DARK, damp, and running with rats, the cramped cells of York Castle prison were crammed with the county’s most notorious murderers and thieves.

There were no windows or lights, it was freezing cold and on a court day, there could be ten or 12 prisoners sleeping on the hard floors.

Those with money could pay the gaoler’s servants to bring bedding, food, grimy water and beer.

Others would live on charity rations of three loaves a day and hope friends or family would throw food, money or clothes through the railings in the yard.

The cells within York Castle’s walls held prisoners for almost 200 years and now a new exhibition at York Castle Museum is throwing them open once more.

Historian Dr Katherine Prior has spent months combing the archives for York Castle Prison, uncovering prisoners’ stories and the lives of staff, magistrates and jailers.

The cells, dark and eerie with the sounds of keys and chains echoing around the corridor, are now inhabited by virtual prisoners projected on to the walls, including Dick Turpin, who served time in York Castle before being hanged on Knavesmire.

Visitors can also dig deeper into the history of the prison, and look up their surname to see if any ancestors were imprisoned.

The exhibition, which opened yesterday, was funded with £200,000 from City of York Council and Yorkshire Forward. Researching it has presented an interesting task for Dr Prior.

The cells changed quite a bit between 1705 and 1899, says Dr Prior. “Prisoners were originally kept in larger holding rooms, but they were rowdy and often stormed the guards, so they were moved to smaller cells, where they could be locked up after daylight – for as long as 16-hours a day in winter,” she says.

Ventilation holes were only drilled into the heavy solid oak cell doors in the 1780s, 50 years after nine men suffocated in a cell overnight.

Living conditions were not a priority for the 17th and 18th century judicial systems.

“There was a prison reformer called John Howard who started visiting prisons in the 1770s and started given advice on how to improve things,” says Dr Prior.

“Two of his main points were getting air and water into gaols. This was seen as unbelievably radical and treating the prisoners really softly. It was quite a while before these ideas became embedded that actually, just locking people up was a punishment in itself, without killing them with lack of air.”

People would travel from far and wide to see the grand prison building, says Katherine, and pass buns through the fence to the prisoners – sometimes smuggling gin in pig bladders, hidden in bread and cakes.

The sights on offers were far from savoury, as the men were often half-naked after selling their clothes to buy food.

There was no running water and few opportunities to wash. Buckets were left in the cell overnight if the prisoner had a good relationship with a gaoler’s servant – you can imagine the consequences if not.

“If you had the money you could buy yourself better conditions,” says Dr Prior. “You would still be vulnerable to disease, but you could buy food and bedding. In the 18th century, often the conditions you faced didn’t bear any relation to your crime. You could be a murderer and live better than a sheep thief.”

Highwayman Dick Turpin, whose E-Fit picture has been created by North Yorkshire Police for the new exhibition, was held in York Castle.

Small, dark and cold, a window has been built in place of the doorway he would have walked out of to his death.

Outside, in the day yard, prisoners would engrave their names in the wall. William Winipenny Buckley, a sheep thief from Huddersfield who served two sentences at York Castle, carved his name beautifully into the stone. It is thought he did so while sitting on the lavatory. Whatever the case, he was deported to Australia in the 1820s.

Another prisoner had more philosophical thoughts on his mind. “This prison is a house of care,” he wrote. “A grave for man alive, a touch stone to try a friend, no place for man to thrive.”

It is now possible to see the day room where men would stay before they were hanged, as chaplains begged them to confess their guilt to save their souls.

Around 15,000 prisoners came through the great prison between 1705 and 1899, each one with their own tale.

“It has been wonderful uncovering the lives of the prisoners,” says Dr Prior. “These sorts of stories are what brought the gaol to life. It’s been fascinating.”

Tales from the prison

Pleading the belly

Mary Burgan was in her late teens when she imprisoned in York Castle for killing her illegitimate baby.

This was a common crime in the 18th century, because illegitimacy cast a stain on a person’s character. While she was awaiting trail, she was impregnated by prison staff, probably a turnkey called Thomas Ward.

At her trial, she was found guilty and sentenced to death and when the judge asked whether she had anything to say, she replied: “My lord, I am pregnant again”.

The judge called a jury of matrons – married women who would know what a pregnant woman looked like – and decreed she could not be hanged if she was pregnant.

Pleading the belly – becoming pregnant to avoid hanging – was a common get-out.

Baby Thomas was born in jail in 1706 and in 1710, Mary received a pardon from Queen Anne. She left prison but left Thomas behind, where he stayed until Thomas Ward became prison Governor in 1718 and persuaded the magistrates that jail was no place for a 12-year-old.

They agreed, and funded an apprenticeship for him.

“You can see what Mary was thinking when she left him behind. He probably got a better start in life.”


Eighteen-year-old wheelwright apprentice Simon Hargreaves was jailed for stealing butter, eggs and elderberry syrup.

It was probably a prank with friends, believes Dr Prior, but because he stole from a house at night, it was considered burglary; a capital offence.

He was transported from York Castle to Australia in 1829, working as a labourer in Tasmania.

“Simon was a rebel and he kept kicking back against the authorities,” says Dr Prior. “He kept forgetting to come back to his barracks because he was having a drink with friends. He escaped several times and each time he was brought back and sentenced to more solitary confinement or given 50 lashes. He was sent to a penal settlement and had several life sentences to his name for running away. For ten years he kept bucking the system until suddenly, in 1840 he settled down.”

He met an Irish girl and sought consent to marry her and was granted a pardon a year later.

Six children followed, and he moved to mainland Australia, near Melbourne, set up a factory and made a good life for himself.

“For him it turned out to be a really good opportunity, but it took a while for him to work out there was something to be gained.”

• York Card holders will be given a free ticket to see York Castle Prison, between 5.30pm and 7.30pm, next Wednesday, July 22.

• Info: yorkcastleprison.org.uk