Prison on Castle Hill


There was a prison of some sort on Castle Hill from when the Norman motte and bailey castle was built in 1068 until the end of the nineteenth century. Many of the prisoners were debtors, individuals who had been imprisoned for falling into debt. These prisoners were normally kept separate to the other criminals housed in the prison. Theft was also common reason for imprisonment, but there are records of individuals committing more unusual crimes, including a certain John Stallan, who was charged with starting eleven fires in the Great Shelford area, simply so that he could seek a reward for alerting the Fire Office.  

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There has been a prison at Castle Hill for centuries, since the building of the Norman motte and bailey castle in 1068. From the fourteenth century the castle gatehouse became the main prison – the upper floor was reserved for debtors, individuals who had been imprisoned for falling into debt, while the lower floor was for other criminals – thieves and murderers for example. The prison was rebuilt along a new design in 1802, but by the end of the 19th century had fallen out of use, as prisoners were now sent to Huntingdon Gaol.

A large number of the prisoners were debtors or thieves, but the prison did also house individuals found guilty of many different crimes. There were some imprisoned for political or religious reasons – in the 17th century Roman Catholics associated with the Gunpowder plot were housed in the gatehouse. In 1833 an individual called John Stallan was imprisoned for starting 11 fires at Great Shelford (a few miles to the south of Cambridge). Stallan admitted that he had started the fires deliberately, not through malice or ill-will, but because he would be rewarded with money for alerting the Fire Office that somewhere was burning! He was later hung for his crime at the Castle Prison.

Security at the Castle Prison was always an issue. In the 13th century a woman named Constance was brought to the Castle by the constables of Fulbourn (a few miles to the south-east of Cambridge), who had arrested her for murder. However, the Castle Sheriff and the constables argued for a long time over what to do with her. The Sheriff did not want her at the Castle, and the constables did not want to take her back to Fulbourn – both parties feared that she would escape and they would be fined for failing in their duty to keep the prisoner secure. Clearly they all lacked confidence in the security of their prisons! While they were arguing about the best course of action Constance herself actually managed to escape! Both the Sheriff and the constables received the fine that they had been so desperate to avoid. This problem of prisoners escaping was not unique to the Middle Ages. Centuries later, in 1830, two individuals who were imprisoned for burglary, E. Warren and J. Townsend, escaped by climbing a ladder that had been left at the prison by workmen. They were however later recaptured. 

Prison on Castle Hill


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