A-Wing landings, Shrewsbury Prison © jailhousetours.com

Behind Closed Doors

28th December 2018

As prisons all over the country are repurposed, our fascination with these age-old institutions of justice remains just as strong as ever. The result is that this interest is now being catered to in the most curious and imaginative of ways – as Deborah Mulhearn reports…

From the Tower of London to the town lock-up, old prisons have always intrigued us. Let’s face it, we enjoy the grim frisson of the impregnable architecture, the lurid stories of the inmates incarcerated behind the high walls, and the gory details of the hideous crimes they committed, or sometimes didn’t.

Some of the world’s most notorious former prisons are now major tourist attractions and museums, such as Alcatraz in California and Robben Island in South Africa – both allegedly inescapable island fortresses that tourists now flock to… but, thankfully, have no difficulty leaving.

And all over the UK, there are scores of former prisons dating back to medieval times that are now open to the public as museums. These buildings have complex and often sensational histories, and their gloomy presence serves as an imaginative as well as physical deterrent to straying over to the wrong side of the law.

Lancaster Castle, for example, includes informative guided tours of the former gaol where the so-called Pendle witches were tried and sentenced to hang. York Castle Museum is located within the city’s 18th century prison buildings, and includes atmospheric prison history alongside wider displays.

Many smaller prisons and lock ups have been converted into town museums and have original cells that can be visited. Buckingham Old Gaol, in the centre of the town, is a small but thriving volunteer-run social history museum. “The prison was built in 1748 so we have very few records of the actual prisoners, but the cells and original doors are intact, and we have a reimagined cell and replica stocks in the prison yard where children can dress up and have soft things thrown at them, which they enjoy,” says Hélène Hill, chair of the Buckingham Old Gaol Trust. “We have also been researching the stories of prisoners from old newspapers for a new display on crime and punishment. One poor young man cut the throat of the woman who spurned him, attempted suicide but was nursed back to health, only to be hanged at Aylesbury.”

Visiting them is one thing, but no one would want to stay in one. Or would they? Increasingly so, it seems. Since 2013, the UK government has sold off around a dozen prisons, mostly purpose-built Victorian buildings that have been superseded by a new generation of ‘super’ prisons. Most of these have been sold to the private sector and reinvented for a variety of new uses including hotels, apartments, student accommodation or cultural venues.

Many of the former prisons are protected by Historic England’s listings, and any development is meant to respect the social value of their heritage as well as their architectural significance. But approaches are varied, and depend on the commercial use to which they have been put.

The former Oxford Prison is now a luxurious Malmaison Hotel, offering guest the vicarious (and perhaps ethically dubious) thrill of sleeping in converted cells with names like the Cell Superior Double and House of Correction Double, which overlooks the prison yard.

The former HMP Canterbury was bought by Canterbury Christ Church University in 2014, but its redevelopment plans play down its wretched past rather than sensationalise it. Following community consultation, there are plans to adapt it to an engineering and science building and student hub. But there will also be a heritage centre that considers not only the prison’s physical history, but also its intangible past, by recording stories of people associated with the prison, especially its more recent history: an element often overlooked because it is perhaps too close for comfort.

Former prisons in Gloucester and Shepton Mallet are owned by heritage developer City & Country, who have secured planning permission to convert them to residential use, along with Dorchester and Portsmouth prisons. An agreement with Jailhouse Tours allows them to be run as tourist attractions until pre-commencement planning conditions are discharged and development can begin.

Jailhouse Tours runs HMP Shrewsbury, known as the Dana, as a full-blown visitor attraction with ghost hunts and paranormal events, and popular break-out days, where ‘inmates’ are harassed by zombie prisoners and lockdowns to prevent their easy escape.

Once development starts, however, City & Country work with Historic England, local civic societies and other stakeholders to painstakingly restore the buildings they work with. The aim is to acknowledge the architectural significance of the prisons and their importance to local communities, but the histories are admittedly challenging for a company that wants to sell homes.

“While our housing developments in other types of historic buildings can embrace original features and motifs, and acknowledge the heritage significance in a more direct way, it’s not as straightforward with the prisons. All four sites will include ‘heritage spaces’, says a City & Country spokesperson.

Although primarily a marketing tool, the names of the sites also reference their former use with the dates that they were built: 1610 The Old Shepton Mallet Gaol; 1885 The Old Dorchester Gaol; 1877 The Old Portsmouth Gaol and 1792 The Old Gloucester Gaol. This emphasises the distant past and can obscure the more recent histories, and avoid the titillating or tasteless fact – depending on your sensibilities – that someone is living, for example, where judicial executions happening during World War Two, or in the case of Shepton Mallet, where notorious murderers such as the Kray twins were incarcerated.

“We don’t deliberately obscure the difficult stories, but it’s a question of how to manage them, and we consider this very carefully. Shepton Mallet, for example, has a fascinating history as the UK’s oldest prison, and there will be a permanent, publicly accessible display in the prison’s former reception area, with historic photographs and a timeline curated by our in-house historians.”

The company has a track record transforming former hospitals, TB sanatoriums, MOD bunkers and former lunatic asylums into desirable developments, sensitively restored with excellent design and elegant landscaping. So, they would argue, the troubled past and painful histories that lie within their walls, while not ignored, can be overlaid by happier stories.

Some critics are concerned, however, that the emphasis is on the lurid where these converted sites contain a heritage centre or some kind of acknowledgement of the former use. “There can be an element of penal exoticism,” says Professor Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool, who has researched and written on international penal heritage.

“There hasn’t been much debate about the selling off of these prisons in the UK, and many of these places don’t have proper histories written about them,” he says. “Many of them have complex and layered histories, having passed through different institutions such as care homes, psychiatric hospitals and centres for asylum seekers. So a lot more work could be done to consult with stakeholders – the families and descendants of both prisoners and staff, where possible those of the victims of crime also, and local people for whom these prisons were not only employers but dominant landmarks in their communities.

“Telling the stories doesn’t have to be done in a sensationalist way. It can be a simple and low key interpretation to acknowledge and respect the troubled history of the site, and there are also some wonderful examples of creative interventions,” he says. He names the art project honouring Oscar Wilde’s prison years at the former Reading Gaol, and the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania, a famous women’s prison that has regular groups of actors performing stories of convicts’ lives.

“Some are also memorial sites, with graves of prisoners,” he points out. “But where the emphasis is firmly on fun, with break outs and lurid tales of hangings, it can lead to bizarre juxtapositions, such as having a Johnny Cash tribute act in a prison close to the graves of executed men. It’s an opportune moment for the heritage sector and others to pause and consider how this problematic history is being presented to the public, if at all.”

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