Peeling off the layers of history
By decree of King James I
Built in 1610 following on Act introduced by King James I, which stated that all counties had to have their own ‘House of Correction’; Shepton Mallet was the oldest working prison in the United Kingdom up until its closure at the end of March 2013. The land was purchased from Reverend Edward Barnards for a cost of £160.
The House of correction would hold men women and children together. Debtors, thieves, ‘misfits’, vagrants and people with mental health disorders were sentenced to long periods. There are very few records of the conditions inside, many people could not read and write and it was not considered necessary to keep a record of ‘matters of such distaste’. Conditions and favours by jailors resulted in promiscuous behaviour, lax discipline and drunken behaviour.
Primitive sanitation led to regular outbreaks of gaol fever, ulcers, jaundice, asthma, itch and venereal diseases. The only real medical aid was the local surgeon (doctor) being called in to pronounce a death. Following any deaths within the house of correction bodies were taken to an unconsecrated burial ground just outside the prison, the door in the wall on Frithfield lane still exists as do 9 unmarked graves within the grounds. It was common practice with British executions to bury prisoners in this way.
The prison has a long history of death sentences being carried out under methods including HDQ, hanged and by firing squad. The Hanging room which still exists, though has been used as office space for many years. Following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1642-1685 at least 12 Shepton men were HDQ for having sympathised with the rebels, their bowels were burned and their heads placed on poles around the town.
The last death sentence at Shepton Prison occurred in 1945 under military use. The last civilian hanged there was John Lincoln in 1926, for fatally shooting 25 year old Edward Richards in Trowbridge on 24th December 1925. The list of executioners used included Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint. The gallows were removed in 1967 after the return of the prison to civilian use in 1966.
The prison closed in 1930 due to under use; it held an average of just 51 prisoners. It re-opened in 1939 as a British military prison. It soon housed 300 men from all armed services, some being placed in huts in the prison yard. Between 1942-1945 it was run as an American military prison, housing 768 soldiers. At the end of 1944, it was guarded by 12 officers and 82 enlisted men. 18 American servicemen were executed, 16 hanged and 2 shot by firing squad.
It returned to British military use in September 1945, used primarily for servicemen due to be discharged after serving their sentence. Soldiers held there included the Kray twins who were serving out their national service after absconding, it was here they met Charlie Richardson.
Shepton Mallet prison is believed to have housed the Domesday book and Magna Carta, the HMS Victory logbooks and the Olive Branch Petition during the War. Over 300 documents were housed there at one point, some were moved (not including the Domesday book) when Bristol and Bath began being hit by German bombs – the documents were spread to different locations to reduce the risk of the entire collection being destroyed.
The last reported escape was in 1993, three prisoners descended the prison wall using knotted sheets after tunneling through a two foot wall, and they were soon recaptured. The earliest escape on record was in 1765. At 75 feet high the prison has some of the highest walls in the prison estate.