Hertford County Gaol Before 1702

Jean Purkis (Riddell)

Part of Speed's map of Hertford c1610

On 25th March, 1702 an indenture was made between William Clake, the owner, and Sir Thomas Bygrave, Bart., Charles Caesar, Richard Goulston, Edmund Feild, Thomas Dunster, Thomas Priestly, Israel Mayo, Henry Widdrington, Samuel Robinson, William Calvert and Richard Helder: eleven of Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace of the County of Hertford(shire). For £300 the said William Clarke conveyed to them the following:

”……All those his Messuages or Tenements situated standing and being in a street called the High Street now or late in the several possesions of Robert Law and William Fortesque together with the appurtences to the same which said houses in the front next the street continue in breadth 48 feet and in length 60 feet (the plan shows 71 feet) for the erecting and setting up and building of a Gaol or prison for the County of Hertford which said prernises are standing and being between the messuage called the Cross Keys east and the George west together with all ways waters and watercourses ….”

(This document is a copy of a Release in Trust of the Cour1ty of Hertfordshire, Hertford Borough Records Vol. 36 p. 579)

Today the street is Fore Street and the site is occupied by the 1858 Corn Exchange. To the East stood the Cross Keys, now Threshers Wine Co. and to the West another inn, the George, formerly the Swan, which occupied part of Market Street and some of the space where now stand two parlours, ‘Maxitan’ and ‘Fingertips’. Cleared of all the ‘messuages’, this was to be the site of a new gaol built as soon as possible after the above purchase and there is in existence a neat plan of this gaol. As can seen from the dimensions, the area did not extend to Back (Railway) Street, but behind it William Clarke retained a yard with cottages, occupied by his tenants, which in later years was referred to as ‘Old Workhouse Yard’ and used for the Parish of All Saints.

The ‘new’ gaol was in use until the 1770s when the last gaol to be housed in the County Town was constructed in Ware Road and extended back into present-day Baker Street Car Park. History books give a date of 1778 for completion. In 1879 all prisoners were transferred to St. Albans Gaol and the Ware Road premises were demolished in 1888 to make way for Elm, Ash, Oak and Baker Streets, the first three long gone, the last remains, in part. (For an excellent account of these two Hertford Gaols I refer you to the late Geoffrey Reynold’s article in the 1999 H&WLHS Journal).

But to return to Fore Street. The original source of information on the condition of the gaols is to be found in the County Sessions Books edited by William Le Hardy MC FSA, which are available both in Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies and in the Public Library. But what they do not explain is the whereabouts of a gaol before 1702, neither do they give a ‘blow-by-blow’ account of the progress of the building works. By April 1704 an entry appears in the Sessions records:

”Order that Mr. Nicholas Lance of Albury and Mr. Robert Dew of Hertford, who built the new County Gaol at Hertford, shall appear at the next Session to answer for their insufficient and not workmanlike building of the Gaole”

As a result, in January 1704-5, the North wall had to be rebuilt and it’s unclear if this was the building wall or the yard wall. But at least we have a rough idea of when the gaol was complete.

Now to go back. That historically essential document, John Norden’s Survey of 1620, published the following year, tells us something important and altthough there is no map, we can use Speed’s of 1610, which will help to some degree. Norden started the survey at the top of Fore Street somewhere opposite the land which was to be acquired for Christ’s Hospital in 1682. Coming West down Fore Street the survey reaches, on the South side, the Falcon Inn, now the premises of Jameson & Hill:

”William Hale, yeoman holdeth there in fee by socage tenure as is saide one ancient messuage against (opposite) the corner of the Gaole now called the Faulcon”

”Robert Dawson holdeth there in fee by socage tenure as is saide one ancient messuage against (opposite) the Gaole”

(Now Steven Oates and Sheffields) and

”Thomas Noble; Clarke (Vicar of All Saints’) holdeth there the Inn called the Angell against (opposite) the Corner of the Gaole “

(now Nationwide Building Society)

So these three buildings were facing the Gaol in 1620.

