Every weekday morning, thousands of commuters pile out of Salford Central Station, heading to work in Manchester. But as they set off on the final leg of their journey, little do many of them realise that they are passing the site of what was once the largest prison in the country, and one that was built along radically progressive lines, pioneering a new form of criminal justice that emphasised moral reform over brutal punishment.
Between 1787 and 1871, New Bailey Prison dominated the banks of the River Irwell. But as the local population rocketed in the white heat of the Industrial Revolution, prison populations also soared, putting pressure on the site’s aspirational intentions, and ultimately forcing it to compromise on its vision for reform. Dangerously overcrowded but hemmed in by the fruits of industrialisation, New Bailey was unable to expand, and – as other, larger prisons were built nearby to serve the same area – its buildings were closed, sold, and subsequently demolished.
Over time, the site was first transformed into a railway goods yard, and then a car park, as all the while the institution that originally occupied the plot slowly faded from collective memory. But now, as central Salford is transformed by a major regeneration programme, the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology is leading extensive excavations in the area. Since 2012, our findings have been helping to bring the darker side of industrialisation to light once more.
Ideology in stone
When New Bailey opened its doors for the first time in 1790, it was unique in England: the country’s first prison designed entirely in accordance with the principles of philanthropist and social reformer John Howard (namesake of the modern Howard League for Penal Reform). Having made an extensive tour of prisons across Britain and Europe, in his landmark work, The State of Prisons, published in 1777, Howard condemned existing systems of incarceration – in which prisons were often filthy and disease-ridden, and inmates expected to pay for bedding and food – as not fit for purpose. Instead, he argued that the road to moral improvement lay through hard work, prayer, categorising prisoners by crime – and, particularly, in separating repeat offenders from first-timers – and isolating them from their fellow inmates in individual cells.
These ideas had evolved against a background of rapid social change, and with Georgian England’s urban populations booming (between 1773 and 1801, the inhabitants of the burgeoning manufacturing town of Manchester had swelled from 23,000 to 74,000), accompanied by a dramatic rise in crime, Howard’s words found a willing ear in Government.
The project was funded by Thomas Butterworth Bayley, one-time High Sheriff of Lancashire, after whom the prison was named (the prefix ‘New’ was added to distinguish the site from London’s Central Criminal Court, still known today as the ‘Old Bailey’). Although few artefacts from the prison’s life were recovered during our project, the discovery of a couple of objects relating to its birth provided one of the most surprising developments of the research. While our excavations were in progress, the ceremonial chisel, mallet, and trowel used by Bayley at the laying of the first foundations in 1787 were rediscovered in a private store (CA 305), providing an unexpected link to the prison’s earliest days.
So, what did this brave new world of prison discipline look like? Later expansions have obscured much of the facility’s original footprint, but historical maps, and descriptions from 1804, record a three-storey curved building, with four attached wings holding 130 cells. These were enclosed by a wall some 120 yards square, with an entrance facing onto the river.
Our excavations revealed fragmentary traces of these structures: the original boundary wall had partly survived, sealed beneath the floors of later railway goods yard buildings, although levelled down to its lowest course to facilitate later extensions. Likewise, while at least one of the wings seems to have been completely destroyed thanks to an abortive 1970s building project, we also uncovered a small portion of the original radial building. Here, the remains of a subterranean level contained a series of niches that were initially interpreted as possible dungeons – something jarringly opposed to Howard’s ideals. Closer inspection revealed no sign of proper entrances to these chambers, nor anywhere that you might hang a door across, so we now think they may have been rather more mundane storage spaces.
By 1815, the prison was already in need of more space, a situation that would be something of an ongoing problem throughout its history. A major expansion to the west saw the construction of a clutch of new buildings, including extra cells to house male felons, a cookhouse, and a hospital. Happily, the foundations of many of these survived largely intact beneath the ground surface, preserving building footprints and room divisions in precise detail, and granting clear insights into what prison life was like under the new regime.
As we uncovered a broad sweep of the curved building that housed male inmates, it was possible to reconstruct its layout. The structure’s lower floor was divided into nine wards, with six cells arranged around a central corridor. These blocks were linked by shared day rooms, while a chain of 90 workshops ran around the outer edge of the curve in a separate building, divided from the cells by an outside yard space. While the penal system may have been relatively progressive, the building itself was certainly not designed for inmates’ comfort. Prisoners’ living spaces were incredibly cramped, averaging 2m², with the inner cells narrowing further as the building curved, so much so that, in the smallest cells, it would have been difficult for a tall prisoner to lie down.
Exercise was another important facet of the new regime, and accordingly each cell block had access to a walled outdoor yard, where inmates could enjoy a little fresh air, albeit under the watchful gaze of a sentry box. The unfortunate prisoners confined to the smallest cells must have longed for their turn in a space where they could stretch their limbs.
