As part of the Heritage Open Days seven prisons which closed in March 2013 were opened to visitors on guided tours for one weekend in September. There were very limited spaces available but I was lucky enough to get in.
Shepton Mallet also known as Cornhill is the oldest prison in the UK and a house of correction has been on the site since 1625.
The site and buildings are Grade 2 listed and used to house 189 category C prisoners including for a time the Kray Twins.
Cameras are not usually allowed inside prison establishments so I put my Fuji XE1 with 18mm prime lens attached into the pocket of my Barbour wax jacket in the hope that photography was going to be allowed. Then as I arrived magic and special words were uttered by the Prison Officers, “take as many pictures a you like” Nothing is off limits.
I whipped my camera out and took one picture a minute for the next 60 minutes and here are some of the results.
Gates are open and most of the locks have been removed for use at other prisons.
The wall surrounding the prison is the tallest in the country and has an imposing and impenetrable feel from both sides.
There is some gruesome history at Shepton Mallet with 2 deaths by firing squad, at least 21 hangings and unexplained bodies.
Here is the area used as a firing squad by the Americans who occupied the prison during the war.
You can still see the marks left by the 24 bullets that either missed their intended target of passed right through the unfortunate body.
Beneath this tarmac are seven unidentified and unclaimed bodies which will remain whatever happens to the prison.
Here are the Tread Wheel Buildings that were erected in 1823. In 3 days hard labour a prisoner would climb the equivalent of 2,938 metres which is 16 metres short of the height of Mount Everest.
The top floor of this building housed the hospital which was accessed by almost vertical stairs and If a prisoner was injured and could not get up stairs they were not treated. They would be allocated to the softer hard labour of rock smashing or oakum picking.
This is the area where rock smashing to make roads was undertaken.
Around the walls at regular intervals are large blue and white numbers.
These are guard stations where each station could see the next thus creating a ring of security. The same principle applies now in modern times with the introduction and use of closed circuit television cameras.
The locks have gone but padlocks and chains have replaced them.
Here are the overnight holding cells.
These were pitch black and slightly wider than a man. There was no furniture or plumbing inside and during busy periods these could house up to eight people whilst awaiting processing. The closest thing to a modern dungeon that I have seen.
Our tour guide outside the holding cells who was at pains to point out that his day job was prison officer. He was thoroughly knowledgeable and entertaining throughout the tour.
Exercise yard with beautiful planting area and a pond where £7k worth of koi carp were also incarcerated.
This is the door to the Governors house which overlooked the exercise yard.
In this corner three bodies stacked on top of each other were found and this area of the prison is said to always feel colder, damper and creepier than any other part of the prison.
On entering the prison despite it being a balmy 12 degrees outside the heating was on and pumping out to avoid frost damage and damp. Despite the prison being mothballed it still costs an estimates £140k a year to run.
This is Cell Block A which has cells on only one side. The facing wall is the exterior perimeter wall and is at least five feet thick.
The suicide netting actually made with steel mesh presumably to avoid catching fire in the event of burning debris being thrown over. Note the springs which break the fall of jumpers.
Not much daylight when you are locked up for up to 12 hours a day.
Small cell window some of which were painted over to let in even less light
Single Cell with bed bolted to floor. The mattress has gone.
The toilet is behind the small wall and is standard porcelain with a lid just like you might have at home.
We were told not to shut the doors as they were heavy and we might crush our fingers. All the locks have been removed.
This is a mural painted on the wall by a prisoner. The colours are stunning and vibrant compared with the institutional white, green and blue seen throughout.
An empty and deserted C Wing which is spotlessly clean with no dirt, dust or graffiti anywhere.
During the war 300 tonnes of valuable documents from London were moved to Shepton Mallet prison for safe keeping including the Magna Carta and the Domesday book. They were stored in cells converted to storage vaults.
This leads to Death Row here at least 21 prisoners were hanged.
The view from a cell with the door open is quite oppressive. With the door shut the walls seem to close in around you and the feeling of captivity is complete.
The mattresses have gone but it wouldn’t take much to turn the site into a prison again.
This is the ground floor and during times when the cell doors were open up to 93 prisoners would associate in this area. Note the fully enclosed private telephone booths at either side.
A view into a punishment and segregation cell.
As a prisoner is led to death row you could imaging them looking upwards to god for redemption or forgiveness. They would spy the religious fish symbol.
This is the inside of the hanging shed where the only evidence of its gruesome past is the trapdoor under the carpet. This room was used a an office up until the prison closed.
This is the outside of the hanging shed built in red brick by the Americans. The unfortunate would fall through a trap door where his neck would be broken by the rope. He would be removed and brought across to the mortuary where he would be pronounced dead and then either buried in the prison ground or in the playing field of the school opposite the prison.
Hanging Shed Door
Mortuary Door below C Wing
This is a womens cell which was smaller and the door shorter than the mens cell. Women apparently needed less space.
The only graffiti I saw other than this was a name scratched in some concrete on an outside wall and the names of the last two prison officers who ended the last shift before the prison closed its doors for good.
The tallest prison wall in England topped by razor wire.
The gate has had all signs removed.
It will be interesting to see what happens to this imposing grade 2 listed building. The National Trust could do something with the place. If you get the opportunity to visit a closed prison take it. A glimpse into a part of society that most of us will never see.