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Joan Leach was a local historian, a volunteer at the Heritage Centre, a founder of The Gaskell Society, and much more besides.


Behind Prison Walls

Joan Leach

My mother, resident in Knutsford since 1930, remembers paying one shilling to visit the old prison but only recalls the high walls and bleak cells, it was demolished in 1934 but perhaps part of it should have been kept as a tourist attraction?! Instead, Booths' supermarket and our new library on the site will nourish our minds and bodies. Some will remember the area as air raid shelters, coach park and bus station and tennis courts.

Knutsford Prison 1930's

This aerial photograph of the prison must date from about 1930 and is the only one I have seen which shows it in such detail. The high, angled wall on the left backs a four storey prison wing built in 1853 to hold a hundred women. The 'House of Correction', as it was known in 1860, held 273 prisoners then ,but had capacity for 700. Notice all the chimneys! John Evans had swept them for £5 a year for eighteeen years when, in 1846 he had a rise to £8, for sweeping a hundred chimneys four times a year.

Knutsford Prison 1930's

The end of the Napoleonic wars saw a rapid rise in petty crime so in July 1816 a prize of £50 was offered to architects or builders for the best plan for a new Sessions House and House of Correction at Knutsford. The winner, George Moneypenny, had already designed Leicester, Winchester and Exeter prisons, but Knutsford was not to be another success for him. As building work progressed it became clear that his original estimate was too low and another £16,000 was needed. The Magistrates claimed they had been deceived and dismissed him - though part of the rise in costs was due to their own changes of specification. They were still dissatisfied and sacked the building contractor too. The costs of carriage of Runcorn stone by barge to Wincham and then by road was a bone of contention.

Work went on and the finished Sessions house was impressive, as a poem, The Country Man's Ramble put it..

"The first thing we saw at the top of the Town
Was a building so grand, so high in renown,
That a Lord might live there, but one hardly believes
That such a fine place was built only for thieves . . ."

. . . and murderers, nine were hanged at Knutsford which, at times, became the centre of macabre, national interest. No one in the town could ignore the tolling of the minute bell. They only took place here from 1886 after Chester became a military prison and Knutsford was the County Gaol. One case in particular was long remembered when two brothers, Robert Davis aged 20 and George, 16, from near Crewe, were accused of the murder of their bullying, tyrant of a father. Although it was George who killed his father and tried to make it look like a roadside attack, he was reprieved on account of his age and Robert was hanged in April, 1890.

Life in the prison was designed to be unpleasant, pointless labour such as shot drill - lifting cannon balls from one pile to another, the treadmill and turning a crank so many hundred times a day, the jailors could adjust the screw to make it harder, hence the term 'screw' for them. Some productive work took place such as mat making and tailoring. The day began at 5.45am and was regimented and closely supervised. On complaints being made about over working prisoners it was said that none worked more than nine hours and forty minutes as laid down by law (1843). Food was adequate in quantity but monotonous, a pint of cocoa and six ounces of bread for breakfast; a pint of soup, six ounces of potatoes and three ounces of meat for dinner, and six ounces of bread and a pint of gruel for supper. Not a healthy diet for long term prisoners. Imagine what the workhouse diet must have been for some inmates there to deliberately break the rules in order to be sent to prison for seven days for its better food!

Knutsford in the 1930's

At the time of this photo King Edward Road had not been built and the trees in that area belonged to the property on Princess Street which was built, originally, as a residential street, there were also allotments which continued until Egerton School was built.

Notice all the buildings behind the street, houses and workshops, which have gone to make car parking. It is surprising to see how many trees there were around the town and in particular in the lower church yard which had poplar trees along its wall.