Industrialising Prison, Georgian Style

New Bailey Prison Excavations in Salford, March 2015.

New Bailey Prison Excavations in Salford, March 2015.

For several years now the University of Salford Centre for Applied Archaeology has been exploring the site of New Bailey Prison in the centre of Salford, ahead of regeneration led by Muse Developments. The site is spread across several redevelopment packages so this is the third excavation since 2013, and the scale and impact of the prison are now very visible.

New Bailey was constructed between 1787 and 1790 and was the first prison in England to be built entirely in accordance with the reformist principles of John Howard, as set out in his landmark work The State of Prisons, published in 1777. His proposition was that prisoners could be reformed and morally improved through hard work, prayer, being categorised according to their level of offence and separated by sex, and from the other inmates, in individual cells. With Georgian England rapidly industrialising and urban populations booming his ideas found a ready ear in Government, and although philanthropic in outlook, as implemented over the next 50 years these new prisons amounted to the industrialisation of prison life through the mass-concentration and control of felons in purpose-built and designed structures.

Lancashire was an early pioneer, with the Sheriff Thomas Butterworth Bayley (after whom the site was named) approving in 1787 the construction of a new prison to cope with the offenders in the Hundred of Salford, an ancient administrative district. This area covered the south-eastern part of the old county, which was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution. It contained the booming manufacturing town of Manchester, whose population grew from 23,000 in 1773 to 74,000 in 1801. The prison acted as both a holding cell before trial and as a place of incarceration afterwards, should the defendant be unlucky enough to be found guilty of a misdemeanour or felony.

In its first phase the prison comprised a rectangular enclosure surrounded by boundary wall, within which were the prison gardens, a radial-plan Gaolers Building and a Gate Keeper’s Lodge. It was expanded in the 1810s with the clearance of Bolton and Faulkner Street to the west, making way for the western extension of the New Bailey Prison. Within this extension four structures were erected housing the Male Felon Workshops and Yards (excavated in 2013), Male Felon Wards, a Cook House and a Hospital. A third phase of expansion up to the 1840s included the addition in the western half of the complex of a Turn Keys’ Office, Clerks’ Office and a new Chapel. In the eastern part of the site the original prison building was partially demolished to make way for the construction of a Tread Wheel (excavated in 2014), Stables and Mill House, a block of Male Misdemeanant Workshops and Yards, a block of Male Misdemeanant Wards and a block of Female Felon Workshops and Wards.

The prison was used for minor offences, rather than capital crimes: several members of the crowd from the Peterloo Massacre were briefly held here in 1819. However, the Manchester Martyrs, three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, were hung here in 1867. By the 1860s the prison had become outmoded, and unfit for an urban conurbation of more than half a million people. It was replaced by Strangeways Prison, which opened in 1868.The site was sold to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway who demolished it in 1871 and built railway sidings over the site.

The current excavations are looking at part of the mid- to late 1810s extension. This was erected at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the timing might be significant. This part of the site, and the northern section excavated in 2013, have both been shown to have massive brick foundations built on the bedrock, in some areas over 2m deep, with relieving arches supporting the cell and workshop walls. Although the prisons were of two stories the site seems over engineered. Was it a case of job-creation to try to help off-set the unemployment in Manchester and Salford at the end of the wars?

The most striking feature of the current site is its curving plan, the excavations revealing a 90 degree arc of buildings. Though the extension might be thought to be an admission of the failure of the underlying principles of the original prison, these were nevertheless carried into the new design with rows of cells, each divided by day rooms along the inner part of the radius and larger workshops (used for rope unwinding and bobbin winding), separated by a wide passageway, along the outside of the radius. Exercise was an important part of the regime and each block of cells had access to a walled outdoor yard, with a sentry box in one corner.

By the mid-19th century the site had become over-crowed with around 1000 prisoners. Yet two surprising aspects of the site are the lack of artefacts and the lack of rubble. Both are probably the result of careful demolition and the recycling of the building materials after the prison closed. Yet we do have two artefacts: the ceremonial trowel and mallet used at the laying of the first foundations in 1787. These were recently rediscovered in a private store and are current available for members of the public to see on the regular tours of the excavations.

It is easy to be horrified, from an early-21st-century perspective, at the nature of the harsh regime and lack of personal space within the prison: indeed the inner cells were smaller than those towards the rim of the radius so that tall prisoners would not have been able to lie down. Yet disease was not common, partly because the prisoners had access to a doctor, but also due to regular meals, washing facilities and clean clothing. They also had individual sleeping rooms. As Frederick Engels recorded in his classic social commentary published in 1845, The Condition of the Working Class in England, the circumstances of thousands of urban working class people in central Salford and Manchester were much worse. Strict and regimented punishment might have been delivered on an industrial scale at New Bailey Prison, but perhaps the real horrors of the industrial city were to be found in the disease-ridden, poorly built and overcrowded slums of Ancoats, Little Ireland and New Islington.


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