed philosophies. It finally closed in 1961 and most buildings demolished, replaced by newer correctional facilities.

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