Times Past: Doing hard time in South Molton gaol

The old South Molton police station building 

The old South Molton police station building - Credit: Roger Cornfoot/Getty

In 1851 the Government Inspector of Prisons visited South Molton to view the Borough Gaol and House of Correction in East Street which had been built in 1828-9 at the cost of £2,000.  

He noted that the prison was very small, there being on the ground floor four cells for men and two small ‘airing yards’ where the prisoners could exercise. Above these were four ‘rooms’ for women without any exercise area.  

The men’s cells were floored with lime-ash and each held an iron bedstead though only one had a fire-place, the rest being ‘destitute of all means of artificial warmth or ventilation’. The three female cells again had only one fireplace. 

The yards had two ‘very damp and cold’ sheds where the men crushed bones for use in agriculture, the sale of which brought in £5 per year. The only prisoner present at the time of the inspector’s visit, a sheep stealer serving nine months, was ‘suffering from a severe attack of catarrh’ brought on by this work. 

This man would have been receiving the official weekly diet viz. 124 ozs of bread, 28 ozs of milk, 1 lb of bacon and 7 lbs of potatoes.  

Women and children under 12 (!) received the same, all bar 14 ozs of bread. Vagrants got just one-and-a-half pounds of bread and a pint of milk and water a day. 

No chaplain or schoolmaster attended the prisoners so they were ‘entirely destitute of moral and religious instruction’ though a surgeon came to check their health three times a week.  

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The town magistrates inspected the prison monthly and the gaoler received wages of £40 per year. 

Because of all the faults identified the inspector urged the immediate closure of the prison with all future prisoners being sent to Exeter. 

He also visited the ‘lock-up house’ which was evidently part of the police station which itself was next to the prison. There were only two cells, being ‘built of wood lined with sheet iron’.  

Unsurprisingly they were ‘exceedingly cold and damp’ and the inspector reckoned anyone confined in them would soon suffer ill-health.  

He again recommended that usage of these cells should be discontinued suggesting that the Borough Gaol could be adapted to provide new police cells. 

Action did follow and the iron-lined cells were abandoned with all short-term prisoners being held in the refurbished Borough Gaol - doubtless a welcome series of changes to the less law-abiding South Moltonians of the past. 

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