Jersey has had a number of recorded prisons over the centuries. The first of these was Mont Orgueil Castle, built as a defensive fortress, but at various times used as the island's main garrison, the house of its Governor and a place of refuge in times of seige.
But it was also a very convenient building for housing prisoners, and was used both for those charged with offences in the island and, during the Commonwealth and after the Restoration, for housing political prisoners from England, sent there by order of Cromwell and then King Charles II. Mont Orgueil held many distinguished prisoners, including William Prynne, Colonel John Lilburne and five of the men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I.
Elizabeth Castle is closer to St Helier, and in some ways a more convenient place for holding prisoners, but many who were initially confined there were soon transferred to Mont Orgueil.
Because there was no purpose-built prison in the town for many centuries, prisoners appearing before the Royal Court were forced to walk from Gorey to St Helier and then held in a cage in the market square until brought to Court. Depending on the outcome of their hearing, they were likely to be returned to the cage to await their fate. The prisoners were escorted to St Helier by a body of men known as halbardiers Crown tenants and holders of land in the eastern parishes. As late as 1875 they were summoned to maintain order at an execution.
Elsewhere around the island certain properties owed service de prisonniers which included the provision of shackles and the obligation to confine wrongdoers until they were taken to court on the Saturday.
In medieval times prison was not often a punishment, but a place to secure accused criminals until, either they were released, or they were sentenced to hang, burn as witches, sit in the stocks, or suffer some other fate. Affluent members of the gentry would sometimes be held in prison until they could raise the money to pay a fine which had been imposed on them, probably on political grounds, or appeal to the Privy Council. It was not uncommon for Jurats and other public officials to refuse to take their oath of office because they did not want the role to which they had been elected, or because of a dispute over seniority, and to find themselves incarcerated in Mont Orgueil.
When Sir George Carteret became Bailiff and Lieut-Governor in the middle of the 17th century he was not happy with the existing arrangements for dispensing justice and ordered the demolition of the old Cohue, or Courthouse on Market Square and the construction of a new building. He also ordered the construction of a House of Correction. An Acte of the States for 5 March 1646 records that the site intended for the new building was between the houses of James Le Goupil and Thomas de Quetteville, on the Fief of the Prior of the Islet. The record shows that Sir George gave this house, formerly acquired by Jean Binnet "a stranger", pour le Bien Publicq.
It is not known exactly where this property stood (it was probably on the sand dunes by what is now Sand Street). A master was appointed but it is not clear from States records whether a new building was constructed, or an old house converted, or, indeed, whether this prison was ever completed and used. but records show that four years later work was due to start on the construction of the house of correction. On 4 April 1650 the first day of May was set for the start of work and the wages of workers were fixed at the price of a pot of wine. However, no progress seems to have been made and Parliamentary rule intervened from 1651 until 1660, when the subject again came to the fore.
It appears that Sir George believed that a period of detention in a House of Correction would be the answer to many of the island's ills, and a list was drawn up of offenders who should be apprehended by the Constables and their officers:
- All swearers and blasphemers of God's Holy Name
- Profaners of the Sabbath whether by playing games or frequenting taverns or those who neglected to come to Divine Service and listen to the sermons
- Children rebellious towards their parents
- Indentured servants who quitted their employment before their period of indenture had expired
- Those persons, male and female, who have neither a house nor a family but are capable of ploughing the ground of those who are compelled to stop indoors, and who refuse to let themselves be hired out at reasonable wages
- All men capable of working in the fields, if they be found knitting with women and girls in public places, other than in the houses where they live
- All beggars in the parishes not possessing a licence to do so from either the Rector or the Constable and the Principals, it being understood that no one will be licensed unless he is incapable of working for his living
- All slanderers and disparagers of persons holding esteem, and propagators of false rumours
- Those persons who have a family and threaten to leave it or those who do not wish to work for the upkeep of their family
- All taverners and bakers who have been forbidden to carry on their profession and who continue notwithstanding
First site unsuitable
At some point in the previous ten years it seems to have been agreed that the site originally intended for the prison was not suitable and on 22 July 1662 the States passed an Acte recording that Sir George had laid the foundation stone for a new building. But a foundation stone was one thing; finding the money to build the House of Correction proved more difficult.
The States decision to ask parishioners to contribute to a building fund according to their means after Sunday service achieved nothing. There was another delay until 1669, when King Charles II granted the Bailiff and Jurats the right to levy duties on alcoholic drinks to raise money for a House of Correction, a college in St Helier and a pier at St Aubin. The King's Letters Patent included the following:
- "Three hundred Livers Turnois (approximately £30) shell be yearly and every year employed for the erecting and building a convenient house and towards the raising and maintaining of a stoke of money to be used for the setting to work and orderly governing of the poor and of idle people; the relief of decayed Tradesmen, and the correction and restraint of Vagabonds and Beggars within the said Isle"
An accompanying letter from Sir George commended the building of a House of Correction to provide work for poor people and hold in check idlers "so that the Island will be no more inconvenienced as it has been recently".
