The ‘old’ Gaol of Down on the Mall, Downpatrick, is the most complete surviving Georgian gaol on the island of Ireland. It was commissioned by the Grand Jury of County Down in 1789 to replace the existing House of Correction on English Street. Designed by the architect, Charles Lilly, it was intended to follow the principles of the English penal reformer, John Howard.  He believed that one reason why prisoners reoffended was because 18th century gaols were places of punishment rather than of rehabilitation. 

Prisoners in the gaol were given space and time to reflect on their crimes but also received a basic education and some were taught skills such as weaving and spinning. In addition, it was intended that every prisoner was to have a cell to themselves. This emphasis on ‘one prisoner, one cell’ was to ensure that prisoners were rehabilitated back into society. 

However rising crime rates due to economic and political instability meant that by the time the Gaol opened in 1796 it was already too small. The 18 cells within the gaol were quickly overcrowded with approximately 300 prisoners.

These cells were unheated and without glazed windows and the prisoners lived on a diet of potatoes and oatmeal with occasional bread. The water supply from the wells was poor and outbreaks of dysentery and cholera were common. ‘Gaol fever’ was widespread and in the summer of 1818, there was such a serious outbreak of typhus that a gaol infirmary had to be established.

Many of the prisoners were kept in for what we would consider petty crimes, such as stealing, vagrancy or debt.  Despite the number of inmates, imprisonment was an uncommon form of punishment, and the gaol was more akin to a holding area for people awaiting sentencing for their crimes.

Over 400 prisoners were transported from the gaol to Australia via Cork and many did not survive the journey. Other punishments included the stocks, ‘burning’ or branding on the hand or breast, and flogging. Serious crimes like murder, assault, manslaughter and treason were punished by death.  Condemned prisoners were either executed at the Gaol or at the Gallows Hill in Downpatrick.

After only 34 years in operation the Gaol was closed after it failed to meet newly introduced prison standards. A new gaol was built where Down High School now stands and this opened on 1st January 1830.

The ‘old’ Gaol was later used in various capacities. It once housed a Cholera Hospital but spent much of the 19th century as a barracks for the South Down Militia. It also housed soldiers during the First and Second World Wars but soon after fell into disuse.  In 1981, following a campaign by local groups, the gaol was rescued from demolition for a car park. It was restored and transformed into Down County Museum by Down District Council.

Be sure to catch next instalment in the series when we will be looking at the Gaol’s most famous prisoner, Thomas Russell.