FEBRUARY 2, 2023
By Harry Mottram. It’s an uncomfortable truth but until 1868 convicted criminals could be executed by hanging in public.
The last man to die this way was Michael Barret, an Irish Republican who was hung outside Newgate Prison in London in front of around 2,000 people who taunted him with songs and insults as he died.
By then public opinion and those of many MPs had shifted in their attitude to the punishment believing public executions to be morally wrong and more pertinently did not deter offenders.
Barret had been convicted as part of a gang who carried out an explosion at Clerkenwell Prison.
It is now generally agreed that he was innocent as witnesses said he was in Scotland at the time, but he was convicted on the evidence of a known perjurer Patrick Mullany who was promised a free passage to Australia if he pointed the finger at Barret.
In Bath a new prison was built in Twerton in 1842 but only remained in use until 1878 with the last part of the main gaol demolished in the 1990s.
Designed by the city’s architect George Phillips Manners following the 1835 Prisons Act which attempted to reform and improve conditions for prisoners it featured 122 cells plus a Governor’s House which is the last remaining building to survive.
After its closure the prison was used as a sweet factory and even an engineering business.
Its predecessor was in Grove Street, Bathwick, and was used from 1771 to 1842.
During that time there were growing concerns over the justice system with John Howard taking a leading role in making improvements.
His work continues today with the Howard League for Penal Reform. It should be remembered that Howard was no do-gooder but as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he had responsibility for Bedford County and was shocked by the way its prison was run.
His reports to parliament slowly changed minds and eventually led to changes in the law including The Penitentiary Act of 1779.
These initial changes included basic sanitation and a uniform set of conditions and treatments for convicts many of whom were debtors – people who couldn’t pay their bills.
Back to the prison in Twerton and its location on Caledonian Road. The previous prison was near Pulteney Bridge and aside from reforming the institution the increased number of houses in the city meant for many residents the site of gaol so close to the centre was not what they desired.
Twerton was out in the countryside in the early 19th century and so was the ideal place to build a new prison. Various sites were discussed by the city authorities but in the end the site in East Twerton near the Lower Bristol Road was chosen.
Today the nearest prisons are in Bristol and Erlestoke in Wiltshire and convicted criminals are no longer executed with the death penalty abolished in 1964.
But as you wander down Grove Street or Caledonia Road in Bath on a dark winter’s night you may just hear the ghostly sounds of the poor souls who felt the rope around their neck before the long drop to oblivion.