Northallerton’s prison walls are gone

For over two centuries, the towering brick walls of a prison dominated the centre of Northallerton.

The huge brick walls of Northallerton Prison, that used to dominate the town, have been torn down
The huge brick walls of Northallerton Prison, that used to dominate the town, have been torn down.

But now, they have been torn down and reduced to rubble. While developers wait to turn the site into shops and offices, historians and archaeologists work to reveal the secrets that lay hidden behind those walls.

The Prison, originally termed a ‘House of Correction’, was founded in 1783 and closed in 2013.  Hambleton District Council and the Wykeland Group of Hull are developing the site.  They have named it ‘The Treadmills’, after a part of the prison’s history.

Northallerton was the country’s first custom-built jail, and was designed by John Carr, who normally built stately homes such as Harewood House.  In 1821, the first treadwheel was installed.  It was a large wheel like a water wheel, but turned by a person who stepped on it.  John Parkinson, of Northallerton and District History Society, has made an in-depth study of Northallerton’s treadwheels, and says, “There’s a perception that they were used for punishment.  But they were actually intended to provide useful work and healthy exercise.”

In some prisons, treadwheels were installed for exercise only.  But the canny folk of Northallerton soon realised that a treadwheel could be harnessed for useful power, to run a mill.

A mill that could grind corn.  Or animal feed.  Or pump water from a well.  John has discovered drawings for a sawmill, but is unsure whether it was ever built.  It was even claimed that Northallerton had the largest treadmill in the world.

Largest or not, the cornmill ground so much corn that local millers claimed the prison was undercutting their prices, and petitioned to have it closed down.

By the 1870s, public opinion on treadwheels began to change.  Northallerton’s treadmill was no longer grinding corn, and, says John, “It was considered demeaning for prisoners to do useless activity.”

In 1898, Northallerton’s treadwheels were abolished.  But this was far from the end of the prison.  During World War 2, the Military Police ran it as a detention centre.  In later years, the prison became Young Offenders’ Institution. 

Archaeologists at work on the site of Northallerton prison
Archaeologists at work on the site of Northallerton prison.

But the story of the prison is far more than walls, cell blocks and treadwheels.  It is the story of people whose lives were changed forever, by being sent there.

Who were these people? 

When the prison closed, many documents were transferred to the county records office.  They contain information on the quarter sessions where suspects were indicted and sentenced, the names of prisoners, the charges, the verdict, the sentence – and where they were sent. 

Members of Northallerton and District History Society are working with staff from North Yorkshire County Records Office to catalogue these records, and discover the stories of the real people who were incarcerated behind the immense brick walls of Northallerton.

Serious offences were heard, not at Northallerton, but at York.  And not everyone was lucky enough to be sent for hard labour in Northallerton’s ‘House of Correction’.  Some were deported – at first to America, then, after American Independence, to Australia.  As a consequence, many Australians can trace their ancestry back to Yorkshire.

Family historians are advised to make an appointment to view specific documents.  But the Records Office also puts together exhibitions of general interest, based on its collections.  See https://www.northyorks.gov.uk/record-office-projects-and-events to find out what’s on.

As for the future of the prison, some historic buildings are to be preserved.  But the majority of the prison buildings, and the immense wall that towered over the town for so long, have been demolished.  When redevelopment is completed, Northallerton residents are promised new shops, business units, and a cinema.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Browse the County Records Office catalogue at https://archivesunlocked.northyorks.gov.uk/CalmView/default.aspx

Join Northallerton and District Local History Society – or visit and listen to their talks. See http://www.northyorkshistory.co.uk/

See the latest plans for redeveloping the prison site at http://www.hambleton.gov.uk/prison/homepage/4/future_plans

Read more from Helen in Dalesman Magazine

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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