20th September 2001, 1000 BST
traumatic last hanging and the Gaol's closure
Even in its ruined
state the New Gaol still retains a sombre, glowering presence over
its section of the Cumberland Road.
1849 saw Bristol's final public hanging at the New Gaol.
Servant girl Sarah Harriet Thomas, 17, had been found guilty of killing
her elderly employer Miss Elizabeth Jefferies - bludgeoning her to
death in her own bed.
Throughout her trial she had not appeared to treat the court proceedings
seriously, but records state that when the Judge put on his black
cap and passed sentence she collapsed and broke down completely.
William Calcraft, the longest-serving executioner in England was contracted
to carry out the sentence, but even he was greatly affected by her
youth and good looks.
was dragged screaming to meet her death at the top of the prison
On the day of her execution she was dragged screaming to the gallows
where she continued to sob, scream and plead for her life right up
to the final moment.
So great and moving was the awful scene that even the prison governor
was so overcome that he fainted.
A crime reporter E. Austin who
attended the execution reported:
"Ribald jests were bandied about; and, after waiting to see the
corpse cut down, the crowd dispersed, and the harvest of the taverns
in the neighborhood commenced."
However, a great many of the crowd felt repulsed by what they had
seen and many carried the memory of that grisly day for years afterwards.
Within the Gaol, conditions had again deteriorated with damage caused
by the Reform Riots still unrepaired.
In 1872, the Home Office wrote to the Bristol Corporation complaining
that the prison was not fit for its purpose.
The fabric of the buildings had degenerated to such an extent that
even redeveloping it was out of the question.
The Corporation bought an area of land at Horfield Gardens in preparation
for building a new prison - in those days each city had to pay and
run its own prisons.
Despite leading the way in prison design and practices the gaol was
closed in April 1883. Its successor, Horfield Prison, opened in 1884
and is still in use today.
In 1895, the prison
was sold to The Great Western Railway for a sum of £22,000.
It was then used as a coal yard and, with the exception of the granite
gatehouse, most of its walls and buildings were demolished.
through a window into the gatehouse, a children's swing today
recalls more sinister past events.
Although accorded Grade 2 Listed Building Status, the New Gaol stands
on private land. With the regeneration of Bristol's waterfront and
historic docklands its future could still be far from settled.
If you should pass by its jagged shadow spare a thought for all its
previous occupants. Those men and women who were held within its walls
in stark discomfort and ended their lives on the gatehouse's gallows.
Bristol: New Gaol prison.
Horwood and his macabre book legacy.
Bristol Riots, the breaching of the Gaol and its revenge on the mob.
Bristol's traumatic last hanging and the Gaol's closure.