A brief introduction to

10 Historic Urban Prisons

Discover the history of prisons in England.

Here are 10 of England’s urban prisons that help to tell the story of 250 years of imprisonment.

1. HMP Stafford

HMP Stafford was the brainchild of the pioneering prison architect William Blackburn. Begun in 1787, the original building consisted of a quadrangle with projecting wings similar in design to his prison at Gloucester.

Exterior Crescent Wing, south elevation, HMP Stafford, Staffordshire

In 1834 a crescent shaped wing was erected, the only example of this plan type in an English prison. Despite major alterations and additions during the following 180 years, parts of Blackburn’s original prison and the crescent have survived.

2. HMP Maidstone

The first stone of the new prison designed by the architect Daniel Asher Alexander was laid in 1810 and in 1819 the first inmates begin to arrive, though work continued until 1822.

Exterior Weald House, south elevation, HMP Maidstone, Kent

The early prison consisted of a large, central tower accommodating the two governor offices and a chapel on the top floor, from which three cruciform complexes of blocks radiated.

Each prison block was separate from every other one, linked by iron walkways, with wings divided longitudinally to double the number of categories of inmate that could be accommodated separately. A substantial part of the original design has survived despite later alterations and additions.

3. HMP Brixton

In 1819 the Surrey magistrates commissioned Thomas Chawner to build a new House of Correction. He built a large prison arranged in a half octagonal plan with an octagonal governor’s house at the centre to oversee the exercise yards contained within the main wings.

General view of administration building, HMP Brixton, Greater London, Lambeth

In 1821 six treadmills were installed to power a corn mill in the prison. In the later 19th century the site was used as a female convict prison, then a male convict prison and a military prison, before returning to being a local civilian prison in 1897. The main wings of the current prison were built during the late 19th and early 20th century.

4. HMP Pentonville

During the 1830s the government recognised that a new form of imprisonment and prison design was required, and looked to the USA for inspiration. HMP Pentonville received its first inmate in December 1842, and was the first purpose-built prison to implement the model regime, which became highly influential.

Interior Panopticon, HMP Pentonville, Greater London, Islington

Inmates were kept strictly segregated from each other in the wings, chapel and exercise yards, and they passed their sentence in Pentonville in total silence. In plan, four wings radiate out from a central hall from which each storey of each wing could be observed. The harshness of this initial regime was soon modified, as many inmates were driven insane by the experience.

5 HMP Preston

The prison at Preston was another example of William Blackburn’s designs of the 1780s. However from the early 1840s onwards the prison was gradually transformed by the addition of a series of wings, inspired by HMP Pentonville.

Interior C Wing, HMP Preston, Lancashire, Preston

The most striking of these wings is C Wing (pictured), erected in the mid-1860s, potentially by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of HMP Manchester.

6. HMP Manchester

When HMP Manchester (commonly referred to as Strangeways) opened on 25 June 1868, it could house 744 male and 315 female prisoners in two radial blocks inspired by Pentonville.

aa96_02479 manchester plenum tower

A key aspect of these new prisons was heating and ventilation, achieved by boilers warming air in the basements of wings. In most prisons a series of small rooftop towers drew this warmed air through the wings, but at Manchester a tall Italianate chimney served the same purpose.

7. HMP Wormwood Scrubs

HMP Wormwood Scrubs was designed by Sir Edmund Du Cane while Director of Convict Prisons to hold around 1400 convicts, though by 1891 it had become a local prison.

Exterior gatehouse, HMP Wormwood Scrubs, Greater London, Hammersmith and Fulham

The prison was designed in a new plan form for prisons in Victorian England, with four parallel blocks (one for female prisoners) linked by a low corridor.

As each wing was aligned north to south, this allowed every cell to receive some direct light during the day, an idea that may have been influenced by contemporary hospital planning. The ‘Scrubs’ is most famous for its gate, which was completed by 1885, but it also has the largest church in any prison in England.

8. HMP Nottingham

When Sir Edmund Du Cane became Chairman of the Prison Commissioners, he instituted a major programme of prison closures, and in their place a number of new prisons were built including ones at Dorchester, Shrewsbury, Norwich and Nottingham.

Exterior offices and chapel and B wing, HMP Nottingham, Nottinghamshire

HMP Nottingham was built between 1889 and 1891 to hold 243 inmates, including a small number of female prisoners in their own wing. Inspired by the style and plan of Wormwood Scrubs, this smaller prison had a combined chapel and administration block attached to the front of the male prison, with the main buildings being linked by enclosed walkways.

9. Young Offenders Institute, Aylesbury

The Young Offenders Institute at Aylesbury is another of the Pentonville-inspired prisons built in the 1840s, but during the 1890s it became a female convict prison.

aa95_04436 Aylesbury SIR

By the early 20th century prison reformers were recognising the need for the specialised treatment of offenders and therefore briefly the prison became home to the State Inebriate Reformatory (SIR) for women erected in 1902-5.

The prison also became the first female borstal and part of the SIR was used to house women undergoing preventive detention, a short-lived form of educational imprisonment that took place after the original sentence had been completed.

10. HMP Birmingham

The prison at Birmingham was designed by the Victorian prison architect Daniel Rowlinson Hill and erected between 1845 and 1849.

AA95_05473 HMP Birmingham

Various additions and extensions were made during the following 150 years, but the most striking, and most obvious to the public, is the gatehouse that was built during the mid-1980s. It may echo the shapes used in Victorian gatehouses, but it is much larger, more sophisticated in plan and built using modern materials.

I am an architectural historian and historian who has researched everything from Roman forts to 20th century airports. My main interests are the history of tourism, prisons and law courts, and medieval architecture and sculpture.

1 comment on “10 Historic Urban Prisons

  1. northallerton has already closed near me, am not sure if durham is closing as well?

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