North Westmorland: The gaol and shire hall

The Later Records Relating To North Westmorland Or the Barony of Appleby. Originally published by Titus Wilson and Son, Kendal, 1932.

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John F Curwen, 'North Westmorland: The gaol and shire hall', The Later Records Relating To North Westmorland Or the Barony of Appleby, (Kendal, 1932), pp. 36-40. British History Online [accessed 15 June 2024].

John F Curwen. "North Westmorland: The gaol and shire hall", in The Later Records Relating To North Westmorland Or the Barony of Appleby, (Kendal, 1932) 36-40. British History Online, accessed June 15, 2024,

Curwen, John F. "North Westmorland: The gaol and shire hall", The Later Records Relating To North Westmorland Or the Barony of Appleby, (Kendal, 1932). 36-40. British History Online. Web. 15 June 2024,


The right of the de Clifford family to hold and exercise the office of Sheriff, year by year and that for many generations, is unique. The privilege was granted by King John and it was not relinquished till 1849. The continuity was broken for twenty-four years only, namely from the attainder of 1461 to 1485, when Henry lord Clifford, "the shepherd," resumed his ancient proud position. Moreover, the office was made picturesque by two ladies who claimed the right; firstly in the time of Edward 1 when Isabella, widow of Roger de Clifford, "satte in person as sheriff of the County," and secondly when the Lady Anne not only took her seat on the Bench but "rode on a white charger before the Judges to open the Assizes."

From the Roll of 1256 it is clear that malefactors were then imprisoned in Appleby castle. For instance certain evil doers broke into the house of Geoffrey de Melkinthorpe and Richolda his wife, cut their throats and carried away their goods. Afterwards Warin de Melkinthorpe and two women were taken for the burglary and imprisoned in the castle of Appleby, from whence Warin escaped in the time of Ralph de Nottingham then deputy sheriff. Insecurity or bribery appear to have aided frequent escapes, for on an earlier occasion it was reported, at this same Assize, that "William de Huntedon and Habertass, a foreign malefactor, were imprisoned in the castle for theft and from there they escaped at the same time as Emma de Kendall and others escaped; judgment being given against the Prior of Carlisle, then deputy sheriff."

Leyland writing in 1539 says, "Appleby is the Shire Towne, but now yt is but a poore village, having a ruinous Castel wherein the prisoners be kept." And as the Cliffords were the hereditary sheriffs of Westmorland it would appear that not only the prisoners were lodged, but also the Sessions of the Peace were held at the castle. On 22 February, 1608, the King commanded Margaret, Dowager Countess of Cumberland, to continue to keep the usual assizes for gaol delivery at her castle, to which she greatly objected and unsuccessfully petitioned against on 30 May following. Cal. St. Papers, 1603–10. It would further appear that the Sessions continued to be held at the castle until at least 1641 when it was garrisoned for the royalists during the Civil War. The courageous Lady Anne restored her castle in 1651 and about the same time erected a goal within the Borough and removed the prisoners thereto.

But that the Assizes were held at the Castle as late as 1664 is shown by the following extract from the Lady Anne's diary. 'The 20th day of this August, 1664, did the two Judges of Assize for this northern circuit come hither to keep the Assizes here, where Robert Atkinson, one of my tenants in Mallerstang, that had been my great enemy, was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor to the King, for having had a hand in the late [Kaber Rigg] plot and conspiracy, so he was executed accordingly the first day of the month following."

Nicolson and Burn say that "at the west end of the bridge stands the old gaol; a little, mean, incommodious building without one inch of ground out of doors wherein the prisoners might receive fresh air . . . . from the monkish inscription over the door it seems not to be very modern. Porta patens esto nulli claudatur honesto."

The first mention of this gaol in the Quarter Sessions Records appears on 10 July, 1683, where it is found to want a pair of stairs, ridging, tabling, slate and also a little Lodge. One penny in the pound was assessed upon the whole County toward the repairs of the same. Again on 11 January, 1691/2, it was ordered that 2d. in the pound be levied upon the whole County toward the repair of the stairs "that are now falling."

