Grisly history of Yarmouth jail revealed

Stephen Pullinger As part of this week's National Heritage open days programme, staff at Yarmouth's Tolhouse Museum have opened the wooden ladder down into the dank basement of the town's medieval jail.

Stephen Pullinger

It is a trapdoor that opens on to a grisly chapter of Norfolk history - and museum visitors are being invited through it for the first time.

As part of this week's National Heritage open days programme, staff at Yarmouth's Tolhouse Museum have opened the wooden ladder down into the dank basement of the town's medieval jail.

No larger than the living room of a family home, the dark “hold” was the place where hapless prisoners were lowered by rope to spend up to 10 years awaiting trial and sentencing.

Les Cole, local historian and visitor service assistant at the Tolhouse, said: “The hold was used from 1262 until the mid 16th century. There might have been anything up to 30 prisoners in the cramped conditions and men women and children were all kept together - only felons and debtors were kept separate.”

Mr Cole said many of the felons would have ended up hanged on Yarmouth Denes - which was not surprising considering that 222 crimes were punishable by death under English law until 1861. Debtors would have stayed in the hold until someone paid to release them.

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“The hold would have been overrun with rats and there was no sanitation. Some of the prisoners undoubtedly would have succumbed to disease before their trial,” he said.

“Debtors would have been dependent on friends tossing food down the ventilation shafts to them. Felons would have been fed but if they were subsequently acquitted they would have had to pay their jail food bill or be sent down into the hold again as a debtor.”

Mr Cole, who is showing visitors round over the free open days - which run until Sunday - said it was documented that the hold had been the uncomfortable abode of everyone from suspected witches to children as young as seven whose only crime might have been stealing food because they were poor and hungry.

Visitors will be able to see the holes in the stone wall into which iron shackles were secured. Other holes show where the bars would have been to separate the felons from debtors.

Mr Cole said that even by the 1550s, it was felt the hold was “too grim for the times” and it was moved to another part of the Tolhouse.

Area museums officer James Steward said the hold was normally closed for health and safety reasons and this was the first opportunity the public was being given to see it.

He described the Tolhouse as “one of the most important historic buildings in Norfolk”.

t A host of attractions across Norfolk and Suffolk are opening as part of Heritage Open Days, designed to celebrate England's fantastic architecture and culture. For the extensive list log on to www.heritageopendays.org.uk