John Corfield

Thomas Smith was appointed County Surveyor for Bedfordshire in 1847 following the death of Frank Giles. Giles and Smith had met in 1843, as a result of a report prepared by a committee of Bedfordshire Justices. It followed a visit to inspect the new prison at Pentonville, opened in 1842, and the improvements Smith had made in 1839 – 40 at Hertford.

The committee considered the Pentonville Prison to be excellent but very costly to establish and had also decided that the Bedford Prison could not be altered in the same manner and for the same low cost as at Hertford.  Therefore it was decided that their own County Surveyor, Frank Giles, should visit the Gaol at Hertford and discuss matters with Thomas Smith.  The committee also suggested that Smith should meet both themselves and Frank Giles, at Bedford, to ascertain whether or not the prison could be remodelled and at what cost.

It had not been a very easy time for Frank Giles. He had prepared a number of schemes none of which were acceptable to the Secretary of State and must have found it very embarrassing to have to discuss the whole matter with the Surveyor of another county. Discussions and adjournments went on for five years before the improvements were finally put in hand. In the meantime, Frank Giles had died and Thomas Smith had been appointed to succeed him. At the end of 1847 it was decided to to proceed with the improvements.

It was decided to offer a premium for the best plans and estimates for altering the prison and, in the event of these not proving satisfactory, there would be no alternative but to erect a new one.

Thomas Smith entered the competition not in his official capacity as the County Surveyor but privately. However, due to illness he was unable to submit his scheme by the closing date. Undeterred he sent the drawings off explaining “that want of rest, hard-work and illness has quite exhausted me.” (The illness turned out to be cholera). The plans provided accommodation for 144 males, eight females and five debtors.

The winner of the competition was Thomas Jobson Jackson (1820-1894), a local architect who was later to succeed Smith as County Surveyor. However, the Magistrates did not proceed with Jackson’s scheme preferring instead that of their County Surveyor and which, the ”Hertford Mercury” reported, had also received the unqualified approval of the inspector of Prisons.

There was a great deal of opposition to the cost but the Magistrates pressed on and sought tenders for the work.

The lowest tender, submitted by Walter Parker of Thrapston, Northants, was accepted and work began in the summer of 1848 once the inmates had been moved elsewhere. The following October Thomas Smith wrote to the Magistrates advising them that the work had been completed but an inspection showed that not all cells were fit for habitation and, with winter approaching, the matter dragged on until the following year.

Thomas Smith’s new block, which incorporated cells for the separate confinement of prisoners, was based upon the layout used at Pentonville. His work at the gaol earned him praise which the ”Hertford Mercury” was quick to print declaring:- “…the new prison is one of the most perfect in England. It was built at a very modest cost and within the original estimate, a circumstance worthy of notice, because it is so unusual to find architects so correct in their estimates or so exact in their specifications as Mr Smith has been.” Smith had estimated that the likely cost of remodelling the prison would be £18,285, work at the House of Correction £1,400, and the fittings £1,100 making a total of £20,785. At the Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions a vote of thanks was given to Thomas Smith and also to Mr Parker, the contractor, for the excellent manner in which the works had been executed.

It is interesting to note that Thomas Smith and Walter Parker were the architect and the contractor respectively for the improvements carried out in 1849 – 1850 at Huntingdon Gaol. The improvements were extensive and included sixty new cells for the separate confinement of offenders and, as at Bedford, the final cost of the new work did not exceed Smith’s original estimate.

Perhaps the most bizarre item of work that Smith encountered in his post as County Surveyor for Bedfordshire if not for Hertfordshire also, is described in ”A Study of Bedford Prison, 1660 – 1877″ by Judge Eric Stockdale. It appears that in 1854, a prisoner was sentenced to death and the governor observed that there was “no furniture available belonging to the prison necessary for an execution in the event of so painful a duty having to be performed.” It seems that everybody had overlooked this piece of equipment when deliberating on improvements at the prison. Thomas Smith inspected the roof of the Porter’s Lodge, took details and the “necessary piece of furniture” was duly made.

In 1854, on 17 October Thomas Smith, finding the pressures of work too great, tendered his resignation to the Bedfordshire Magistrates who awarded him a gratuity of £50. This was the second of two gratuities paid to him during his seven years as County Surveyor. The first payment, for £100, was made following an application by Smith in 1851. This was for preparing plans, specification and estimate for the bridge at Harrold “once proposed to be erected but which scheme was abandoned”.

If the highlight of Thomas Smith’s brief tenure of the Bedfordshire post was the improvements at the local prison, it was also very nearly his undoing. Following complaints about the ventilation of the Chapel the ceiling was removed only to expose the slender construction of the roof. The committee advised that an independent builder should be called in to investigate the problem and that the opinion of counsel should be sought as to whether any responsibility lay with their former County Surveyor and the builder.

Lewis Cubitt was called upon to inspect the Chapel roof and he confirmed that the scantlings indeed did not conform to Smith’s specified sizes. After much discussion amongst themselves, the Magistrates chose not to take legal proceedings against either their former County Surveyor or con­tractor. Problems did not end here, however, for in 1855 the apparatus made for the execution of prisoners, at a cost of £60, could not be put together because the timbers had badly warped and both Smith and Parker had left the scene.

Smith also designed the police stations and lock-ups at Luton and Woburn and the lock-up at Biggleswade. His bridge work included the Stafford Causeway at Pavenham, the New Inn Bridge at Silsoe and Caple Dog Bridge and Holme Mill Bridge at Biggleswade.

Another aspect of Smith’s work concerned the Bedfordshire County Asylum. Hertfordshire did not have a county asylum despite the passing of an Act in 1808 which empowered all Justices to have one built in their county and for counties to unite. It was recognised that it was both highly dangerous and inconvenient to confine lunatics, chargeable to the parishes in which they lived, in such places as the Gaols, Houses of Correction and Houses of Industry.

In Hertfordshire lunatics were placed in private asylums. However, after 1828, both the County and the Liberty of St Albans were able to send their pauper and criminal lunatics to the County Asylum at Bedford. Documentation at the County Record Office*, Hertford, indicates that Smith had been involved with alterations and additions at the Bedford Asylum in 1848 – 49. The work had been put in hand to improve the existing accommodation for the patients sent from Hertfordshire and to provide new accommodation for those from Huntingdonshire.

* Now Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies at County Hall.

This page was added on 17/08/2022.

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