Building a ‘House of Correction’ at Battle
27 July 2017
By Lindsey Tydeman
Battle’s first prison was within the Abbey walls and its second, in the town, was completed in 1665. By January 1821 local magistrates decided a new building was needed and on Monday 14 May a notice appeared in the Sussex Weekly Advertiser inviting tenders for materials and workmanship for the ‘re-erection of the House of Correction’. The new building, which contained four cells and a keeper’s house, required between eighty and one hundred thousand bricks, quantities of lime, sand and mortar, foundation trenches and high quality ironwork.
Within the year the gaol was functioning and in August 1823 it passed, with an inventory listing eight beds, 25 blankets, eight stools, 12 bolsters and two water pails, to the new keeper, Samuel Cooke. The first prisoner, ‘No.1, William Vidler of Hollington’, had been apprehended on 5 May for stealing underwood belonging to John Cressett Pelham, a local landowner. Initially sentenced to a month in prison, Vidler was discharged on 17 May.
Following the 1823 Gaols Act, initiatives were put in place to establish and maintain prisoner welfare. Food was provided and divine service performed every Sunday. The chaplain also visited individual prisoners regularly and a local magistrate would visit at least fortnightly to ensure the building was clean and running smoothly. A local surgeon was available for cases of ague, diarrhoea and epilepsy.
Records were kept meticulously. Keeper, surgeon and chaplain had their own journals, while Samuel Cooke also kept an admissions book and registered individual orders of committal. During certain periods during his long tenure he also noted whether prisoners could read and write.
The Register of Committals reveals a substantial amount about the lives of the poor living in the villages and small towns of East Sussex in the difficult decades of the 1820s, 30s and 40s. Volunteer Helen Glass, who has catalogued the gaol register, reports that most committals were of young men arrested for petty theft or failing to pay ‘bastardy orders’, the local magistrates’ order that they contribute towards the upkeep of their illegitimate children. In these latter cases a short time behind bars worked its magic. After a day or two the man in question paid up or found a guarantor for the money.
Often an offender appears genuinely desperate, lacking fuel or food or the means to buy it. Theft was both premeditated and opportunistic; vegetables in fields, blankets, firewood, poaching with an ‘engine’ (a wire or trap) or the stealing of common articles which could be easily sold. All stolen items were given a monetary value, while the theft of anything worth over one shilling was considered a felony. In these cases the prisoner was remanded for trial at Lewes Quarter Sessions or Assizes.
Assault cases appear regularly, not so much the outcome of fights after drinking bouts but more often an expression of anger and frustration with authority closer to home: The workhouse regime, with its hierarchy of petty authority, often appears the catalyst for violent outbreaks. ‘Misbehaviour in the workhouse’, refusing to do duties allocated there, or leaving one’s rightful place, whether the army, the workhouse or an apprenticeship, could carry a short prison sentence.
Women and children make up roughly 15 per cent of committals, with apparently little allowance made for gender or age. Twelve-year-old Jane Allen of Brightling was ordered to pay two pounds and ten shillings in September 1832 for, ‘violently assaulting Harriet Skinner without any just cause’, and she was imprisoned for 14 days. The following year Charles Pryor of Bexhill, 14, was imprisoned for 14 days for stealing ‘a quantity of walnuts’ and in 1849 14-year-old William Pope of Iden also received 14 days for stealing three apples worth a penny. On 5 September 1823 Harriet Clapson of Hooe was committed to the prison, ‘Having been delivered on fifteenth day of June last of a female bastard child which child is likely to become chargeable to the parish and she refuses to answer on oath to the name of the father of the child’. Her sentence was to last ‘until she shall answer on oath who is the father’. She was discharged three months later on 10 December.
Begging and vagrancy caused parish constables a great deal of anxiety. Individual vagrants or families found living in tents on common ground, ‘who could not give a good account of themselves’ were taken to the cells before being transferred to the workhouse. But justice was tempered with mercy. The decision to remove elderly or sick vagrants to the prison during particularly cold weather may well have been taken with their welfare in mind.
Samuel Cooke began his keeper’s journal at the end of November 1823, probably to justify his unusually severe response to a difficult prisoner, as the first entry demonstrates the necessity of putting John Howell in irons (the 1823 Gaols Act had prohibited leg irons). Howell, who had been committed for breaking into a cheese pantry and stealing a cheese, then going on to shoot two roosting turkeys and steal two tame rabbits, did not calm down in the cells. Cooke caught him ‘wilfully cutting and damaging the doors of this prison and pushing pebble stones into two of the locks by which I am prevented inserting the keys, swearing that he would do as much damage to the place as he possibly could for which I have put him in irons’. Three days later on 2 December the visiting magistrate stipulated that the irons be continued, but ordered their removal on 4 December. He also ordered ‘more air’ for the prisoner.
Samuel Cooke successfully petitioned for an increase in salary in 1841 ‘in consequence of the present high price of provisions’. He remained in his post until 1853, when the gaol was discontinued and the building adapted to create Battle Police Station.
County Archivist Christopher Whittick commented that the Battle Prison project had been a further example of the huge voluntary efforts which support the work of The Keep and make previously hidden archives accessible to the public. ‘These records bring poor and marginalised individuals out of obscurity, providing information which will ensure that they are remembered and that their stories can be told. We are very grateful to Helen Glass for her dedicated work, and hope that it will add an extra dimension to family history research in East Sussex.’