Short life of our ‘model gaol’

Scarborough's old gaol on Dean Road
Scarborough's old gaol on Dean Road
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

Though little more than 20 years old, Scarborough’s municipal gaol in Castle Road no longer satisfied the higher standards of central government requirements. The Prisons Act of 1865 obliged borough councils, like Scarborough’s, to provide more and superior accommodation for long-term prisoners. So, in anticipation of the new law, in Scarborough there was a rapid search to find a suitable, spacious site for a new model prison.

Only as recently as 1859, the town had seen all its paupers moved out of Waterhouse Lane to new, purpose-built premises on the south side of Dean Street and now councillors were determined that the borough should have its own model gaol to match its own model workhouse. Accordingly, after other locations, such as Seamer Lane, Gallows Close and North Marine Road, had been rejected, two fields on the west side of Penny Black Lane, formerly owned by 
Edward Nesfield, the brewer, and ES Donner, the solicitor, were bought by the council.

On October 24, 1865, mayor Ambrose Gibson laid the foundation stone and underneath it he placed a large bottle or jar containing contemporary 
memorials of the occasion.

In those days, builders moved faster and worked longer hours. The completion of Scarborough’s new gaol was celebrated at a “roofing supper” by 300 guests at Mr Hunt’s Prince of Wales hotel on February 20, 1866.

Only seven months later, 22 men and 11 women were transferred to their new home from Castle Road.

There was plenty of room there for all of them. And the council had not spared the pockets of rate-payers. The plans had been drawn by 
Alexander Taylor, the accomplished borough surveyor, and the architect was William Baldwin Stewart. The latter was already renowned locally for his almshouses, especially the Northern Seabathing Infirmary on the Foreshore (1860), his churches, such as Westborough Methodist (1862) and his schools, such 
as that of the Amicable Society on Castle Road (1865), all 
of which still survive 150 
years later.

Not content with a merely functional and conventional design, Stewart treated Scarborough to a machicolated, stone gateway flanked by Gothic lodges, complete with arrow-slits for imaginary archers and chains for a non-existent drawbridge. On the parapet above the gate there was a circular stone plaque displaying the borough seal. The boundary walls, made of red and yellow brick, were crenellated and turreted to resemble those of a medieval castle. This was Alice in Wonderland architecture.

Inside the walls, the huge central L-shaped prison block had cells in one wing on the three top floors for 36 men, each seven feet wide, 13 feet long and nine feet high and in the other similar accommodation for 12 females and four debtors or juveniles. All of them had sink, water closet, gas lighting, table, stool and bed or hammock.

In the main block (which still survives, more or less intact) below the male cells, on the first floor there was a chapel, chaplain’s room, surgery and infirmary; and underneath the ground floor offices for the governor and his staff, the basement contained coal cellar, windowless punishment cells, kitchen, clothing store, an “itch cell” and a “fumigation closet”. Outside the main block in the courtyard, there were laundry, blacksmith’s foundry, separate exercise yards for males, females and debtors, stables and a stone-breaking place for prisoners doing hard labour. The governor, John Thornton, had his home in the tower on the right hand side of the 
entrance gateway and the chief warder lived on the other side.

Altogether, this splendid, grim collection of buildings, a hybrid of Victorian folly and medieval romanticism, had cost the borough rate-payer about £12,000, twice as much as the neighbouring workhouse which housed nearly 100 aged, sick and orphaned paupers.

Yet Scarborough’s latest and last gaol had a most unpromising start and a short life. Five days before the transfer of prisoners from Castle Road, on Sunday night, October 15, 1866, the town’s brand new model lost its first inmate. A horsebreaker called Walter Scott, waiting trial for robbery, scraped away the mortar around the ventilation grille of his cell and, 
tying three blankets together, passed through it and down an outside drain pipe. Then he used his blanket rope, an old bedstead and a pole to scale the 15 foot perimeter wall and disappear into the darkness.

But Scott’s successful escape was not the reason why the borough’s prison was closed in July 1878, less than a dozen years later. Much to the extreme displeasure of Scarborough’s councillors and rate-payers, Disraeli’s Conservative government nationalised the service, bringing all prisons under the authority of the Home Office. In effect, Viscount Cross’ Prisons Act of 1877 shut down 31 of the country’s smaller gaols, including for instance Ripon’s and Beverley’s as well as Scarborough’s.

Of course there would have been relief, not complaint, in Scarborough if the government had closed any one of its previous, town-centre obsolete prisons; but Dean Street/Cemetery Road prison was a costly expression of municipal pride which no other borough in the country could match. And the corporation still owed £10,000 for it!

In 1880, Scarborough’s voters showed their disapproval of the Conservatives by demoting their sitting candidate, Sir Harcourt Johnstone, from top to bottom of the poll. But even when it was pointed out to the new Liberal Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, that since 1878 it had cost the borough £150 to send 286 prisoners to York by the North-Eastern railway, the argument for re-opening was rejected. For several years, the Council offered its redundant prison to let, but no tenant came forward. Apart from temporary use as a stray dogs’ home, the buildings stood empty.

Finally, in 1899, rather than demolition, councillors chose to re-employ them as a central depot and storehouse for the borough engineer’s department. More than a century later, unlike its workhouse neighbour, Scarborough’s model prison block remains as a listed Grade Two Victorian relic.