Born in Yorkshire, raised in Shropshire, travelled the world. Live in Adelaide and currently in UK. Love travel, ancient history, horses, cello playing, the unusual and obscure, and pottering in my own back yard. Visit my website www.wadders.co.uk
Published May 28th 2018
From induction to execution, experience life behind bars
A glimpse of the castle and railway station roof would be your last view of life as you knew it before the guards escort you through the heavy wooden doors and through to a stark, whitewashed holding cell with a couple of fixed benches.
The man next to you might have been convicted for manslaughter or be going through 'cold turkey'. Or it could be a street person who may not be smelling so good and have little creatures living on them….
Welcome to HMP Shrewsbury!
Known locally as 'The Dana', (named after Rev Edmund Dana, 1739-1823), Shrewsbury's prison was completed in 1793, although the current building was built in 1868. Following reports of overcrowding, the prison was decommissioned in 2013. Unsure of what to do with a Grade II heritage-listed building, the local Council has allowed it to be has been turned into a major tourist attraction, offering tours, themed overnight stays and it's even available to hire for events.
While you can do self-guided tours at your own pace, a guided tour (allow around two hours) will give you a deeper insight into life in this Victorian prison; many of the guides are former prison officers, and they give a few personal anecdotes and prison tales you won't hear about in the sign posts.
The ticket office is a former office, and a short walk through an open courtyard takes you through to the holding cell. Our guide explains on one busy day, there had been 38 people in this room. The number of people in the room is 23 and as a group of strangers on a tour, we're having difficulty trying to politely keep some space between us. It was quite a cool day outside, but already the room is feeling stuffy and warm.
Another 15 people and the room would be decidedly uncomfortable.
According to our guide, prisoners would be here for up to three hours; we're ready to move on to be 'processed' after the few minutes explanatory talk.
The natural light in the processing room is welcome but the yellow and black tape indicating where you should stand and furniture bolted to the floor is a stark reminder of where you are. Privacy cubicles allow for strip and in some cases body searches. You'd be surprised at what can be smuggled in; our guide highlights an eye watering attempt at Strangeways prison involving in a particular area of the body and four mobile phones with chargers….
It's an eerie sensation walking into an area where so many men over the centuries have been held. There are still the odd notices on the wall, fittings in the kitchen and a solitary pool table. Suicide nets between the three levels remind you of how being locked up for years would affect your mental health.
The cells are small, have a heavily barred window and unsurprisingly a solid door. Furnishings are minimal; a fixed bed and table, and a toilet ('slopping out' ended in 1992). It's no surprise the prison was decommissioned; the cells were originally designed for one man, but by the time the prison was decommissioned, there were up to three men per cell.
'Slopping out' finished in 1992 when toilets were installed in cells
The top floor cells were the most coveted as you could just about see out beyond the high prison walls. On one side, there were views over rooftops and beyond. The other side, considered a premium, overlooked the local nightclub; after an alcohol-fuelled night, prisoners would shout down to the scantily clad women who would shake and wiggle their assets to their captive audience. Our guide revealed how one prisoners' partner ripped off her top to show her beloved what was waiting for him on the outside. Unfortunately, he was actually in a cell on the other side so missed the whole performance, but his colleagues thoroughly enjoyed it and assured him it was a good one!
Before it was decommissioned, Shrewsbury prison had a good reputation. Our guide says there was a good relationship between officers and prisoners with a lot of mutual respect. Its food won awards, it worked with organisations to train offenders for work after their sentence, and there was excellent moral support through prison visitors and the prison chaplain.
The visiting room (now empty of furniture which would've been fixed to the floor)
As you'd expect of a building of this age and morbid history there are reports of an array of unusual happenings ranging from moving objects and strange shadows to apparitions and on some of the ghost tours, people claim they've been touched.
There is allegedly the ghost of one woman who still walks where the women were held; our guide said he'd never seen it, but added he'd never had much luck with attracting women anyway!
NB In 2017 Council approved a proposal to turn the former prison into student accommodation, flats, office space, and potentially a restaurant. At the time of writing, no date had been confirmed, and given that a new museum and a 'living museum' Victorian jail cell were about to be unveiled, it appears this development is unlikely to happen in the next near future.