Hertford's Gaol

The need for a gaol in Hertford was first recognised in the thirteenth century. Up to that point the only place of incarceration for wrongdoers was the dungeon at Hertford Castle.

In 1223/5, the Crown issued an order that a gaol be constructed in the town, due to rising levels of crime. This was to be in addition the he existing dungeon in The Castle. However, by the end of the thirteenth century, the gaol had still not been built, following an appeal by the governor of Hertford Castle, William de Valences, against the order.

By the time of Elizabeth I's reign in the 16th Century, there still appears to be no gaol. The Queen was a frequent visitor to Hertford and in 1561 she spent a large amount of money in the town during a sixteen day visit. Two years later the Law Courts and possibly parliament were moved to Hertford Castle to escape the plague that was ravaging London. This was the first in a series of "removals", following later in 1576, 1581-2 and 1593.

In 1588 the town was granted a Charter by Queen Elizabeth I. This Charter allowed the town to have a common seal, the number of burgesses was reduced from sixteen to eleven, and the town was allowed to make it's own by-laws and the provision of a Town Hall and Gaol were authorised.

Over time there appear to have been a number of gaols in Hertford, apart from that at the Castle, which served a general purpose for so long. There is evidence to suggest that one of the first County Gaols in the town was in the middle of Fore Street, roughly between what is now The Practitioner and Prezzo. There was also a bridewell or house of correction, which was in Back Street on the site of Providence Place (Back Street was what is now the part of Railway Street that runs parallel to Fore Street). Little is known of this establishment, apart from the fact that it was run by The Borough.

A new gaol was built about 1702 on what is now the site of the present Corn Exchange (at this time Market Street did not exist). This was apparently less than satisfactory and in 1729 a severe outbreak of smallpox drew attention to its state and from that time onwards Hertford's resident attributed the town's constant epidemics to the gaol. It was in a constant state of disrepair with no ventilation.

Print of Fore Street
The gaol in Fore Street, with the Cross Keys Inn to the immediate right

In 1775 an Act of Parliament authorised the construction of a new gaol. Yet it was another two years before a site off Ware Road was purchased for £500 and a further £6000 raised for it's construction. It accomodated 70 male and 10 female prisoners, both criminals and debtors, and included day rooms, excersising yards and a house for the Govenor, Mr.Cornelius Willson, and another for the Chaplain. It was Mr.Willson who, in 1790, persuaded the Justices that the old bridewell in Back Street, where vagabonds and indigent people were set to work, was overcrowded and insanitary and that the old buildings should be abandoned and an extention made to the gaol premises to include the bridewell.

In 1879 the Baker Street Gaol was closed and prisoners thereafter were lodged in St.Albans. In 1888 the gaol was demolished and terraced housing built.

Remains of Hertford County Gaol
Little remains of the county gaol

As well as the Gaol, Hertford had a cage, where people were detained for offences corresponding to those for which a night in the cells would now be prescribed. Nearby were a whipping post and pillory. All three were on the site of the Shire Hall, adjacent to Caffe Uno and the HSBC bank. In 1773 these were moved to The Wash. There was also aparently a ducking stool close to the Town Mill.

The Town Gallows were at the far eastern end of the town at the top of the long hill once known as Chalk Hill but now known as Gallows Hill. It was on the right-hand side of the track at a spot just opposite the recently constructed housing develpment known as Hartham Place. The site of the gallows is now occupied by housing. The bodies of the hanged men were usually buried on the spot, in unconsecrated ground, slightly to the left of the track leading up to the gallows - several skeletons were found here in 1904. Occasionally a special gallows was constructed outside the gaol.

This article was last updated on 26th December 2020.

History Of Hertford by Dr.F.M.Page (1959), published by Hertford Town Council and available from Hertford Museum.
Hertford & Ware Local History Society Journal 2002
History of the Ancient Town and Borough of Hertford By Lewis Turnor