The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset
by John Hutchins:

(3rd Edition published 1868)



The County GAOL


Hutchins says "The County Gaol stood anciently where the public house called the Angel at present stands". Before 1633, a new gaol was built at the lower end of east street; and John and William CHURCHILL having accommodated the county with houses to erect it, it was ordered by the Sheriff and Justices, that all grain spent in the gaol be ground at their East mills in Fordington; and if the gaoler bought his bread and beer, he should buy it of such as ground there. 13 Edw IV [i.e. 1474/5] the office of the King's gaoler here was granted to John MAN for life. There was a chapel in the gaol built by Mr BENN 1674, in which the rector of All Saints or some neighbouring clergyman, officiated every Friday. The salary of the ordinary was £20 per annum, paid by the county. This salary was augmented £10 per annum by the justices of the Epiphany sessions 1772; Mr Richard DAUBENY , Rector of Hardington, Somerset, and vicar of Cerne, being then Chaplain; and in the year 1773 to £50 by Act of Parliament.

The following documents are amongst the corporation archives:-
    Edward by the grace of God King of England Lord of Ireland, and Duke of Acquitane, to all to whom these present letters shall come, greeting. Be it known that, forsomuch as the men of our commons of the county of Dorset have given us to understand, that divers felonies, and very many other damages committed in the county aforesaid, are concealed, and offenders of this sort, evil doers, remain unpunished, because that in the same county there is no prison of any sort for the chastisement of such malefactors, and have supplicated us that we will be pleased to grant them that they may be permitted to construct a certain prison at their own proper costs in our vill Dorchester, that the offenders in the same county apprehended, in that prison may have justice according to the law and custom of our realm. We, assenting to their petition in this particular, do grant to them, and do give licence that they may construct the same prison in our vill aforesaid at their own proper costs, as is aforesaid, so that in the same prison malefactors and others indicted for transgressions and felonies which shall happen to be apprehended in the aforesaid county, may be conducted to, the same prison, and be detained therein until such time as justice shall be done upon them according to the law and custom aforesaid. In witness of which things we have caused these our letters to be made patents. Witness our self at Westminster , the 12th day of March in the Thirteenth year of our reign. [Presumably this is Edward I in which case the year is 1284]
    Henry the Eight by the grace of God King of England and of France, defender of the feyth [faith], supreme hede [head] of the churche in the realme of England and Lord of Irelonde. To the justices of the comen gaole delyvery wythyn oure towne of Dorchestre that nowe be and herafter shal be, and to every of theyme, gretying. Whereas it hath ben shewed unto us on the behalves of oure welbelovyd subjectys, the bailliffs and inhabitantys of oure said towne, the same towne is the shire towne of oure countie of Dorsett, and the said gaol is scited and establisshed there, andso hath ben of tyme whereof no mynde vis to the contrarie, and that they be charged with the fyndyng and susteynying of the prisonars remaynyng in oure said gaol, and also that the sessions for the delyverance of the seid gaole have ben custommably used to be holden and kepte wythyn oure seid towne of Dorchesarre till of latethat youre felowesjustice, assignedfor the aid gaole delyveryhave other whiles taken upontheym in theireprogessis and citcuytis for theire easesto holdtheire sessions at Shaftesbury and other placesbeyingfarredistantfrom oure seid towne of Dorchester, to the breche and subversionof the laudable custom aforeseid, wherbythe seid bailiffis and inhabitantys have ben dryven and compellyd to carye and conveye the prisonars in the seid gaole for the tyme beyng before youre said felowes justices unto Shatftisbury, and other places aforeseid, not oonly to the great daunger of oure seid subjectis bfor feare of the escapew of such prisoners, but also to theire inordynate charge , soe noyanceand excessyve hyndrance, by occasion wherof oure seid towne is outragiously decayed, and by lyklyode will failto extreme desolation, as God forbede, oonles that conyenyentremedye be the sonner provyded in the premises. We lett you wete that, in consideration of the same, and for the melioration and reducying of oure said towne to hys pristynate estateand wealth, we have granted and by this present doo graunte unto the seid bailliffis and inhabitantys, their heirs and successors for ever, plyne fredom libertie and auctorie that the seid sessions of gaole delyverie shall from henceforth be holdenand kepte wythn oure said towne of Dorchester and in noonother place withgyn that countie; nor that oure said subjectsis theire heires nor successours shal be compellyd nor constreyned herafter to carye or conveye any prisoners oute of oure said gaole to any other towne or place than to the same oure towne of Dorchestre oonly, any acte, ordynance, or statue made to the contrarie of theis premisses not with standyng: wherfor we wille and straightly commaunde that ye oure justices afoesaid shgall alway from henceforth holde youre sessyons for delyverie of oure saide gaole wythyn our saide towne of Dorchestre and in noon other place wythyn that oure countie. In witness wherof we have caused theis oure lettres to be made patentys. Witnesse oure self at Westminster the xxiiith [24th] daye of Aprill, the xxviith yeare of oure reign [1535]
Queen Elizabethg a.r. I by letters patent dated April 29th reciting the existence of the gaol at Dorchester &c as in the preceding document and also n" that certain Justices of Edward late King of England, our brother, had held the sessions atr Shatfbury for thier easment, in violation and disturbance of ancient custom, and contrary to the form and effect of certain letters patents of Henry the Eighth, late King of England, our father." The same instrument contains the grant of a fair to endure three days, namely on the vigil, day, and morrow of the Purification.

6 Car I [ i.e. 1630] an order of sessions was made to allow Mr BENN, the Chaplain or ordinary of the gaol, a salary of £10 per annum (follow link for image). He officiated in a room of the gaol. Also an order to have a house of correction here, and at Sherborne.

In the year 1784 the county gaol, being found in a ruinous and insecure state, was ordered to be rebuilt, on a plan approved of by the justices of the peace, and finished in the year 1785, by Messrs Tyer and Co at an expense of about 4,000. Shortly afterwards, however, this was again found insufficient, and a more commodious and appropriate building was erected, which with some alterations, is the building in use at the present day, in which are united the county gaol, penitentiary house, and house of correction. It stand on an eminence, on the north side of the town, on a piece of ground still called the Castler, and which was formerly the site of a building of that description, at the foot of which flows the river Frome. It is bounded by a wall about 20 feet high above the surface of ground, which from the turnkey's lodge, situate at the north side of it, completely surrounds the whole buildings, courts, &c. The architect was Mr Blackburn, the frie4nd of Howard the philanthropist, and a man of considerable eminence in that profession. The expense of the building amounted to 16,179. 10s. 6d The work began in 1789 and finished in 1795.

At the present date , 1865 the gaol remains substantially the same with some additions and alterations to adapt it to the discipline now in use.
Genealogical Notes:-

(1). The Town Gaol is also referred to in The Municipal Records of Dorchester Dorset" Edited by Charles Herbert Mayo and published in Exeter by William Pollard & Co Ltd 1908 [Link to transcription]


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