The history detectives soon discovered that there were two prisons in Norwich during the period they were researching: the county gaol and the city gaol.
The county gaol had been at Norwich Castle since the 14th century. The city gaol from 1597 until 1826 was in a building opposite the Guildhall. In 1826 the city gaol moved to purpose built accomodation near St. Giles’ Gates. During their investigations the detectives were able to visit the Castle to see for themselves what the prison would have been like.
Parliament and the Norfolk county gaol
In 18th century Norwich the mound upon which the castle was located was viewed by the city’s inhabitants both as a source of soil and as dumping ground for rubbish. Despite attempts to improve the situation the issue of maintaining the castle remained problematic. The authorities were advised that the ownership of the castle, shire hall and grounds should be vested in the Justices of the Peace, so the county could develop and manage the prison and shire hall. This would require an Act of Parliament. In 1806 the JPs petitioned the House of Commons, stating that considerable sums of money had already been spent on repairing, enlarging and improving the gaol and that considerably more money was needed to make the gaol more commodious and in good repair. The petition noted that it had been agreed that a Bill could be introduced in the present parliamentary session. An Act vesting the castle and gaol in the Justices of the Peace was passed on 12 July 1806.
The detectives were interested to note that the copy of the 1806 petition at Norfolk Record Office was unique, since the original copy sent to Westminster would have been lost in the fire which destroyed the House of Commons in 1834.
A new city gaol
By the 1820s a new home was required for Norwich’s city gaol which was in need of repair and out dated. The Norfolk civil engineer William Cubitt provided plans for a proposed new gaol, and accompanied them with a supporting report to the Committee of the Justices of Peace on 12 July 1822. Cubitt’s plans were guided by the requirements of Acts of Parliament but did not find favour with the JPs who preferred plans submitted by Philip Barnes in 1823. Barnes’ plans featured warm and cold baths, an infirmary, two debtors’ wings, windows with louvered blinds, iron doors with ventilation grills and a room for purifying linen. In addition there were three tread wheels and, more ominously, a place of execution.
During the planning for the new prison the Town Clerk of Norwich, Elisha De Hague wrote to John Rickman, Clerk Assistant at the House of Commons, in order to obtain a copy of a recent Bill relating to building, improving and regulating prisons. The correspondence between the two men shows that De Hague’s request was at first met with a vague response from Rickman who in the event was able to supply a copy of the Bill as passed by the House of Commons.