Farewell to Gloucester Prison

Gloucester Prison Gateway

Gloucester Prison Gateway

So Gloucester Prison is set to close in March after 222 years in operation. I’m sure that there are many old lags that will be happy to see the end of the place, but I will be sad to see it go. Of course it is very sad for the 200 employees now facing either the upheaval of re-deploying or, worse, being made redundant, but I am also sad both on a personal level and from the point of view of the loss of a piece of Gloucester’s history.

My dad’s in there…

From a person point of view I will be sad to see the prison go because my dad spent a large part of his life there. I should hasten to add that this was not as an inmate, but as a prison officer. This distinction wasn’t always clear when we were young and, as we walked past the queues of visitors waiting to go in, much to my mother’s embarrassment, my brother would loudly proclaim “my dad’s in there!”

Prison Officers, including my dad, outside prison gate in 1970s

Prison officers at Gloucester Prison in the 1970s. The officer on the right is my dad, Vince Kirby.

Because my dad worked at the prison for so long I know that it can be hard work, demand long hours and is a thankless task – much is said in praise of nurses and teachers, but little of those who work every day with the incarcerated: often nasty people who the rest of us would take measures to avoid and who are unlikely to show any respect for those charged with keeping them locked up. Those 200 employees whose jobs are now on the line deserve better.

From Castle to Gaol

The prison is also a piece of Gloucester’s history. A Norman castle was built shortly after 1066 and in the early twelfth century a new castle was built nearby, more or less on the site of today’s prison.  By the fourteenth century, however, the castle was falling into disrepair and most of it was demolished, leaving just the tower, which was pressed into use as the county gaol.

Then came the eighteenth century, a time of philanthropy and reform, and civic minded citizens became concerned about the state in which prisoners were kept.  At the county gaol there was only one courtyard, no bath and only one sewer.  The one day room measured 12 feet by 10 feet and was occupied by up to 65 prisoners herded together indiscriminately regardless of age, sex or offence.  Several children were born in the prison as a result of the licentiousness of the prisoners.  Conditions were damp and disease ridden to the extent that it was touch and go whether those incarcerated would live to see their trial much less serve their sentence: there were 3 deaths from disease in gaol to every execution

Robert Raikes was one of those reformers concerned about the state of our prisons, and he used the Gloucester Journal to campaign for prison reform. The main drive for change, however, came from the wonderfully named George Onesiphorus Paul, who turned his attention away from aristocratic high living to push his radical notion that prisoners should not only be punished in prison, but reformed.

George Onesiphorus Paul

Bust of George Onesiphorus Paul in Gloucester Cathedral

A Model Prison

Demolition of the old castle began in 1787 and a new gaol was built on the site; a model prison, built to meet the principles of reform. It  came into operation at the end of July 1791 – however, it wasn’t quite finished and William Nichols made history as the first escapee the following October when he took advantage of a builders ladder to get over the wall.

Sadly, time moved on and the model prison in Gloucester did not keep up with modern developments. For years it has been the subject of damning reports: despite the best efforts of the staff, the ageing prison was condemned for its degrading physical environment and cells described as dirty, run down and poorly ventilated. It is one of only ten prisons in the country where the process of slopping out continues.

Many people suggest that, having broken the law, prisoners deserve what they get, but Robert Raikes and George Onesiphorus Paul must be turning in their graves.

What Now?

So what is to become of the prison once it is closed? Parts are Grade II listed, so there is (hopefully) no question of it simply being knocked down. This means that it is ripe for developing into something interesting and novel as part of the city’s on-going development. It is in prime position to be part of the Blackfriars development, which will be greatly enhanced by having the prison as part of the development rather than an obstacle to it.

There is talk of possibly converting the prison into a hotel or flats or using it as a combined courts and police building. Whatever it is used for I hope that the development is done imaginatively, using the fabric of the old prison to create something interesting and unique for Gloucester.

