hexham old gaol

Hexham Old Gaol

Nestled in the heart of Hexham, Northumberland lies a building with origins in England’s medieval past. Hexham Old Gaol, a structure first built in 1332 as a regional prison, has now been repurposed into a museum and heritage site. Its walls, still standing from 700 years ago, provide a glimpse into medieval architecture, punishment, and justice.

While its use has evolved over centuries, Hexham Old Gaol remains a focal point of the town. Its formidable stone facade mirrors its long history – one of both hardship for its prisoners and later pride for its community. Now protected as a Grade I listed building, the gaol ensures English historical preservation for generations to come.

History and Architecture of Hexham Old Gaol

Commissioning and Construction in 1332

In 1332, Hexham Old Gaol was commissioned under orders from Archbishop William Melton of York. It was built in the prevailing medieval architectural style, with facades of layered rubble masonry. Construction was completed rapidly, finishing by January of that year.

Layout and Design as a Medieval Prison

The original layout featured a rectangular three-story design fronting onto Hallgate road. Its exterior featured small slit windows typical of medieval fortified buildings. Inside, two vaulted basement cells housed prisoners in dark, confined spaces – a mark of the gaol’s punitive purposes. Administrative rooms filled the upper levels. Additions and expansions changed the exterior over time, but the historic core remains.

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Use as a Prison for Hexhamshire

For centuries after its construction, Hexham Old Gaol held prisoners temporarily before trials at the nearby Moot Hall. It served not only Hexhamshire but also the English Middle March area. As one of the first purpose-built prisons in England, its forbidding appearance and grim cells reflect the harsh medieval approach to incarceration.

Hexham Riot and the Gaol’s Notorious History

One of the gaol’s darkest episodes occurred during the Hexham Riot of 1761. The riot began as a protest against controversial changes to the requirements for militia service. When the chaotic situation turned violent, troops opened fire on the crowded marketplace, killing 45. Many others were imprisoned in the cramped, filthy confines of Hexham Old Gaol before being transferred elsewhere. This notorious event is remembered as one of the gaol’s most volatile times.

Afterlife as a Museum and Heritage Site

Closure and Repurposing in the 19th Century

After standing for nearly five centuries as a site of confinement, Hexham Old Gaol finally closed its doors as a prison in 1820. With penal reform and new standards sweeping England, the gaol’s medieval approach to incarceration had become obsolete. It was converted into a bank and solicitor’s office in the 19th century, leaving the historic structure intact.

Collections and Exhibits as a Museum

A full-fledged museum eventually took shape within the old prison walls, opening to the public in 1980. Exhibit topics range from medieval weaponry, textiles, and costumes to photography and musical heritage. The Border Library houses rare regional history books and recordings assembled by a former tourism official, William Butler. These diverse collections of artifacts, archives, and media help bring the history of Hexham Old Gaol to vivid life.

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Architecture Preserved from the Medieval Era

While the contents shifted, the fundamental structure remained unaltered. Visitors to the museum can experience rooms, walls, doorways, and cells much as they were 600 years ago. Features such as slit windows, corbeled eaves, and the two original vaulted basement chambers transport people centuries back in time to when the gaol held shackled prisoners in its clutches.

Visiting Hexham Old Gaol Museum

Hours, Admission, and Location

Hexham Old Gaol sits on busy Hallgate road in central Hexham, where it has watched over the town for seven centuries. It is open April through October from 11AM to 4PM Tuesday to Saturday, and admission costs a reasonable £5 for adults. Free parking is conveniently located right next door.

Notable Exhibits and Collections

Inside, exhibits capture facets of regional life ranging from artillery to agriculture. Especially noteworthy displays include medieval arms and armor, artifacts from Hadrian’s Wall, uniforms and equipment from the Northumberland Hussars Yeomanry, and stirring musical instruments like the iconic Northumbrian smallpipes.

Experience the Historic Architecture

However, the building itself remains the star attraction. Visitors are transported back to 14th century England as they wander through three floors of rooms preserved from the middle ages. Information panels detail the gaol’s origins and life as a prison. It’s a rare chance to immerse oneself in enduring medieval architecture.

Significance as a Grade I Listed Building

Recognition of Architectural and Historical Value

Hexham Old Gaol’s pivotal role in regional history earned it a Grade I designation in 1951 – the highest level of listing. This status reflects its importance as one of England’s oldest purpose-built prisons and its remarkably intact medieval craftsmanship and aesthetics.

See also  HM Prison Camp Hill

Protection and Preservation

As a listed building, Hexham Old Gaol comes under special legal protection regarding alterations or demolition. This ensures the preservation of its medieval fabric for future generations to experience and for the continued enrichment of Hexham’s historic character. Ongoing conservation efforts help maintain the gaol’s structural integrity and longevity.


From holding prisoners in squalid medieval cells to housing an eclectic museum, Hexham Old Gaol has seen many faces since first built in 1332. While its use transformed over time, the fundamental historic architecture remains frozen in the Middle Ages. Visiting the gaol-turned-museum provides a rare window into medieval society, justice, punishments, and building methods – all within walking distance in the heart of Hexham. Its protected status as a Grade I listed building guarantees that intriguing history of this site endures unchanged into the future.


Q: Where is Hexham Old Gaol located?

A: Hexham Old Gaol is located on Hallgate road in the center of Hexham, Northumberland, in northern England.

Q: When was Hexham Old Gaol built?

A: It was constructed rapidly in 1332 in the medieval architectural style on the orders of the Archbishop of York.

Q: What was Hexham Old Gaol used for?

A: It served as the local prison for Hexham and the Middle March region, holding prisoners temporarily before trials at the Moot Hall.

Q: Why is Hexham Old Gaol historically significant?

A: It has great historical importance as one of the oldest purpose-built prisons in England, featuring remarkably well-preserved medieval architecture.

Q: What is Hexham Old Gaol today?

A: Today it is a museum displaying regional collections and artifacts. Visitors can experience the historic medieval rooms and cells.

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