Prison break

Gloucester Prison, February 2013

Gloucester Prison, February 2013 - Credit: Archant

As Gloucester Prison closes its doors to inmates for the last time, Mike Charity looks back at its fascinating history, and the people who spent their final hours behind its high walls

At the beginning of April the result of government plans to develop more modern prisons throughout the land, saw Gloucester city’s historic County Gaol close for good.

The prison edifice first established itself on the urban skyline some 221 years ago, taking in miscreants from the Courts and Assizes of Gloucestershire and adjoining counties, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Prior to this, there was no established form of incarceration in the city; criminals facing the death sentence were taken by cart, seated on their own coffins to the city outskirts, where at the hamlet of Over they were hanged and buried. In those way-off days, should such journeys in England pass an inn, the condemned would be offered a final drink. These gestures are said to have given rise to the saying ‘Have one for the road’.

Gloucester’s first County Gaol was established in the city’s Barrack Square at a cost of £35,000 in 1792. Capital punishment was now to be conducted with new ‘drop-style’ gallows on the prison’s gatehouse roof but would remain a public spectacle. Over the next 72 years, 94 men and eight women were dispatched at the prison, among these 16-year-old John Baker from Wotton-under-Edge, being found guilty of burglary, was the prison’s youngest male to face the gallows.

The last public hanging at the Gaol in 1864, was that of Lewis Gough, for the murder of Mary Curtis.

Some 50 years later during 1840, the Gloucester County Gaol was substantially reformed and enlarged to provide single-cell occupancy for 350 women. Luxury containment indeed – many inmates today can only dream of such – but at least they are no longer hanged by the neck.

Despite the improvements at Barrack Square, life ‘inside’ was no bowl of cherries. Foreboding Victorian architecture – dim, dank cells, dismal, echoing passageways – and drab attire for both prisoner and warder, hard labour and coarse food. When time came for ‘The Drop’, inmates made a slow shackled shuffle to the hangman’s noose and the ogling crowd in the road below. Between 1792 and 1864, 102 men and women, had to accept this dreadful finality of life. Gloucester prison’s capital punishment facilities were such they also encompassed Hereford and Worcester county courts and assizes, where death sentences were common for the crime of burglary, highway robbery, horse theft, cattle and sheep stealing.

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The sad case of burglar, Thomas Townley, came to light in 1811. Having sentenced him to death at Gloucester Assizes, the judge went on to hold court at Hereford. While there, having heard good things regarding Townley, he decided to reprieve him, sending a letter to Gloucester’s under-sheriff. By mistake this was taken to the under-sheriff at Hereford. Realising the terrible consequences, the sheriff urgently dispatched a rider to Gloucester where, on reaching the prison, he found Townley had been hanging for some 20 minutes – for both men it was too late.

By 1868 the law of the land was changed to make all executions private affairs within prison walls. Certainly these were more civilised affairs, even so, on such occasions there may be up to 40 witnesses in attendance. One of the most infamous cases to find conclusion on Gloucester’s prison gallows was that of Herbert Rowse Armstrong. The 52-year-old solicitor was brought to trial at Hereford Assizes in April 1922, to enormous public and media interest, accused of the attempted murder of fellow solicitor, Oswald Martin and the killing his own wife, Katherine Armstrong – both by poisoning. The motive was money. His wife altered her will leaving everything to her children. At this time Armstrong was also in dispute with Oswald Martin who practiced in the same Herefordshire market town at Hay-on-Wye, regarding monies owed for a property conveyance. During the August of 1920 Katherine was taken seriously ill with stomach troubles and delusions, spending four months in Gloucester’s private mental asylum at Barnwood. On recovering she returned home to Cusop, near Hay, becoming ill again and some five months later died in January 1921. A month or so later Armstrong invited Martin to his home for afternoon tea. Thinking they would now settle the money problem he accepted and, after the meal, was taken ill. His doctor took samples of urine and discovered traces of arsenic – subsequently Armstrong was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. As a result of this, Katherine’s body was exhumed and tests revealed arsenic. Armstrong found guilty of both charges, became the only solicitor in the UK to be hanged for murder – he met his fate at Gloucester Gaol on Wednesday, May 31, 1922.

Herbert Burrows, A 23-year-old probationary constable with Worcester police during 1925, lived opposite the Garibaldi Inn at Wylds Lane in the city where he enjoyed the occasional beer and company with landlord, Ernest Laight and his wife Doris. On the night of Friday, November 27, he unusually stayed on after closing time and was the last customer in the bar chatting with the landlord when he suddenly pulled a gun and shot him. His wife Doris, investigating the noise was the next victim. With the couple dead, Burrows’s next act was to silence their young son, Robert, fearing his crying might raise the alarm. He battered the child to death and then, unhindered, gathered up the pub takings and rushed from the building in the dark of night.

The next day Burrows, back on duty, asked a police colleague if he’d news of the shootings at the Garibaldi Inn. At the time, the police knew nothing of the previous night’s horror. By foolishly asking that question, Burrows put himself in the frame – police visiting his lodgings recovered both the gun and stolen money. Confronted with these facts, Burrows confessed and was put on trial at Worcester in January 1926. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint a month later, at Gloucester County Gaol.

Forty-one-year-old Ralph Smith achieved dubious fame at Gloucester Prison, which was certainly of no value to him, when he faced execution for murdering his ex-girlfriend, Beatrice Baxter. Quarreling with her plans to go dancing with another man, he left her house in anger. He soon returned and in the continuing row, slashed her throat with a knife. Smith later that day gave himself up to police – to find she had died as the result of his earlier aggression. Found guilty of her killing at the Old Bailey, he was returned to Gloucester and courtesy of the services of well-known executioners, Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint, he became, on June 7, 1939, the last man to be hanged at Gloucester Prison. Capital punishment for murder was eventually abolished in the United Kingdom in 1969.

Much later, Gloucester Prison was to go through another major development in its life in 1987 with the provision and completion of building work that included a new gatehouse, storerooms, administration and visitors’ facilities being established on the site. Just seven years later in the early 90s, the prison became home for a short while to the person whose name at that time was on everyone’s lips: Fred West. Now in 2013, this age-old institution of crime, having over the decades dispatched many to their maker, is ironically facing a death sentence of its own.