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Prisons and prisoners in Norfolk

Borough gaols and bridewells

City of Norwich Common Gaol

The Common Gaol of the City of Norwich was in the cellars of the Guildhall from 1412 until 1597.

The gaol was then situated opposite the Guildhall until 1826, in a building which had formerly been The Lamb Inn.

Imprisonment in the Common Gaol often amounted to a death sentence and many deaths from disease occurred there.

In the 12 months from January 1688/9 to December 1689, 13 inquests were heard on prisoners who had died there. See NCR Case 6a/1/24-25, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36-37, 39-42, 44.

Of these, 11 were not criminals, but were prisoners for debt. Illnesses cited in the inquests include black jaundice, scurvy, dropsy, consumption and hectic fever.

On 7 August 1826, the prisoners were moved to purpose-built premises outside St Giles’ Gates, in the hamlet of Heigham.

The gaol was closed in May 1878 and the prisoners were moved to the County Gaol at the Castle.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral was later built on the old gaol site.

Description of the gaol in 1845

"This commodious prison was begun in 1824, and finished in 1827, from a plan by Mr Philip Barnes, a native architect. It cost about £30,000, and is a large quadrangular building, with towers at the angles of the four wings, and encloses 1a. 2r. 34p.  ….

“The gaol contains 8 yards, 8 day rooms, and 69 sleeping cells.  Both have recently undergone repairs and alterations, and a school-room has been erected.

“The whole is securely built and well-ventilated, and supplied with water pumped from the tread wheel in the house of correction, into the cisterns of the four towers, and sent thence in pipes to the various apartments.

“The number of prisoners incarcerated in 1843, was 859, of whom 129 were debtors, but here are seldom more than 80 or 100 at one time.

“Six of the 14 airing yards are sunk three feet below the others, so that the governor may command a full view of the whole from the inspecting gallery of his house.”

(William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk, (Sheffield, 1845) p. 88).


  • Norwich City quarter sessions minute books, 1511-1846 (NCR 20a, available on microfilm MF 612-620)
  • Quarter sessions minute books, 1839-1971 (N/S 2/1-11)
  • Quarter sessions files of indictments and recognizances, 1538, 1547, 1554, 1563-1749 (a few gaps), 1760-1838 (NCR 11a-f)
  • Quarter sessions files of interrogations and depositions, 1549-54, 1557-1600, 1648, 1684-1711, 1717, 1722-65, 1770-90 (NCR 12a-b)
  • Quarter sessions files, 1921-71 (N/S 1)
  • Quarter sessions copies of witnesses’ depositions, 1855-90 (N/S 5)
  • Discharge of insolvent debtors minute book, 1720-81 (NCR 20a/35, available on microfilm MF 620)
  • Visiting justices’ order books, 1846-78 (N/S 10)
  • Gaol committee minute books, 1799-1836 (NCR 19c)
  • Gaol committee minute books, 1836-78 (N/TC 11/1-6)
  • Gaol deliveries in book of pleas, medieval (NCR 17b)
  • Gaol delivery lists, 1482-1504 (NCR 6h/12)
  • Sessional returns of prisoners, 1681-82, 1702-1833 (NCR 12d)
  • Gaoler’s certificates of numbers, 1808-34 (NCR 12d)
  • Calendar of prisoners, 1830 (NCR 12d)
  • Debtors’ papers, 1614-1781, including writs of distringas, 1614-18 and schedules of individuals’ property and discharges of debtors, 1678-1781 (NCR 15c-f)
  • Coroners’ inquests, including prisoners, 1669-1835 (NCR Case 6a, indexed catalogue available)
  • Police charge book 1, 1836-8 (ACC 2003/49, Chief Superintendent Frank D Slack QPM Collection, available on microfilm MF/RO 643/4)
  • Police registers of indictable offences (or crime registers), recording date reported, classification of offence, where and when committed, details of person against whom committed, details of accused and result, 1911-66 (N/PO 1/1-40) - closed to public inspection for 50 years


Tours of the building, including the former court (now a tearoom) and the cells in the cellar, can be pre-booked through the Tourist Information Centre.

Norwich Bridewell

This institution was used to punish those guilty of lesser crimes (particularly unmarried mothers).

The death rate from disease was high here too.

It was closed following the construction of the new City Gaol outside St Giles’ Gates and, together with the old Common Gaol on Guildhall Hill, was sold on 3 June 1829.

Most of the prisoners in the Bridewell were sentenced at the Mayor’s Court, which functioned as a petty sessions court.


