Grates and Keys: Violence in Early Modern Prisons, Part II

Richard Bell’s recent post showed how a humble garden billhook could a potential tool of violence against prisoners. Keys, doors, locks, and grates could wreak a subtler kind of violence.

Newgate Prison door (c. 1780), in Museum of London. By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Newgate Prison door (c. 1780), in Museum of London.
By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Barring visitors from a prison could be deadly.  “When prisoners are sick,” some Newgate debtors told the JPs in 1724, the underkeeper Mr. Perry “won’t let physicians come, even when they have waited a long time at the grate.” And although they could not provide her name, they alleged that one woman had died in childbirth as a result:

When poor unhappy women have been in labor or child bearing making for a whole night the most hideous cries for want of a midwife to assist them, the neighbors being touched with compassion at their groans have sent for a midwife who has come to the grate and demanded admittance to do her office, but has been denied by that  barbarous man Mr. Perry who has caused several to lose their lives, in particular one _____as also her child, were murdered for want of a midwife [name is blank in original] (1)

The other incidents I have collected where visitors had difficulty gaining access to a prison were not fatal, but they did cause significant discomfort, frustration and expense. In 1634 prisoners in the Gatehouse told the Commission on Fees that the keeper Aquila Weekes “doth now keep the lower door of the prison always close locked so that your petitioners cannot come to call for their meat and drink, nor their friends or servants suffered to pass in or out of the said prison without waiting more than an hours before the door be opened.” (2) Nearly a hundred years later, Newgate prisoners complained in 1728 that “The prisoners wives and friends are almost starved with cold waiting for the [turn]Key.” The doors to the prison were locked at half past four in the afternoon, and not opened until eight at night, they explained,

which is near four hours in every day in winter time which is done to encourage the tapp of which the prisoners friends have often complained to the key and keeper but all signified nothing which is of great damage to the poor prisoners because it hinders their friends from coming to ’em that would come.(3)

Why make access so hard? It is possible that prisons were understaffed; gaolers who paid turnkeys out of pocket would naturally have wanted to cut costs. It is also likely that making access difficult was a way for gaolers to force prisoners to buy food and drink from them, rather than outside purveyors. This is what the Newgate debtors were driving at when they suggested the motive was to “encourage ” the prison taproom, which was a significant source of profit for the gaoler.   In fact, the gaoler had taken the additional step of nailing an iron bar across the grate of the prison door, in order to the prisoners from “having their liquors and other necessaries brought into the gaol.” (4)

Sometimes retaliation as well as greed motivated keepers to make access difficult. John Shuttleworth, a debtor in Lancaster castle, complained to Justices of the Peace in 1680  that Foxcroft, the head gaoler, had suddenly prevented Shuttleworth’s wife from visiting him, because Shuttleworth had told Foxcroft “that the sheriff said (to wit) that I was not his prisoner but wrongfully by him detained.” Ever since he was imprisoned a year and a quarter ago, Shuttleworth explained, he had had “the liberty of having his wife to come to him and be with him and to assist him in providing his diet with all other necessaries for an infirm person.” But that morning, Foxcroft the gaoler “gave a strict charge to his servant that if he found ye petitioner’s wife in ye Castle to command her down and not let her come up any more to get any thing for him relating to diet or what else soever. “(5) Francis Jakson found his visits at the same prison obstructed by the keeper John Ellison in 1693: “whoever had any business with me he would not suffer them to come to me nor me to go into the yard to them though both I and them did earnestly entreat him.”  Jakson  had collected evidence that Ellison was tolerating coining inside the prison, which likely caused Ellison to single him out for such treatment. (6)

Decisions about which prisoner could receive visitors were also heavily politicized in the 1630s, at least according to the prisoner Thomas Brown, who complained that ” if any prisoner have a friend come to visit them, to confer with them concerning their business,” the gaoler Murray would

very strictly question them (as if the prisoner were a traitor) what business they have with them, And if he be distasted with the prisoner or dislike the matter, the said Murray will conceal the prisoner and not suffer them to come to him, And if some times he let them come in, he will absent himself when they should go forth, and many times when he is in the lodge will make them knock for an hour together before he will let them forth, that is a great discouragement to the friends of the poor distressed prisoners for coming to them that many times happens to be there utter ruin.(7)

Was it legal for gaolers to stop midwives from aiding women in labor, or keep visitors waiting in the cold for hours? By the late 17th century, some local authorities did make regulations meant to guarantee visitors access to the prison. The Present State of the Prison of Ludgate  reprinted a set of ordinances established by the mayor and aldermen of London in 1694, stating that doors to the prison were to be opened at seven in the morning , or eight in the winter months, and that , ” that constant attendance be given by the Turn-keys all the Day, that all such as come to visit and relieve the prisoners, may have liberty to come and go out…and that all strangers depart by Nine of the Clock at night.” (8) A set of rules drawn up in 1729 for Chester Castle stated that “all Prisoners’ friends or relations shall have liberty to bring necessaries, relief and maintenance to them,( being first searched  if required that they bring nothing to contribute to their escape).” It is hard to know, however, how widespread these rules were, or whether they were enforced.

The power of gaolers to manipulate the access of visitors to the prison stands as one example of the ways that early modern prisons, while in theory merely custodial rather than punitive, were in fact quite punishing.


  1. London Metropolitan Archives CLA/047/LJ/13/1724/008 “Petition of prisoners for debt in Newgate with order to sheriffs to enquire therein,” (2 – 4 Dec 1724)
  2. The National Archives E215/944 “Further complaint of prisoners in the Gatehouse about Aquila Weekes, delivered November 1634” (Papers of the Commission on Fees)
  3. London Metropolitan Archives CLA/035/02/024 “The Replication to the several answers of the keeper of the gaol of Newgate to the articles exhibited against him to this honorable court by the poor confined prisoners for debt in the said gaol” (1728/29)
  4. Ibid.
  5. Lancashire Archives QSP/512/4 (Epiphany 1679/80)
  6. Lancashire Archives QSP 736/1, “Abuses to prisoners, particularly Francis Jakson, by John Ellison, gaoler.c1693.”
  7. National Archives E 215/888 “Articles of Thomas Browne against the abuses offered by John Murray”
  8. Present State of the prison of Ludgate, by “Philopolites” (Ann Baldwin, [1712]), pp. 13-14
  9. Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QAB 4/1 “Rules to be observed within the Gaol of the Castle of Chester” (15 July 1729).

For a wonderful, zoomable image of a gaol door from the Old Warwick Gaol which burnt down in 1694 can be seen on the  Our Warwickshire website,

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