Categories: Historypunishmentcrime

When the Old Gaol of Down was finished in 1796 it had internal walls to segregate male and female prisoners. This was a new custom that came out of the recent prison reforms of the 1780s. However, as the gaol became quickly overcrowded this division often failed and men, women and children were imprisoned together. These walls no longer exist, and we do not know exactly where they would have been. However, we do know the woman’s yard was much smaller that the men’s as there were fewer women convicts.

Even when the prisoners were separated by sex, they were usually imprisoned along with those convicted of serious crimes like murder and those awaiting sentence were housed along with those already found guilty. By 1821 the gaol was in a deplorable condition and the women generally were given the worst spaces because there were fewer of them, and illnesses spread easily. Children were often put in with women, this included both those who were sentenced as criminals in their own right as well as the children of the women prisoners. Imprisoned women who had children often had nowhere else for them to go and would bring them with them as they awaited or even served their sentence. We even know of some women who had to bring their young babies with them aboard the transportation ships to Australia.

As per the prison reforms of the 1780s education and occupation were seen as important tools to occupy those incarcerated. Men would do oakum picking (picking apart rope fibres) and women would spin but this wasn't often or well organised. Thomas Reid, a naval surgeon, describes the conditions for the women in 1822:

‘Females of all descriptions, tried, untried, innocent and guilty, debtors and murderers are all thrown together in one corrupting mass and kept in a cell not near large enough. Sick or well, there they must remain both day and night. There were twenty-one thus confined when I saw it, one of whom had been sick for four months. Over this cell is a place where a school is kept; it contained spinning-wheels which is the only kind of industry in the prison. The smell from some of the felon’s cells was intolerably offensive.”

Along with the female convicts there were opportunities for employment of civilian women within the gaol. In the County Assizes from spring 1822 a schoolmistress or matron is first mentioned and within the year she was requested to live on site. Her roles included basic education but also supervising the female inmates and children. It is also believed that there may have been female turnkeys in the gaol at one time as later prison reforms specifically barred them from this method of employment.

During the time of the old gaol 400 prisoners were transported to Australia; 80 were women and the rest were men. We know many of their names now from convict transport lists, the youngest to be transported was a girl of only 13 called Jane Armstrong. She was sent to Australia in August of 1820 for stealing two spoons. The oldest woman we know who was transported was 62. Nearly all of the women transported from the old Gaol of Down were convicted of stealing, often something as little as a plate, a cloth cloak or a shawl. This period in history was particularly tumultuous and many turned to crime in order to survive. Men who arrived in Australia often worked as labourers while women were employed in factories or as domestic workers.

The number of crimes that carried the death penalty was over 200 and included what we would know as petty crimes such as theft and forgery. Many who received the death penalty often had their sentence commuted to transportation, however there were exceptions even for women, such as Margaret Cleland.

Margaret Cleland is believed to be the last person to be hung at the Old Gaol. This was for the murder of her sister-in-law Sarah in the last year the gaol was open, 1830. Margaret was lodging with her brother who was gravely ill at the time, along with his family. According to witnesses and those who later gave testimony a razor got left behind which ended up in Margaret's pocket. The prosecution argued that during a row Margaret had stabbed Sarah as they fought. A child named Mathew, who may have been a relative of the Clelands, saw what happened and ran for help. He was later called as a witness but gave different versions of his story. The defence tried to argue that Sarah had mental health issues and had inflicted the wounds on herself as her husband was near death and she was in a state of despair. Margaret was from a respectable family and people gave testimony on her behalf.

Sarah herself, who died two weeks after the incident, had requested that her sister-in-law should be transported and not executed, but the jury found Margaret guilty of the intent to murder Sarah. She was executed at 1:15pm on the 24th August 1830. There was a huge amount of interest in the case and her execution. It was noted that a large number of young women attended the hanging. Margaret vehemently denied attacking her sister until her very last breath. In the Belfast Newsletter it was said,

“She persisted up till the last moment, in asserting her innocence and occasionally burst into fits of indignation against the boy (Mathew) declaring that he had got money for giving testimony against her.”

We will never know what really happened in Margaret’s case. Was she really innocent?

You can learn more about stories like this at Down County Museum, open Tuesday-Saturday 10:00am-4:30pm