  • Mayor’s court books, 1424-1835, with gaps (NCR 16a, available on microfilm)
  • Bridewell committee minute books, 1793-1820 (NCR 19c)
  • Account books, 1585-1751 (NCR 19c)
  • Calendar of prisoners, 1706 (NCR 5m)
  • Coroners’ inquests, including prisoners, 1669-1835 (NCR 6a, indexed catalogue available)


The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell tells the story of the city from medieval times to the present day.

Great Yarmouth Gaol and Bridewell

Description of the gaol in 1845

“The Gaol and Bridewell, in Gaol Street, form commodious prison buildings, all erected in 1818, at the cost of £3,397 except the Old Gaol, which fronts the street, and has a neat court room, in which the Quarter Sessions are held. The floors of the new buildings are divided into galleries, each having a number of cells, with a sick and day room.

“The roof of each cell, in the lower range, is composed of a huge block of stone, which forms the floor of the one immediately above it, and the whole are well aired and ventilated.

“The yards are so divided as to admit of a complete classification of the prisoners; the debtors being kept apart from the felons, and the tried from the untried.”

(William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (Sheffield, 1845) p. 256).


  • Great Yarmouth Borough quarter sessions records attached to Borough Court rolls, 1502-03, 1509-21, 1523-24, 1531-1623, 1630-51, 1661-76, with gaps (Y/C 4)
  • Quarter sessions books, 1567-94, 1597-1702, 1704-32 (Y/S 1/1-4, available on microfilm MF 1030-1031)
  • Quarter sessions books, 1903-59 (ACC Howard, Killin and Bruce 20/10/1971)
  • Quarter sessions waste (draft) books, 1640-44, 1676-88 (Y/C 9/1-2)
  • Quarter sessions waste (draft) books, 1707-96, 1811-64 (Y/S 2/1-9, available on microfilm MF 1031-1033)
  • Quarter sessions files, 1700-1863, with gaps (Y/S 3)
  • Quarter sessions files, 1943, 1945-71 (ACC Howard, Killin and Bruce 20/10/1971 and 27/2/1976)
  • Recorder’s minute books, 1872-80, 1882-83, 1887-93 (Y/S 11/1-3)
  • Recorder’s minute books, 1914-68 (ACC Howard, Killin and Bruce 20/10/1971)
  • Quarter Sessions register of appeals, 1898-1958 (ACC Howard, Killin and Bruce 20/10/1971)
  • Clerk of Peace’s case books, 1911-64 (ACC Howard, Killin and Bruce 20/10/1971)

Please note that microfilm copies of all the records listed below are available in both the NRO and in the local studies section of Great Yarmouth Library:

  • Gaol books (giving name of prisoner, date of committal and discharge, name of prosecutor, nature of offence), 1798-1865 (Y/L 2/1-3, available on MF 1872)
  • Bridewell book, 1822-38 (Y/L 2/4, available on MF 1872)
  • Committal and discharge books (with separate sections for debtors and Bridewell inmates), 1819-38 (Y/L 2/5-6, available on MF 1873)
  • Gaol registers (with particulars of each prisoner including state of education), 1808-75 (Y/L 2/8-15, available on MF 1873-1876)
  • Indexes to gaol registers references Y/L 2/9-14, 1838-75 (Y/L 2/16-18, available on MF 1876)
  • Analyses of registers, 1840-70 (Y/L 2/19, available on MF 1876)
  • Daily number books, 1837-73 (Y/L 2/22-24, available on MF 1877)
  • Summary of convictions register, 1852 to post-1872 (Y/L 2/25, available on MF 1877)
  • Register of prisoners’ belongings, 1867-75 (Y/L 2/26, available on MF 1877)
  • Register of employment, 1868-75 (Y/L 2/27, available on MF 1878)
  • Register of admissions (with religious denomination), 1868-73 (Y/L 2/28, available on MF 1878)
  • Journal of admissions and discharges, 1869-76 (Y/L 2/29, available on MF 1878)
  • Register of particulars of prisoners convicted under 1st schedule of 1869 Habitual Criminals Act, 1870-73 (Y/L 2/30, available on MF 1878)
  • Discharge books, 1850-74 (Y/L 2/31-33, available on MF 1878)
  • Dietary book (showing amounts consumed by each prisoner), 1839-44 (Y/L 2/34, available on MF 1879)
  • Provisions account book, 1835-43 (Y/L 2/35, available on MF 1879)
  • Receipt and consumption account books (showing daily consumption by each diet class, with weekly accounts), 1845-75 (Y/L 2/36-42, available on MF 1879-1881)
  • Diet class book (showing numbers in each diet class), 1852-67 (Y/L 2/43, available on MF 1881)
  • Gaol account books, 1850-75 (Y/L 2/44-45, available on MF 1882)
  • Gaol keeper’s journals, 1825-76 (Y/L 2/46-51, available on MF 1882-1883)
  • Surgeon’s journals (with lists of prisoners treated and their diseases at back), 1838-75 (Y/L 2/52-55, available on MF 1884)
  • Chaplain’s journals, 1847-65 (Y/L 2/56-58, available on MF 1884-1885)
  • Chaplain’s private journal, 1856-65, later used for accounts of money taken at Tolhouse (Museum) door, 1886-87 (Y/L 2/59, available on MF 1885)
  • Schoolmaster’s journal, 1853-62 (Y/L 2/60, available on MF 1885)
  • Visiting justices’ order book, 1846-75 (Y/L 2/61, available on MF 1885)
  • Visiting justices’ minute books, 1843-76 (Y/L 2/62-63, available on MF 1885-1886)
  • Visitors’ book (for unofficial visitors), 1843-79 (Y/L 2/64, available on MF 1886)
  • Gaol sessions minute book, 1853-76 (Y/L 2/65, available on MF 1886)
  • Misconduct book, 1849-75 (Y/L 2/66, available on MF 1886)
  • Register of prisoners committed for re-examination, 1875-1877 (Y/L 2/67, available on MF 1886) 