Then, switching to a later part of the survey, and to get our bearings, we start at:

”Sampson Clarke holdeth an Inn called the White Hart….and three cottages lately erected on part of the said Inn…” (probably in its yard)

”Joan Daniel widow….one ancient messuage opening into the Market Place next thereto adjoining. (lately Candies and the Toy Box, now Kids’ Connection and Oxfam, (obviously formerly one building)

”Nathaniell Northopp holdeth one ancient messuage thereto adjoining opening into the Market Place being the next corner house (towards) unto the Gaole ”

(The corner of Cafe Uno, not whole site)

So now we are back in Fore Street and maybe as part of Cafe Uno, Joan Daniel widow, again, who held the penultimate site, no doubt connected around the back yard to the following:

”…part of a messuage being a certain corne shop full against the King’s Gaol…..and the heirs of Robert Brooke deceased hold one anc;ient messuage called the Swann “

(Later the George and beside the Corn Exchange site which is next )

”John Dier holdeth of the Manor of Hertford one ancient messuage now divided into divers cottages”

(And eventually to accommodate the Corn Exchange; in 1702 in possession of William Clarke)

And to complete the description: ”Thomas Noble, Clerk aforesaid holdeth one ancient messuage called the Cross Keys……..” (now Threshers)

So, taking the location from the survey description of both sides of the street, the gaol, ‘King’s Gaol’, which is why it wasn’t included in Survey of the Borough and Manor of Hertford Castle, is between Joan Daniel’s Corn Shop and the Swann. This in today’s setting is from the last one third of Cafe Uno and to include ‘Messages’ and Duffield Harrison, Solicitors. But, is it on the building line of the North side of Fore Street, or a free standing building in the middle of Fore Street? The corn shop is ‘full against’ the King’s Gaol, which phrase usually meant ‘opposite’ in 17th century parlance rather than ‘beside’ in modem terms.

Speed’s map of 1610 shows a building in the middle of Fore Street roughly in this position. It does look too small for a gaol but there is a great deal of artistic licence shown in this plan. There is a building though, on the North building line, with a long roof between Cafe Uno and ‘Fingertips’ which could be part corn shop, part gaol, but I do now favour the next option.

Referring back to 1593-4 there is a description given in the Sessions Book of the gaol after prisoners had tried to escape:

”Wee fynd that there is fower doores belonging to the Gayle goyinge into the gayle as thorowe an entrye whereof the first doore nexte unto the mayne gayle was clean broken down, and the second doore aboute too foote and halffe, being distand from the inner doore aboute two foote and a halffe, beynge chayned to the inner doore, wa broken, and the cheyne also as the rnighte have gonn owte, but hey went not beyond the said second doore of the other too dores, the inner was shutt still and the forth door standeth all ways open in the daye tyme…”

This implies a building of some size and the description is attributed to a part of Hertford Castle by W. F. Andrews, co-founder of Hertford Museum, because in the same year there is the entry:

”Thomas Harmer of Weston, being taxed for maintenance of the gaol and prisoners at Hertford Castle…forcibly tore up the bill of seasement maide by the Justices”

But this could mean that there were other, perhaps more important, prisoners at the Castle and that the gaol was a separate entity, even though that all important comma, after gaol is missing.

ln August 1884 a startling discovery was made in Fore Street by workmen putting in new drains. They found some old foundations or walls exactly where the Survey of 1620 indicated the gaol to be. And they were in the middle of the street. R. T. Andrews comments in the Hertfordshire Mercury of August 23rd, that within the walls ”was found some kind of woven canvas or sacking about twelve inches thick: this may indicate a factory here for that material; at all events a large building did once stand in the middle of Fore Street….” R.T.’s careful drawing of the find indicates a building nearly thirty feet wide by one hundred feet long and he gave the opinion that: ”the walls themselves show works of antiquity (though no roman bricks are in them) and the work itself is the same as many of our oldest churches ”

As early as 1624-5 the Sessions Book states that the gaol is “very ruinous”.

Dr. Frances Page in her book ‘History of Hertford’, pub. 1959, tells of ‘an order from the Crown to the Sheriff of Hertfordshire to construct a gaol in the Borough (in addition to the Castle dungeon) in 1225.’ Could this, if it was eventually built, have provided the foundations found in Fore Street with walls of an antiquity with our oldest churches? An early ‘County Gaol’ in the Borough, but not for it?

Queen Elizabeth’s Charter of 1588 stated that a gaol was to be provided for the Borough – the House of Correction in Back Street? This, during the 17th century at least, was between the Friends’ Meeting House and the former premises of Parkins the butchers. Providence Place, a new development, now occupies the site. It became known as a ‘bridewell’ and was administered by the Borough while the gaol was the responsibility of the County. The question of the precise site of the pre-1702 ‘gaole’ may, in time, be resolved with certainty. By piecing together what is available now, there does seem to be evidence that it might well have been in the centre of Fore Street and I hope I have started a thread of enquiry which can be pursued further.

Our Borough Records at HALS are well worth investigation and I would recommend to members an hour’s worth. of catalogue-browsing to see what’s on offer. The Sessions Books, too, make absorbing reading.

As for the location of the ancient gaol, which was, legend has it, part of Hertford Castle, that’s another story, but one which will possibly rely more on imagination than fact!

This page was added on 06/01/2022.

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