Saturday, 8 April 2017

Prisons and Houses of Correction

Shepton Mallet House of Correction was built on the site of Cornhill House in the town c1625.   Houses of correction housed vagrants, beggars and petty criminals, who were made to do hard labour.  They were often called Bridewells after the first house of correction to open, which was located at Bridewell Palace in London. Over time they developed into prisons.  At this time the Somerset County Gaol was at Ilchester and there was another house of correction at Wilton in Taunton.
Shepton Mallet Prison was repaired in 1646 and enlarged/rebuilt in 1790 when the gate lodge and cottages at the back of the prison were purchased.  The buildings included accommodation for the Keeper, a magistrates' room, a chapel and a room for female prisoners. 

The prison was altered again 1817-20 and two wings were built.  In 1823 a treadwheel was installed to power a grain mill outside the prison walls.  This was converted into an industrial shop in 1903.  The prison was rebuilt 1830-32 and in 1843  A and B Wings were built, along with a hospital and reception block. In 1848 C Wing and a chapel were built.  The prison was badly damaged by fire in 1904 and all 3 wings had to be rebuilt.  Seven executions were carried out at the prison between 1889 and 1926.

The prison closed in 1930 but in 1938, as war loomed closer, part of the Public Record Office moved in with many of the nation's written treasures.  In 1940 the prison was occupied by the Royal Pioneer Corps. 

In 1942 it was taken over by the US forces for use as a prison.  They built an execution block adjoining the main wings. Under the terms of the United States of America (Visiting Forces) Act 1942, which enabled American military justice to be enacted in Britain, 18 military executions were carried out by the US forces for murder, rape or both.  Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew Albert Pierrepoint were the hangmen for most of the executions.

After the Second World War the prison was handed back to the British Army for use as a military prison. 

In 1966 Shepton Mallet became a civilian prison again and the kitchen/chapel and factory blocks were built.  In 1973 it became a training prison.  In the 1980s it housed persistent offenders.  In 1991 it began to accept life sentence prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences.  In 2001 it became a prison solely for lifers and it remained so until its closure on 28th March 2013.

Various plans were submitted and rejected for future uses for the prison, including hotel/bar/restaurant/housing/heritage centre or museum/gym/hotel/ghost tour. In 2014 Shepton Mallet Prison was sold to a company called City and Country.  Plans for flats were finally approved by Mendip District Council in January 2017.

 Shepton Mallet Prison - Cornhill entrance
 High wall surrounding Shepton Mallet Prison

Shepton Mallet Prison from Cornhill
There was a gaol in Ilchester from c1166 on two different sites.  By 1615 the Gaol and House of Correction were located at a 3rd site at Northover on the north bank of the River Ivel.  26 cells were added in 1789.  By 1808 the gaol had a quadrangular plan with buildings arranged around courtyards.  Dayrooms were on the ground floor with sleeping accommodation on the first floor.  In addition to a male wing there was also a governor's house, chapel, female prison, debtors apartments, male infirmary, stable, cow house, carpenter's shop and conversation room.  By 1810 a building had been erected, which had a bakehouse on the ground floor and a laundry on the first floor.

Ilchester Gaol closed in 1843 when the County Gaol moved to Taunton.  The only remaining buildings are the bakehouse and laundry, which have been converted into cottages.

 All that remains of Ilchester Gaol - this is as close as you can get without trespassing

Taunton's first prison was in Taunton Castle.  It was used up until the time of the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685.  There was also a prison known as the Bredcage or Birdcage in the middle of the market by 1308.  When the Guildhall was built in 1467 two small prisons called the Cow House and the Little Ease were built underneath it.  These continued to be used until the Guildhall was demolished c1768.  A Bridewell or house of correction was built at the north end of North Street on the west side of the approach to the Tone Bridge c1597.

A replacement house of correction, known as Wilton Gaol was built c1755 on what is now Upper High Street.  It was enlarged in 1815 and 1843 and it became the County Gaol for Somerset in 1843 after the closure of Ilchester Gaol. 

Wilton Gaol was built in a T-shape with a long three storey range and a higher polygonal tower.   The cross wing has been demolished but the long range and tower are still standing: they are located at the rear of Taunton Police Station on Upper High Street.

16 murderers were hanged at Wilton Gaol between 1844 and 1884. The executions were carried out on the prison roof in view of the public until 1867 and attracted large crowds.  In 1884 Wilton Gaol closed and Shepton Mallet Prison became the County Gaol.  Taunton Gaol was used as a military prison until 1889.  By 1910 the buildings were being used by the Territorial Army.  The current police station was built in 1943.

Wilton Gaol, Taunton
Wilton Gaol - presumably this is where another wing was once attached
Polygonal Tower of Wilton Gaol

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Here be Dragons!

Dragons occur in myths from all around the world.  Some are concerned with the creation of the universe e.g. the biblical account of creation.  The words serpent and dragon are often used interchangeably. In the Bible dragons (or Leviathan) represent evil or the devil e.g. in the Book of Revelation.

Dragons were usually aggressive solitary creatures, which lived in caves, marshes or lakes or on hilltops.  They ate livestock and people.

Saints who were also dragon slayers include St Michael, St George, St Carantoc, St Margaret, St Petroc and St Dubricius.  The parish church in Porlock is dedicated to St Dubricius.   In Somerset dragons were also slain by a bishop, a knight, a landowner, a woodman and local villagers.

Somerset has more dragon legends that most British counties.  The stories were handed down through the generations and some have undoubtedly been lost.  

