John Corfield


One of the pressing problems in gaols throughout the country at the time Thomas Smith became involved with the Hertford Gaol, was the impossibility of separating prisoners from one another during the day and by night. Those awaiting trial for their misdemeanours were mixed in with those who had already been sentenced.

At Hertford the problems connected with the accommodation for the prisoners was acute. Designing and implementing improvements was the responsibility of Smith in his capacity as County Surveyor. His work included the building of new cells and the paving of the exercise yards.

The following is from the report written into the Quarter Sessions Book

“Since 1837 great alterations have been made in the Buildings and comprehend all the improvements recommended by the Inspector of Prisons and many more. The Plan of the Inspectors (which would have been far more expensive and in no way better) provided a hundred cells .. for separate confinement. There are now one hundred and thirty-two cells besides three Infirmaries under the constant supervision of a turnkey by day and by night….The whole expense to the County may therefore be considered as not having exceeded £3,510, a very moderate sum for such extensive works. The County Surveyor deserves great credit for skill and ingenuity and his great attention during the alterations by which a very large sum of money has been saved.” The work was highly praised by the Inspector of Prisons and the magistrates showed their gratitude by awarding Thomas Smith a gratuity of £40. Smith was also involved with the installation of the gas lighting ”to enable prisoners to employ themselves” and the designing and building of the Chaplain’s house both of which were completed in 1844.

A few years later it was found necessary to add more cells as the prison population had expanded and the separate system of confinement could not be maintained. Smith was instructed to prepare a number of schemes and the Justices chose one that incorporated an additional storey over the existing buildings thus providing another forty cells.

The improvements were described in an article in the ”Hertford Mercury” entitled “A Visit to Hertford Gaol”. Perhaps the most interesting comment concerns the: previous practice of all inmates being mixed in together. This allowed the prisoners “to communicate their histories and plans to each other and to confirm one another in the crime in which they had started”. The arrangement for the supply of warm air to the cells, the article also stated, “is exceedingly ingenious. Its temperature is produced by means of hot water pipes and the furnace which heats the water performs the operation of consuming the foul air generated in the cells.”

To save floor space hammocks rather than bedsteads were provided and the cell door was fitted with a glazed inspection hole and a flap through which the prisoner’s food was passed. To prevent escape the cells, presumably on the ground floor, were lined with slate.

In the chapel, the prisoners could neither see nor communicate with each other, and were under the gaze of the Prison Chaplain from the commanding position of the pulpit. The turnkey, who had been at the gaol for some twenty years, told the paper’s reporter that prior to the segregation of prisoners ”they amused themselves during the religious service by throwing their food or any other missile at each other”!

Once again Thomas Smith’s efforts and his ”great attention and extra services in the late additions to the prison” gained him a gratuity of £75. Hertford Gaol, after being closed in 1878, was finally demolished in 1888.


Thomas Smith was also responsible for carrying out improvements to the Gaol and House of Correction at St Albans, which were housed in the Abbey Gateway. It was sometimes necessary to send prisoners to Hertford because of the lack of room (the liberty had contributed to the cost of building Hertford Gaol in 1775 by a levy of a penny in the pound).

In 1839 the Liberty magistrates sought the advice of Thomas Smith, the “County Architect” on the capability of the present building to meet the requirements of the recent Gaol Act. His proposals were adopted at the Midsummer Sessions in 1840.

The Court also decided to obtain tenders for the work without first seeking the approval of the Secretary of State. The Clerk of the Peace explained that the Magistrates had not adopted the provisions of the recent Gaol Act but were anxious to carry out as many improvements as their limited pecuniary sources permitted and that Thomas Smith had been authorised to discuss the proposals with an Inspector of Prisons. The work was completed by the Spring of 1842.

There is no evidence to show that Thomas Smith was commissioned to design any more alterations to the St Albans Gaol or House of Correction. The Liberty persevered for another 40 years with the less than adequate premises.

This page was added on 28/07/2022.

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