On 11 July, 1693, it was ordered that the High Constables within the Barony as well as the Bottom should forthwith meet to consult what the charge would be for enlarging the Common Gaol. At the Appleby Sessions on 2 October and at the Kendal Sessions on 12 January following, it was ordered that 9d. in the pound be levied for the purpose.

John Nicholson, Keeper of the Gaol, reported on 13 January, 1709/10 that the gaol was very ruinous both in the roof, stairs, and "Low Goales" as also the conduit, whereupon the four High Constables of the County were ordered to view the same and agree with workmen for such repair as they deemed necessary. Then we have an order, 12 January, 1710/11, to Mr. Ric. Baynes, Clerk of the Peace, to prosecute Christopher Atkinson of Appleby for refusing to suffer the workmen employed by H.M. Justices, to repair the Common Gaol and set up a "staircase or ladder at the south end where the same hath time out of mind been erected for going up to the garret of the said gaol, for the want thereof the said gaol is in danger of losing the prisoners by their breaking forth, etc."

Upon the petition of the Chamberlain of the Borough of Appleby setting forth that the yearly rent of 6d. is due from the County to the Borough for the County Gaol which stands within the Borough and that the said rent has not been paid for 31 years last past, the Court ordered on 12 January, 1745/6, that all arrears of rent be forthwith paid by the whole county. Then arose the question as to the ownership of the gaol and who was legally liable for its maintenance. The Clerk of the Peace having searched the Sessions Books and other evidences touching the ownership, the Court ordered on 15 April, 1765, that he prepare a Case from such material and lay the same before some eminent counsel for advice and opinion thereon.

Mr. Attorney General and Mr. James Wallace's opinion, dated 13 July, 1765, is here given in an abbreviated form. It states that it is presumed that the Gaol was heretofore kept and the Assizes and Sessions were held at the Castle of Appleby and continued to be so held till about the reign of Charles II, and in 1641 there being a garrison at the Castle no Sessions were held there. After which a Gaol and Court House were erected at the instigation or expense of the Countess of Pembroke as Hereditary Sheriff of Westmorland. And it further appears by the Session Books that between the years 1672 and 1727 various orders were made at the Sessions for viewing, repairing and raising money for the repairs of the Gaol, to wit, in 1672, 1690, 1691, 1693, 1701, 1709, 1710, 1714, 1720, 1721, 1722 and 1727. It also appears by the Corporation Books that a Gaol Rent of 6d. per annum from 1699 to 1700 is accounted for by the Chamberlains and since has been constantly accounted for by the County. Both the Gaol and Court House are now much out of repair and the Gaol was at the last Assizes presented by the Grand Jury as wanting a thorough repair and that the inhabitants of the county ought to repair the same. It is imagined by some that the Gaol belongs to the Sheriff and as the present Earl of Thanet claims to be Hereditary Sheriff of Westmorland he ought to repair the same, and that repairs having been done to it by the inhabitants should not be construed so as to take the repairs upon them or that such Sheriff should be thereby exonerated therefrom. However probable it may be that the Hereditary Sheriff may have formerly been at the charge of supporting the County Gaol yet after the acquiesence of the County in a multitude of instances from the year 1672 we think it now too late for the County to controvert the question with the Earl of Thanet and that they ought to submit to the presentment and repair or rebuild the Gaol.

The Court having received the above opinion of Counsel, although convinced that the Sheriff ought to maintain the Gaol without any expense to the County, yet fearing that the long continued repairs done by the inhabitants through mistake or inadventure will be such evidence against the County as will be too difficult to overcome, and though unwilling to lay any burthen on the inhabitants which could be avoided yet the Court under the circumstances deems it most prudent to agree with the opinion and submit to the presentment.

