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Beginnings

The order to build a Jail or Gaol in Derby was not immediately followed up following the Assize of Clarendon of 1166. Indeed, Derbyshire’s criminals were taken to Nottingham Castle which was the prison for the Counties of both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. There, the fate of the prisoners was decided and so, it was deemed unnecessary to lay out the required expenditure to construct a jail in Derby. However, following an Act of Parliament passed in 23 Henry VIII,

“…Be it further enacted by authority aforesaid that like provision in every behalf be had for a newe Gayle be made within the Countie of Darbye, in like form as is afore provided for other Shires aforesaid.”

The “newe Gayle” was erected across the width of the Cornmarket and alongside the Markeaton Brook. The gaoler’s accommodation was at street level but the cells were below that and level with the Brook. Needless to say, the Brook also served as the Town’s main sewer and it was not long before it became a “foul stinking place”. Nevertheless, it survived for almost 200 years when, following numerous complaints (and, no doubt, deaths from disease), it was decided to build a more substantial structure away from the town centre.

A meeting was called and an advert placed in the Derby Mercury of 21st August 1755 whereby:-
“The Gentlemen of the County of Derby are desired to meet at the King’s Head in DERBY, on Monday the fifteenth of next Month, at 12 o’Clock, to take into consideration the present State of the County GOAL.” (The spelling of GAOL and GOAL were interchangeable.)

The meeting would appear to have been successful and few could doubt the necessity of relocating the Gaol outside and away from the principle road through Derby (which, until recently, was the main London to Carlisle road, the A6). In the Mercury it was reported that on 30th October 1755, articles had been drawn up for the construction of the new Gaol and the location decided on was Nun’s Green. This area to the west of the town had been the one of the traditional execution places for Derby and therefore a logical site to build a more substantial Gaol.

In order to economise on the construction costs the architect, William Hiorns (or Hirons) of Warwickshire was asked to incorporate as much as possible of the usable materials from the Cornmarket premises in the new building. Spring 1756 saw the dismantling at last of the wholly unsuitable Cornmarket Gaol and by the end of 1756 the new building had its first complement of prisoners. It was designed to house a maximum of 29 prisoners ranging from Poor Debtors to Execution victims, however, it soon became apparent that the accommodation was going to be insufficient.

Between 1730 and 1832 there were in excess of 260 crimes which carried the death penalty. This was known as the “Bloody Code” and offences ranged from being seen in the street with a sooty face, stealing anything valued in excess of 4s 6d (twenty two and a half pence), damaging fishponds, writing a threatening letter etc; right through to Murder, Treason, Piracy and Arson in His Majesty’s Ship’s Dockyard. Needless to say, everyday life for most people was hard and unrelenting. Employment was difficult to obtain and the pay very meagre. Therefore, to subsidise their existence, resorting to theft was the last, desperate option open to many to provide food for themselves and their families. Of course there were hard and fast villains who resorted to crime as a way of making a living and murder was an all too common occurrence. The law was enforced rigidly and, when deemed necessary, the Justices would be seen to make “an example” of certain individuals as was the case with the men from Pentrich, Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner. Accused of High Treason, these men were sentenced to be Hanged, Drawn and Quartered. It was not, however, the last time the awful sentence was handed down. That was in 1820 in London when the Cato Street Conspirators, Arthur Thistlewood (who knew Brandreth), John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd, James Ings and William Davidson were accused of High Treason. Similarly, the Prince Regent granted clemency and commuted the sentence to Hanging and Beheading only. The difference being the Pentrich men were decapitated with an axe (the last time it was ever used) whilst a knife was used, by a surgeon, on the Cato Street men. The identity of the executioner of the Pentrich men remains a mystery and the only details were that he was a “strong, muscular collier from Derby”. The man who hanged the Cato Street men was Thomas “Old Cheesy” Cheshire (incidentally, observed by one William Calcraft, later to become our longest serving hangsman!)

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