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Chichester Gaol

by Amy Hanson

By Amy Hanson, Work Experience Student, The Novium Museum

Since 1107-9, the Sussex county gaol was situated in Chichester Castle until it was demolished in 1217. Following this, a new gaol was built upon the site of the castle in what is now known as Priory Park. Here the county gaol remained until 1269 when Richard, Earl of Cornwall, gave the site to the Greyfriars. It was some time after this that the gaol was relocated to the East gate of the city, and demoted to a city gaol.

The North, West, and South gates were demolished around the year 1772 but the East gate remained due to the fact that it supported the city gaol. It utilised the gatehouse over the arch and a small area next to the gate allocated as a yard for prisoners to exercise. The gaol was extremely small having only two or three cells, it is perhaps for this reason that in 1783 the final gate was taken down and a new gaol built to the south of the site.

The construction of the new gaol was not fully complete when it received its first inmate on 12th January 1784. Mary Beedle was a young, pregnant, married woman who worked in the service of Lady Franklin when she was caught stealing linen and sentenced to seven years' transportation to the colonies in America. She was held in the new gaol while awaiting her transfer. According to the diaries of James Spearshott, a pastor at Eastgate Baptist Church, the walls leaked in the harsh winter and with no bed or fire for warmth, she was close to death when she was eventually moved to better conditions. Nevertheless, both she and her unborn child died on board a prison ship in the Thames.

Once construction of the gaol was complete, it had five cells; one of the cells was allocated for women while the other four were occupied by men. Officials were unhappy with the position of the new gaol, labelling it an 'unfit and insecure place for a gaol'. Due to the lack of space, it was intended for inmates awaiting trial or those sentenced to simple imprisonment without hard labour, a common punishment of the time. Prisoners were frequently used for quarrying, building roads or underwent labour within the prisons; most had tread wheels installed.

The gaol inspectors constantly spoke of Chichester gaol in a negative manner especially since it had no way of enforcing hard labour. In 1834, G. Long, Esquire, one of the commissioners of the Municipal Corporation Inquiry, inspected the Gaol, and declared that the gaol at Chichester was the worst for health and security of any that he had visited.

These conditions did not improve when the Chichester City Police Force was established in 1836 and the gaol was utilised as their police station. According to a parliamentary report in 1840, one prisoner managed to escape by using two iron bars he took from the wash room, to make a hole in the roof of his cell through which he fled.

The judiciary organisations regularly expressed the need for a new prison but it was not until Chichester City Police merged with the West Sussex Constabulary in 1889, that there was construction of a new joint police station in Southgate. Chichester gaol continued to be used by the police until its demolition in 1937. An original door from this gaol is held by The Novium Museum, complete with graffiti from the prisoners. Today the site is occupied by shops opposite the site of Shippams factory (now New Look).