Friday 21 August 2009

The Bristol Gaol

I received an email recently asking me about the New Bristol Gaol, situated on the New Cut. I didn't know much about the place other than it was once a gruesome establishment where they used to hang criminals, so I did some research and found it to have a fascinating and morbid history.

Commissioned in 1816 by the city council for a budget of £60,000 - in today's money that would cost around £2m - the New Gaol opened its doors to inmates in 1820. It housed a maximum of 197 prisoners of mixed sex who were, for that time, unusually housed in single cells measuring around 6ft by 9ft.

When constructed reports claimed it to "have beautiful views of the surrounding countryside" as well as being "unequalled throughout England for convenience, health and construction." Even the 20ft boundary wall was built from variegated marble!

Once prisoners were in situ though, conditions deteriorated very quickly. The dedicated well provided water that was undrinkable, the tiny windows did not allow air to circulate and during the winter it got extremely cold.

The granite built gatehouse flat roof was built with a trap door, specifically for the purpose of hanging criminals. The familiar and more humane 'long drop' method where the victim's own bodyweight combined with the fall broke the neck, had yet to be developed. The victim was, at this time, bound hand and foot, and then dropped through a trap door on a short rope. This lead to the victim to strangle to death over a period of minutes - usually with much writhing around and a huge amount of distress.

By 1872 the Home Office had decided that the prison was no longer fit for purpose and ordered a larger and more appropriate building be constructed. The New Gaol was replaced by Horfield Prison in 1884. The building fell into ruin, eventually being sold to the famous Great Western Railway in 1895. They demolished most of the walls and inner buildings to use the site as a coal shed.

The only visible evidence of the Gaol today is the front gate and portcullis entrance. It has been given Grade 2 Listed status by English Heritage, but does face an uncertain future as the land it sits on is privately owned and it is understood the owner is looking to develop the site. Whatever happens it is hoped this part of Bristol's history is kept intact and not erased from the landscape.


  1. Seems to completely skip over the breaking into and burning, releasing of prisoners etc in the Bristol riots of 1831. Also the entrance is not the only remaining part, It is in fact the smallest remaining part of the Gaol. There is a large part of the original Wall (approx 20ft high) off to the right of the Gate. Walking up towards The Lousiana Pub keep looking up and to your left you will spot it. In fact it goes all the way around the corner and then dog legs away from the Street following and forming original outline shewn on old maps of the area. If you go on Google street view you will be able to see it perfectly.This area especially the Old Gaol entrance was my playground when I was a child.. Ted Cole.

  2. email is and not the one shown!

  3. If Stuart cares to contact me for a chat I would only be too glad to waffle on a bit more as I know a few more facts re Gaol that are too involved for a one finger typist such as myself. email as above, Ted.