Toggle menu

Gaol door

Gaol Door on display at the Novium Museum

The large gaol (a jail or prison) door is from the prison built in Chichester in 1783-1784 after the old East Gate Gaol was demolished.

The door was built on a massive scale, with two layers of planking, fastened by close on 100 large, studded iron nails. These nails on the inner face of the door are riveted to four-sided washers called roves. Roves were normally used in boat building, and this may suggest that the door was the work of a shipwright rather than a house carpenter.

The door is painted dark brown and has graffiti covering it, probably carved by prisoners and dated between 1783 and 1937. Some even inscribed names in the wood.

Some prisoners were held in a room above the arch of the gate, which was on the south side of East Street directly opposite the site of Shippam's factory (now New Look). The new gaol later became the City Police station and was later demolished in 1937.

The gaol was used to hold serious offenders before trial at the Guildhall in Priory Park, and also to keep prisoners awaiting punishment. When an offender was sentenced to flogging, they were taken down to the West Gate, stripped to the waist, tied to the back of the city stocks, and flogged as they made their way to the East Gate. The punishment ended at the East Gate and the prisoner was discharged.

The gaol was not fully completed when it received its first inmate, and the horrific conditions in which the prisoner nearly died of neglect were noted in the diary of James Spershott, a pastor at Eastgate Baptist Church:

'1783 The East Gate arch and prison over it taken down and the new gaol built as gay without side as a painted sepulchre. And Mary Beedle a young married waiting woman to Lady Franklen was the first prisoner in it for stealing a quantity of linen which is part returned to its owners. After her sentence to seven years transportation she [was] immediately put into it, [on] January 12th 1784, before it was finished and when water run down the walls and a great snow and extreme cold winter followed upon it. And no bed or fire allowed her, nor friend to visit her, so that she was nearly perished and her husband, a civil man, almost distracted...Here, tho' the sentence was legal, human nature seemed to have lost its feelings towards a young, tender woman and, at the same time, with child, which circumstances, had she been even guilty of murder, certainly, in reason and nature, would have demanded some sympathy and relief from her fellow creatures...'

The atrocious conditions that Mary Beedle endured raised a public outcry. After having been held in a cell with no bed or fire, she was moved to better conditions and recovered. Nevertheless, she and her unborn child died on board a prison ship in the Thames while awaiting transportation.

A campaign for improvements to address overcrowding and poor diets in prisons, which often led to the rapid spread of diseases, was soon underway. There was also a change of social ideals as prison reformers saw prisons as 'a house of correction' and an opportunity to change the character of prisoners. To achieve this, repetitious tasks were introduced to prisoners' routine, including unproductive exercises such as walking or turning the handle of a crankshaft. Chapels were also built inside prisons and attendance on Sundays was often compulsory.

Once the gaol was demolished in 1937, the door was subsequently gifted to the museum, although the specific date of its donation is not known. For installation at The Novium, it underwent conservation treatment to consolidate it structurally and specialist equipment was required to lift the over 200kg door into its current position. As such, it has the honour of being the heaviest object in our display cases!

image of gaol door on display
Detail of graffiti of a ship on the gaol door