Gaol Book by Malcolm Pratt. Published by Sussex Record Society in 2016

Winchelsea Gaol Description Book of Prisoners


This book [ESRO WIN 2151] was kept by Winchelsea's gaoler. Initially it records, as one would expect, the names and details of those who received prison sentences from Winchelsea's court. Later, principally from 1864, it becomes a more general record of cases including those not involving a prison sentence. One reason for the gaoler's continued involvement in such cases may well have been that those fined by the court were sent downstairs to the prison and thus placed under his jurisdiction while arrangements were made for the fine to be paid.

The Winchelsea justices court, and the town's quarter sessions, met in the upper room of the Court Hall with the prison on the floor below. This building remains in the ownership and occupation of Winchelsea Corporation with the former court now a museum and the prison floor below now committee and function rooms. The present garden was once a somewhat inadequate exercise yard which is recorded as having included an 'unroofed privy'. The largest number of prisoners held at any one time during the period covered by this volume was ten, all of whom had been convicted for smuggling. Although what is now the inner committee room was divided into two cells, ten occupants would have represented considerable overcrowding. The present outer room, although including a substantial prison door and a heavily barred window is presumed in some way to have provided the gaoler's quarters. By far the longest sentence served was that of Robert Waddle (1), a Rye smuggler, who was detained for a total of 568 days.

As part of the information transcribed here the gaoler was required to complete a column headed 'Parish and County' and later just 'Parish'. This was initially used, as obviously intended, to record the offender's place of residence. Later, however, it became customary to use this column to indicate the place at which the crime was committed.

It was also expected that the record would include details of each prisoner's eye and hair colour, shape of face (long, round etc) and whether slight or stout in body. These details appear intermittently and have not been reproduced here. Of the 277 cases featured just 16 involved women. Of the male prisoners, a very large number were young with 45 aged 19 and less and a further 66 between 20 and 29. The youngest was Joseph Cogger (53), aged just 10 and described as a Winchelsea labourer. From the age of 30 onwards the numbers steadily reduce until only 6 are between 60 and 69 with Charles Jeniens, a 73 year-old Liverpool seaman (74), the only person over 70. The record of prisoners' heights is also revealing. No man was over six feet tall, with just two, N Wells (129) and William Leadbetter (197) listed as being exactly that height. A very considerable majority were between 5' 4" and 5' 8" while the shortest was Walter Blackhall (98), a 17 year-old Winchelsea labourer at only 3' 7". The book also includes, at least for the earlier prisoners, an assessment of their educational ability. Whether this was done by the gaoler or by someone else is not clear. Of those assessed between 1828 and 1858, after which this testing was discontinued, 30 were unable to read or write, a further 16 could read but not write, 28 could both read and write but 'imperfectly' and only 7 were assessed as able to both read and write adequately, just one of them, Maria Ferrar (78) 'well', and two, John Easton (55) and Charles Morgan (56), 'perfectly'. These records tend to confirm normal assumptions about the physical and educational attributes of the nineteenth century working man but at least they come from a contemporary and presumably reliable source.

The gaol book is extensively supplemented in a further volume [ESRO WIN 2151A] which lists the names of the prisoners detained and the daily allowances paid to the gaoler for their care. In 1828 when the volume opens this officer was Charles Hill. The book records the number of days served by each prisoner and the allowance received for each at sixpence a day. The Winchelsea Corporation treasurer, Walter Fuller, paid Hill £10 at a time, and when this was expended Hill made application for further payment. By far the most common expense was incurred in the purchase of coal. Other expenses recorded include buying sawdust, blankets and rugs, cooking utensils, straw and brooms. Payments for work undertaken by the gaoler include four shillings for 'cleaning the privy' and 1s 6d for postage of letters. There are one or two variations in the spelling of prisoners' names but otherwise those persons recorded here are exactly as in [ESRO WIN 2151]. Expenses recorded later in this volume include three shillings spent on water for the gaol, beach for the yard cost 2s 6d and soap 4d. Occasionally the gaoler needed help as, for example in 1839 when Edward Buttenshaw was paid 12s 6d for 'watching the gaol 5 nights at 2s 6d a night'. The book continues until 1874 but entries become much less frequent, thus reflecting the great reduction in the number of prisoners.

One other aspect of the records kept needs mention here. In 1848 Thomas Dawes Esq., a leading Winchelsea resident, visited the prison on eleven consecutive days and read prayers to the prisoners. Four years later he is recorded as regularly giving them religious instruction. In 1857 the prisoners received 'Instruction in reading, church prayers etc by Charles Robins Esq, mayor'. Whether these visitations were appreciated by the inmates seems somewhat doubtful. There are also very proper but very occasional records of the town's magistrates paying formal visits to the gaol to ensure that everything was in order.

In 1879, much to the annoyance of Winchelsea's magistrates, their gaol was closed. After being sentenced to seven days detention for ill treating a horse and assaulting PC Relfe, William Wheeler (260) was taken, not to Lewes but to Rye Gaol. Why this happened is not clear and the Winchelsea magistrates were very annoyed that, if he could not go to Lewes, he was not held in their own prison. Inspector Dennis of the Sussex Constabulary explained to the bench that he had received orders to that effect from the Chief Constable, Colonel Mackay. They demanded to know why their 'Lock-up house' had been condemned as unfit for use without their being informed. No record of the reply has survived but the premises had certainly been neglected for many years and the prison cells were not used again after that date.