Cell Mates

The Lichfield Discovered gang will be back at the old Gaol Cells at Lichfield Guildhall this coming Saturday (21st February 2015) between 2pm and 4pm, to resume our quest to record the graffiti left behind by prisoners. There’s plenty of it, but we’re up against the ravages of time and liberal applications of varnish. We did manage to pick up one definite name on our last visit. John Lafferty who, judging by the reports in the Lichfield Mercury, appears to have been a serial offender from Sandford St in the late nineteenth century, scratched his name into one of the cell doors along with the words ‘7 days’, presumably the length of his stay…on that occasion.

Gaol Graffiti 1

Lafferty graffiti

The cells officially reopen to the public in April, and will then be open every Saturday between 10am and 4pm until September.  Since 2012, over 7,000 people have visited and in order to continue to be able to give people access to this part of Lichfield’s history, Joanne Wilson, the city’s Museum and Heritage Officer, is recruiting a team of volunteers to welcome visitors to the cells, keep a record of visitor numbers, answer questions and provide information. You don’t need any previous experience just an interest in heritage, enthusiasm and the ability to smile when you hear, ‘You’re not going to lock us in, are you?’ for the twenty-seventh time that day. Each volunteer session usually lasts around three hours, but dates and times are flexible and you can do as much or as little as you are able to. It’s a great opportunity to get involved in the city’s history and to share it with all kinds of people – I volunteered a couple of years ago and welcomed local people, wedding guests, day trippers, and even someone who’d worked at the Guildhall for years without realising what was behind the red door at the end of the corridor.

Fifty shades of varnish

If you would like to know more about volunteering, please contact Joanne on 01543 264 972 or via email at sjmuseum@lichfield.gov.uk. Alternatively, pop into the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum on Breadmarket St. You are also very welcome to join us on Saturday. And yes, we promise not to lock you in.


Gaol Sentences

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’.

John Prickett's grave at St Chad's, Lichfield

John Prickett’s grave at St Chad’s, Lichfield

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.

County Gaol, Shire Hall, Nottingham. (Alan Murray-Rust) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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’.

No escaping for him...

No escaping for him…

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!   

prison door


(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



By now you’ve probably opened all of the doors on your advent calendar. So here are a few more (although I’m afraid there’s no chocolate). What’s behind these doors? Some we know already, as they are already open to the public.  What about those that aren’t though? Can we open more doors in 2013?

Whilst there’s no doubt that curiosity is one of the reasons I (and I’m sure others!) would like to have a look behind these doors, there are some nobler reasons I promise!  Behind closed doors, things can deteriorate or become lost, without us even knowing that they existed in the first place. Opening these doors allows us to explore and learn and question. It helps us to feel connected to a place, to each other and to all those who have walked through those doors previously.

Things are moving in the right direction. The gaol cells reopened again this yearGareth Thomas, from Lichfield District Council, showed us behind the doors of the council offices and regularly shares the deeds and maps he finds in his magical strongroom. Another important development, that will hopefully gain more momentum in the new year is Dave Moore’s vision regarding the future of Sandfields Pumping Station, a building that’s not only part of Lichfield’s history, but also that of the Black Country and South Staffordshire. Something I would like to see next year is more buildings open for the Heritage Weekend in September (at least), more community involvement in our history, improved access to local history resources, and of course more people getting out there exploring their surroundings, finding out what it is that matters to and interests them.

So that’s my rallying cry for 2013, more on this in the new year, but for now, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who has commented and got involved with this blog in 2012, and of course have a very, Merry Christmas!

Lichfield Law

Lichfield’s old gaol is open to the public once more, allowing us to see how ‘justice’ was administered in the past, and read about some of those on the receiving end of it.

I took a few photos but to get a true feel of the place you really need to visit these ‘…cells, whose echoes only learn to groan’, as Erasmus Darwin put it. 

This is a thought provoking part of Lichfield, tucked away at the back of the Guildhall.

The cells open every Saturday until the end of September from 10am to 4pm. To find out more call 01543 264972 or email sjmuseum@lichfield.gov.uk.  There’s no admission charge (although you are likely to hear at least one person quipping about having to pay to get out).


Life in Lichfield Gaol 1839

I’ve found a report by the Inspector of Prisons for Lichfield Gaol, from 1839.  I think it is absolutely fascinating, so I’ll just be quiet and let you read on……

LICHFIELD.Borough Gaol And House OF Correction.

Construction.—There have been no alterations in the building since my former visit. It is in contemplation to buy the malthouse adjoining, in which case more yards, including a labour-yard, might be built.

There are here :—1 male debtors’ yard.
1 women’s ditto.
1 untried males’ ditto.
    1 convicted males’ ditto.
1 other.
Total, 5 yards.
There is no female debtors’ yard.
There are eight cells here, exclusive of debtors’ cells. In the year ending December 31, 1839, the highest number of prisoners here, exclusive of debtors, was nine.
Management.—This is a police-station house as well as a prison. The whole is clean and neat in proportion to the existing means.
There have been no alterations in the system since my last visit.
The keeper is still a constable, but he does not go out as such in general.
His salary is 60l. Five pounds per annum has been allowed to his wife, the matron, since November, 1839, when she received her appointment.
No wardsmen or wardswomen are employed.
No letters are admitted or taken out, except after being read by the keeper.
No visits to the prisoners are allowed without an order from a magistrate.
On the night preceding my visit, all the prisoners were sleeping in single cells, except one, who was put in the same bed with a debtor, who was melancholy and likely to commit suicide. Except the above, no prisoners were sleeping two in a bed.
The one female prisoner was sleeping in a cell by herself.
They are sometimes obliged to put two in a bed when the prison is crowded, but this might be obviated by placing more bedsteads in some of the cells.
Day-rooms are still in use. The labour is at present carried on in the day-room of the convicted prisoners.The number of prisoners usually confined here is small, and that the keeper does his best I fully believe; but the control over the prisoners is quite insufficient and nominal, because in his absence they are left entirely to their own humours and conversation. He affirms their behaviour to be usually orderly.