The Tolhouse Gaol tells the story of crime and punishment in Great Yarmouth.

King’s Lynn Gaol

The Borough Gaol at Lynn was maintained by the Bishop of Norwich until 1527, at the Steward’s Hall in the Tuesday Market Place.

The Mayor and burgesses took over this function from this date and they used the New Hall in Saturday Market Place.

This was on the site of the present Gaol House, which was rebuilt in 1784.

Parts of the adjoining Trinity Hall undercroft were used as additional cells, from the 1570s until 1937 and as a Bridewell from 1615.

From 1866, convicted prisoners from Lynn were sent to the County Gaol at Norwich.

Description of the gaol in 1845

“The borough Gaol, which adjoins the Guildhall, was enlarged and improved in 1831, at the cost of £2,300.

“It has a neat white brick front, with apartments for the gaoler; and in the rear are cells and lodging rooms, with four day-rooms, and four small yards for the prisoners. The debtors and felons are kept separate, and every other classification is adopted which the confined limits of the prison will allow.

“It has accommodations for about fifty prisoners, but the number incarcerated at one time seldom exceeds 30, and the imprisonment of female debtors but rarely occurs.”

(William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (Sheffield, 1845) p. 526).

Records (held in King’s Lynn Borough Archives)

  • King’s Lynn Borough quarter sessions books, 1726-1858, 1866-1957, include lists of prisoners (KL/C 20).
  • Quarter sessions minute books, 1620-61, 1679-80, 1689, 1693, 1729-1865, include lists of prisoners (KL/C 21).
  • Quarter sessions files, 1816-1971, with gaps (KL/C 22).
  • Gaol delivery roll, 21 Mar 1455 (KL/C 18/1). Text is published in D M Owen, The Making of King's Lynn (Records of Social and Economic History, new series 9, 1984), pp 429-430, where the date is erroneously given as 1453.
  • Records of alterations to Gaol buildings and of appointment and payment of gaolers can be found in hall books and chamberlains’ accounts in the Borough Archives


King’s Lynn Town Hall is home to the Stories of Lynn Museum and Old Gaol Cells.

Thetford Borough Gaol


  • Thetford Borough Quarter Sessions books, 1610-26, 1632/3-39 (T/C 1/9 and T/QS 1)
  • Quarter Sessions minute books, 1751-1833, 1839-1951 (T/QS 2-7)
  • Quarter Sessions files, 1897-98, 1938-51 (T/QS 8 and T/QS 24)
  • Recorder’s notebooks, 1937-47 (T/QS 22-23)
  • Clerk of Peace’s letter book, 1916-23 (T/QS 21)
  • Surgeon’s visiting book, including annual reports to Quarter Sessions, 1841-56 (C/PO 1/51)
  • Chaplain’s visiting book, 1841-57 (C/PO 1/52)
  • Receiving book, containing details of prisoners, 1839-55 (C/PO 1/53)
  • Receiving book (males only), 1855-57 (C/PO 1/54)
  • Reports of charges coming under cognizance of Constabulary, 1858-81 (C/PO 55)