Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Chelmsford Prison - part 1

chelmsford gaol from an old postcard
Chelmsford Gaol. Postcard date unknown.

A description of Chelmsford Prison in 1848.

Also see Part 2 - a report on the prison from 1842
Part 3 - a report on the prison from 1860
Newspaper report on an escape from the prison in 1847

White's Directory of 1848 provides an interesting description of Chelmsford Prison which had recently been redesigned under the 'Separate System' of dealing with prisoners. Under this system each prisoner had their own cell where they remained most of the time with exception of visits to the chapel, or for exercise. They were not permitted to see or to talk to another prisoner; and no visits or letters were permitted in the first six months of their sentence. Mundane work was to be undertaken.

The County Gaol, at Springfield, stands in an airy and pleasant situation, about three quarters of a mile from Chelmsford, on about 9 acres of land, half of which is enclosed by the boundary wall. This great receptacle for the criminals of the county, has recently undergone such extensive alterations and improvements, that it may now be considered a model prison for other counties, and it is hoped that, under the new system, it will henceforth be a salutory school of sound and lasting reformation. The erection of the old buildings was commenced in 1822, and finished in 1828, at the cost of about £57,000.

Being on the radiating plan, with the governor's house in the centre, and having the necessary tread wheels and other sources of labour, the prison was then considered perfect; but experience having shown that the system of classification, to which it was adapted, was defective, the magistrates resolved to introduce the separate system, and to enlarge and alter the prison in accordance with the model which that at Pentonville supplies. These improvements were completed early in 1848, at the cost of about £36,000, the payment of which, is to be spread over 30 years.

The exterior appearance of the front, which is 420 feet long, has undergone little alteration. The entrance lodge, in the centre, is of Bramley Fall stone, in the Egyptian style, and over it is the drop or place of execution. The boundary wall is of brick, 20 feet high, with stone columns 20 feet apart, in the front.

On passing through the entrance gateway, the new governor's house is seen on the right hand, commanding a view of all persons entering or leaving the goal. The old central radius of the prison has been pulled down, two others have been extended, and parallel radii erected, and also a large central hall, with a chapel above, and a kitchen beneath it.

The new part comprises also two extensive corridors, radiating from the central hall, and containing 239 cells, arranged in three tiers on each side; the two upper ranges being approached by galleries, running round the corridors and the central hall. Each cell is fitted up with a water tap, water closet,a hammock and bedding, a supply of books, and the means of admitting warm or cold air, and of communicating with the officers, when the prisoner wishes to see the doctor, governor, or chaplain. These, and other ingenious contrivances, are well worth the inspection of the visitor.

One of the radii of the gaol, containing 42 cells for females, has been altered and adapated to the separate system. Another portion of the old prison is appropriated to the confinement of debtors, who have free access to a commodious airing yard, day room, etc. The prisoners subjected to the separate discipline, are allowed an hour's exercise in the morning and afternoon, in the small airing yards, of which there are 12 for the men, and 12 for the women; each of the two groups radiating from a semi-circular lodge, from which officers can see into every yard, through small bull's-eye windows, without being observed by the prisoners.

There are three machines for hard labour in separate cells, and each can be regulated to suit the strength of the prisoner, and has a dial to shew the quantity of work done in different periods of time. These machines are for the idle and refractory, and most of the other prisoners are provided with work from their respective cells.

A steam engine and crank-machine, pump water out of two artesian wells, at the rate of 7,000 gallons per day, into the tanks in various parts of the buildings, for supplying the cells, water closets, baths, etc. The machinery for conveying rations from the kitchens to the cells, is like that at Pentonville, where upwards of 500 prisoners have been served with hot dinners in 12 minutes!

The chapel is so fitted up that the prisoners cannot see each other; except the debtors, for whom there is a row of open benches at the front. It has room for 400 hearers, and the pulpit commands a view of every seat.

In its original state, the gaol had 225 cells, and beds fro 272 prisoners; but it has now accommodations for more than 400.

Also see Part 2 - a report on the prison from 1842
Part 3 - a report on the prison from 1860
Newspaper report on an escape from the prison in 1847

Place links: Chelmsford

Whites 1848 Directory

Further reading: National Archives, Crime and Punishment

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