Public buildings: The new prisons

Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead. Originally published by Mackenzie and Dent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827.

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Eneas Mackenzie, 'Public buildings: The new prisons', Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827), pp. 218-224. British History Online [accessed 16 June 2024].

Eneas Mackenzie. "Public buildings: The new prisons", in Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827) 218-224. British History Online, accessed June 16, 2024,

Mackenzie, Eneas. "Public buildings: The new prisons", Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827). 218-224. British History Online. Web. 16 June 2024,


At the spring assizes in 1820, Newgate gaol was presented by the grand jury of the town, "as being out of repair, and inconvenient, insufficient, and insecure." As both the common gaol and house of correction belonged to the corporation, and the inhabitants were subjected to the payment of county rates, "doubts were entertained with whom the legal liability rested of repairing and rendering the same convenient, sufficient, and secure." In order to obviate these doubts, and to avoid the delay and expense of litigating the question, application was made to parliament for "An Act for building a new Gaol and a new House of Correction in and for the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne, and for other Purposes relating thereto."

The different parishes of the town held several meetings on this subject, and at length agreed to depute Mr. William Coates, cooper and wine merchant, and Messrs. Joseph Bainbridge and Thomas Brown, solicitors, to watch over the progress of this bill, in conjunction with Nathaniel Clayton, Esq. the town's clerk. All the clauses of the bill were amicably settled; and, after passing through the several stages, it received the royal assent 24th May, 1822.

The mayor, recorder, and aldermen, with two persons nominated by each parish on behalf of the inhabitants, were appointed commissioners for carrying this act into execution. (fn. 1) Opinions differed respecting the best scite for the intended buildings; but at length it was agreed to fix upon the south end of the Carliol Croft. As this situation is objectionable in so many points of view, it would be extremely difficult to conjecture the reasons that induced the commissioners to make such a selection. Its comparative nearness to the Town's Court has been mentioned as an advantage it possesses over other situations, apparently more eligible. (fn. 2) The ground, which measures two acres, was purchased of James Graham Clarke, Esq. for £2000.

The plans furnished by Mr. John Dobson, architect, being approved of by the magistrates and commissioners, Mr. Robert Robson contracted to execute the masonwork, the late Mr. James Glynn to furnish the cast iron pillars, &c. Mr. Welford of Gateshead to make the iron doors, and Mr. John Scott the smaller and nicer ironwork. The digging of the foundation, and the building of large sewers underneath the intended wings of the building, were immediately commenced; and the ceremony of laying the foundation-stone took place at two o'clock in the afternoon of the 4th of June, 1823. Robert Bell, Esq. mayor, preceded by the regalia of the corporation, and accompanied by the recorder, aldermen, and sheriff, with the commissioners representing the four parishes, went in procession from the Guild-Hall to the scite of the intended prisons. A glass vase, containing all the coins struck during the reign of his present majesty, was deposited in a cavity of the stone by William Boyd, Esq. the treasurer to the commissioners; after which, a brass plate, bearing an appropriate inscription, was inserted. The following is a fac-simile of the inscription :—

The 4th Day of June in the 4th Year of the Reign of his MAJESTY KING GEORGE IV. A. D. 1823.

John Dobson, Architect.

The mayor then proceeded to lay the stone with a silver trowel, which he afterwards presented to the architect. He then addressed the spectators in a brief and energetic speech, which was received with hearty cheers, answered by a discharge of artillery from the Castle. This was succeeded by the ringing of the bells of the several churches. The mayor afterwards entertained the magistrates, commissioners, and others concerned, at the Mansion House.

