Talk on Bury gaol on Tuesday 10th February 2013
The District Society was treated to a talk about Bury gaol on Tuesday 10th February when local author, Tessa West, described how her 20-year career as an Assistant Prison Governor developed into research and writing. Her book “The Curious Mr Howard” is a biography of the pioneer prison reformer John Howard and was the result of detailed study of a subject of which Mrs West displayed a comprehensive knowledge.
The gaol at Sicklesmere Road, Bury St Edmunds was built in 1804 to a design by George Byfield based upon the panopticon principle of Jeremy Bentham; this consists of a central management block giving all-round supervision of radiating wings. It replaced an older building in Southgate street and had space for 140 inmates. At the time there were over 200 crimes punishable by death (this was known as The Bloody Code) and custodial sentences were unknown. The reasons for incarceration were fourfold – awaiting trial, execution, deportation or being in debt. Over half of the prison population were debtors and in fact it was possible to run up debt in prison as the unpaid “keeper” would charge inmates for straw bedding and other facilities.It was even known for drinking houses to be run on the premises.The first salaried governor of the institution was John Orridge who was the first to introduce a treadmill to grind corn.
The impressive façade – which still stands – had a flat roof over the entrance and this was used for public executions the last of which was in 1851. These gruesome occasions attracted thousands of spectators from a wide area. The gaol was closed in 1880 and the prisoners moved to Ipswich. Mrs West was warmly thanked by Chairman Alan Fitch, on behalf of 20members and visitors for her contribution to a very interesting evening.
Mr Fitch mentioned that arrangements were being made for a local visit involving metal detectors in April and more information would be available later. The next meeting would be the AGM at 8pm on Tuesday 12th March in Foxearth Village Hall. There would be cheese and wine and the meeting would have a history of printing theme so members are asked to bring along any related items e.g. old books, manuscripts etc.