I also hope that we all get an opportunity to have a tour around the place before development starts – I have always wanted to have a look at where my dad worked for so long, but have never wanted to go to the lengths of being arrested to achieve my wish.

There is much more information on the history of both the castle and the prison in my book “The Story of Gloucester”


About Darrel Kirby

I am what I am.
This entry was posted in Gloucester, History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Farewell to Gloucester Prison

  1. Great pic of your dad mate, sad about the prison

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Cheers Jane – I like that picture, nice to have an excuse to use it. Hoping the prison will transmogrify into something exciting and interesting, but only time will tell..

  2. janh1 says:

    Good grief, your dad is talking to Tom Bowers! Great character and I always
    thought, t closest to prison officer Mackay in Porridge!

    Interesting blog. I’d like to see a dig on that site… see if there are Roman remains beneath. … Could be the future Roman Centre of Gloucester!

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      I think the prison was outside the Roman walls, but would probably be Saxon and certainly Norman and medieval remains there. The new castle was quite grand and Henry III spent quite a lot of time there.

      • janh1 says:

        Yes it was – just checked in Carolyn Heighway’s Book. Rats! Have to find somewhere else for my tourist-attraction interactive Glevum… 😉

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Funnily enough it is officer MacKay who comes to my mind when I look at that picture. Fletcher is probably legging it over the wall in the background as they speak…

  3. Alan Johnstone. says:

    I worked at Gloucester prison and well remember Vince, a real gentleman. He had many amusing anecdotes about his time as a bread roundsman prior to joining the service. I never heard him raise his voice, but a good reliable officer.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Hi Alan, thanks for commenting. It’s nice to hear from people who knew my dad. He spent a lot of time behind those walls, but I don’t know much about what he did or who he worked with. Hoping they’ll open the place up for tours before they redevelop it.

    • bark6487 says:

      Hi Alan did you ever know a Pam Ross, she served for 20 years at least on the prison service, I believe she was a cleaner there. She passed away last year and I was wondering if you had any memories of her. I am trying to do a memorial book of her, for her son, any help would be appreciated. Many thanks Trish

  4. Alan Johnstone says:

    Hi Darrel, I knew your dad both as an officer and Senior officer. I particularly remember him for being totally unflappable. Some officers had a quiet, natural authority, Vince could always achieve with a kind word what others could not with a harsh one.He certainly was not a Mr Mackay, much nearer to Mr Barraclough, but well able to assert his self if neccessary.He showed tremendous resolve at the end of his sevice when in obvious pain still maintained his cheerfull disposition and natural courtesy to others.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Sadly dad kept his suffering away from us kids, so we had no idea what he must have gone through until much later. I would like to think that, had I known, I would have been less of an antagonistic little shit. But then again, I was a teenager, so possibly not. I fear I have not inherited his dedication to duty or stoicism – I can’t see me continuing to work through that kind of pain.

  5. Alan Johnstone says:

    Hi Darrel , we are al full of human frailties, dont beat yourself up, just take my word for it that Vince was a heck of a nice guy in a job that wasn’t very nice.

  6. Ian B says:

    Would love to see part of the prison open as a museum. Would be so interesting. Talking of Porridge – one of the best TV progs. ever – end of story!

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  8. James Prewer says:

    As a former inmate , I can say that I never came across a bad prison officer, they all had a job to do .

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Having now had a chance to visit Gloucester prison (see https://darrelkirby.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/a-prison-visit/) I’m really glad that I never had to spend any time there. I can’t imagine how bad it is to be an inmate in such a place, nor how harrowing it must be to work there day in, day out as a prison officer. I guess prisoners and officers must form some kind of mutually beneficial rapport that, no doubt the sensationalist media would disapprove of, but manages to keep everyone sane.

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  11. bark6487 says:

    My partners mum worked for the prison service for over 20 years I believe, her name is Pam Ross, does anyone remember her.

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