The architect, in devising the plan of these buildings, has endeavoured to render them applicable to the three chief purposes of prisons, by providing, 1st, for the safe custody of the prisoners; 2dly, for their punishment; and, 3dly, for their reformation. By erecting a circular or elliptical building for the residence of the keepers, from which they can at all times unseen inspect the radiating wings of the prisons, the barbarous contrivance of dungeons and fetters become unnecessary, and misbehaviour cannot elude observation and instant correction. The committee of "the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline," recommended that such wings be built so as to contain a double row of cells; but Mr. Dobson, who has devoted much time and attention to this subject, demonstrated the danger and impropriety of this arrangement, and advised single rows, which they at last approved of. (fn. 3) In this building, each wing contains but a single row of cells; and the windows are opposite to the blank, back wall of the next wing, so that no telegraph conversation can be held between the different classes, who will be as completely separated from each other as if they were inhabitants of different regions. It has also been a leading object to provide the cheapest accommodations to the prisoners, not imparting injury to health; for unwholesome cells, or the losing a portion of health, can never be a proper punishment; nor ought persons who are merely detained in safe custody until trial suffer any unnecessary privations.

This massive building is enclosed by a thick wall, twenty-five feet in height above the inner courts. The entrance is by a strong tower on the west side, in which is an arched gateway, fourteen feet in height. Above the outer entrance is a large stone, on which it is proposed to cut the arms of the town. Two ponderous gates are to secure this entrance. Between them is the door of the porter's lodge; but he can speak to persons wanting admittance through a window on the outside. Apartments above may be used for prisoners detained in default of bail, and other purposes. The opposite side may probably be appropriated for the reception of vagrants, &c.

On passing the inner gate, the strong and lofty centre tower opens to the view, the grand entrance to which is ascended by eighteen long steps. Above these is an arch formed of immense blocks of stone, beyond which is a circular recess, with a dome roof. The dim shadows of the figures pacing along this covered vestibule must tend to impress the minds of strangers with feelings of awe and apprehension. There are also private stairs on each side of this building, which lead to the wings behind.

On the ground-floor, and below the outer stairs, is a large arched cellar for coals, with ash-holes on each side. On the right hand side is a large, convenient washhouse, with store-rooms, &c.; and on the other side, a warm and cold bath, water closets, &c.: the whole well adapted for the convenience of a large establishment. At the extremity of the grand landing-place is the committee-room and office of the governor, which command, on one side, a view of two of the radiated wings and airing courts; and, on the other, of the gateway and approaching avenue. The apartments of the keeper of the house of correction adjoin, and afford a view of the task-rooms and yards belonging to his department, as well as of the outer gateway. On the opposite side are apartments for the matron, who can overlook the prison and grounds appropriated for female prisoners. On ringing a bell, either the matron, turnkey, or keeper of the house of correction, may be summoned, by a private passage, into the governor's office. Above is a parlour, kitchen, and back-kitchen, for the governor; and on the other side, other apartments for the keeper of the house of correction. The floor above contains the governor's bed-room, dressing room, and store-rooms. The semicircular part of the fourth story contains the chapel, which will be lighted from the sides of a dome. The prisoners will be marched from the upper gallery of their own wing, across an iron bridge, to the door of the chapel, which opens into their pew. There will be nine doors and nine pews for the different classes; and the pews being divided by partitions, extending to the roof of the chapel, the view of each class will be confined to the pulpit. The altar will stand in front of the pulpit, on one side of which will be a pew for the governor's family, and on the other one for the keeper of the house of correction. Behind this, and concealed by a screen, is space for another, which may be appropriated for female debtors. The clergyman, governor, &c. will have a clear view of all the congregation in their several boxes. One side of this story will contain a large cistern for rain water, and another which will be kept full of water raised by a force-pump. The other side will contain bed-rooms for the servants. The stairs of this building are formed entirely of stone.

The first radiating wing on the right hand side is intended to be a house of correction for male prisoners. It consists of four stories, two of which have a day, or work-room, open to the inspection of the keeper. In the lowest story are four solitary cells, without fire-places, and having but one narrow window. These are for incorrigible offenders of the worst class. The cells in the second story are for a better description; and in the third are three light sleeping cells, and a sick-chamber, with water-closet, &c. The highest story also contains a sick chamber and seven sleeping cells. Most of the cells in this row measure nine feet by five feet.

