About Your Local Lock-Up

Have you ever wondered what happened to men, women and children, apprehended on suspicion of having committed crime, or for being drunk, disorderly or riotous, in the olden days?

There is a good chance that they were imprisoned in a local lock-up for a day or two while the local authorities decided what to do with them. Some would then have been taken to a local magistrate who would have decided their fate: to face trial, pay a fine, or go prison. Others would have been released back into the community, their short confinement, according to local opinion, having served as punishment enough. Lock-ups were, therefore, a gateway to the criminal justice system as well as an expression of justice at the local level. They were important local institutions.

Yet despite this, and the survival of hundreds of these monuments across the British landscape, we know relatively little about them. Historic lock-ups are often regarded as interesting local curiosities rather than as an expression of the power of the state. We have no idea how many there were, what were the trends in their construction and use, and how local people typically interacted with them.

Local Lock-Ups aims to transform our understanding of the local lock-up. It derives from a previous project on 19th Century Prisons, more information about which can be found here. In sum, the process of recovering the penal landscape of nineteenth-century England exposed, in the historic record, hundreds of local lock ups, which prison reformers, inspectors, and policymakers of that period thought were important enough to include in their lists of places of confinement. Moreover, the mid-century prison inspectors considered it imperative that lock-ups, even though used as mere holding pens, be made suitable for human habitation. At minimum, the inspectors argued, they should be dry, warm and hygienic.

For many reasons, it became clear that the 378 lock-ups uncovered for the 19th Century Prisons database represented just the tip of the iceberg of the total number of structures used for temporary confinement and restraint in the period 1800-1899. And though many were built in the nineteenth century, partly as a consequence of the arrival of new police forces, lock-ups as an institution both pre-dated the nineteenth century and continued to be used into the twentieth century. To have any chance of understanding the significance of this local experience of criminal justice, a new methodology, and a new dataset, was needed.

Local Lock-Ups, then, seeks to collect and collate information about lock-ups which existed in all four nations of the British Isles and were in use up to 1999. For the purposes of the project, we have adopted a broad definition of a local lock-up: any building or structure that was used to confine or restrain temporarily those accused of committing a criminal act or apprehended for drunken, disorderly, or riotous behaviour, between 1500 and 1999.

The notion of ‘temporary imprisonment’ is critical to our definition of a lock-up. These were not prisons in which the accused were remanded to await trial or the convicted served sentences (for these institutions, see our companion project, 19th Century Prisons Database). Instead, lock-ups were used to confine men, women and children:

  • in the interval between apprehension (or arrest) and appearance before a local magistrate (though it is important to note that some of those imprisoned in a lock-up never made it to the magistrate but were released, their temporary imprisonment considered punishment enough for their offence against the local community);
  • during the period of their trial at Quarter Sessions or Assizes, especially when these courts were held in locations without a local prison;
  • when being moved between prisons, or from one local jurisdiction to another. These were journeys which could take several days and so overnight accommodation at staging posts was required.

Alongside purpose-built lock-ups (also known as cages, blind houses, round houses and kidcotes), we include cells in police stations, courthouses, town halls, workhouses as well as in private dwellings and commercial buildings. We are also interested in lock-up cells located in prisons, and in prisons which became lock-ups when they were no longer used to hold men and women awaiting trial or sentenced to imprisonment. And we want to know about structures used for confinement and restraint, such as stocks and chains. By being so comprehensive, we hope we to develop a better understanding of the various ways in which people in the past experienced the criminal justice system.

There is no way that we can create such a broad and ambitious dataset without help – which is why we are asking for the help of anyone with an interest in history, historical monuments, and heritage to contribute to this project. We need eyes and ears on the ground, in every corner of the British Isles, to recover these lock-ups, including those which survive and those which no longer exist in our landscape. To give the best possible chance of recovery, we have widened the variety of evidence that we will accept to prove the existence of a lock up, and to provide a flavour of the role of the lock up in the local community. Please send us your anecdotes, and stories that have been handed down in your community. And, please send us your pictures!

We are also keen to demonstrate both the importance of these surviving monuments to local communities, and of the collation of data on lock-ups across the British Isles. In other words, we want to know what you think about your local lock-up, how you or your community have made use of a surviving lock up for historical or other purposes, and how you are using the data from this resource. Feel free to leave comments on the records of lock-ups contained in the database (using the comment function) and please consider sending us your story.

If you would like to make a more substantial contribution to this project, for example, by extracting data on multiple lock-ups from specific sets of sources, or by recovering lock-ups located in a particular area, or by providing regular stories on lock-ups, please consider becoming a contributor. We also welcome those from local history societies, museums, or with businesses located in former lock-ups who would like to curate information about their own lock-up via this site – we can help you to do this. We would greatly appreciate your help and input on the project.

Finally, for further information on the project, or to give us feedback or suggestions, please do get in touch.