Most of the legends involve people killing dragons:
  1. Norton Fitzwarren: a dragon lived on the Iron Age hillfort and was killed by a local man called Fulk Fitzwarin
  2. Carhampton: a Celtic saint named St Carantoc defeated a dragon which lived on the marshes.
  3. Bicknoller: there is a legend that a dying dragon will try and reach the sea, which is why there is a Dragon's Cross at Bilbrook.
  4. Shervage Wood: the Gurt Wurm or Great Worm was cut in half by a woodman from Stogumber.  One part ran to Bilbrook and the other to Kingston St Mary.
  5. Kingston St Mary: a dragon lived nearby and breathed out flames, which it used to cook its animal and human victims.  A villager rolled a large stone down a hill into its mouth and killed it.
  6. Churchstanton: a dragon was slain by a valiant knight.
  7. Castle Neroche: a dragon stole treasure from passing travellers but it was eventually drowned by local villagers.
  8. Aller: there are several versions of the story.  One is that John Aller killed a dragon with a spear.
  9. Dulcote: a dragon with the face of a woman was terrorising the area.  It was slain with a sacred sword from Glastonbury by Bishop Jocelyn of Wells. 
  10. Kilve: a dragon called Blue Ben went into the sea to cool off but got stuck in the mud and drowned when the tide came in.
There are physical representations of dragons still in existence in Somerset from the 8th or 9th centuries to the present day.  Many dragons are to be found on or in churches.  The reasons for this may be any or all of the following:
  1. To ward off evil spirits
  2. To illustrate local legends
  3. To illustrate the lives of the saints who were involved with dragons
  4. Purely decorative
  5. To represent the victory of Christianity over Paganism.
There are many different types of dragons:
  1. Dragon: this has four legs, wings and a long tail
  2. Wyvern: this has legs and wings but no arms
  3. Cockatrice or basilisk: - this has the head and legs of a cockerel with the tail of a dragon. Cockatrices were small, dangerous and lived in underground holes.
  4. Great Worm or Flying Serpent
  5. Amphisbaena: this has two heads
  6. Ouroboros: this is a dragon biting its own tail
  7. Multi-Headed Dragon
  8. Arachnidraco: this has the head of a dragon on an elongated neck, a body with 2 legs and a venomous stinging barb at the tip of its tail.
  9. Sea dragon/serpent
  10. Facie Humanusdraco: this has the face of a human (usually a woman) but the body of a dragon.
A dragon was adopted by Somerset County Council as its symbol in 1906.  It was officially registered in 1911 when a coat of arms was granted to the County Council.  Somerset County Council's dragon is a red dragon rampant holding an upright blue mace in its forelegs on a gold background.

 Wyvern Mosaic, Magdalen Lane, Taunton

Somerset County Cricket Ground, Taunton

 Flying dragon on a house in Mill Street, Watchet

By 2020 the Watchet dragon had been joined by a friend made from willow

Dragon on one of Wiveliscombe's "Totem Poles"

Taunton Library's dragon

Dragon slaying at East Stoke Church  
This is one of the earliest representations of a dragon slaying in Britain.  It is possibly Saxon but the identity of the dragon slayer is not clear.  It is thought that it is not St Michael, as he is always depicted with wings and it is too early to be St George.

Nettlebridge - dragon door hinges

Kingston St Mary Seat

Queen's College, Taunton

King's Arms, Staplegrove Road, Taunton

Dragon at Runnington

Runnington's only dragon?

Dragon on a shield at North Cadbury Church

Two headed dragon at Crowcombe Church

Dragon slaying at Hatch Beauchamp Church

Hatch Beauchamp - this dragon appears to be defecating!

Dragon Slaying, Hatch Beauchamp

Amphisbaena or two headed dragon on a bench end in East Brent Church
Many thanks to Hazel and Jacob for finding the bench and taking this photo for me.
 Dragons guarding County Hall in Taunton

 Traditional Somerset County Council Dragon

Modern Somerset County Council Dragon, Taunton Library

Green Dragon Pub, South Street, Wellington

Dragons on the entrance doors to St Barnabas Church, Queen Camel

Sea serpents on the font at St Barnabas Church, Queen Camel

Bench end, St Michael's Church, North Cadbury

This may be dragons hatching from eggs or possibly just two snails!
Bench end, St Michael's Church, North Cadbury

St Margaret escaping from a dragon
Bench end, St Michael's Church, North Cadbury

Dragon Slaying on a Misericord, Wells Cathedral

St George killing a dragon
Bench end in St George's Church, Dunster

St Michael killing a dragon:
Bench end in St George's Church, Dunster

St George and a dragon, pulpit at St George's Church, Dunster

Two amphisbaena dragons
Church of St Peter and St Paul, Churchstanton
This used to be a bench end but is now mounted on the front of the gallery

Dragon on a bench end at All Saints' Church, Alford

Wyvern on a stained glass window at All Saints' Church, Alford

Dragon weathervane on Kingston St Mary Village Hall

St George slaying a dragon in the middle of the war memorial in Crowcombe Parish Church

Dragon on the Norton Fitzwarren Village Sign

Close up of the Norton Fitzwarren Dragon

Green Dragon Pub at Combe St Nicholas

Green Dragon sculpture outside the Green Dragon Pub at Combe St Nicholas

St George and the Dragon on the noticeboard of St George's Church, Dunster

Dragon living in the Carpet Warehouse, Priory Bridge Road, Taunton

Golden dragon at Bridgwater and Taunton College

Wyvern - emblem of Queen's College, Taunton

Dragon mosaic on the side of Aller Village Hall

Somerset County Council's dragon on the Silk Mills Bridge in Taunton, which was opened in 2005 and built to replace a level crossing