Escapes.—There have been none since my last visit.

Suicide.—There has been no case since my last visit.

Solitary Confinement by Sentence of Court.—In such cases the bed is taken out of an ordinary cell and the window closed with a shutter. Before the prisoner goes in, his breakfast is given him. He is taken out for an hour, daily, for exercise.

The diet is bread and water; and, on Sundays, potatoes and meat. The longest term of such confinement is a month; the average, a fortnight. Such persons go to chapel.

Refractory prisoners are locked up for one or two days in a darkened cell.

Religious and other Instruction.—About two years ago the curate of a parish in the town began to perform divine service once on Sundays, with a sermon. He comes occasionally at other times to inquire how the prisoners are getting on, but does not go into the wards. He has no salary, I believe.

The chapel is a small ordinary room, with no pulpit.

There is no ladies’ committee here.

The sacrament has not been delivered since my last visit.

The prisoners are attentive at chapel.

Books are well provided, but there is no instruction in reading.

The behaviour of the prisoners is moderately good. About five were punished for refractory conduct in 1839; but no one was put in irons.

The keeper, during the four years that he has been here, is acquainted with no case of reform after discharge.

Treatment of Sick, Disease, and Mortality.—There are no regular infirmary-rooms, but there are rooms with fire-places suitable for the purpose. The surgeon comes sometimes on passing by, to ask how the prisoners are, but only goes into the wards when sent for, or desired to do so, by the keeper. He sends in a bill, and has no salary. The health of this prison is good.

There has been no death since my last visit. I found no one ill, except a man with a venereal affection.

During the last four years, no woman has been confined to her bed, or has had a worse complaint than a cold. The only cases since my last visit have been colds, venereal affections, and itch. I found a bottle of dissolved salts in the day-room, which had been sent by the surgeon; the men took them when they thought proper. With respect to extra diet, one man now here has had half a pint of milk at night, and half a pint of porter at dinner.

Diet.—This is the same as at my last visit: 3/4 lb of meat in the week; 1lb 1/4lb of best bread daily; 1 lb. of potatoes daily; and 4 pints of gruel daily.

Labour.—It is in contemplation here to get a tread-wheel, or to introduce stone-breaking, if the ground of the adjoining malthouse be purchased. At present the prisoners grind beans and barley with a hand and a crank-mill; the latter will occupy five men at once, but no one is present during labour. If they get a tread-wheel, or break stones, it is then intended to have some officer present during the hours of labour. I found four men grinding beans and barley.

The profits of labour are very little.

The prisoners do not go outside the walls to work on any pretext.

Population.—This continues about the same.
The lowest number here at once in 1839 was, 2 (both felons).
The number of admissions from January 1 to December 31, 1839, was:

34 (including debtors).
32 (without debtors).
The above number does not include the night-charges.
The greatest number of women here at once in 1839 was, 2.
Greatest number of debtors at once in 1839, 2 (both men).
During the last four years there have been no female debtors.
At the date of my visit there were here:—
1 for trial.
4 convicted at sessions.
1 summary conviction.
1 debtor.
7 men, and 1 woman for non-payment of fine. Total, 8.
Of the 7 men, none had been here before.  

Stock.—The bedding consists of 10J prs. of sheets; 22 blankets; 10 mattresses for men; 10 bedsteads. Combs, towels, and soap are well supplied. The stock of clothing consists of 6 suits for men; 16 shirts (12 new); 8 pairs of clogs, and 12 of stockings; 2 shifts; 2 flannel petticoats; 1 black petticoat; 1 pair of shoes; 1 pair of stays; no cap; 2 gowns; 2 aprons.

Registration.—There is one register.
General Remarks.—No prisoner has ever been sent to the county gaol at Stafford during the four years that the keeper has been here. There has been no case of capital offence, or such would have been sent thither.
Relief on Discharge.—Such relief is not afforded without application to the magistrates, and never unless the prisoner has behaved well, and has a long way to go.

Suggestions towards Improvement.

1. Some separation should be made in the chapel between the male and female prisoners.
2. Separate locks and keys should be used on the female side, as directed by the late Prison Act.
3. The window of the untried prisoners’ day-room should be made to open.
4. A journal should be kept by the chaplain and surgeon.
5. More bedsteads and bedding should be procured in order to enable each prisoner to sleep in a separate bed.
6. In order to promote a better separation of the prisoners, three bedsteads should be put up in the room called the weighing-room, which is at present not used as a sleeping-room.
7. The room in which the wood is at present kept should be prepared and used as a dark cell for refractory prisoners.
8. The hard labour at present carried on here is little more than a mode of passing away tedious time, because there is no paid officer present to control the prisoners. It cannot be expected that the keeper can be constantly present. The appointment of a turnkey would be a great advantage in this respect, as well as generally for the better ordering of the prison.
9. This prison has not a sufficient number of wards or divisions to comply with the late Prison Act.

If anyone wants to read more, here is a link to the 1847 inspection.  The inspector’s not too impressed…..