Originally, the name Derby Gaol referred to 3 separate prisons in Derby. Today, only Friar Gate Goal still remains and it has been transformed into a small but interesting tourist attraction. The basement of the building still holds some of the original cells and both the cells and the garden are extremely haunted.
The history of Derby Gaol
Before Derby Gaol was built, Derbyshire itself had no prison. The criminals were sent to Nottingham Castle, a place feared for its harsh conditions. People referred to Nottingham Castle as “hell on earth”. In 1652, the first of the Derby prisons was built. This prison was named Cornmarket Gaol. Cornmarket Gaol no longer exists today. This was the site of the imprisonment of George Fox. The charge against him was blasphemy. He was the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as “the Quakers”. This is what Judge Bennet named him and his followers.
Friar Gate Gaol
Friar Gate Gaol, or Old Derby Gaol, was built in 1756 and it still exists today, though the building has been divided into several pieces. After it was closed in 1846, it was converted to the Howard Hotel and later other commercial businesses. But luckily, some of the original cells in the basement have remained intact. The doors, for instance, are original and they have historical graffiti on them. Derby Gaol was much larger than it is today, but the part that is still there is definitely worth the visit.
Vernon Street Prison
In 1843, Vernon Street Prison, or the New County Gaol, was constructed. The frontage of this prison can still be seen today, but the building has been redeveloped for modern commercial use. This is where the last public execution in Derby took place. This was the execution of Richard Thorley for the murder of Eliza Morrow in 1862.
In 1886, Vernon Street Prison was renamed HMP Derby. This gaol was eventually closed for normal criminals in 1919 and turned into a military prison until 1929. Vernon Street Prison was the last of the Derby prisons and after it was closed in 1919, criminals were once again sent off to Nottingham Castle where they would be imprisoned in the notorious Victorian C-wing, nicknamed “Beirut” by the residents.
Jail versus prison
Derby Gaol was a jail and not a prison. There is a difference between these two. A jail was a place of holding, of imprisonment. A prisoner simply had to wait for the verdict. Verdicts were given 4 times a year: in the winter, in the spring, in the summer and in the autumn. If you were lucky, your turn was quickly, if the assizes had just been, you’d have to wait.
Derby Gaol cells were very small and dark (they are below street level, so no windows) and up to 6 people had to stay crammed in one cell. Men, women, children and elderly people. Many succummed of illness, suicide and murder. Some were murdered because the jacket they owned was better than the one his or her cellmate owned. And many were hanged, thanks to the Bloody Code.
The Bloody Code
An act with the charming name The Bloody Code was established in the 17th century. This act said that anyone, regardless of how minor the offence, could be executed. Most executions were performed by hanging. In the whole of Britain, 220 people were hanged for their crimes because of the Bloody Code. Fifty-six of them were hanged at Derby Gaol. Between 1735 and 1825, Nun’s Green was used for executions. Any tree here could serve as a gallows. Nun’s Green was the early name of Friar Gate and the gallows were in the backyard of the building. It is said that this yard is also haunted by the people who were hanged there. Today, a replica of the gallows stands here.
The person who was facing his hanging, would spend his last night in the Condemned Room. People rather killed themselves than be hanged in public. This room was once the scene of double suicide by two brothers who would have been hanged the next day. Their bodies were found hanging in the Condemned Room near the door, facing each other. Graffiti on the door of the Condemned Room shows images of hanging people drawn by those who faced the same in the morning.
Back in the days, prisons were privately owned. The people who worked at them didn’t get paid by the government. They were paid by the prisoners. A prisoner even had to pay cuff money if they were released. That was the prize for getting their cuffs off.
The Murder Room is where the former police museum used to be located. The Murder Room is also where dead prisoners were dissected. A surgeon used to live on number 44 and he was allowed to do whatever he wanted with the hanged prisoners. This, of course, was against all facets of religion. A soul could only pass on to the afterlife while remaining in one piece. By being dissected, this pivilege was taken away from the deceased. Perhaps this is why Derby Gaol is so haunted today.
The Pentrich Martyrs
The most famous executions at Derby Gaol were the executions of the Pentrich Martyrs. This was a group of men who had attempted a badly planned revolution against the Tory Government. In October 1817, 35 men were tried for high treason. Three of these men, including leader Jeremiah Brandreth, were sentenced to being hanged, drawn and quartered: a death sentence that hadn’t been applied for over a century.
Even the Prince Regent thought this was kind of cruel, and he changed the sentence to being hanged and beheaded afterwards. This gruesome act was performed at the gaol on November 7, 1817, with many people present. The beheading happened 30 minutes after their hanging. The 32 other men were sentenced to prison (ranging from 6 months up to life), some were transported outside of England (to penal settlements in Australia). An example of a penal settlement in Tasmania (Australia) is Port Arthur. Also extremely haunted.
Afraid of ghosts
There is evidence that the prisoners even back then were afraid of the spirits that haunted Derby Gaol. All the original doors are marked with so-called Witch Marks. These marks look like a big W, but are actually two V’s closely together. These marks stand for the Virgin Mary and are a symbol of fending off evil spirits. And the prisoners had every reason to fear the spirits of the gaol, because they were with many.
The ghosts of Derby Gaol
According to the owner of the museum, Richard Felix, Derby Gaol is a very haunted place. Everybody leaves it with a paranormal experience. Footsteps are heard throughout the entire gaol and in the upstairs area, which is where number 44 used to be. This is where the surgeon used to live. Doors open and close on their own accord, people are being touched and the smell of flowers is pretty strong in the Debtors Room. Shadow figures have been seen both inside the gaol and outside. It is believed that a hangman haunts Derby Gaol.
One visitor once saw the ghostly figures of two men hanging from a beam in the Condemned Room. It is believed that he saw the ghostly images of the Jones’ brothers who had committed suicide in their cell. Sir Richard once saw a gray misty shape form in the ticket office. The shape transformed into a human shape before disappearing. The ticket office used to be the corridor leading to the garden where the hangings took place. The prisoners would have made their final walk through this corridor.
Derby Gaol today
In 1997, Derby Gaol was bought by Richard Felix. Richard is a paranormal historian and is popular for hosting the paranormal show “Most Haunted”. Derby Gaol is open to the public. Tours are occasionally given and the museum is available for overnight hire, if you dare. Combine your visit with one of the ghost walks. You will not be disappointed!
Do you want to read more about haunted placed in Europe? Please click here.
A special big thank you to Richard Felix for allowing me to use your pictures!
Cover photo: Harvey Wood via Alamy Stock Photo
Sources: richardfelix.co.uk, Wikipedia, higgypop.com, amyscrypt.com, visitderby.co.uk and capitalpunishmentuk.org
Address: 50 Friargate Derby, DE1 1DF, UK