Nottinghamshire’s “Model Prison” at Southwell

The Southwell House of Correction in the mid 19th Century. Interim image of the 3D model which is under development.

The Southwell House of Correction in the mid 19th Century. Interim image of the 3D model which is under development.

As part of our current Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research project Digital Building Heritage: Phase 3 (Grant Reference: AH/L013290/1) we are assisting the Southwell Community Archaeology Group (SCAG) to digitally reconstruct and interpret the now largely lost “House of Correction” in Southwell. This penal institution was built in 1808 near the site of an earlier 17th century one. Houses of Correction were originally invented to punish petty criminals, beggars, vagrants and “idlers” (the “undeserving poor”) and instil in them “habits of working and moral guidance to reform their characters.” Before houses of correction there was limited use of imprisonment as punishment (mainly ecclesiastical prisons, POW camps and debtors institutions). Common gaols were places set aside to detain prisoners awaiting other forms of punishment like whipping, branding, the stocks, banishment, hanging or beheading and were not intended to persuade their inmates of the error of their ways. The first house of correction was Bridewell Hospital in Blackfriars London which was created in 1556 out of a former palace of Henry VIII. An act of James I in 1609 made more houses of correction elsewhere compulsory and Southwell’s first was built around this time in 1611. They were a widespread form of internment in the 18th and 19th century both in Britain and in Europe. They were often run as businesses with the inmates essentially used as forced labour and some became large scale economically integrated enterprises. Reformers in the 18th and 19th centuries sought to both improve conditions in them and make them more efficient. Architects developed various designs for this generic building type, the three most popular being Polygonal (or semi-circular), the Panopticon (or inspecting house) and the Radial. Southwell’s second House of Correction was designed by the architect Richard Ingleman on the Radial Plan (which was the most widely adopted) and had three wings at right angles to one another with a governors house at the centre. It was built in 1808 and very substantially enlarged in 1818 with a polygonal extension. “Treadwheels” also called “stepping mills” or “everlasting staircases” were introduced to Southwell in 1822. They were resistance engines with no purpose other than to force prisoners to expend energy, in much the same way that exercise bikes do in gyms today. They were 18’ 6” in diameter and each could accommodate 11 prisoners at a time and were not uncontroversial. Eventually, with changes brought about by penal reform the secretary of state Richard Asshton-Cross closed Southwell House of Correction on 1st February 1880. The site was then occupied by Carey’s lace factory and in recent years by hauliers, W.A. Rainbow & Sons Ltd. The entrance lodge, the boundary wall and part of an old prison wing still remain and the Southwell Community Archaeology Group has done much work along with the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham in piecing together excellent documentary evidence which reveals a great deal of detail about the history of the Houses of Correction, the buildings, the people and their often brutally hard daily lives. It is from this wealth of unique and valuable evidence that the Digital Building Heritage Group is reconstructing this example of what many would regard as one of the darker aspects of architectural history. It’s worth noting that that the Radial Prison plan developed in the early 18th century and used at Southwell is still a preferred form of layout for modern prisons.

House of Correction Banner #1

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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