The felon workshops lying opposite the cells were roomier, measuring an average of 4.3m × 3.7m. Here, from 6.30am to 7pm, prisoners would have spent their days in monotonous but productive – and probably, for the prison, profitable – work, including unpicking rope, weaving, and bobbin-winding. This routine was broken only by religious services in the prison chapel, time in the exercise yard, and meals, which were eaten in shifts.
The cookhouse where these meals were prepared stood a short distance away, within the prison walls. Its basement level, which had survived remarkably complete, still contained the lower levels of the staircase used to access it, as well as the remains of an oven. More poignant, though, was the discovery of the base of a window, where a series of small, square holes served as a reminder that it was not only the inmates at New Bailey who were required to view the world through bars.
As we uncovered the remains of the cell block, we were struck by the astonishing proportions of its brick foundations, which extended over 3m underground, and supported walls between 0.5m and 0.75m in width. Meanwhile, although the workshops’ foundations were narrower, never exceeding 0.25m in width, they were no less impressive, incorporating cross-walls formed from massive, well-constructed arches that remained beautifully preserved.
In the case of the cell buildings, such large and deep foundations make practical sense: they were holding up a building three or four storeys high, and, combined with the thick cell walls, would have made it difficult for a prisoner to tunnel out. The arches beneath the workshops are more puzzling. They do not seem to have been part of a basement level, and, curiously, they also only feature in the northern half of the building – the cross-walls to the south were nowhere near as well finished.
What, then, were they for? Several theories have been put forward, from facilitating the flow of air to prevent disease spreading, to relieving stress on the building. But if something structural was intended, the lack of continuity between the north and south halves of the building is strange. Equally odd were the remains of similarly substantial arches visible in the exercise yard walls, running outwards from the felon building like spokes on a wheel. Here, infill suggests that they could not have been used for access, nor was there any evidence that they had a drainage function, as they had been built directly over the undisturbed natural clay. Furthermore, these arches were even more inconsistent in their make-up, varying widely in height and width.
But if there was no obvious practical purpose for these features, perhaps their date provides a clue. The arches were erected during the site’s 1815 extension, which came just at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when large numbers of suddenly redundant men would have been returning from the Continent. Might the walls have been deliberately over-engineered to create jobs for demobilised soldiers?
If this was the case, however, the same ambitious construction techniques had not been applied across the site. The hospital wing, for example, presents an alarming level of apparent under-engineering. Despite being added only a few months after the more substantial cell and workshop buildings, it offers a complete contrast, with shallow foundations, and walls poorly built from a mix of roughly hewn stone and brick. Unmortared masonry is not employed anywhere else on the site, and the structure looks more like the hastily constructed contemporary back-to-back houses that were springing up in the surrounding Salford streets than the other prison buildings. This relative lack of rigour is surprising – could it be because sickly prisoners were deemed less likely to attempt an escape?
Wheel of fortune
A third major phase of expansion was to come in 1821, one that reflected a darker turn in the initially philanthropic outlook of Georgian prison reform. Changes to the western portion of the site were benign. They introduced administrative buildings such as new offices for turnkeys and clerks, as well as a chapel (which we partially excavated in 2013, revealing that the north-west portion had a narrow interior corridor, perhaps to further control the prisoners’ movements, and ensure close supervision). But the prison population was still increasing, necessitating further changes to the east. Analysis of a series of historic maps clearly shows earlier buildings being partly knocked down to make way for dedicated blocks for misdemeanants and vagrants, as well as a block of cells and workshops for female felons, and something new: a treadwheel.
This latter feature brought a dramatically different aspect to the inmates’ labours, and marked a sharp move away from its earlier emphasis on moral reform rather than punishment for its own sake. Based on a design patented by Thomas Cubitt in 1818, the New Bailey model saw prisoners walking on the outside of a wheel enclosed within a two-storey structure whose footings, badly truncated by 1970s interventions, we uncovered in 2014. Initially the mechanism was used for grinding dye, but later it was simply employed as a form of exhausting punitive work, to be carried out in strict silence.
Its implementation divided opinion: those in favour argued that hard labour was an essential part of reforming criminals, while critics pointed to the unproductiveness and danger of such methods. But New Bailey embraced the wheel with enthusiasm: contemporary records attest that inmates were required to turn the wheel for up to ten hours a day, or a maximum of 19,700 feet – the highest figure recorded in any contemporary prison.
While the regime at New Bailey was changing, ideas about what constituted effective prison discipline were changing even faster, and this would ultimately seal our site’s fate. By 1830, the jail had reached its zenith, having expanded as far as it could – it even compromised on its ideal of giving every inmate their own space by using 522 cells to hold 750 prisoners. But by now the British Government was beginning to look to the USA for inspiration, where new models were evolving: the Silent System, where prisoners slept in separate cells but worked together in complete silence; and the Separate System, where all activities, including work, were carried out within the confines of the prisoner’s cell (unless they were sentenced to hard labour).
