Crime and punishment are always fascinating – and a trip to the Tolhouse shows us how it used to be done.

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Harsher than now, no doubt.

In a society without a regular police force, penalties for those who did get caught were rigorous as a deterrent. There is no doubt being incarcerated in the Tolhouse was a grim prospect, particularly if you had the bad fortune to be poor. From its origins 800 years ago as a private house, to a tax office for herrings, to jail and courthouse and to its current function as a museum, the building has many tales to tell of smugglers, witches, murderous villains, hard-luck stories and a genuine homegrown reformer.

Who built the house?

This medieval building, surrounded now by modern offices and housing, was probably first owned by a merchant family. Being close to the towns South Quay, with plenty of downstairs storage space, it would be ideal for trade goods. Well built, with sturdy walls, by the 1300s it was used as a place for paying tolls (hence Tolhouse) on herring catches. The great hall, where the original owners probably dined, became known as the Heighning Chamber, where local people came to pay taxes. Not universally popular, you might imagine, and nor was the buildings other use. Before long, town officials were also using it as a jail.

What sort of prison was it?

The complex was far larger than what we see now, probably incorporating the site now occupied by the library next door. The underground store rooms made a perfect dungeon, while the upper chamber became the court room where local magistrates dispensed justice. It was pretty rough justice. Whipping, branding with irons, being humiliatingly locked up in the public stocks and the death penalty were common punishments. The penalty for petty theft anything worth more than a shilling was, in theory, hanging. The ultimate sanction was not always administered, but it was there on the statute books. Juries, however, were sometimes reluctant to convict if they knew a person could be executed, so there were plenty of acquittals. There were no separate cells at the Tolhouse men, women and, worst of all, children crowded together in dark, damp, unhealthy rooms. Your treatment depended on how rich you were. Jails were privately run, and the jailer would have to be paid for everything food, bedding, clothes, any kind of outside visits. In an age when being poor was liable to land you in trouble vagrancy was an offence pauper prisoners could starve to death. Some were put to hard labour, perhaps on a treadmill, or picking oakum to earn their keep.

Who was locked up there?

Smuggling and piracy have been a problem for the authorities ever since trade was first taxed. Yarmouths strategic coastal position meant it was at the centre of affairs. By the time of Elizabeth I, Admiralty Courts sat at the Tolhouse and sent out ships to counter smugglers and pirates. In 1613 one of these Admiralty cutters, The Seahorse, fought and captured some pirates. They were tried at the Tolhouse and publicly hanged in Yarmouth. Popular goods such as tea, spirits and tobacco continued to be smuggled, some offenders were caught, and cases were heard until 1823. Illustrated information panels and a lively audio guide at the museum tell these and other stories in graphic detail. Thus we hear about Sybil Climne, tried and acquitted for murder in 1312. In earlier days, juries were made up of people who knew the defendant, so a persons reputation might save them. Lucky Richard of Cantley was found not guilty of theft in 1316 as the jury said he was of good repute. Thomas Gibson, aged 24, was less fortunate. In 1825 he was hanged for his second offence of stealing shawls and silk handkerchiefs.

Time for some reform.

Sarah Martin was a dressmaker from Caistor, near Norwich. Inspired by religious faith, and perhaps inspired by pioneers like Elizabeth Fry, she began visiting the prison in 1818, teaching the inmates to read and write. Attitudes towards prisoners were slowly becoming more liberal, and an increasing number of people agreed with Sarah that they could be reformed through better treatment. Other reformers, such as John Howard, denounced the filthy conditions in which Tolhouse prisoners were kept. Things got even more crowded when the local Bridewell closed, and more petty offenders were sent to the Tolhouse. In 1853 the Penal Servitude Act was passed to clean up prisons.

A vast improvement?

Things became more orderly, jailers fees having been abolished earlier, and official allowances for food were brought in. Life became a little more humane, not that prison was a soft option. The basement dungeon was used as solitary confinement for prisoners who stepped out of line. The cells have been recreated, and visitors can experience a little of the claustrophobic conditions in which they were kept. We can learn the salutary tales of Sarah Hunnibal and Charles Girdlestone. Girdlestone was what we would now call a serial young offender who eventually joined the Navy, while Sarah had a breakdown when imprisoned in 1856; eventually she was found dead in her cell. Thoughtfully, the museum asks visitors to compare the modern criminal justice system with that of past days.

Any famous villains?

Matthew Hopkins, the infamous witchfinder general turned up in Yarmouth in 1645. Most people in the 17th century, even the educated, believed in witchcraft. Hopkins made a fine living for a year or two finding out witches, torturing them to get a confession and then seeing them tried. Several Yarmouth women were found guilty and hanged; Hopkins bloody reign was short-lived as he died two years later.

And the present day?

The Tolhouse prison finally closed in 1878. It escaped demolition, and was restored as a library and museum. Yarmouth was badly bombed during the second world war, and the Tolhouse was almost destroyed in 1941. After postwar rebuilding, the current displays were remodelled in 2002.

The Tolhouse in in Tolhouse Street, just off South Quay, Yarmouth. Telephone 01493 858900 or log on to www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

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