The Tolhouse Great Yarmouth: Prison, Police, Paranormal

To mark 60 years since the re-opening of the Tolhouse Museum in Great Yarmouth, Diane Marks, from Norfolk Museums Service, has agreed to tell us about the history of this fascinating building.

Previous posts have looked at the transformation of an old gaol and courthouse into a museum in the late 19th century, and the Tolhouse in a broader context of penal history. In this post, Diane sheds more light on the use of the Tolhouse as a prison and police station, as well as some paranormal activities…

View of the prison cells at the Tolhouse Museum (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)


In 1262 Henry III granted a charter for a wall, moat and gaol to be built in Yarmouth. They decided to construct a purpose-built gaol (The Castle which stood on King Street). Whilst this was being built the Tolhouse was turned into a temporary gaol as it was the only building available strong enough to hold prisoners.  It was split into two, the southern part being the gaol and the northern part the Tolhouse, guild hall and courthouse.

Yarmouth Castle in King Street. Demolished in 1621, though the foundations remain beneath 151 King Street. (With kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

The Castle in King Street was completed about 1330 but as far as we know was never used as a gaol.  The Tolhouse had been the gaol for nearly 70 years and it was decided not to move the prisoners.

The Tolhouse would have remained virtually unaltered for many years until 1552 when the council decided they wanted to improve the conditions for the prisoners as well as segregate men from women.

Money shall be taken out of the Heyning Money, Haven Money or out of some other place of office so that the Tolhouse to be in like manner trimmed and built as fast as may be.

Various alterations were made including construction of the new courtroom, changes to entrances and moving the Hold.  It had been suggested that the prisoners be removed to the Castle whilst the alterations were taking place. However, it was considered that the Castle was not in a fit state to receive them and they therefore remained at the Tolhouse.  That is why the original hold and the south gable still survive.

16th century alterations (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

Over the years there were many more alterations including addition of the cells  in the 1790s (which are still in existence today) as a result of the bread riots to secure the most dangerous felons.

In 1797 the magistrates ordered the chamberlains to line the joists in the woodwork of the ‘new cells’ with iron and iron bars to be put over the partition dividing the men from the women.

Postcard showing the old cells display in the original museum (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

It was also in 1797 that Dutch prisoners were brought here from the Battle of Camperdown. As there was insufficient accommodation in the Tolhouse, the higher ranks were housed in The Ship in Greyfriars’ Way whilst buildings in Row 110 were turned into temporary prisons for the lower ranks.

The Ship, in Greyfriars’ Way (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

The easternmost cell in the Tolhouse was known as the Condemned Cell as it was used for those sentenced to hang.

The condemned cell at the Tolhouse (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

In 1813 John Hannah strangled his wife to death. He was brought to the Tolhouse and put in the Condemned Cell. He tried to commit suicide by putting a skewer through his throat but prevented from doing so to enable justice to be served. On his way to North Denes he told the Gaoler that on returning to the Tolhouse he would find 4s 6d by his cell door. Even though he was being hanged he still had to pay the gaoler.

Hannah has the dubious honour of being the last person to be executed in Yarmouth. After that sentences were carried out in Norwich. However condemned prisoners would still be kept at the Tolhouse awaiting their fate.

Execution broadside, describing the trial, confession and execution of John Hannah at Yarmouth (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

Another resident of the Condemned Cell was Samuel Yarham whose story is told in a current display in the museum.  Yarham murdered Harriet Candler in her shop in Howard Street in 1844. He tried to turn Queen’s Evidence but was caught out by the truth – he was sentenced to death and put in the Condemned Cell before being taken to Norwich where he was hanged on Castle Mount in front of 30,000 people on 11 April 1846.

Current display in the Tolhouse Museum about Samuel Yarham (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

In 1819 the Council purchased a warehouse and the Tuns Tavern, which were at the rear of the Tolhouse, and converted these into the House of Correction with exercise yard and treadmill added too.

The Tolhouse Gaol was extended again in 1825 to accommodate the occupants of the Bridewell which had been in the Market Place.

The death knell for the gaol was the 1865 Prison Act which stated that all prisoners must have their own cell. The Tolhouse (which at that time included the area now occupied by the library) was not big enough to comply nor could it expand further as it was surrounded on three sides by buildings and the fourth by the street.

It was suggested that a new gaol be built on North Denes, but in the end, it was decided that Norwich Gaol was perfectly able to accommodate all Yarmouth prisoners. The tried felons and debtors were moved out in 1875 and the untried felons in 1878 resulting in the closure of the Tolhouse Gaol. This left only the courtroom in operation at the Tolhouse.

The old Town Hall was demolished in 1879 and a new one opened in 1882 containing a purpose-built courtroom. This meant that the last service had been removed from the Tolhouse. That year the New Works, Repairs and Markets Committee recommended that the Tolhouse be sold.

Of course, the Tolhouse was saved and went on to become a library and then museum, as documented in previous posts, definitely a good decision in preserving this important building which is now one of the UK’s oldest civic buildings.


Although the Police Station wasn’t based in the Tolhouse for long, it is a
documented use of the building and the distinctive police lamp
is captured in this great photograph from Picture Norfolk. (With kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

In 1829 Robert Peel introduced the Police Force and Yarmouth’s first Police Office was established in the Tolhouse in 1836. In 1842 the Police Station moved to the rear of the Town Hall on Middlegate Street.


Whether you’re a believer or a sceptic… it’s a fact that the Tolhouse certainly does have a long, interesting and turbulent history and it’s often said that if walls could talk it would definitely have some tales to tell…

View of the cells at the Tolhouse which date back to the 1790s (with kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service)

Over the last few years, The Tolhouse has become a popular venue for hire by paranormal investigation groups.

The groups typically arrive around 8pm and stay until 2am. They move around the building in all areas – including the original Hold.

Several videos can be found on YouTube from groups who have held investigations at the Tolhouse in recent years.

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Staff who work in the building have reported feelings of an eerie presence and have heard unexplained noises and voices – others are very sceptical. It’s a matter of what people believe and this post is not attempting to explain things one way or the other….

If it’s something you are interested in attending – you can find details of companies hosting events on the internet (NB bookings are handled by the company direct and we hire the venue only). If you are a member of a group interested in hiring either the Tolhouse Gaol or Elizabethan House Museum for an event please get in touch via email and we will send the details:


To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Tolhouse Museum, staff at Norfolk Museums Service would love to hear your stories. Please get in touch if you have anything to share – all contributions gratefully received!

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With many thanks to Diane Marks for sharing her posts written to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the re-opening of the Tolhouse Museum in Great Yarmouth. Diane’s original post on ‘Tolhouse: Prison, Police and Paranormal!’ can be found here:

Many thanks also to Norfolk Museums Service and Time and Tide Museum for permission to display images from their collection.


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