‘To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock, In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock, awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block’.

By Ann-Marie Peckham

The title of today’s blog has been inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and the topic, by a wooden Courtroom Dock from Norwich Guildhall.

guildhall dock

This is an object which immediately captures the imagination; making you wonder at the trials it has witnessed or the types of prisoners that have stood in it.

However, before I go into that, I thought I would start with a brief history of the Guildhall.

Norwich Guildhall

From the early 1400’s the Guildhall was the headquarters of Norwich’s local government until it was replaced by City Hall in 1938. The original 15th century building was home to financial offices, storage areas for civic regalia and official records. The building also housed offices for civic representatives such as the City Sheriff. The two main chambers within the Guildhall were an Assembly Chamber (which also served as a Sheriff’s Court) and a Council Chamber (or Mayor’s Court).

Guildhall map 1927

The undercroft of the Guildhall was built 1407-1412,  and is thought to be an original feature of an earlier toll-house that previously stood on the site. The undercroft of the building was used from 1412 until 1597 to accommodate criminals who were seen as being particularly dangerous.

guildhall vaults

The Magistrates’ Courts continued to be held in the old Common Council Chamber until 1977 and prisoners were held in parts of the building until as recently as 1980!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

So who were some of the prisoners and what were their crimes?

  • Thomas Bilney (c. 1485 – 1531),  an ordained priest and an early advocate of Protestantism.

thomas bilney

From 1525, Bilney travelled across Norfolk and Suffolk preaching against saints, relics and pilgrimages, which he believed were against the teachings of the Bible. In a time when the only acknowledged religion in England was Catholicism, Bilney’s beliefs were seen as being criminal.

In 1527 he was arrested for preaching against idolatry and spent over a year imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Once released, Bilney continued to preach around England, arriving in Norwich in 1531. Shortly afterwards he was arrested for heresy after providing an English translation of the New Testament (which was illegal at this time) to a Dominican Anchoress. Bilney was taken to the Guildhall to await trial, and on 19th August 1531, was burnt at the stake at Lollard’s pit (now the site of the of the ‘Lollards Pit’ public house on Riverside Road).

lollards pub sign and plaque

  • On the 7th August 1787 Henry Stannard the elder was put on trial at the Guildhall for sheep stealing. He was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years transportation. It is probable that he would have been sent to Australia to join one of the penal colonies that existed in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Norfolk Island, Queensland or New South Wales.

Once his seven year sentence was over Henry would have been a free man, permitted to find employment, marry (or bring any existing family over if he could afford it) and make a life for himself in his new land.

  • John Stratford stood trial at the Norwich Assizes extended Guildhall court on Friday 14th August 1829.

    His crime? Murder by Arsenic….

    In 1828 John had started an affair with Jane Briggs while her husband – a personal friend and pauper with terminal throat cancer – was a resident of the local workhouse. When Mrs Briggs became pregnant with a child that was obviously not her husband’s John Stratford decided that Mr Briggs had to die in order to keep the affair secret. To achieve this Stratford bought arsenic which he mixed with flour then delivered to the workhouse to be eaten by Mr Briggs in the form of ‘thick milk’.  However, when Mr Briggs was unable to eat the substance, his nurse Rhoda Burgess took it home and made dumplings for herself and her family, resulting in their illness and death of her own husband, John Burgess. During the course of the subsequent investigation Stratford was found to have purchased arsenic in the days leading up to the murder and was recognised by staff at the workhouse as having delivered the fatal concoction to their kitchens.

assize intellegence 1803

Stratford’s trial at the Guildhall generated immense public interest, so much so that newspapers at the time reported that “from an early hour all the avenues leading to the Guildhall were thronged to excess”. While imprisoned Stratford was visited by prominent members of society, Joseph John Gurney, a member of the prominent Barclays Banking family and brother to philanthropist Elizabeth Fry.  Despite this immense public interest, Stratford was executed on 17th August 1829 and his body was sent for dissection.

However it wasn’t all bad…

  •  On 18th August 1783 Christopher Christian and Michael Newhouse were convicted of Grand Larceny at the City of Norwich Assizes at the Norwich Guildhall. However, grounds for clemency were put forward and their initial sentence of 7 years transportation was changed to a free pardon and bail until a general pardon could be obtained.

*   *   *   *   *   *

 While there are few early detailed records regarding prisoners, records from the 19th century tell us more about the general conditions of the nation’s prisons, as well as the prisoners themselves. Many prisoners suffered from poor conditions, strict regimes and illnesses including black jaundice, scurvy, dropsy, consumption and hectic fever.

   elizabeth fry

Such conditions were witnessed by Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), a member of a prominent Quaker family, who lived at Earlham Hall, Norfolk. To try to get a better idea of prison conditions, Fry  and her brother Joseph John Gurney visited prisons across Britain, including Newgate in London, and were appalled at the conditions in which prisoners were kept.  Such conditions inspired her to campaign for improvement in the treatment and conditions of inmates and led to the production of a book presented to parliament called ‘Prisons in Scotland and the North of England‘ in 1819. The work of Fry and Gurney also led to the Gaols Act of 1823, which stopped prisoners being manacled, stated that female warders should oversee female prisoners and provided warders with a salary (previously they had been paid through fees imposed on prisoners).  Fry also played a major role in establishing one of the first national women’s organisations in the UK; ‘The British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female prisoners’.

As you can see from the description of Guildhall Goal below, by the time of Fry’s death, conditions in prisons were improving.

conditions of guildhall 1845

Such improvements carried on throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and groups such as the Prison Reform Trust campaign for the rights of prisoners throughout Britain today.

Now,  the Guildhall is home to the offices of Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART) and Caley’s Cocoa Café. It is also home to a reconstructed Victorian courtroom, which gives a better idea of what prisoners would have faced when they  stood in a similar spot a few hundred years ago…

guldhall court

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One Response to ‘To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock, In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock, awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block’.

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