Neil Haverson, one of the curators at the Wymondham Heritage Museum, tells us the fascinating history of this former county Bridewell and police station.
The first Bridewell in the market town of Wymondham, dates from 1619 when the basement of an old medieval house, on the site of the existing Bridewell, was used as a dungeon. Prisoners were kept in chains in the darkness.
Howard was born in Hackney in 1726, the son of a partner in an upholstery business. When his father died in 1742 he inherited considerable wealth and travelled widely on the continent. In 1773 he became High Sheriff in Bedfordshire. Among his responsibilities was Bedford Gaol. When he inspected it he was appalled at the conditions and shocked that the only money jailers got was fees from the prisoners. Also, that prisoners were kept in after serving their sentence because they hadn’t paid their release fees.
Howard persuaded the House of Commons to pass two acts that stipulated first that discharged persons should be set at liberty in open court and that discharge fees should be abolished and secondly, that justices should be required to see to the health of prisoners. However, he was not satisfied that the acts had been fully implemented. Between 1775 and 1790 he made seven journeys across Europe in search of a humane prison system for English gaols to follow.
In 1779 he came to Wymondham’s Bridewell. He described it as “one of the vilest prisons in England”. He put forward recommendations which led to the building of a new Wymondham Bridewell. It followed the design of Sir Thomas Beevor. Beevor was well-known in the town for his agricultural interests and was chairman of the local magistrates. A meeting was held at the King’s Head in Wymondham Market Place in July 1784 and a committee formed “for the erecting of an additional building to the Wymondham Bridewell”. Sir Thomas produced the first set of rules for the best management of prisons.
Built in 1785 to John Howard’s standards, the “new model prison” in The Bridewell opened with two wings containing seven or eight cells in each and a workhouse on the ground floor. A staircase led to women’s cells with a workroom, infirmary, scullery and toilet. Other innovations included each prisoner having his or her own cell and men and women being kept separately from each other. Reform rather than repression was the guiding principle of the new prison. Following the Wymondham model, these more humane prisons were built in other parts of the country and America.
The Bridewell closed in 1825 but reopened as the Norfolk Women’s Penitentiary in 1832. The women prisoners ran a laundry and washing was hung on lines in the old exercise yard, now the museum’s garden. A 1995 excavation of the yard, revealed the original cobbled dungeon floor, which is now on public view. Each prisoner was given a New Testament and one of these was used to make a pack of playing cards, which can be seen in the museum today.
The building served as a prison 1785-1878, a police station 1850-1963 and a courthouse 1879-1992. In 1879 the south wing of the Bridewell, now the main gallery of the museum, was converted to a courtroom. Magistrates also had rooms in a part of the building which had previously been the prison governor’s house. Petty Sessions were held there until 1992.
The Bridewell then became derelict until Wymondham Heritage Society bought it with the aid of grants, from Norfolk County Council in 1994. In 1996 the Duke of Gloucester officially opened Wymondham Heritage Museum and the Bridewell complex.
Visitors to The Bridewell can see the steps that John Howard descended to inspect the dungeons, a recreation of the dungeon, original ankle chains plus a cell door dating from 1810.
Wymondham Heritage Museum, The Bridewell, Norwich Road, Wymondham is open daily March 2nd 2020 to October 31st, 10am to 4pm, Sundays 1pm to 4pm. Bridewell Tearoom Monday – Friday 10.30 to 3.30. Free entry and Tearoom open on Heritage Open Day Saturday September 21. For more information go to www.wymondhamheritagemuseum.co.uk