A visit to York Prison in November 1888

Readers – especially those with an interest in the history of prisons – might be interested to read this account of a visit to York in 1888 by my Great Aunt, Mabel Scott.

She kept a diary between 1887 and – though eventually rather fitfully – well into the Great War. After her death it was given to her brother Norman, a Norfolk clergyman, and on his death in 1955 it was found by his nephew, my own father Martin Scott who died in 2002.

I realise that reading other people’s family history can be about as exciting as clearing out their garden sheds in the rain, but bear with me. The extract below is fascinating.

If you actually are interested in knowing more about Mabel and her family – then my father wrote a short introduction to the diaries which I have reproduced below.

For the moment all you need to know is that in the autumn of 1888 Mabel – then a seventeen year old girl – and her family decided to stay in York for a fortnight. Her descriptions of the nineteenth century city are interesting enough if you know York (as I do), but they come alive with her visit to York Prison.

She is a little inaccurate on the sombre history of Clifford’s Tower, the oldest part of the castle and prison complex. The massacre of the Jews actually took place in 1190, during the reign of Richard I, not Richard II. But she is quite right that the Jews who sought refuge in the tower took the decision to kill themselves rather than face the inevitable torture and death at the hands of the mob that was besieging them. The leader of the mob was a monk, a religious fanatic of the sort that we are all too familiar with today. You can read more about the most shocking single episode in the history of British Jewry here.

Much of the prison was demolished in 1935. Some of what is left is now rather a good, though inevitably sanitised, museum, and part is still used as a Crown Court.

I don’t think the treadmill has survived. Once an essential accoutrement of any self-respecting prison, it was coming towards the end of its popularity – if that is the word – by the late nineteenth century. When originally invented by William Cubit in1818 treadmills were used to grind corn. However, in the case of the York Prison treadmill described by Mabel it seems more likely that it had no useful purpose whatever. The very pointlessness of the hard labour involved in treading it must have added considerably to the punishment, and they were in effect instruments of torture detested by prisoners. They could be required to tread the wretched thing day after day, and year after year, for 10 hours at a time, although as Mabel tells us they were allowed brief rests. No talking was permitted, and if you were caught doing so the punishment was to miss your next rest period. They were finally abolished in 1898.

Anyway, if you are still interested, here goes:

Nov 1st & 2nd

We left Harrogate in pouring rain. We were delighted to go, especially Aunt Alice.

York Station is said to be the finest in the world. It has a curve in it, as though it had been twisted. There are ever so many platforms & subways & the roof is rather nice – that is all I noticed.

Picture thanks to Simon Lathlane, Flikr & Zenfolio.com
Picture thanks to Simon Lathlane, Flikr & Zenfolio.com

We walked down all the principal streets & had some lunch at a very nice “creamery” that belongs to Rowntree, the chocolate man.

We are staying in Blake Street. …

We explored the city all the afternoon & luckily it was quite fine. I know most of the principal streets now – Coney Street & Pavement, Fossgate, Spurriergate, Fishergate, Stonegate, Petersgate and so on. All are very old and narrow, some of the houses almost meet in the middle. It is very interesting place to find your way about in a new place only here you have to do your best to avoid the slums which are very bad.

We crossed Lendal Bridge over the river (the Ouse) but I had not time to notice much about it except that it is wide and flows slowly along. …

Nov 7th 1888

Yesterday we went all over York Castle. Mr Melrose’s order got us in: as a rule they do not admit any visitors, because it is a prison under Government. The Governor’s name is Shepherd. He lives in the castle yard & his poor little garden is only about as big as an ordinary room, & I am sure it never gets a glimpse of sunlight. He was out, in the prison & the housemaid took him the letter, while we waited in a nice little drawing room. Soon Mrs Shepherd came in. She was very nice and told us all about the prisons she had lived in: Clerkenwell, Newgate, etc.

Mother asked her if she was not frightened of something happening to her husband. She said:

No, not as a rule, only once when they had some Fenians who used to put little coffins with threatening notes into the letter box.”

One of the officers, Heale by name, came to show us over.

We went first up Cliffords Tower, which was built by William the Conqueror. It is the only part of the castle that is in ruins the rest is comparatively speaking modern. We climbed up a winding staircase & there was a fine view as it was a beautiful day only so bitterly cold that we were glad to get down again. It was in this castle that the Jews killed each other rather than surrender to the people, in the time of Richard II.

We looked down the well into which they put the bodies of their murdered wives and children. It is very deep, sixty feet now & it used to be ninety. Some time ago people thought that there might be some remains at the bottom, because the Jews had all their treasures with them. They dug all round for a fortnight & then gave it up in despair, having only found a few dry bones. Poor Jews! I am so sorry for them!

After the tower we passed through two or three tremendously strong iron doors and down some melancholy court yards surrounded by high stone walls in which were tiny barred windows – the cells – & then into a large room where there about twenty convicts.

York Prison Cell Door
York Prison Cell Door

Most of them were working on the treadmill, a few were chopping wood. Mr Heale said they had to stay on for 15 minutes and then rest for 5. 

York Prison Treadmill (Picture thanks to York Past & Present)
York Prison Treadmill (Picture thanks to York Past & Present)

They got off as though they were so tired. I suppose that is what is called hard labour.


From there we went into the kitchen where the dinner of soup with vegetables was being cooked. One man was ill & so was going to have stewed chop and a piece of white bread instead of the hunches of brown that were for the others.

There were convicts in the kitchen too, with an officer to watch them. One of them started up suddenly to take something out of the oven; Aunt Alice thought he was running for a knife to cut off her head, she said she was quite glad to get out of there.

The chapel has a pulpit carved by a cabinet maker prisoner, which is very well done. We went into several cells where prisoners were making mats, and into the padded room for lunatics.

