Squalid life in town’s gaol

Newborough Bar and Borough jail, 1845, by Henry Barlow Carter
Newborough Bar and Borough jail, 1845, by Henry Barlow Carter

Written by Dr Jack Binns

In 1805 the Gentleman’s Magazine published a report on Scarborough’s Newborough Bar prison. On the south side of the gateway, there were three bedrooms for debtors, where the keeper charged threepence a night for his beds and a fourth, where debtors paid sixpence a week when they provided their own beds. None of the rooms had tap water. The courtyard was monopolised by washerwomen as a drying area for the clothes of visiting gentry. The “exercise lobby” was 27 square yards. There was no chaplain. Here bankrupts and debtors lived for years waiting for some benefactor to pay off their creditors and secure their release.

On the opposite north side of the gateway, next to the Nag’s Head Inn yard, were four cells for felons awaiting trial or forcible expulsion from the borough. Of the four, two were actually underground, and all were only three yards square, damp, dirty and with only straw or plank beds. The iron grating of the worst overlooked an open, stinking drain. The roof grating of the other was built into the pavement so that prisoners pushed their hands up through it to beg from passers-by for food or water.

This report of 1805 confirmed in detail what had been previously written and printed in 1797 in A New Scarborough Guide by the prison’s most infamous debtor, John Hatfield. He had already spent five years, locked up day and night, in one of the debtors’ bedrooms and wrote that the whole building was “a public nuisance” and “a disgrace to the country”. A generation later, it seems that there had been no improvements to the borough gaols. After their searching inspection in 1833, the Royal Commissioners were particularly critical of the town’s treatment of its prisoners. “The gaol”, they observed, “is very much out of repair and very inconvenient...there is no place for the prisoners to walk in...The house of correction is also in a bad state of repair and is very inconvenient.”

When questioned, even senior members of the Corporation were embarrassed by the appalling condition of the borough’s cells. William Travis admitted that they were “dilapidated” and “insecure”, one of the Bailiffs, William Thornton, agreed that none of them had accessible open yards or gardens; and Edward Donner, propietor of the Long Room, conceded that the house of correction was no better than a place of solitary confinement where the stench was “abominable”. They knew of the existence of “the black-hole”, another chamber, but not where it was.

After the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 had swept away the old, corrupt, self-serving Common Hall, it was not long before its old prisons went with it. Early in 1842 the borough gaol was offered to John Uppleby, the town clerk, for £105, on condition he blocked up the north and south ends of the Bar with red stock bricks. When he offered to replace the gateway ends in stone, the purchase price was dropped to £55. At the same time, the new Council sold the old correction house and its “garden” for £450. But to pay for the new borough prison cells and police station at the corner of Tanner (St Thomas) Street and Castle Road, then called Local Place, which cost over £3,600, they had to sell all their closes and land on the south side of Ramsdale for £3,240. Today some of those Ramsdale closes are known as the Esplanade.

Conditions in the new prison were clearly much more humane and healthy, even for those sentenced to hard labour. Now there were separate cells for men, women and boys and an exercise yard behind them. Prison regime and prison diet were now strictly controlled, though by our standards still very harsh. A detailed description of regulation fare at Scarborough during the 1850s makes clear what inmates there could expect.

Males and females confined for fewer than seven days received one pint of oatmeal gruel at breakfast and supper and a pound of bread for dinner. If they were there for between seven and 21 days, they got bread twice a day instead of once. If they were doing hard labour they were entitled to a pint of soup a week! Special treats for females sentenced to extended periods of hard labour included three ounces of cooked meat and half a pound of potatoes four dinners a week and cocoa at breakfast on the other three mornings instead of gruel.

Hard labour sentences were still a common punishment in the 1850s even for females. Jeanette Gibbs got 15 days for being drunk and disorderly in Globe Street; Jane Thomson, an Irish woman, was given two months for abandoning her two children in Scarborough’s workhouse after being caught at Guisborough; and Ellen Cunningham served six weeks for stealing eight shillings and sixpence from a purse and two pawnbroker pledges which she hid in her mouth.

At a time when naked sea-water bathing was still practised in South Bay, Henry Lightfoot’s offence was probably not uncommon. He was charged with “impudently intruding on the privacy of bathers on the South shore”. He had rowed his coble in front of bathing machines and when challenged by the police had replied impertinently to them. The magistrates gave him 14 days hard labour.

Exactly what form “hard labour” took in Scarborough’s prison at this time was not described, but generally for men it meant breaking stones and for women unpicking hemp or oakum ropes.