The Old Bridewell

on Wednesday, 03 April 2013. Posted in Architecture, Crime

In the centre of Devizes is an unassuming building, not very different from those red-brick houses flanking it. It has large, airy two-by-two pane sashes with typical segmental arches which contain a shaped keystone. Behind the net curtains can be glimpsed a cosy living room, and a pretty garden beyond. This is The Grange and it was once the old Devizes jail, or bridewell, in Bridewell Street.

The Bridewell started life in 1579 as a timber-framed building in the street which now bears its name. It was established after the opening of the Bridewell prison in London in 1556 as a new type of prison to deal with the growing numbers of those regarded as rogues and vagabonds or the idle poor. This example had been followed in Oxford in 1562, Salisbury in 1564 and Norwich in 1565. It was burnt down twice and rebuilt: after a fire in 1619 and another more serious fire in 1630, but still in timber, much of which survives today.

In 1771, the Devizes bridewell was re-fronted in brick: the date appears in studs on the original front door which was reused.

The Health of Prisoners Act of 1774 was the first concerted attempt at improving the physical conditions of prisons, although it was often ignored. It ordered that the walls and ceilings of cells and wards were to be scraped and whitewashed once a year. They were to be washed regularly, and constantly supplied with air by means of hand ventilators. Prisoners who were ill were to be provided with separate rooms, and baths were to be introduced. An experienced surgeon or apothecary was also to be appointed to attend the prison, and all the provisions of the Act were to be painted on a board and displayed prominently in the building.

When the prison reformer John Howard first visited the Devizes bridewell in 1774, he reported in his ‘State of the Prisons’ that there were two night- rooms and two day-rooms, a yard, a workshop and an infirmary ‘somewhat recently constructed’. Despite improvements, however, in a later report, Howard revealed that a prisoner, Thomas Platt, had died in solitary confinement, in the Devizes bridewell, through hunger and cold.

In 1808, Richard Ingleman submitted to a gaol committee his design for a polygonal prison as the new County Gaol for Wiltshire to be built at Devizes, based on those he had designed at Folkingham , Lincs., and Southwell. Work began on building this prison in 1810, and the incomplete building opened in 1817. The Old Bridewell was used mainly for detaining pre-trial suspects, and closed as a prison in 1836, beginning a new lease of life as a County Police station.


By the time of the 1881 census the building had ceased to be a police station and was instead being run as a ‘Ladies’ School’ by Jane E. Hollis, aged 47, from Nether Stowey, the Principal. She lived on the premises and was assisted by Eliza Hopkins, 34, from Cheltenham, who boarded with her, and gave her occupation as ‘governess’. Shortly after this date, the school was closed and the building became a home for needy old women of the borough. By 1979 the Devizes Almshouse Trust refurbished it into five cosy self-contained flats for modern-day almswomen. The building, however, has not forgotten those unfortunate enough to be confined here in the early days; on the walls of the exercise yard, now a garden, and in the attics are their laboriously grafitti’d initials.

Margaret Parrott & Dorothy Treasure
Wiltshire Buildings Record


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