Sunday, November 16, 2014

Crumlin Rd. Gaol, Belfast

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As many readers of this blog know, I no longer work in archaeology as my day job. These days, I’m to be found toiling away in the in world IT. While I try to keep these two strands of my life apart, they do occasionally conspire to entwine and entangle themselves. This is one such instance. We had a pretty good year in 2013 and the management were keen to see some of that passed back to the people on the ground. To this end, we had a ‘Rally for Good’ where the regular canteen of the Belfast office was transformed into a really lovely restaurant and all the staff were treated to a three course meal – with desert served up by the senior management tier. Each team were also given an allowance to get out of the office and do something different - just a few hours away to have some fun and make some memories. We chose to get to know our city a bit better and go on a tour of the historic core and hinterlands of Belfast.

Front façade of the gaol
The central portion of the tour involved a visit to The Crumlin Road Gaol. The building was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, and was constructed between 1843 and 1845 at a cost of £60,000. The design was partially inspired by HM Prison Pentonville (itself based on the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, PA). The Crumlin Rd Gaol was, at the time of its construction, one of the most advanced incarceration structures of its type anywhere in the world. Today, it is the only surviving prison of the Victorian period in Northern Ireland, and is a Grade A listed building. Our guide brought us through the original reception area where detainees would have been received, changed into prison uniforms, and examined by medical staff. From there we got to see the rather claustrophobic tunnel, linking the gaol to the courthouse across the road, replete with stories of riots and attempted breakouts. The tour continued through the warden’s office and the organisational portion of the building, given over to the management of the inmates. Our next step was through a stout door and into the part of the prison known as The Circle. This magnificent space, now restored to what it would have looked like in the 1800s, was the hub of the prison, where four wings (A-D) met at a single point. From here, the warden and a relatively small number of prison officers could observe and control a much larger prison population. The first inmates – 106 men, women, and children – arrived here in 1846. Initially, the prison was designed to hold up to 550 people in individual cells of 12ft x 7ft (based on ‘The Separate System’), though at certain times overcrowding was intense, with up to three people held in each small cell.

Main internal entrance
The original design of the prison did not include the provision of a dedicated place for execution, and until 1901, these were carried out on a gallows in the yard, in full view of the public. At the turn of the century, work began on turning six prison cells into an execution suite. In total, 11 of the 17 people executed in the prison died here. It remains – no matter what your view on capital punishment – a quiet, deeply poignant place. The last execution held here was of Robert McGladdery, in 1961, for the murder of Pearl Gamble. Other executed criminals included Simon McGeown, in 1922, for the murder of seven-year-old Maggie Fullerton on Cavehill. The longest serving hangman was Thomas Pierrepoint (uncle to the much more famous hangman Albert Pierrepoint), who carried out six executions in the period from 1928 to 1942. The gaol closed in 1996 and, following restoration, has been open to visitors since 2012.

Internal courtyard
I hope you enjoy these photos and, if you’re not from here, please consider coming to Northern Ireland when you plan your next trip away. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to live here already, get up and get out and get to see some of this place!

Upper hallway of the administrative portion of the building  
If you like these photos, you may also enjoy a selection of 3D images (anaglyphs) of the gaol to give a greater sense of depth and space within and about the building. To see these correctly, you must have a pair of red/blue glasses. You can buy a pair or make your own.

Prisoner reception - largely unchanged since the 19th century
The tunnel linking the gaol to the courthouse across the road
Wrought iron work in The Circle
Panoramic overview of The Circle
A view down the wing from The Circle
A view back along the wing
A cell. dressed to show how it would have looked
when the gaol first opened
A padded cell. A quiet reminder of how much our treatment of
mental health issues has evolved
An example of prison art from around the time it closed in 1996
The extra large 'condemned  cell'
The execution chamber, where 11 people their ends
The mechanics of execution are somewhat morbid, but no less fascinating for that. The cords on
pulleys are attached to weights. These ensure that the trapdoors snap open & do not bounce back,
hitting the prisoner and slowing their descent or pushing them from a vertical drop - both of which
may have added to the time the prisoner took to die. The four dangling pads were to muffle the
distinctive sound of the trapdoor opening and to prevent it being heard around the prison.
A replica coffin stands in the adjacent room where the prisoner
would have been examined and pronounced dead. The item in the
background is a flogging rack.
Panoramic view across the yard
Another external view of the gaol
Across the road, the burnt out shell of the Crumlin Rd Courthouse shows how neglect and vandalism can put our shared heritage in grave danger of loss