BLS members with an interest in legal history and lovers of the macabre may like to visit the ruins of Bristol’s New Gaol which can be found on the Cumberland Road. Opened in 1820, 4 years after it was commissioned by the City Council, the New Gaol was described as a spacious and commodious building, one which commanded great views over the local countryside.
However, it was not a view that the 197 prisoners housed there would often get to see as their cells, all single cells as the prison was mixed-sex, measured 6ft by 9ft. However, that was seen as an improvement on the Newgate Prison, in which cats were put into the cells to prevent rats gnawing on prisoners’ feet.
Prisoners were used to draw water up from the well, by means of walking on a treadmill, but the water was often fetid and conditions in the prison rapidly deteriorated as the small cells were badly ventilated and air could not easily circulate. At night, thanks to its location, the building was entirely dark and the granite grey made it difficult for wardrrs to patrol.
If you walk along Cumberland Road, all that remains now to be seen is the entrance gate which resembles a small castle with a portcullis set into the outer wall. Above the entrance gate is a flat roof which used to house a set of gallows so that the local population could have a good view of any executions, a popular attraction back in those times. A trap door was built into the flat roof to provide the drop.
In 1831 during the Bristol Riots, a mob set upon the New Gaol, attacking it and finally a small boy crawled in and released the bolts, opening the gate and so approximately 170 prisoners were set free. The treadmill and the gallows were both destroyed and thrown into the New Cut. However, once order was restored 5 of the mob’s leaders were arrested and sentenced to death, although one, Richard Vines was declared an idiot and sentenced to transportation instead. In January 1832, the remaining for were all executed despite a petition for clemency being submitted with 10,000 signatures of local Bristolians.
In 1849, the last public hanging at the New Gaol took place when 17 year old servant Sarah Thomas was executed following her conviction for killing her employer in her own bed. Many of the watching crowd were greatly affected by the terrible sight of seeing a young and pretty girl hanged, although contemporary reports still suggested that many of the crowd were still able to repair to local taverns for a few drinks.
The damage to the New Gaol following the Riots was never properly repaired and in 1872 its condition was so poor that Bristol Corporation was upbraided for its poor condition by the Home Office. The condition of the New Gaol was so poor that it could not be redeveloped, so a new prison was constructed at Horfield, opening in 1884. The New Gaol closed in April 1883.