After 222 years in operation, Gloucester Prison closed in March of this year. I blogged about this, along with a little of the prison’s history, back in January, when I said I hoped that we would get a look around before it was finally re-developed. Yesterday I got my wish.
Prison tours were offered last weekend as part of the Heritage Open Days, but tickets were snapped up almost immediately. Due to some confusion between Marketing Gloucester and the Ministry of Justice(MoJ) about when tickets should be made available, many of Gloucester’s citizens, including me, missed out.
Thankfully, Gloucester’s MP Richard Graham managed to persuade the MoJ to open the prison for a second weekend, and so I finally got my chance. Apparently there were around 1000 people who were not so lucky and still missed out. It is ironic that, after so many people have spent time in Gloucester Prison against their will, there are now so many of us who voluntarily want to get a glimpse beyond those austere walls.
Whereas during the Heritage Open Days the tours were run by prison officers, this weekend they were run by the Civic Trust. This was a little disappointing as, although our guide did a good job, it would have been nice to hear the first hand experiences from those who served there rather than just the facts. Nonetheless, it was an extremely interesting hour and an excellent opportunity – especially poignant for me as my father was a prison officer at Gloucester Prison for many years – I am extremely grateful to Richard Graham for arranging the opportunity.
Our tour started in the prison gymnasium. This is a bleak, grim place with only scant natural light making its way reluctantly through windows high up at the top of the walls. Nonetheless, this is where prisoners got to spend some of their time if they were good: this is one of the nicer parts of the prison.
Outdoor exercise facilities were provided by the exercise yard.
When I was a child we lived in prison officers quarters just beyond the prison walls and I remember that errant balls frequently ended up in the garden, followed by shouts from within the walls seeking its return. As a small boy throwing or kicking it back was beyond my abilities, so I would walk around to the gatehouse to return it.
However, where things can get out, they can also get in. Apparently it was a common enough event for drugs to be thrown over the wall, concealed in an orange or similar, that a net was put above the exercise yard to prevent it.
There are three cell blocks at Gloucester Prison:the original Victorian block is on the right of this picture and houses A and B Wings, C Wing, built in the 1970s, is on the left.
When prisoners are first brought into the prison they are eased gently into the experience, being ‘housed’ for a short time in a separate area. This is where remand prisoners are also held whilst awaiting trial.
Although segregated from the more intimidating atmosphere of the main prison, the cells are pretty much identical: certainly not palatial, especially if you have to share…
And finally we get to the main part of the prison: A Wing – just as you imagine it from watching Porridge, which is, apparently, very true to what it really is like in a British nick.
Of course, being Victorian, the architecture had to be both ornamental and have a moral…
Along the underside of the upper floors are representations of serpents. Although you can’t see them in this image, above are pillars with lion’s feet. This is classic Victorian symbology for good (the lion) triumphing over evil (the serpent).
Although much newer, C Wing is much bleaker than the older part of the prison. Built in the 1970s it has more high-tech electronic door mechanisms, but this picture doesn’t do justice to just how narrow, gloomy and claustrophobic this corridor is. C Wing was used to house those prisoners that needed segregating from the main population: sex offenders and the like.
Beyond the main cell blocks there a a number of other buildings, all of which are basic to say the least. The picture here shows the laundry. It is amazing how much nature has started to reclaim the open spaces after just a few months without prisoners being around to keep it clear.
I could quite easily have spent many hours roaming the prison with my camera. In particular I would have liked more time to look around the cells, many of which retain small glimpses of prison life. But that is it now, the doors will once again be locked until a buyer is found.
It is hard to picture what might be done to turn this old prison into something economically viable, but hopefully someone with greater imagination than mine will turn up before too long and make good use of this impressive, historic old building.