Mr Heale kindly offered to show us where the people are hanged, but of course we declined. I did not know so many people were hanged, Mr Heale says 9 have been executed since he has been there, but then that is fourteen years.

I am glad to have been over a prison. It is sad of course but I suppose wicked people have to be punished, & some of them did look very wicked indeed.


*** *** ***

Background to the diaries

By Martin Scott


On February 11th 1883 Edward Scott, a busy solicitor in the prosperous industrial town of Wigan, suddenly died at his home in Southport from one of those infections which in the nineteenth century still made unexpected death relatively common at any age. He was forty four and left a widow and four children, ranging in age from Ethel, a girl of fifteen, through Edward who was thirteen and Mabel at twelve to Norman at just ten.

The reaction of his widow (“Mother” throughout the diaries) was typical of the period. Indeed in some ways she improved on the pattern which had been set by the Queen; going into the widow’s weeds she was to wear for the rest of her life, she immediately attributed semi-divine status to the deceased solicitor – just as Albert had been similarly exalted twenty years earlier. But she went further, forming the eccentric view that so uniquely happy had been her own marriage that none of her children could hope for its equal; they had better not marry at all. In the event two of the children, Ethel and Norman, were to observe this prohibition. Edward did not marry until he was just on fifty, and Mabel, the author of the diaries, though the first of them to marry, was thirty three by the time she married, an age at which many middle class spinsters would have decided they were fated to remain as such.

But the immediate problem was financial rather than matrimonial. Their father had not been insured, and had not left much in the bank. His major asset was the comfortable house in Southport, but there was not enough to keep it up and to educate the children. In the early days of the family there had been a Swiss governess – with the fortunate result that the children were bilingual in French – but now she had gone and the boys were already at a prep school with a view to going on to Rugby. The girls would be jettisoned; school and university education for women was in any case something of a progressive fad, and they could safely be left to pick up such education as they could by their own efforts, remarkably successful efforts to judge by the subsequent range of their interests. But the boys had to be provided with an education appropriate to the professional middle class.

Two decisions were taken. The first was easy. Their mother had a brother, the Rev John Leach, whose lot had fallen in pleasant places. No doubt the vicar of Kirby today may not see himself as particularly fortunate as he looks out on one of the more depressing areas of urban sprawl and dereliction in which the overspill from Liverpool is housed, but a hundred years ago Kirby was still a pleasant country village. Moreover, Uncle John had married money, and lived in considerable comfort. Better still, he had no children, and could be approached on behalf of his nephews. He agreed to pay for the boys through school and university. It being understood that both should go into the Church. He had constant trouble with his curates, who indeed seem to have done all the work of the parish in return no doubt for exiguous salaries. Sometimes they showed by their habits of dress or speech that they were clearly not gentlemen; at other times they showed an unhealthy interest in theological speculation, not an activity the vicar was at all anxious to encourage. It seemed to him that if in due time one or other of his nephews could serve as his curate, and perhaps eventually succeed him in the living, two problems would be solved at the same time. The views of the boys were not consulted.

The other decision was perhaps more surprising. The house in Southport had to go; it was first let and then sold. But instead of finding another and cheaper home, the Mother and the two girls, joined by their brothers in school and university holidays, would become permanent wanderers. There were certain fixed points: they spent a certain amount of each year, always including Christmas, with Uncle John in Kirby, and there were relations in Oxford and London who could be visited, although Mother was a little uneasy in her mind about the effect of these relations on her brood; many of them were lax in religion and possessed of radical views in politics. But for most of the time they would simply move around the country, spending a week or two in a place before it was time to move on elsewhere.

Certainly, such a system saved the expense of maintaining a house and staff, and the necessary entertainment that would go with them, but that such a life could possibly be seen as economical says a good deal for the cheapness of railway fares and the availability of lodgings. Today such a regime would be a recipe for financial disaster. For the Scotts it became a way of life that was to last for the next thirteen years, and, presumably, saved money. But it certainly also imposed peculiar conditions on the family, and particularly on the girls since the boys were necessarily away from “home” much of the time and made their own friends. With the assistance of that incomparable railway network, then at its most extensive, and of the relatively modern technology of the bicycle, all of them acquired a remarkable knowledge of their own country. But nowhere were they at home, though Kirby at Christmas could put up some sort of replica, and nowhere were they long enough to settle into a new community.

The girls were very different in temperament. Ethel, referred to in the diaries always as “Tef”, was a shy person, who may have welcomed the life of an itinerant recluse; certainly she often responded to the chance of a social occasion by developing a migraine, much to the irritation of her younger sister, and she was to spend most of her life looking after Mother who had sunk into a real or supposed invalidism which did not prevent her living to a ripe old age. It was the fate of many a Victorian eldest daughter.

But Mabel was quite different. She was of a much more active disposition, keenly interested in places and above all in people. She started to keep her diary in the autumn of 1887 and was to keep it until the deaths of so many of the people who featured in it in the war caused her to lose heart and abandon it.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

4 thoughts on “A visit to York Prison in November 1888”

  1. Goodness me, I see you inherited your father’s wit Matthew (widows weeds story) Fascinating, because York is one of those places that just oozes history. Somewhere not far from me that I should visit more !

  2. There is a fascinating photo of York’s prisons as they were that a friend got on a guided walk (I would post a scan but I don’t know how to do so). It is almost perfect on the changing nature of gaols: there is (in one shot) the original debtors prison, women’s prison, and Castle gaol (which of course had mainly been used for processing people to execution, the US (later Australia), or back out, and next to it all a Victorian panopticon (described in your post), which was demolished. I often show it to my students (I work at the University) when lecturing on punishment.

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