How prison went from ‘vilest jail in England’ to the gold standard for lock-ups around the globe

An exhibit telling the horrors of the 'vilest prison in England' at the Wymondham Bridewell. Photo:

An exhibit telling the horrors of the 'vilest prison in England' at the Wymondham Bridewell. Photo: Wymondham Heritage Museum - Credit: Archant

For the hundreds of incarcerated men, women and children serving prison time in the 1700s, life was a hellish experience.

Wymondham Museum reopens for the new season.A new prisoner display in the cellars.

Wymondham Museum reopens for the new season.A new prisoner display in the cellars. - Credit: Archant

Rats and malignant disease ran rife in windowless cells while prisoners lay chained together in complete darkness, often with little chance of ever escaping their confines.

But in the summer of 1779, one of the world's best known prison reformers took a trip to Wymondham for a prison visit which would lead to an international revolution.

The Wymondham Bridewell on Norwich Road is now a museum which has reopened for 2019 boasting new exhibits, but it started life in 1619 when the basement of a medieval house was converted into a dungeon.

Prison life revolved around hard labour and measly bread and pea suppers, with hefty release fees meaning even after time was served, many prisoners were unable to leave.

Prison reformer John Howard, who visitied the Wymondham Bridewell in 1779, sparking changes to priso

Prison reformer John Howard, who visitied the Wymondham Bridewell in 1779, sparking changes to prisons across the globe. Picture: Submitted - Credit: Archant


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However by 1775, High Sheriff of Bedfordshire John Howard was on a mission to transform the country's prison system, touring England to uncover the atrocities happening behind bars.

In May 1779, John Howard descended the 16 steps into Wymondham Bridewell, and described the site as 'one of the vilest prisons in England'.

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The reformist was so horrified by what he witnessed that he immediately began drafting recommendations, which formed the basis of a complete redesign by local architect Sir Thomas Beevor five years later.

In 1784 the 'new model prison' opened, boasting single prisoner cells, an infirmary and men and women kept in separate wings of the building.

The Wymondham Heritage Museum, site of 'the vilest prison in England'. Photo: Submitted

The Wymondham Heritage Museum, site of 'the vilest prison in England'. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

Reform rather than repression was the guiding principle of the new prison and the Wymondham Bridewell was used as a blueprint for humane incarceration across England and the USA.

In following years the space would be used as a women's only penitentiary, a police station and a court room, before it was bought by the Wymondham Heritage Society in 1994 and converted into a museum.

The Wymondham Heritage Museum stands as a testament to the building's grizzly history, with its original cobbled floor, claustrophobic cells and interactive exhibits telling the stories of inmates past.

The museum reopened for 2019 on Monday, March 4, boasting brand new exhibitions as well as information on its own history.

The courtyard at Wymondham Bridewell, previously an exercise yard for prisoners. Photo: Submitted

The courtyard at Wymondham Bridewell, previously an exercise yard for prisoners. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

Find out more www.wymondhamheritagemuseum.co.uk.

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