It has been announced recently that HMP Shrewsbury, also known locally as The Dana, is due to close this year. It was built by Thomas Telford and is now a Grade II-listed building, but Shrewsbury has had several other sites for gaols prior to this one being opened in 1793.
The gaol of the Sheriff of the County was originally located in the Castle. Following a near-escape of prisoners in 1588, it was relocated to ‘the left hand of the space between the two Castle Gates, later known as Windsor Square’. In the seventeenth century, it was not a place of punishment, but was used for the detention and safe keeping of those to be tried, or of those who refused to promise good conduct. Those who could were expected to pay rent and provide their own food and furniture. In 1704 the old House of Correction in School Gardens was pulled down, and a new combined Gaol and House of Correction was built on the site, the two institutions remaining distinct and under separate masters. It was noted that ‘the Gaoler was suffered to keep an ale house and notwithstanding many attempts at regulation by the magistrates, the prison was both wretched in accommodation and a complete school of vice’.
Conditions were dire, but improved slightly in the 1770s when the gaol was whitewashed and ventilated, and sick rooms and baths provided. It seems that the only food provided was bread, and bedding consisted of straw. In 1785 a letter was written to the Secretary of State complaining of overcrowding, warning there was danger of an outbreak of gaol fever.
The building was condemned that year, and a new site selected. The new gaol was designed by William Blackburn and local surveyor John Haycock, with construction arranged by the first county surveyor, Thomas Telford. The Prison reformer, John Howard, played a big part in persuading local magistrates of the need for a new facility, and a bust of him was placed over the new gatehouse. It opened in 1793, with some of the £30,000 cost provided by auctioning the old building. The prison grew over the years as further wings and cells were added, but started with a very simple layout.
The new design adhered to ‘classified association’ where prisoners were divided according to gender or offence and held in different areas; debtors, for example, had comfortable, outward-looking cells. On entering the establishment, the prisoners were ‘examined by the surgeon and thoroughly cleansed’. They wore a woollen jacket, waistcoat, and cap, the jacket being striped blue and yellow before conviction, and afterwards changed to brown and yellow. The northern lodge had a flat roof for executions. The Chapel stood in the centre, so that all could see the clergymen, but prisoners could not see each other. The overriding principle became to reform rather than to punish, ‘to prevent future more than to revenge past outrages in society.’
Shrewsbury Prison 1500-1877, P. Sandford (pub), ref. D34.7 v.f.
Shropshire Quarter Sessions
Cinderellas & Packhorses – A History of the Shropshire Magistracy, Cox and Godfrey, ref. C34.2