Categories: Historypunishmentcrime

County Down Gaol opened in 1796 and soon men, women and children were housed within its walls.

Children were a common sight in the cells. Some accompanied their mothers who awaited trial as well as those who were already convicted. With no other option, the children would stay with their mother in a cell with perhaps 7 or 8 other prisoners.

Some children were criminals in their own right. Until the mid-19th century, children were tried in adult courts and could receive the same sentence as adults. Housed alongside adult prisoners they were liable to the same punishments including branding on the hand or chest for stealing and even the death penalty.

Some young people held at the gaol were sentenced to death for capital crimes. However, as far as we know, none of them were actually executed. Instead, their sentences were commuted to transportation. James Alexander Smith (14) from Holywood, was found guilty of possessing a forged banknote, Daniel Alone (17) and James McClelland (17) of highway robbery; they were all sentenced to death but had their sentences commuted to transportation.

We have records of other “petty criminals” held at the gaol such as, Edward Magennis (12) who was convicted in August 1816 of attempting to pick the pocket of Robert Stewart in Newry market, but we don’t know what his sentence was.

We have records of other children transported from the old gaol. Jane Armstrong (16) was sentenced to 7 years for stealing two spoons belonging to the Marquis of Donegal in 1820. She embarked on her 5-month ocean journey from Cork on the Almorah. Most of that time was spent locked below decks with half an hour on deck each day for washing and exercise. We know that she worked for a time in York Street, Sydney but died in April 1826.

In 1830, James Loughran (14) prisoner number DW0184, was convicted of vagrancy and transported for 7 years on the ship Waterloo, arriving at Sydney in April 1831.

Some, like Archibald Miskimmon, may have had a lucky escape. In 1827, when 6 or 7 years old, he was convicted of stealing another child's coat. The judge observed that "a more extraordinary delinquent had never appeared in that court". It seems that Archibald may have had an impressive criminal record. He was sentenced to transportation to Australia for life. However, there is no record of him on final transportation lists so it’s possible that he was reprieved, perhaps on account of his age.

Penal transportation to Australia continued until 1868 and it wasn’t until the Prevention of Crime Act of 1908 that separate prisons for children were introduced. Today, children and their parents or guardians are welcome to visit the old gaol cells at Down County Museum and are free to leave anytime they choose.