When the Indictment came up before the Assizes on 15 August, 1765, the Judge allowed the Justices until the 1st of August, 1767, to repair or rebuild the gaol under a penalty of £500; and at the same time he recommended that a proper Court House should be provided, the present building being unfit for the administration of Justice. On 7 October, 1765, the Justices came to the opinion that the present gaol could not be repaired effectually, that the situation was an improper one for the confinement of prisoners with safety and humanity and that in order to relieve the burthen of expense they agreed to ask for voluntary subscriptions of such gentlemen as should be willing to contribute to so useful a work.

On 2 November the Court ordered Robert Fothergill, surveyor, to measure the ground on which the House of Correction stood with the gardens and also as much ground as it was thought might be reasonably spared from the highway, for the new building. But when the plans were laid before the Court on 13 January the ground was not considered sufficient and the Justices decided to apply to Sir James Lowther if he would be pleased to sell to the County a piece of his land. Nothing, however, appears to have been done for the space of four years until on 4 November, 1769, after a discussion on several alternative sites, the Court decided to accept of ground at Howgate Foot from Sir James on a lease of 999 years at a yearly rent of thirty-five shillings. They further issued an order that estimates should be prepared according to the plan marked No. 5, and that the building should be completed by 24 June, 1771.

On 5 August, 1773, it was resolved that the New Gaol be continued for the use of debtors; that another necessary house be erected and and added thereto on the opposite side and that four convenient arched cells should be erected at the top of the yard. Sir James Lowther having offered to accommodate the County with sufficient land for the erection of a Shire Hall adjoining to the south side of the new gaol, it was resolved to accept his generous offer and that a new Shire Hall should be built thereon. It appearing to the Court that the Hall when built might also answer the purposes of a Moot Hall for the use of the Borough, it was ordered that the Clerk of the Peace should wait upon the Mayor to know whether it would be agreeable to the Corporation to have a free use of the Hall, excepting during such time as the Assizes or Sessions were sitting, and join with the County in a proportionable expense of the building.

On 11 February, 1813, it was ordered that the plan of Francis Webster for the addition of a room for witnesses be adopted and that a chapel be added to the same. Further that his plan for a House of Correction connected with the gaol be adopted and that a house for the Keeper be added thereto if required. Again on 28 April it was ordered that an additional room should be built above stairs over the Record Room for the like purpose of containing the Records of the County. On 12 July, 1824, the magistrates agreed to the improvements to the gaol and House of Correction, as shown on Mr. Webster's plan, and ordered the Clerk of the Peace to advertise for tenders and borrow £1500 upon the credit of the County Rates for the purpose of carrying the same into effect.

Notwithstanding a former resolution passed on 7 November, 1823, that prison labour should be of a productive nature and that therefore treadmills were not adapted to small gaols where there is no grinding of corn to be done; yet on 9 January, 1835, the contractors were paid £384. 16. 3d for erecting a treadmill; George Robinson the Bridge Master £14. 12s. 0d. for drawing the plans, and Mrs. Herd £3 for damage to her garden in laying the pipes to the river for conveying water to it. Here is the official routine for hard labour. "At 6–0 in the morning the prisoners commence work at the Mill and remain there till 8–0; half an hour is allowed for breakfast and from 8–30 till 9–0 they work at the Mill; from 9–0 to 9–20 they are at Chapel and then at the Mill till 12–0; one hour is allowed for dinner and from 1–0 till 5–30 they are upon the Mill; they then attend Chapel for one quarter of an hour and are again placed upon the Mill till lock-up time which is at 7 o'clock." On 3 July, 1835, the Gaoler reports "the Treadmill continues to have the best possible effect on all, every one committed during last quarter have paid their fines rather than continue on the Treadwheel." The inhumanity of it! Even as late as 12 April, 1844, there was no brake upon the wheel, so that a resolution had to be passed ordering a brake "as will ensure the safety of the prisoners."

The building ceased to be used as a Gaol in 1879.