In the churchyard at St Chad’s in Lichfield there’s a gravestone belonging to John Prickett who died in March 1832, at the age of 63. According to the inscription, he was ‘thirty Years keeper of the Goal in this City’.
Clearly, Mr Prickett’s epitaph is not referring to a Peter Shilton-esque stint in a number one jersey for Lichfield City FC, so has the stonemason made a spelling mistake? Not exactly….
In Dr Johnson’s dictionary (I used the online version), the entry for ‘gaol’ is as follows: GAOL (gaol Welsh; geole French) A prison; a place of confinement. It is always pronounced and too often written jail and sometimes goal. John Ash includes a separate entry for ‘goal’ in his ‘New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1775 defining it as ‘gaol or jail’, with a note that this is the incorrect spelling (1).
Incorrect it may have been, but this spelling of the word as ‘goal’ crops up frequently in old newspapers (including the Newcastle Courant newspaper on 22nd February 1716 who reported that ‘A Brazier in Holburn is committed to Chelmsford Goal for robbing on the highway in the County of Essex’ and closer to home in April 1832, the Staffordshire Advertiser listed the people committed to Stafford Goal) and is also in evidence above the door of the Shire Hall in Nottingham, underneath a later amendment to the more usual spelling.
By 1801, around the time Mr Prickett was handed the keys, Lichfield Gaol had fourteen cells but during the nineteenth century doesn’t appear to have ever reached anything like full capacity. In a report submitted to the government regarding the proposed Gaols Act of 1823, John Prickett stated, ‘The small number of Prisoners at this time in this Gaol and the smallness of the Prison render it difficult to introduce the Regulations required by the new Act and many of them cannot be acted upon in a Prison on so small a scale’. A report to the House of Commons in 1835 said ‘It frequently happens that there are no prisoners at all but three or four may be taken as the daily average’ and between January 1st and December 31st 1839, only 34 people were admitted (including two debtors).
Perhaps one of the reasons for the low numbers of inmates is that they kept escaping. Some, like Smith and Cotterell in March 1837, used the classic sheets tied together method, and climbed over the wall into the yard of the George IV pub next door. Others were less conventional – in April 1890, Harry Oliver climbed up into a ventilator space above his cell and crawled beneath ‘the floor of the volunteer armoury above’, before dropping ten feet into the yard of the George IV. Perhaps the greatest escape happened on Mr Prickett’s watch (who, in this instance, was obviously not watching) in July 1820 when it was reported that ‘the whole of the prisoners in the county gaol of Lichfield, six in number, made their escape’.
You can find out more about the place that they were escaping from by reading the reports written by the Inspector of Prisons after visiting in 1839 and 1847 and the Old Guildhall Cells are open on Saturdays until September for you to visit yourself (more info here). If you happen to spot any of the former residents’ initials and names, ‘cut deep into the woodwork’, as noted by the Inspector, please let me know!
(1) On the subject of mistakes, it’s worth mentioning the howler that John Ash made when compiling his dictionary. Johnson had included the word ‘curmudgeon’ in his dictionary, and suggested that it was derived from a pronunciation of ‘coeur mechant’, information that he noted he had received ‘Fr. an unknown correspondent’. Ash, clearly taking his definition straight from Johnson’s, took the abbreviation Fr. to mean ‘French’ rather than ‘From’, and so ended up with his entry for curmudgeon suggesting that it derived from the French for ‘unknown correspondent’. Ash’s dictionary is also famous for being the first to include definitions for the F-word and C-word in English, words that may well have been uttered when Ash realised his error…
‘Lichfield: Town government’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield(1990), pp. 73-87
Noah Webster and the American Dictionary by David Micklethwait