But still nothing happened, and on 16 November 1676 it was reported that all the impots money had been diverted to the building of St Aubin's Pier. Three years later the States were again asking the King's permission to raise money to build a prison:
- "As in regard to the inconveniences that attend the Inhabitants of the Island from the remoteness of the prison from where the Courts of Justice are held, we are humbly of the opinion that Your Majesty do permit the inhabitants to erect a new prison in some convenient place within the Town of St Helier to be near the Royal Court there.
- And the moneys for defraying the charges thereof (in case the product of five shillings per ton which Your Majesty shall assign for that use prove not sufficient) be raised by a just and equal method on the Inhabitants, and particularly that such be chiefly charged who, by older Tenures, are obliged to fetch the prisoners from Mont Orgueil to the Court in St Helier, and during the Assizes to attend there, and carry the prisoners back at their own cost and charges, especial care being taken that no part of the moneys be diverted to any other use whatsoever, and that the Keeper of the said prison be from time to time nominated and appointed by the Bailiff and Jurats of the said Island for the time being."
Levy on French ships
The five shillings per ton mentioned in the States petition was a levy on French vessels and by March 1684, sufficient had been raised to acquire a site at Charing Cross. Another two years passed before the Bailiff, Sir Philippe de Carteret, and the seigneur of Samares were asked to draw up plans for the prison, and building appears to have started around 1688 at Charing Cross, the only entry point to the town from the West. The Constables were required to organise men from all the parishes to carry materials for the building, funded from the rates.
The building was created in the form of a gateway. It took ten years to build, but half way through, in 1693, the first prisoners were accepted. It was not particularly well built and it was not a pleasant place to be incarcerated, the tunnel underneath being gloomy enough, and conditions inside quite appalling. By 1749 every window and door was faulty, but it took until 1811 before it could be demolished after a new prison was built on land near the Hospital.
Part of wall remains
Part of the old prison wall still exists and runs from Broad Street to Commercial Street where it turned in an east-west direction to form the sea-wall. All the prisoners were placed in dungeons that were below road level. A stream flowed outside the walls and made these very damp. The cells were comfortless, filthy and liberally infested with vermin. They had small windows that little light could penetrate.
The prison housed not only criminals but also debtors. Although they were on the second floor, they were little better off. In an attempt to supplement their miserable diet they used to lower their purses on strings to the street below, hoping that someone would give them coins which they could use to buy food.
To the west of the arch were sand dunes and criminals sentenced to death had to walk across to Gallows Hill (now called Westmount). The last execution here took place in October 1829, when Philippe Jolin was executed for the murder of his father during a drunken argument.
By 1810 the Charing Cross prison was in such a bad state of repair that it was decided to demolish it and to build a new prison in what became known as Newgate Street, after the famous London prison.
As the demolition took place in 1811 before the new building was ready, some prisoners were kept in the General Hospital and others accused of serious crimes were held at Elizabeth Castle. The new prison opened in 1812: It cost £19,000. A Gaoler’s house was built in 1813 and was used until the Prison Governor bought his own accommodation. It was then converted into a women’s block known as ‘F’ for females, with accommodation for a matron and a room where the Prison Board met.
Reforms at the prison over the years were due largely to the work of Elizabeth Fry, who came to the island in 1833 to recuperate from an illness and visited the prison many times. She made a number of suggestions, including that there should be employment for prisoners appropriate to their age, sex, health and ability and that there should be a proper classification, including the total separation of men from women, of debtors from criminals and of the untried from the tried.
It was mainly due to her efforts that there was a Home Office investigation and a further block named the House of Correction was built in 1837. The employment for prisoners introduced in 1834 was oakum picking and stone cracking. Records indicate how many stones specific prisoners cracked. The end product was then sold to the parish of St Helier who used it to make roads. During 1928, 113 prisoners charged with criminal offences were admitted (103 male and 10 female) as well as five debtors. A total of 342½ yards of cracked stone and 204¾ yards of sifting were delivered to the parish of St Helier.
- Regulations for employing prisoners, what 'hard labour' actually meant
The Prison Board was formed in 1837 to oversee the running of the prison that was financed with £300 from the Crown, £300 from the Governor, Bailiff and Jurats and any balance required from the States.
In 1838-39 B Block was built with the Treadmill house added in 1839 For 40 years it was used to drive a small mill for grinding peppercorns. In 1937 the treadmill was dismantled and donated to the Jersey Museum, where it can still be seen.
A Royal Commission held in 1859 recommended the enlargement of the prison and among other recommendations was one that facilities were to be provided for the treatment of lunatics, both criminal and otherwise.
During the Occupation, ‘A’ block at the north end of the first floor was used by the Germans for the deportation of ‘rowdies’ in 1942. B block was entirely taken by Germans as a military and Organisation Todt prison.
Following the Liberation, the Prison Board invited a Home Office Inspector to visit and report on conditions in the aging prison. The subsequent report of the Prison Commissioners in 1946 stated ‘the existing buildings ought not to be retained for any purpose or day longer than is strictly necessary’.
However the States moved with their accustomed lethargy and it was not until 1975 that the new prison at La Moye was built. In this prison there are four distinct areas for male prisoners, women prisoners, young offenders and for vulnerable prisoners.
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