The second wing, being on higher ground, is only three stories high; and the sleeping cells do not exceed eight feet by five feet. The ground-floor contains a sick-room, with conveniences, and three sleeping cells. On the next floor are a large, airy work-room, one night-cell, and a sick-room; and on the third story are a sick-room and seven sleeping cells. This wing may be appropriated to female prisoners consigned to hard labour. The arrangements of the next two wings are nearly similar. The wing on the left hand on entering is intended to be the debtor's prison. The cells, even on the ground-floor, are light and airy; and all the stories above have accommodations necessary for health and cleanliness. The upper gallery, in bad weather, will afford an airy promenade, the ends being secured only by iron barred gates.

The roofs of the day-rooms in this prison are formed of large stone flags, supported by cast metal pillars, across which are iron joists. Thus the roof of one row of rooms becomes the floor of the one above. The highest apartments are also ceiled with stone, above which is ruble masonry supported along the top of the buildings by projecting stone cornices. The sick-rooms have no pillars, the roofs being secured by French joints. All the cells and passages are well ventilated; and, from the narrowness of the windows, and the thick, solid masonry of the walls, the temperature of the air must always be tolerably mild. When once thoroughly dried, no moisture will ever penetrate to the cells. All the water-closets are constructed on a new and improved plan, and can never emit any offensive or unhealthy smell. The two yards between each building will be divided by a wall fourteen feet in height. At the south side of the large airing court for males, a tread-mill will be erected; and should this mode of punishment continue in fashion, (fn. 4) others may be erected in the private yard of any particular class. The large airing court on the left hand of the entrance is to be appropriated to the debtors, who perhaps may be also permitted to walk in the garden, which will adjoin the felons' gaol. It was once in contemplation to use one division of the outer tower as a watch-house and temporary night prison.

According to the original plan, these prisons were to consist of six radiating wings; but the commissioners have resolved to build only five at present. People, in comparing the old and new prisons, are struck by the disproportioned magnitude of the latter, without reflecting on the greater space requisite for the improved system of prison discipline, and the classification actually required by act of parliament. Fifty prisoners, if properly divided, may require as much room as a hundred; as a particular ward may be occupied by four or five prisoners, though capable of accommodating above twice the number. Besides, a considerable part of the buildings will be required for persons committed to the house of correction. The old "house of correction is calculated to hold thirty-two persons; yet, at one time, it has contained forty. Six or seven persons have been obliged to sleep in one bed!" (fn. 5) Should the sixth wing not be wanted, about £3000 of the public money will be saved.

It is a remarkable fact, that this vast building has been erected without deviating, in the smallest degree, from the first plan. A small alteration was, in one instance, attempted, and, from necessity, abandoned. The whole will be covered in before next winter, and will, when finished, be the best contrived, the strongest, and the cheapest prison of similar extent ever erected in this kingdom. The total expense is limited by act of parliament to £50,000; but it will not much exceed £35,000, of which the mason-work is estimated to cost about £23,000. The stone has been mostly procured from the Church Quarry, on Gateshead Fell, from which the stone was taken to build All Saints' church and the new County Courts; only the material now consists of a lower and better quality. A great proportion of the stones are of an immense size; and many parts of the walls, when built, cost less than the same cubic measurement of small stones would be charged undressed. The designs of our old English architects were often scientific, rich, and fanciful; but they never executed works of such admirable strength and durability as this. In the present day, scientific conceptions are executed with mechanical skill.


