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Prisons and prisoners in Norfolk

County bridewells

The Norfolk Quarter Sessions had responsibility for five county bridewells, or houses of correction, as well as the county gaol at Norwich Castle.

These were at Acle, Aylsham, Swaffham, Little Walsingham and Wymondham.

The county gaol and each bridewell had assigned to them a committee of visiting justices, whose task was to inspect and report to quarter sessions, on conditions in their particular prison.

General records held on the bridewells

  • Sessions minute books of administrative business, 1799-1968, include reports during the 19th century of visiting justices, of keepers and of surgeons of the county gaol and of the various bridewells (see C/S 4). Surgeons’ reports name individuals who died in prison.

Acle Bridewell

A resolution to repair Acle Bridewell, dated 18 July 1767, is recorded in the quarter sessions order book (C/S 2/11).

However, by 1785 it was in “so ruinous a condition” that the Court of Quarter Sessions sold the building and its site to John Drake, a farmer from Fleggburgh.

An enrolled copy of the deed, dated 12 January 1785, is to be found in miscellaneous road order book number 13 (see C/Sce 1/13).

Aylsham Bridewell

This appears to have been closed in 1825, following the completion of new buildings at Norwich Castle.

See resolutions of quarter sessions on 12 January 1825 and 13 April 1825 (C/S 4/4 pp129 and 174-176) and also the comments on Wymondham Bridewell below).


  • Register of prisoners, 1801-25 (C/Saa 8/1)

Swaffham Bridewell

Description of the bridewell in 1868

“The County Prison, which was erected in 1787, and considerably enlarged in 1844 at a cost of £1,500. It has a residence for the governor, and contains 67 cells and 3 hospital rooms. 

“The prisoners are employed in mat making, sacking weaving, tailoring, shoemaking, oakum picking, and pumping water from a well 150 feet deep.”

(J.G.Harrod and Co, Directory of Norfolk and Norwich, (London and Norwich, 1868) pp610-611).

White’s History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk (Sheffield,1883) p711 records: “The County Prison at Swaffham has been discontinued under the Prisons Act, and was pulled down in 1881.”


  • Plans, 1843 (C/Saa 3/13-15)

Little Walsingham Bridewell

Description of the bridewell in 1845

“The Bridewell, erected about the year 1787, on the plan recommended by Mr Howard [John Howard, the prison reformer], has been enlarged and fitted up as a county House of Correction, since the removal of the Quarter Sessions from Aylsham.

“It was enlarged in 1822 and 1843, so that it has now 53 cells and several day-rooms, and airing yards, and a well ventilated infirmary.

“There are here four tread wheels for grinding corn, etc, and the prison is now conducted on the ‘silent system’, which is found to be very beneficial, by preventing the prisoners from instructing each other in their nefarious arts. The number of prisoners is generally about 50.”

(William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (Sheffield, 1845) p. 680).

On 11 January 1861: “Walsingham Quarter Sessions were held for the last time. Sir Willoughby Jones, who presided, informed the Grand Jury that the Sessions would be removed part to Swaffham and part to Norwich, ‘on account of the expenses being so great in proportion to the number of prisoners for trial.’

“On March 1st the Bridewell ceased to be used as a house of correction, and the prisoners were removed to Norwich Castle.”

(Charles Mackie, Norfolk Annals (Norwich, 1901) ii, p. 103).


  • Petitions against closure, 1828 (C/Saa 3/16-17)


Entry to the former Little Walsingham Bridewell is available from the Shirehall Museum and Prison where the former Georgian courtroom can also be seen.

Wymondham Bridewell

Quarter Sessions resolved, on 12 January 1825 (C/S 4/4 p129), that the House of Correction at Aylsham and at Wymondham “be abolished as soon as the new County Gaol shall be completed”.

On 13 April 1825 (C/S 4/4 pp174-76), it was resolved that the sale of both bridewells should be carried into effect.

The Aylsham Bridewell does appear to have been closed permanently, but on 6 April 1831 (C/S 4/5 p248), the county surveyor was authorised to carry out repairs at Wymondham Bridewell.

On 4 January 1832 (C/S 4/5 p301), the clerk of the peace was instructed to place advertisements in local newspapers to state:

“That the House of Correction at Wymondham…is opened for the Reception of Female Prisoners and of persons committed for Re-examination. An order for the discontinuance of Norwich Gaol and Wymondham Bridewell was issued on 9 March 1878”.

(Charles Mackie, Norfolk Annals (Norwich, 1901) ii, p. 284).

Description of the bridewell in 1845

“The divisional County Prison, or Bridewell, at Wymondham, was erected in 1787, on the plan recommended by the philanthropic Mr Howard; but after the removal of the prisoners to the new gaol at Norwich, in 1827, it remained unoccupied till 1832, when it was re-opened, chiefly for the incarceration of females; and those sentenced to hard labour are employed in washing and sewing for the male prisoners at Norwich. The average number of prisoners, in 1842, was 19.”

(William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (Sheffield, 1845) p. 447).


  • Visiting justices committee minute book, 1832-64 (C/S 5/15, unfit for production)
  • Charge book, 1850-66 (ACC 2003/49, Chief Superintendent Frank D Slack QPM Collection, available on microfilm MF/RO 643/4-644/1) 


Wymondham Heritage Museum has recreated the original dungeon that was inspected by reformer John Howard.