Exhibit of the Week: Cell door in the Scarborough Collections

Part of the hatch on the cell door bearing the name of locksmiths Hobbs Hart & Co.
Part of the hatch on the cell door bearing the name of locksmiths Hobbs Hart & Co.

This week’s exhibit from the Scarborough Collections is something of a mystery – if you can shed any light after reading this, please do let us know.

This door is numbered 2 and has plenty of door ‘furniture’ including substantial hinges, a spyhole and a hatch to allow food and other items to be passed safely inside – so it seems safe to assume that it’s a cell door, rather than one in general use. A handwritten label on the door identifies it as coming from ‘Falsgrave jail’ – and that’s where things start getting mysterious.

The spyhole on the cell door in the Scarborough Collections.

The spyhole on the cell door in the Scarborough Collections.

We can find no reference to a jail on Falsgrave although, as a separate township until the late 19th century (it united with Scarborough in 1890), it must presumably have had one.

The hatch on the door bears the name of locksmiths Hobbs Hart & Co, a firm which operated under that name for only four years, between 1851 and 1855; so, assuming that the door and the door furniture are contemporaries, we can date it fairly precisely.

And that means that it’s unlikely to have come from Sitwell Street, where numbers 1 to 3 were built as a police station and police houses for Falsgrave in 1882, and, we believe, operated as such until the 1950s (although it is, of course, always possible that the authorities were very sensibly recycling old door furniture, making the Hobbs Hart clue a red herring).

There hasn’t been an active prison in Scarborough since the late 1800s. Early ne’er-do-wells, up to around the time of the Civil War, would have served their time in the Castle, but from the mid-1600s, local wrongdoers would find themselves in a cramped cell at Newborough Bar. This building in the town centre, located near the end of what’s now Bar Street, was built in the 1640s and demolished almost exactly 200 years later, when it was replaced by a very handsome and sadly very short-lived Gothic arch – it lasted less than 50 years before being knocked down as it impeded the flow of traffic.

By the time Newborough Bar was knocked down, though, the town’s criminal fraternity had a new home – the municipal prison on Castle Road. It was built in the 1840s, and will still be remembered by older residents as a police station until its closure in the early 1970s. These days, the site on which it stood is the car park at the top of St Thomas Street.

More familiar to locals these days is the most recent of our prisons – the old Borough of Scarborough Jail on Dean Road, with its dramatic Gothic exterior.

The Prison Act of 1865 required better conditions for convicts than could be provided at Castle Road, and Dean Road was the result. Now Grade II listed, it was built in 1866 to a design by William Baldwin Stewart and Alexander Taylor, and operated for just 12 years before yet another Prison Act in 1877 radically altered the way in which British prisons were administered, centralising their control with the Board of Prison Commissioners.

Many small prisons nationwide, including Scarborough’s, were closed under the new regime, with prisoners being sent to bigger jails in nearby cities – in our case, York and Hull.

The closure wasn’t good news for the town, at least financially – it had spent £12,000, the equivalent of nearly £1.3m today, on a building that functioned as intended for just 12 years.

But their loss is probably our gain – the Dean Road jail remains remarkably much as it was when it opened 150 years ago. If you’ve never seen inside it, there are several not-to-be-missed opportunities to do so on a series of tours organised by Scarborough Museums Trust with help from Scarborough Borough Council’s current and former conservation officers, Derek Green and Chris Hall. The tours will take place at 11am and 2pm on 6, 7 and 8 April. Places are £5 each, and are bookable by calling Scarborough Art Gallery on 01723 374753. Payment is required at time of booking, and participants are asked to meet at the main doors of the jail on Dean Road.

The cell door is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.