Of the two, the Silent System, which did not require major reorganisation of existing buildings, was more suited to older prisons like New Bailey. Indeed, it seems that the jail tried to adopt this regime, although a report from 1836 reveals that lack of staff made it difficult to enforce strict silence across the complex. Meanwhile, the Government was pushing ahead with the Separate System, implementing it across the country with the 1839 Prison Act.
Although the system was not made compulsory, by 1850 some 60 prisons across England and Wales had either been built or adapted according to this new model. New Bailey struggled to meet the new requirements. Penned in by a crowd of warehouses, textile mills, and ironworks that had sprung up around the jail since its construction, the site was not able to expand any further, and its cramped cells were ill-suited to being used for work as well as sleeping.
Yet the New Bailey staff do seem to have shown a degree of willingness: a report from 1845 states that some of the female cells – perhaps the larger felon cells at the eastern end of the site, which are still awaiting excavation – had been equipped for separation. But it was increasingly clear that New Bailey, by now dangerously overcrowded with over 1,000 prisoners, would never be able to accommodate the new system properly.
In 1850, a new prison was opened at Belle Vue, 3km south-east of Manchester city centre. It was intended to hold criminals while New Bailey was demolished and replaced with a more modern structure, but when the new complex reached capacity within just 18 months of opening, it was clear that the New Bailey site would never be able to keep up with demand. Another, larger site was chosen, this time to the north of the city centre on the country estate of Strangeways. Opening in 1868, the majority of its original inmates and staff were transferred directly from New Bailey, which closed its doors for the last time later that year.
Questions of class
From a modern perspective, New Bailey’s final days were dark ones. Having adopted physical punishment in 1824 with the introduction of the treadwheel, towards the end of the jail’s use the regime became more severe still. New Bailey had never been involved in capital cases – most of its inmates were relatively minor offenders, serving sentences of six months or shorter – but the jail’s last three years witnessed the only executions to have taken place on its grounds.
They were high-profile cases: James Burrows was just 18 when he was hanged for murder in 1866; while the following year brought the execution of the Manchester Martyrs, three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who were sentenced to death after a police sergeant was killed during an attempt to spring two other members from a police van. Timothy Faherty and Miles Weatherill, convicted murderers hanged on the same day in 1868, were the last people to die at New Bailey, and the last public hanging to take place in Manchester. Executions continued when the new prison at Strangeways opened, but behind closed doors.
These last few years are well documented in local newspapers and contemporary records, but our excavations uncovered little trace of New Bailey’s twilight years. There were no artefacts, probably attributable to the prison being carefully cleared when its population transferred to Strangeways – and there was very little in the way of rubble to mark its passing in 1871, when the site was demolished by its new owners, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.
This may be at least partly due to the site being levelled so that the cobbled surfaces and railway lines – some of which we found preserved in situ – of the new railway goods yard could be built. Meanwhile, the prison’s brickwork seems to have been largely recycled, some within the inspection or storage pits that were constructed beneath the new railway lines, while other materials were probably sold on to builders across the region, which was still dealing with massive population increases.
Many of these newcomers, who flocked to work in the booming town’s textile mills, were packed into unsanitary back-to-back houses and cellar dwellings. While it is easy for modern observers to be horrified by the increasingly harsh nature of the regime at New Bailey, and the tiny living spaces of its occupants, it could, perhaps, be argued that its inmates received more comforts than many of their free contemporaries living immediately outside the prison’s walls.
Inside New Bailey disease was rare, as the prisoners had access to healthcare from the prison surgeon, as well as regular meals, washing facilities, and clean clothing. Individual sleeping rooms, however small, were also a luxury undreamed of by the occupants of the crowded tenements beyond the prison walls.
As Friedrich Engels recorded in his classic social commentary The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, the circumstances of thousands of urban working-class people in central Salford and Manchester were much worse. Strict and regimented punishment might have been delivered on an industrial scale at New Bailey Prison, but perhaps the true horrors of the industrial city were to be found in the disease-ridden, poorly built, and overcrowded slums surrounding it at Ancoats, Little Ireland, and New Islington.
All images: CfAA, University of Salford
The development of the New Bailey site is funded by English Cities Fund, and managed by Muse Developments. James Cale of the Lodge of Uninamity No.89 kindly donated the ceremonial tools.
A Brodie, J Croom, and J O Davies, English Prisons: An Architectural History, English Heritage, 2002, ISBN 978-1873592533
Tate Gallery Centenary Development, Millbank – Excavation and Watching Brief: Archive Report, unpublished AOC report, 2006, available from archaeologydataservice.ac.uk