Prison in the Park - Pennycomequick's forgotten jail

Following the failure of proposals for Plymouth and Devonport to share a prison, Devonport Corporation let the tender for the erection of its gaol (the old term used for jail) at Pennycomequick in April 1849. Devonport's prison would be located at Pennycomequick, currently opposite the Royal Mail's MDEC. The contract went to the cheapest, that of Messrs Symons, Hoskins and Jenkins, in the sum of £11,803 10s 9d. The prison was completed in June that same year and contained a total of 70 cells, 44 for males, 12 for females and 14 for debtors, designed and superintended by Mr. J. P. St. Aubyn, architect.

The initial project illustration shows how it would have looked back in the day.

This following description is from an article about the jail published in The Illustrated London News on the 21st of February 1857:

"It was situated at the extremity of the borough of Devonport, near the south Devon railway, on a site of rather more than three acres. The style of architecture adopted is that of the fourteenth century. The officers’ houses are placed together in the south front, and designed in the domestic character of that period; while the entrance to the prison is in the centre of this range of buildings, under a tow capped with bold machicolated battlements.

The prison buildings within the walls are quite plain. The materials used are Bath stone for the dressings of the doors and windows, with the hammer-dressed limestone of the neighbourhood for the walls.

The works are completed at the total cost of £13,135 3s. 7d. ; being at the rate of £187 13s. per cell.

The prison is provided with a chapel, necessary offices, and warming apparatus; and was planned to afford accommodation for 120 additional prisoners in case it should become necessary to take advantage of the capabilities of the plan for such extension.

The discipline maintained in the prison is the separate system for the promotion of which that portion of the building occupied by prisoners, as well as the laundry, hard-labour pumps, and airing ground, have been laid out.

The round tower seen in the back of the design is a shaft for ventilating the building. The view, by Mr. R.J. Hallam, is taken from the south, and shows the entrance to the prison with the adjoining officers’ residences. The builders were Messrs. Hoskyn and Co. of Devonport."

View of the old jail superimposed on today's landscape. Image credit: Hidden Heritage.

Because the Prison Act of 1877 required that all jails be passed to State control, the Devonport Prison ended up being closed from April 1st 1878 and the remaining prisoners were moved to Plymouth's Prison. At first they advertised the premises for letting but then, in November 1880, authorised its sale. At the auction, on Friday December 17th 1880, the highest bidder was Mr John Martin at £4,200. The Devonport Corporation sub-committee in charge of the disposal were not very happy with the price and instructed the Town Clerk to bid the reserve price of £7,500. The following month the sale was withdrawn and Mr Martin made a revised offer of £4,800, which they also turned down and made him a counter-offer for the property at £5,500, which he accepted. He formally took possession on Wednesday February 9th 1881. Subsequently all the buildings were pulled down, except for the gatehouse and offices, which remain standing today.

On Friday August 9th 1878 the Secretary of State, Mr Cross, made an order under section 33 of the Prisons Act 1877 for the closure of Plymouth Gaol as from August 31st. It was in effect closed on Saturday August 24th because from Sunday August 25th the local Justices could only commit prisoners to Bodmin Gaol. On the following day, ten male prisoners were moved to Bodmin, the eleven female inmates were moved on the Tuesday, and the remainder of the male prisoners were moved on the Wednesday and Thursday. The Governor, wardens and the chaplain had no idea what was going to happen to them.

Devonport Gaol had already closed (on Monday April 1st 1878) so the closure of the Plymouth Jail caused much consternation within the Borough of Devonport. If the Borough now had to send its prisoners to Bodmin, involving a rail and road journey, who was going to pay the cost involved? The Prison Commissioners certainly were not interested so it was to presumably fall to the local ratepayers. Furthermore, the Mayor asked, what if a person was sent to Bodmin "on remand" only. Did they have to send a Constable down to Bodmin with the prisoner and then wait at Bodmin to bring him back to court? The Mayor hoped that the Council would follow the example already set by the County of Middlesex and not pay the bills incurred in such situations.

But Plymouth did retain its jail in the end and it did not finally close until 1930, when the remaining prisoners were transferred to the County Jail at Exeter.

The former Devonport Corporation Jail building was then converted into the new headquarters for the City of Plymouth Police, who moved here in 1935.

Currently the remaining Gatehouse building has been turned into three different homes.

The only part that still stands today is the old Gatehouse, which has now been turned into 3 homes.

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