In his third visit to Nottingham’s historical features, Brian Spencer finds that although the Galleries of Justice are not exactly suitable for anyone a touch squeamish, it gives a fascinating insight to the way crime and punishment were dealt with not all that long ago.
In order to experience what it would have been for a criminal coming to face justice, the scene was set as soon as we bought our entry ticket. Like every other visitor, we were given a number relating to a real person who had been tried within the intimidating precincts of Nottingham’s Shire Hall. Mine was of a man who was transported to Van Dieman’s Land for the so-called crime of stealing food for his starving family.
As with every criminal being tried, we entered the first stage of his or her journey into punishment, which began in the polished wooden surroundings of the courtroom. This is where the accused would be brought up from the dungeon-like cells directly into the dock. On all sides would be the panoply of justice, the twelve members of the jury, lawyers both for the prosecution and defence, court reporters, press, friends of the accused and if the trial had sufficient notoriety, members of the public seeking a cheap thrill. Towering above all this, resplendent in his scarlet robes and wig, the judge would be seated directly below the monarch’s coat of arms, signifying the fact that he was acting as the dispenser of royal justice.
Several famous cases were tried in this courtroom: in 1935 Nurse Waddingham was convicted of murder by poisoning two of her elderly patients for financial gain. Buster Edwards the last of the Great Train Robbers was sentenced to 15 years in jail after giving himself up on 19th September 1966. On 24th November 1977, Chris Seale the manager of a Virgin music shop was tried under the Indecent Advertisement Act for displaying the Sex Pistols’ album in his shop window. After a highly publicised trial he was acquitted in what became a major shift in the law on indecency.
We then followed the route of a convicted criminal, down the steep wooden stairs into the dungeon-like surroundings of the cells deep beneath the massive structure of the Grade II listed building. Here we were greeted by the frighteningly realistic gaoler who explained in no uncertain terms what we could expect. Accommodation at first would be in a dank airless cell with the only light coming from a tiny barred window high on one wall. The bed if it could be called thus was a canvas sheet tautly stretched between two walls of the narrow cell. Timid enquiries about the lack of blankets were answered by a laugh. Any comforts such as blankets, heating or food, better than the thin gruel and water on offer, had to be bought. Naturally this could be provided, at a cost, by the gaoler into whose pockets payments went and of course the more you paid him, the easier would be your conditions whilst in his care.
Life in prison was once built around total incarceration, poor food, lack of fresh air and hard work. The only contact a prisoner could have with his fellow inmates was during the daily trudge around the exercise yard and then any verbal contact was rigorously monitored. At other times when prison disciple became lax, there was more freedom to wander about and chat amongst themselves, but this was soon stamped out. During the time of harsher regime weekly divine services were held when there would be no contact whatever and all the prisoners could do was listen to the pious outpourings of the prison chaplain.
Women had slightly better living conditions than men, and they were mostly employed in the prison laundry. Not for them the luxury of mechanical aids – everything was lifted and tugged by hand in a room full of steam with soapsuds and water ankle deep. Until the beginning of the twentieth century children were treated the same way as adults, given scaled-down versions of grown-ups’ prison uniforms and kept in jail for months at a time, often for the simplest of crimes. Even so prison was sometimes considered the milder option to the reformatories that had opened in the mid 1900s.
Then as now, men made up the bulk of the prison population, but unlike now, debtors were included, albeit segregated from outright criminals. Debtors who could afford to pay were given the best rooms, often with a fireplace and an oven. Those with few, if any available amounts of cash, were housed in just two rooms of the prison. These contained anything of up to twenty persons at a time, all living in the most unsanitary conditions where jail fever, better known as typhoid, was rife. All prisoners felons and debtors alike were locked in their cells between 8pm and 8am.
Any prisoner who broke the rules could expect swift and frequently painful retribution. They could be put in one of the two dark cramped underground cells, existing on a diet of bread and water. Whipping was considered good for the soul for anyone breaking prison discipline
The everyday diet was not much better than the bread and water punishment diet. Breakfast consisted of a pint of oatmeal gruel and 8oz of coarse bread. Dinner was the most substantial meal of the day and consisted of 4oz cooked meat, one pound of potatoes and 6oz bread. Supper prior to lights out was a repeat of the breakfast menu.
Prior to 1865, prisoners were literally locked away for the duration of their sentence, but from then on a more structured regime took over. Men would be put to work on shoemaking, tailoring and joiners’ work. As an alternative to laundry work, women did sewing and cleaning. Oakum picking was used as a form of hard labour and it involved unpicking old tarred ex-navy rope into single strands of thread, an early form of recycling. There was also a pointless form of punishment, such as the crank where a handle had to be turned anything up to 10,000 times day to drive a paddle surrounded by stones inside a metal box. Another was the treadwheel where prisoners spent countless hours on the never ending steps of a treadle wheel.
Following the efforts of nineteenth century prison reformers such as Elizabeth Fry, conditions began to improve marginally. Inmates were allowed pencils and slates in 1850 and gas lighting was introduced to Nottingham goal in 1853. The intention behind this innovation was to give prisoners the opportunity to read and work in their cells. A decent place to wash was also created by using part of the old female section of the prison and prison uniforms meant clothing would be relatively lice free.
There are complete records of Nottingham people who were sentenced to transportation to the colonies. On a brick in the exercise yards are the crude letters of Valentine Marshall’s name. Aged 17 in 1832 he was accused of setting fire to Colwick Hall during the Reform Bill riots. Unlike all too many, he survived the four moth long journey to Hobart in Tasmania where he seems to have been able to make a successful life for himself. Awarded a free pardon in 1842 he married, had seven children and spent the rest of his life as a moderately prosperous nurseryman.
Despite improvements, the County Goal was inadequate and in constant need of repair. Frequently being criticised for its inability to modernise, the final nail in its coffin was the passing of the Prison Act in 1877, that laid down standards the place was unable to reach. On 1st April 1878, Nottingham Prison closed its doors as the last prisoner was removed to Southwell House of Correction. During its last four months there were 67 punishments in the dark cell, 53 stoppages of diets and one whipping.
Although the prison closed, the courtrooms and police station continued to be used until 1986, after which the abandoned buildings became derelict. Since 1995 the Nottingham Galleries of Justice have been run by the Egalitarian Trust established to promote equal opportunity for all by the understanding of the law. The Trust has two divisions which work in partnership. The Galleries of Justice Museum interprets the social history of crime and punishment through its exhibitions and tours; the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law (NCCL) aims to create social change through learning about the law. Working with over 15,000 children every year, this work has spread through public education syndicates throughout the East Midlands, London and Manchester.
The Trust also operates the City of Caves, preserving the unique underground history of Nottingham.