  • 1. The following are mentioned in the act as commissioners for the four parishes of the town :— Sir Robert Shafto Hawks, Knight,     St. Nicholas'. William Coates, Thomas Milner,                            All Saints. William Brownsword Procter, William Thomas,                St. John's. George Anderson, Thomas Mackford,          St. Andrew's. Thomas Graham, Sir R. S. Hawks having declined to act, Francis Ewart was chosen in his place; and on the decease of William Thomas, he was succeeded by Thomas Bell. The qualification required for a commissioner is the clear annual value of £50 in rents, or a personal estate to the amount of £1000. By this act, the materials of the old gaol and house of correction, the property of the mayor and burgesses, were directed to be applied to the new buildings. It is also enacted, that after they are built and completed, they shall be vested in the justices of the peace for the town and county of Newcastle upon Tyne. The necessary sum for the purposes of this act is directed to be raised by an assessment upon lands and buildings within the town, except burial-ground and places of worship; not to exceed, in any one year, one shilling and six-pence in the pound on their annual value. The whole sum to be thus raised is limited to £50,000. This rate, it is enacted, shall be paid by tenants; but a moiety is to be allowed by the landlords. The commissioners are authorised to borrow monies on mortgage of the gaol-rates, which mortgages were made transferable. The interest to be paid half-yearly; and as soon as the new buildings are completed and furnished, not less than one-fourteenth of the sum raised by mortgage is directed to be paid off annually, by lot, and "without partiality or preference." When all the money borrowed is paid off, then "the trusts, powers, offices, and authorities," vested in the commissioners, cease and determine.
  • 2. The parading of debtors, of women, and of mere youths, guilty only of petty crimes, through the streets between the prisons and court-house, in custody of officers, must tend to weaken or destroy that moral delicacy which should be carefully cherished. This inconvenience might be obviated by employing some covered vehicle to shelter the young and unfortunate from the prying eye of a rude and unfeeling curiosity.
  • 3. Mr. Dobson first designed the plan of single radiating buildings in the year 1822, and which appeared to be peculiarly well adapted for the purposes of security, classification, inspection, and employment. The following is an extract of a letter he received from Samuel Hoare, Esq. chairman of the gaol committee in London:— "Sir, our committee very much approve your designs, and shall forward them to you by the mail this evening." He likewise submitted his plans to the chief governors, or gaolers, in the united kingdom, all of whom expressed their warm approbation of his improvements in prison architecture. A few brief extracts from some of the opinions given on this very important subject may be sufficient to prove the superiority of his plan. "I feel no hesitation in saying, that there is not a gaol in Great Britain so admirably calculated to effect all the important objects of prison discipline, and more especially those of separation and classification, as that proposed by Mr. Dobson."—Captain James Brown, Edinburgh. "I have examined Mr. Dobson's plans carefully. My opinion is decidedly in favour of single buildings, and dividing the airing grounds by buildings, rather than by walls, of the insufficiency of which I have daily proof. His designs secure all the important points in prison discipline, security, classification, and inspection, and completely guard against the possibility of combination"—Mr. Young, governor of the gaol, Edinburgh. "With reference to the proposal for connecting every two of the buildings, I have no hesitation whatever in giving a decided preference to the (Mr. Dobson's) plan, as now drawn, whereby separate and distinct buildings are made to intervene between the several classes of prisoners."—M. D. Murray, Bridewell, Edinburgh. "Mr. Dobson's plan appears to me to comprise all that can possibly be contemplated for a gaol."—S. Lavender, Manchester police-office. "I think it (Mr. Dobson's plan) very complete, particularly as to classification and the facility of inspection."—Thomas Dunstan, house of correction, Salford. "I feel pleasure in awarding my meed of approbation to the judiciousness of Mr. Dobson's plan."—Thomas Amos, Kirkdale house of correction, near Liverpool. "I perfectly coincide in Mr. Amos' opinion."—T. Miller, police-office, Liverpool. "Having examined Mr. Dobson's plan for the building of a prison upon the radiating system, we beg to say that we consider it most desirably calculated for classification, &c."—D. Bishop and John Vickery, Public Office, Bow Street, London. "Mr. Dobson's plan most certainly embraces all the requisites for a good and safe prison, and in my mind is an improvement upon the best plans I have had an opportunity of seeing."—John Wolfe, gaoler, Durham.
  • 4. Habits of idleness are a fruitful source of crime; but rendering hard labour a punishment and disgrace is perhaps not the best instrument of reformation, as few persons can be induced to love their punishment. The grand object is to make labour a source of pleasure. This, it is said, might be effected by lodging criminals in small, secluded cells, and feeding them with the very coarsest bread and water: but if they volunteer to work, to allow them a portion of their gains to purchase greater comforts; the co-operation of the governor being obtained, by permitting him to share in the produce of their labour. The sentence to hard labour is particularly objectionable, in as far as it makes the keeper the judge of the degree of punishment to be inflicted; for what may approach to torture in one case, may be mere amusement in another.
  • 5. Report of the Society for improving Prison Discipline for 1821.