A stay at the Tolhouse, one of the country’s oldest gaols, could be a long and grim business whether or not you were innocent of the crime of which you were accused.
Men, women and children were piled together in two filthy, dark dungeons teeming with mice and rats, where they could fester for up to 10 years while waiting for a date for their trial in the 1400s.
The dungeon’s floor would be covered in a stinking, slopping mess, as there were no toilets and little fresh air.
The prisoners would suffer from chronic skin conditions as a result of the squalid conditions and the stress of waiting for their painful punishment if found guilty.
In the Tolhouse’s early days flogging, branding with hot irons, being locked in public stocks and death were metered out. In Great Yarmouth, people were hanged for crimes as petty as stealing a pair of shoes.
By the 1500s, it is believed that trials were held upstairs in the Tolhouse’s court, where a number of local women were condemned as witches.
|The Tolhouse after it was bombed in 1941|
In 1645, the notorious witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins came to Great Yarmouth to hunt down and try those who were supposedly casting evil spells.
Those who were deemed witches were given the harshest punishment – and several women were hanged together in the town.
In later years, people who escaped the executioner would sometimes go onto to endure a living hell, known as hard labour.
Working the treadmill was an exhausting, tedious and gruelling sentence, where prisoners had to climb the equivalent of a 2,000-metre mountain every day. Picking oakum was another plum choice of the judges and was particularly popular in seaside towns.
In the 1800s prisoners had to help pay for their keep by separating strands of rope covered in smelly tar. Their fingers were rubbed raw as they plucked out the threads which were then used to seal boats.
Rich and poor
Nowhere was the divide between the rich and the poor more apparent than in the Tolhouse. Prisoners had to pay for each necessity – from bedding to food and their release from chains.
Those who had wealthy families and rich friends would pay the gaoler to live upstairs on the ‘master’s side’ where they would be served tasty food and given clean clothes. If they paid enough, the gaoler would also set up visits from girlfriends.
However, paupers would be reduced to dressing in rags and if a charity didn’t come to their rescue they would starve.
This regime went on until 1823 when the gaolers’ fees were scrapped and the government introduced guidelines for food rations.
There were diets for different grades of prisoners, depending on the crimes they had committed. The food had to be worse than the meals eaten by poor people on the outside.
|The Tolhouse's entrance was also damaged|
At first, new inmates were only fed gruel and bread, while those sentenced to hard labour for more than three months were served meat four days a week and cocoa with sugar the rest of the time.
People who committed crimes weren’t the only ones who were sent to the Tolhouse. Those who had run up debts would also be crammed into the hold.
There was a window at one end of the chamber where the debtors would rattle their begging bowls at people walking by – which is where they would remain until they had saved enough to cancel their dues.
The gruelling conditions inside the Tolhouse started to improve when Caister woman Sarah Martin took an interest in the prisoners’ plight.
The religious dressmaker began to going to the gaol in 1818 to hold Sunday services to inspire the inmates to improve their lives.
She balanced her spiritual advice with practical help and taught them how to read and write as well as make items like books and spoons to sell.
Martin gave the prisoners a sense of purpose and boosted their pride by using the profits to buy clothes.
In 1875, the conditions at the Tolhouse were thought to be too decrepit to hold long-term prisoners there and the last of these inmates continued their sentences at the new Norwich Prison.
People awaiting trial were still held at the Tolhouse for another three years until the Prison Act came into force, spelling the end of the country’s 38 small gaols.
Despite becoming redundant as a prison, there was plenty more life in the building. The Tolhouse’s strong 800-year-old foundations and thick walls helped it to survive a direct hit from a bomb in 1941.
Although it was badly damaged, the former merchant’s house was rebuilt and re-opened as a museum, reprising its role before the war.
Let’s head for South Quay, so walk past the pillar box and the library. Turn right at the main road and cross at the pedestrian crossing. Walk until the cobbles become paving and you should be able to see the Star Hotel on the right.
Archive picture credits: Great Yarmouth Museums.